Interview: Dave Leatherman (Part 2)

3. Can you relate a story about one of the five new to science insect species you discovered?

 I visited Lamar in mid-July 1998 on a work trip and the alternator on my vehicle went out.  Unbelievably, getting a part took several days and it was very hot (approaching 110 degrees on at least two days).  To pass the time, I birded and bugged.  On either July 17th or 18th, while birding was slow in Lamar, out of boredom (and probably heat fatigue), I decided to see what set of insects was on the lower trunks of those big cottonwoods due south of the Lamar Community College (LCC) tennis courts.  Things were fairly routine until at one point an "ant" literally jumped across a major fissure in the bark a few inches from my face.  How did it do that, I wondered?  Eventually I got the "ant" and a few more in a tiny collecting bottle.  They proved to be a very small pompilid wasp that hunts small spiders by mimicking ants.  Apparently looking like an ant lets them blend into the crowd of ants moving up and down the trunk on their way from their nests underground to the leaves where they collect aphid honeydew and other food morsels.  If an unsuspecting spider dares comes out of hiding, the spider wasp's disguise is helpful during that all-important first moment of pursuit.  The bark crevice was negotiated with wings so small they are almost imperceptible.  The late Dr. Howard E. Evans, former colleague of Dr. E. O. Wilson at Harvard, friend of mine, and resident wasp guru at Colorado State University at the time of the LCC discovery, identified them as new to science, formally described them in the literature, and gave them the name Dipogon kiowa.  The "di-" refers to "two", and "-pogon" means "beard".  Under a microscope, members of this genus have two tufts of "hair" on their chin.  "Kiowa" is in honor of the early Native Americans in the area of the Arkansas River near Lamar.  Except for one questionable specimen from near Delta, Lamar is still the only place this wasp has ever been found.


4. For a beginner interested in learning more about birds and their relationship to insects (bird diets), where would you advise them to start? In Winging It, you advise making a "Directory" and starting with a field guide. What is a simple first step a beginner could take towards identifying insects and plants and creating a directory?


I would start by working up the relationships in a small, very familiar place that you bird frequently and know very well.  This could be your back yard, your favorite park, or other birding locality visited on a regular basis at different seasons.  Start by learning the major plants.  Trees can be figured out best in the summer when they have leaves.  The National Wildlife Federation's Field Guide to Trees of North America by Kershner et al is a good guide.  There are others.  Then find a person who knows the lower plants, starting with the flowers - your parents, the lady with the nice yard down the street, garden club members.  If you can figure out shorebirds or fall warblers, you can figure out plants that don't move.  Each mystery solved is fun.  There is a great field guide to insects in the Kaufman Field Guide Series by Eric Eaton and a guy named Kenn Kaufmann (yes, that Kaufman).  It will allow you to get close on most insects you find.  You could collect and submit other insects to the extension service offices or, better yet, make contact with the entomologist at a local museum.  You might be able to trade your time volunteering in the museum for identifications, or some such arrangement.  Be careful, you might get hooked on entomology.  Once you get the habitat somewhat figured out by identifying the plants, and have a good insect book (like with birds, you can never have too many books), then do some intense watching.  Instead of racking up 75 species in a morning, you might find yourself entranced by one bird trying to extract one larva from a deep in a tree branch.  Try to get photos of what is going on.  A relatively poor photo of a bird that clearly shows the silhouette of some prey item may be the key to figuring out the whole episode.  Watch a group of sparrows and see which patch of plants they like, which exact seed heads they are tugging on.  Run over while you still have your gaze fixed on the exact plant they pecked at, see if you can figure it out.  Bottles, both empty and ones filled with rubbing alcohol, are handy to have for collecting things to be identified later.  Put a little piece of paper with essential data (for example, "eaten by a bc chickadee 30Sept2010 at Green Park, CO" plus your initials) with your collections right away before you forget.  Use pencil for data slips dropped into alcohol.  Alcohol is best for small soft-bodied insects like aphids and larvae. 


5. Do you have any interesting stories regarding raptor diets?

 There are too many to list them all, but one that stands out in my memory was watching a feather float past at Crow Valley Campground in autumn.  Then another.  They came in the direction of a cottonwood near the big shelter house.  There in the tree was a Sharp-shinned Hawk with a freshly-caught Dark-eyed Junco.  My approach caused the accipiter to fly low and south to the dry creek bed with its lunch.  For the next hour and a half or so, I crept up to the hawk on my belly, got about 10 feet away, and pretty much watched the whole meal.  It was a great thrill to watch and photograph.  It started with feather plucking, eating of the brain, much pulling of body meat, and ended with the feet.  One of my photos of this was on the cover of Western Birds (vol22(4), 1991).  Owl pellets full of Kangaroo Rat and other mysterious rodent or bird bones are educational.  Watching Merlins chase Horned Larks on the Pawnee is always exciting.  And I remember an Osprey once at North Lake north of Stonewall (Las Animas County, CO) that caught a Rainbow Trout right in front of a frustrated guy fishing 20 feet away on the shore.