A night of blacklights and owls at the Rice Center
July 7, 2009
By Arthur V. Evans
The 342 acres of riparian woodlands and wetlands hugging the upper shore of the James River at the VCU Rice Center in Charles City County is the perfect place to stage events that blend science and scientists with students, educators, and naturalists.
One such event was “A Night of Blacklights and Owls,” held on June 27-28 organized by Anne Wright, Life Science Outreach Education coordinator. The evening was designed as an “advanced field experience and training” for the Riverine and Pocahontas Chapters of the Virginia Master Naturalist program and included members of the Powhatan/Dutch Gap MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program. Forty-five people took part in the evening’s festivities, which ran from Saturday at 7 p.m. to Sunday at 9 a.m.
Entomologist and VCU Life Sciences Research Associate Dr. Art Evans established seven black light stations to attract night-flying insects to share with the group. The insects collected during the evening were part of an effort to document the fauna at Rice and establish a permanent reference and teaching collection for the center.
The highlight of the evening was finding a rarely encountered turtle beetle, Chelonarium lecontei (Photo 2), the fourth known to be collected in Virginia. The turtle beetle is the sole North American species of the mostly tropical family Chelonariidae. It ranges from Virginia to Florida, west to Oklahoma and Texas. Nothing is known of its larval stages, but it is suspected that they occur in rotten wood, possibly in association with ants. Adults are attracted to lights during the months of June and July, or are found resting on vegetation, especially at night.
Master Bander and VCU Professor of Economics Dr. Robert Reilly led regular owling forays into the woods, broadcasting the recorded calls of both owls and distressed rodents to lure owls down from their lofty perches so folks could get a better look. VCU’s Holly Houtz, Life Sciences’ Lab and Outreach Education Specialist, and Mary Arginteanu and Julie Kacmarcik of MAPS assisted Reilly in his efforts.
The owls were less than cooperative but for those intrepid naturalists still up and about around 2 a.m. they were treated to some fine barred owl action.
Judging by the excitement and positive comments generated by all who attended the program along the James River, it appears that there is demand in Central Virginia for outdoor science events such as “Black lights and Owls.” Future programs are being developed at the VCU Rice Center for both the Master Naturalists and the general public to participate in.