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Listening, looking, smelling with Mark DuBois: BioBlitz, Dixon Waterfowl Refuge


Mark DuBois examines, while Cassi Saari looks on, one of the finds on an Ant and Insect Safari during the BioBlitz at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

HENNEPIN, Ill.–Any concerns that international ant expert Mark DuBois might lead an excursion as dry as plowing through Leviticus were answered right away.

Early in an Ant and Insect Safari down the Seep Trail on Aug. 4, DuBois asked, “Do you know what ants do most of their lives?’’ After a dramatic pause, he faked a snore and answered, “They’re slackers.’’

The Wetlands Initiative held its second BioBlitz at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (Hennepin-Hopper) on Aug. 3-4. BioBlitzs are 24-hour efforts to find and identify as many species of living things as possible.

In TWI’s first BioBlitz in 2015, I followed the herps group. This time, I joined DuBois and a group of 10. I was the least accomplished.

Exciting finds even came early. A dung beetle was found during prep. A federally-endangered rusty patched bumble bee was found by the boat launch on opening night.

DuBois is a renowned entomologist and retired professor, who traveled the world and has more than than 4 million specimens, destined to be passed on for research.

“I had to make an insect collection in seventh grade and never stopped,’’ he added.

A lot of our group understood. Cassi Saari was taking incredible photos and posting on the iNaturalist app while talking Latin distinctions with DuBois as we walked.

“Notice what we are doing? We’re walking slowly, that is so we find stuff,’’ DuBois said.

Decades of sweeping with a net made DuBois as adept as Kris Bryant swinging a bat.

Once peering into the net, DuBois said, “Ah, cinch bug,’’ with relish.

Other times, he said, “Oh, I should know this, but I don’t.’’

At a water break, he added, “Ever find somebody who says they can identify all the insects they are seeing, they’re lying.’’

Another time, DuBois said, “Nice katydid, no, a tree cricket.’’

He kept a gardening tool to dig for ants. He used all his senses, such as sniffing ants. Carpenter ants have the odor of formic acid. With a lasius interjectus, DuBois handed it around and said, “Smell the citronella.’’

Someone found a racer snake shed, just before DuBois showed us ants around aphids, eating the “`sweet nectar coming out of the south end of a north-facing aphid. Ants lap that up. And they will protect the aphids.’’

When a blister beetle was found, DuBois handled it, noting, “You probably don’t want to keep this on your hand.’’ They can literally blister skin.

Other finds I noted were leaf beetles, leaf hoppers, hoverfly, nymph of a stink bug, milkweed tussock moth caterpillar (visually cool), goldenrod fly, milkweed bug, ambush bug and dog-day cicada.

We spotted a red spotted purple butterfly as we walked back toward base camp.

It was time.

Before groups disbursed in the morning, Gary Sullivan, senior restoration ecologist, had said, “We hope when people come here every year, they will see something new.’’

I visit at least once a year and that’s true.

Vera Leopold emailed that through Thursday morning (numbers will go higher as more results are tallied) there were 792 species from both print data and confirmed observations on iNaturalist. Even that preliminary figure blows away the final 675 from 2015.

More on TWI and the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is at wetlands-initiative.org.