Target Species: Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis)
Sunday, August 5
I didn’t know what to expect, as we set out toward the coast. We woke up late this morning, and I had no plans save to relax after a weekend of chores. Carolina, however, had other plans, and presented me with an interesting idea. She wanted to head down to explore the coast where Texas and Louisiana meet. Outside a couple spring birding trips to the area over a decade ago, I had spent little time in that area, so I jumped at the idea. By 11 am we were off.
This stretch of beach is actually the closest to our home, yet we always opt for the more obvious choice of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. The skies were gray as we made our way south on the Big Thicket National Preserve Parkway. Just south of Woodville it began to rain, hard. We wondered if this spur the moment trip would turn into a bust. It rained almost until Beaumont, but stopped shortly after. The storm left in its wake a thin veil of wispy clouds that dulled the sun’s rays.
We first made our way into southwestern Louisiana, and as we crossed Sabine Lake, a vast swath of coastal marsh came into view. It was a beautiful thing to see, as Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Black-necked Stilts, and a wary Clapper Rail patrolled the roadside ditches. We passed an American Alligator resting haphazardly a few feet from the shoulder of the roadway. Before long we found a secluded stretch of beach and decided to sink our toes into the sand.
The coarse chatter of Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls filled the air as we scoured the beach. I had no expectations for the day’s adventure, but that soon changed, when I saw a series of tiny blurs scatter before me. There, where the gentle surf lapped at the sandy shore, I spied the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis). This was a species on my list of biodiversity goals, and I came across it by the pure luck and happenstance of a spontaneous trip to the beach.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of them. There were hundreds, the beach was literally crawling with them. This is significant, I should note, as this species is rare and declining throughout its range. They are dependent on pristine beaches and do not fare well in the face of human disturbance. The northeastern subspecies (H. dorsalis dorsalis) has become so rare that it has been listed as a Federally Threatened species.
The reason it was so abundant here, I presumed, was that this particular stretch of beach was inaccessible to vehicles, and despite being undisturbed it was not particularly scenic, and therefore likely sees little human traffic. In fact, we saw no evidence that anyone had been here for some time.
So I set out to photograph these little beach jewels. Easier said than done. The beetles were incredibly wary, and I couldn’t get close. I did get one shot from above (the first image in this blog), which I think really communicates the natural history of this species. It shows the beetle very small in the frame within a tiny patch of sand, likely no more than a few square feet. Though seemingly minuscule to us, it is a vast landscape to the tiger. They live out their entire lives on these tiny beaches, following the water’s edge with the ebb and flow of the tide, voraciously hunting down anything they can get their jaws around. Even their larvae make their burrows in the sand just beyond the high tide line.
After several frustrating minutes I developed a strategy. Ideally one would be armed with a 180 or 200mm macro lens and extension tubes to photograph such a tiny, elusive quarry. Unfortunately I was only armed with a 100mm macro. This meant I had to get close. Very close – within a foot to capture the kind of image I was after. At first I tried belly crawling toward them, a strategy I have successfully used with other tigers. They weren’t having it. Any movement whatsoever sent them scattering.
They were so abundant here, that I thought to myself, what if I just lie in wait. So I did. Eventually they became somewhat accustomed to my presence. If I could find a distant beetle moving in my direction and set it in my viewfinder, I could slowly change my focus as it moved closer and closer. And so I had solved the problem of how to get close. But before I could celebrate my victory, another problem presented itself. On their endless pursuit of prey, they are constantly scurrying. Tiger Beetles are, in fact, among the fastest organisms on the planet with respect to their body size. I have read that they have to stop every second or so in order to reassess their surroundings, as they move so fast that they have trouble seeing the world around them when in motion.
But when they do stop, it is only for the briefest of milliseconds. Not much time for me to adjust my focus. And when shooting macro at this scale, focus is everything. The beetles’ eyes and jaws need to be in focus to draw the viewer in. So I ended up with dozens of shots that were just slightly blurred or had the focus just behind the eyes. I was frustrated. Then I saw a beetle that was moving much more slowly, stopping more frequently, and for longer. And as luck would have it, it was coming my way. Ecstatic, I fired away and captured a few shots in good focus. It was only after I processed the image that I noticed it was missing the tarsus on one leg and had a large grain of sand on its mandibles.
Though this hardened veteran of the Louisiana shore was interesting, it was not the image I was hoping for. It’s hard to complain, however, when spending a day surrounded by such rare natural wonders. I was getting nowhere fast with my efforts to photograph these beetles, so we spent some time combing the beach and swimming in the Gulf (despite the numerous warnings about bacteria levels).
That evening we crossed back into Texas and made our way to Sea Rim State Park. Before heading back to the beach, we explored some of the surrounding marshlands. Here we found a few Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum) plants in bloom. This halophytic (salt-loving) species occurs primarily along the coast of the southeastern U.S., with some inland populations in parts of Texas and Mexico.
The scattered pools in the saltmarsh were flush with bird activity. I set my sights on a group of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and laid on my side at the marsh’s edge. The light was fading and the mosquitoes were relentless (seriously). But I endured this discomfort to try to capture some images of these bizarre shorebirds.
As I was photographing a distant group, a very vocal stilt flew in and landed close, apparently oblivious to my presence. I was able to capture a few images before it wandered off to join the others.
After photographing the stilts we went back to the beach, and I reveled in my own insignificance as I looked out onto the swaying waters of the Gulf. We took to the water and enjoyed the day’s transition into dusk. We then drove home, guided by the yellow lights of oil refineries that dotted the horizon like distant cities. A sign of the times, I thought.
Friday, August 10
I still had tiger beetles on the brain as we made our way to Houston on this morning. We had a meeting in the city, and had decided that afterward we would spend the remainder of the weekend on the coast. After the meeting we drove to Port Arthur, checked into our hotel, and made our way back into Louisiana. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and I was excited to once again try my luck photographing the beach tigers.
I laid down to try my proven technique once more, and soon encountered another problem. While it was cloudy on my first attempt, today was sunny, and my head cast a broad shadow directly in front of me. So now I had a narrow band of light on either side of the shadow that wouldn’t be too harsh or directional for photography. I could have alternately tried to set up a flash system, but I decided instead to see if I could capture some images in natural light.
I had read that mating in the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetle typically occurred in the late afternoon and early evening. It has been my experience that copulating beetles are much easier to approach, so I hoped I may be able to come across a mating pair. After many failed attempts at single beetles I did find a coupled pair. I managed to get a bit closer before the female finally shook the male off and they both scattered.
We spent the rest of the evening exploring the beach, the marsh, and a handful of scattered woodlots that no doubt hosted thousands of Neotropical migrant songbirds in the Spring. On our drive back to the hotel the night sky was again interrupted with the distant lights of refineries, lighting up the night sky like dull orange stars.
Saturday, August 11
Today we slept in a bit. We spent the morning exploring the area around Port Arthur, and taking in the devastating toll that Harvey had on the residents of the region. Such hurricanes, while undeniably tragic, are a normal occurrence which helped shape the natural communities of the coast. These systems evolved under the periodic disturbance of these strong storms. This was evident as we drove through McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, where the marsh looked as vibrant and healthy as ever. I wondered how the tiger beetles weathered the storm, for their population certainly seemed as robust as ever. Perhaps they too benefit from the storm’s aftermath in some way.
After exploring McFaddin and catching up with a friend from College who works the Chenier Plain Wildlife Refuge Complex, Caro and I made our way to Sea Rim. Here driving is permitted on the beach, and I struggled to find beetles. In fact, the only place where I found them abundant was in a small football field sized area closed off to vehicular traffic. Here I found a few Habroscelamorpha dorsalis and several Coastal Tiger Beetles (Ellipsoptera hamata). E. hamata is much larger and more approachable than H. dorsalis. I found that my belly crawl technique worked well with them, and I managed to capture a few images.
E. hamata occupies a broader range of habitats than H. dorsalis, occuring further into the dune and swale complex and salt flats adjacent to the beach. The pattern of the maculations on their elytra are intricate and breath-taking when viewed close. I watched them through my viewfinder, and smiled as the relentless Gulf breeze blew their antennae like errant strands of hair.
As the sun drew nearer to the horizon we set out to try our luck once more with the comically proportioned Black-necked Stilts. Stilts have the longest legs relative to body size of any bird native to North America. They can be found year-round on the Texas Coast.
We returned to the beach when the sun was all but gone and the mosquitoes of the marsh had drank their fill. We laid in the shallow water and watch as dusk painted the world. The sand, the sky, the water, it all appeared the same hue of dull pink for a brief moment in time. It was a fine end to a fine day.
Sunday, August 12
My original plan was to wake very early this morning and head out to the Marsh to capture some images as day broke. The pillow had other plans for me, however, and we slept in until around 8:00. I felt better as I looked out the window to gray skies. The plan was to head back to southwest Louisiana for one last effort to photograph the Beach Tiger Beetle. I still hadn’t captured “the one” – the image I was after.
It was still overcast when we arrived at the beach. The Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea imperati) was open. These large, showy blooms open early and wither by mid day. It is a plant adapted to the harsh conditions of the beach, and is primarily restricted to the sandy complex of dunes and swales adjacent to the shore.
As I was made my way down the beach I caught site of the slightest hint of movement. It was a juvenile Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata)! It scurried across the sand like a wispy cloud moving against a background of gray. I had long wanted to photograph this ethereal beach dweller, but despite having seen many large adults, I could never quite get close enough for a good shot. This juvenile, however, allowed me to approach close enough to capture it with my macro lens.
Satisfied with my Decapodean encounter, I moved to the water’s edge, where the Eastern Beach Tiger Beetles were hard at work, hunting and scavenging along the miniature wrack of shells and debris. The light was good, and I settled in with my camera in hand. Watching these remarkable insects through the viewfinder offered me a rare chance to capture a glimpse into their miniature world. The subspecies in Louisiana and Texas is H. dorsalis venusta. It is the smallest, and most boldly patterned of the H. dorsalis subspecies.
It wasn’t long before they came scurrying in. However, once again I found my 100mm macro to be a bit too short. Capturing that perfect image was further complicated as I noticed that most beetles were thermoregulating in the relatively cool morning, keeping their bodies close to the ground wherever they stopped. Not one to be dissuaded, I set out to make my best of the situation. Unfortunately my camera had other things in mind, and as I was reviewing images I began to receive error messages from my card and camera. Something was wrong, and several of the images had not recorded.
By this point my frustration had got the better of me, and I wondered if I just simply was not meant to photograph this beetle! I went right away to download the images, and fortunately I was able to recover some of them. In the end, the images I have included in this blog were the best I was able to get. And while they may not be exactly what I had hoped for, I was happy with them. I have since changed the card in my camera and it seems to be working fine.
With that, we left the beach and made our way north through western Louisiana. The marsh in this part of the country is spectacular, and in some areas we could see a seemingly endless expanse of wetland grasses, sedges, and rushes. I admired the subtle change in color and texture as broad stretches of Spartina grass were broken by pockets of Black Needlerush. Eventually the marsh changed from saltmarsh to brackish to freshwater. Before long we glimpsed our first oak trees, followed shortly by stunted pines. And just like that, we were back in the Pineywoods, albeit the Louisiana side of things.
Tiger beetles are fascinating creatures, and photographing them can easily become an obsession. Being so focused on getting the shot can sometime cause me to lose sight of the experience of being present in a place and moment of time. Interestingly enough, however, by setting my lens on these bejeweled predators I was able to catch a unique glimpse into their captivating lives. I watched as they stalked down and pounced on tiny flies, excavated burrows in search of some invertebrate prey, and tracked down mates. Indeed, I can see myself returning at some point in the not too distant future to visit these voracious miniature tigers again.