Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sycamore Canyon – Southeastern Arizona's Subtropical Paradise

This past Monday I joined my friends Steve Nord and Michael Skinner for a hike down one of my favorite places in Arizona – Sycamore Canyon. Steve lives in Oregon and was down for a week of birding with Michael all over Southeast Arizona. So when they invited me to join them for a day, it was coincidence that I suggested a place that neither of them had been to before. That they both still needed Five-striped Sparrow was another bonus.

We left Tucson at 4:30, fully equipped with hiking snacks, lunch, and lots of water.

Arriving at the parking area and trail head at 6:30, we wanted to get started hiking right away. But a moth collector from Colorado and his 14-year-old son had set up a mercury vapor lamp in front of a white sheet last night, and it was still covered with moths. These are a pair of mating Montana Small Silkmoths, Sphingicampa montana (now sometimes placed in the genus Sissphynx).

The larger moths are always easier to identify. This giant is a Five-spotted Hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata, a sister species to the tobacco hornworm.

But even some of the small moths can be interesting. The larger is a Grape Leaf Folder, Desmia sp. and the black and orange one a Thin-banded Lichen Moth, Cisthene tenuifascia.

Not only moths are attracted to night lights. This is an adult (harmless, obviously) of the giant antlion, Vella fallax texana. The larvae of this species doesn't make the typical sand funnels, made only by those in the genus Myrmeleon.

The scenery here is gorgeous. And being one of the few watersheds in Arizona that flows southward into Mexico (rather than westward into the Colorado River), it is a conduit for many tropical species of plants, birds, and bugs found nowhere else in the United States.

Early on during the hike we were distracted by dozens of these tiny Elissa Roadside-Skippers, Ambyscirtes elissa, normally quite scarce. This is a good year for them.

Mixed in with them were a few other species, such as this Bronze Roadside-Skipper, Amblyscirtes aenus. The flower is Lemon Beebalm, Monarda citriodora ssp. austromontana.

And this is a Large Roadside-Skipper, Amblyscirtes exoteria. It is getting nectar from Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia.

On a fruit of this same milkweed were nymphs of the widespread Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus.

This is an adult.

Michael spotted this amazing critter while we were scrambling up a steep, rocky slope to avoid the deep water hole at 1.5 miles. If you don't see it here, try clicking on the image for a larger version.

Or try this. It is Leuronotina ritensis, informally known as Santa Rita Lichen Grasshopper. I only learned about the existence of this species this past March while visiting with my friend Bob Behrstock, a grasshopper expert. And he had only recently learned of it and seen it a few miles from here on Ruby Road. And it was discovered in this mountain range only last August by Doug Taron, which you can read about in his nice blog here.

This is the only other grasshopper I noticed today, Brown Winter Grasshopper, Amblytropidia mysteca.

There is permanent water in this drainage, but during very dry periods such as this, it is restricted to isolated holes. At other times of year there is a flowing stream for much of length of the approximately 6 miles of this canyon in Arizona. I think only after severe flooding events does it ever makes it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico via the Río Concepción.

There is a fish endemic to the upper reaches of this watershed, found only here and in nearby Sonora, the Sonora Chub, Gila ditaenia. Every pool was stuffed with them. Any day now, the monsoonal rains will hit this area, connecting the pools and creating breeding habitat up and down the canyon.

It will also make the hiking more difficult. As it was, we had it easy, walking down the middle of the dry wash most of the way. This was the most difficult spot to navigate, looking back up the canyon at Steve having just made it past the tight spot.

The water is what makes this canyon so amazing for plants and animals. This is a Sonoran Mud Turtle, Kinosternon sonoriense, poking his snout up to get a breath of air and revealing the distinctive, fleshy barbules on his chin.

I was especially excited to discover this pair of Tezpi Dancers, Argia tezpi, a rather rare and localized damselfly notable for having no blue.

This Apache Dancer, Argia munda, has the more typical coloration of damselflies. The female is depositing eggs in the rotting vegetation. They have already mated, and the male holds on to keep other males from grabbing the female, scooping out his sperm and fertilizing her eggs with his own.

This is Amethyst Dancer, Argia pallens, a rather unusually colored damselfly.

Most damselflies can be recognized from dragonflies from their closed wings, but that doesn't apply to the spreadwing damsels, of which this is a member. It is a Great Spreadwing, Archilestes grandis. But it still has the very slender, delicate body and tiny head with widely spaced, beady eyes that will give away almost any damsel.

This is a dragonfly, a female Plateau Dragonlet, Erythrodiplax basifusca. Dragonflies don't all perch so cooperatively, and we may have passed this off as a Spot-winged Meadowhawk if it hadn't been for much more distinctive male nearby – and the wonderful new book by Dennis Paulson, Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West.

Arizona Mottled-Skippers, Codatractus arizonensis, were unusually abundant throughout the canyon.

We also encountered quite a few Acacia Skippers, Cogia hippalus. The most exciting butterfly of the day was a Blackened Bluewing, Myscelia cynanthe, just below the junction with Peñasco Canyon. I didn't even come close to getting a photo, but it flew right past my face and is a very distinctive butterfly with deep purple rays above. There are only 5 or 6 records of this Mexican vagrant in the United States. Amazingly, this is very close to where I found one on January 24, 1997, the very butterfly that got me started in identifying them with field guides.

Steve flushed this gorgeous large moth, Cecrops Eyed Silkmoth, Automeris cerops.

Much less spectacular, but still quite pretty and very well camouflaged was this widespread Indomitable Melipotis Moth, Melipotis indomita.

One of the interesting characteristics of Sycamore Canyon is the strange mix of habitats usually segregated by elevation. Because of the torturous shape of the drainage, steep slopes, and general southward-flowing direction there are some very hot, exposed slopes that receive only light frosts, as well as protected coves where cold air pools, creating a more temperate habitat. So here at 3700 feet elevation you see groves of Mexican Pinyon, hosting Spotted Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl (of which we saw a family of 4), and Hepatic Tanager across the way from subtropical desertscrub with Saguaro, Goodding's Ash, and Kidneywood, home to things like Five-striped Sparrow and Varied Bunting.

One could botanize for weeks here and still not see every plant. This is Mexican Skullcap, Scutellaria potosina ssp. potosina var. tessellata. About 700 species of plants are found in this area, counting lichens and mosses.

Formerly known as California Fuchsia in the genus Zauschneria, this is now more appropriately called Hummingbird Trumpet, Epilobium canum ssp. latifolium.

Growing right out of the rock wall was this boneset or mistflower, formerly in the genus Eupatorium. It is now known as Lavender Thoroughwort, Fleischmannia pycnocephala.

We were somewhat surprised to find this Wild Hemp, Cannabis sativa, growing in the middle of the wash. It didn't quite look like cultivated marijuana, so I wouldn't get your hopes up.

I'm pretty sure this is the extremely localized Santa Rita Beehive Cactus, Coryphantha recurvata.

This tiny leaf beetle, on the endemic Goodding's Ash, is Capraita durangoensis.

A robber fly in the family Asilidae, possibly in the genus Nemochtherus.

We hiked a total of 4.1 miles down the canyon until we got to the area where Five-striped Sparrows occur, the area around Twin Canyons. It took us 4.5 hours to get here, arriving at about 11:00, having stopped a lot on the way to look at things. With a little iPod playing, we got a very handsome Five-stripe to come right out. We also pished and imitated owls, which brought in a rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Varied Buntings, and a seemingly endless quantity of Dusky-capped Flycatchers.

With good navigational skills, one could make a cross-country hike out one of the side canyons or straight up the slopes and have a car waiting either in California Gulch or on the Summit Motorway. But we simply doubled back and took 3.5 hours to get back to the trailhead.

It was probably close to 100°F around 1:45 when we came across this Canyon Treefrog sitting in the open sun. It must be one of the most heat- and drought-tolerant frogs in the world.

Just a few hundred yards from the car, a thunderhead began dumping rain on us. What had been distant lighting struck just a hundred yards or less ahead, the instantaneous and earsplitting thunder eliciting the unexpected reflex of a gut-level yell from me. It was hilarious for a moment until we realized we were smelling the smoke from the struck tree just up the slope from us. And then the rain started really coming down, and we ran the rest of the way to the car. What an exhilarating end to a great day.

Brown-backed Solitaire Attempt #1: Miller Canyon

It was pretty exciting news when the birding community heard that the Camp Chiricahua group of teenagers, led by David Jasper, had discovered a Brown-backed Solitaire in Miller Canyon, south of Sierra Vista, Arizona. This is a Mexican species that had been seen only once before in the United States.

I went up the very next day, Friday July 17, with several friends. Well, despite there being at least 40 birders up there searching all morning long, it was not seen or heard. Even though we didn't find our target, I really enjoyed the social event, rekindling friendships with people I see once a year or so. And on top of that was the wonderful diversity of regular, breeding birds in the canyon as well as all the other plants and critters that make for a complete natural history experience.

As a result of the monsoon – summer rains that are more predictible in mountains such as these – flowers were in bloom, and bugs were about. The flower at the top of this blog entry is Drummond's Woodsorrel, Oxalis drummondi.

This harmless fly in the family Tachinidae was quite common. It's in the genus Lechenaultia, but species apparently can't be determined from a photo like this.

There isn't a handy field guide to the snails of Arizona, but a paper from 1909 listed quite a few extremely local species in this one mountain range. This one is probably Sonorella granulatissima, but it may be something in the genus Ashmuella. One of the main "field marks" is the shape of the penis, which you can see only by dissecting a snail.

This is an Orange-edged Roadside-Skipper, Amblyscirtes fimbriata on a Geranium flower. This skipper occurs in the United States only in the southeastern corner of Arizona.

This is Huachuca Mountain Adders-mouth Orchid, Malaxis corymbosa, inconspicuous in shady, moist woods.

A close-up of one of the racemes.

My friend John Mueller showed me this gorgous beetle. I recognized it as a fruit chafer, but only by checking did I find that it is called Gymnetina cretacea, found in the U.S. only in Arizona and New Mexico.

This puzzling, tiny critter is a larva of a green lacewing on the palm of my hand. It has piled bits of debris on its back for protection from the ants that defend its prey, aphids.

Here's is John Mueller watching the two stars in the canyon this day, a pair of Spotted Owls. They are perched in the upper left of the photo.

Here are the owls cropped from the same photo.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Saguaros, Cicadas, and Tenebs in the Sonoran Desert

It's the hottest, driest time of year in the Sonoran Desert, but it has its appeal. This past Thursday, June 2, I joined my friends Beth and Linda exploring in the Ironwood Forest National Monument NW of Tucson. We lucked out that overcast skies kept the temperature below 90°F until quite late in the morning.

One of the main attractions this time of year is the ripe Saguaro fruit. This giant cactus, the state flower of Arizona, blooms from late April-early June, and this time of year the fruits ripen, split open, and offer wildlife a sweet smorgasbord. White-winged Doves get it while it's still moist on the plant.

Ants, beetles, rodents and other animals scavenge it on the ground. But there is so much of it, not all of it is consumed right away.

This is what is known as a "teneb" among beetle people, a member of the family Tenebrionidae, the darkling beetles. This one belongs to the genus Argoporis, of which there are about 8 species.

This tiny teneb (a few mm long) may be a scavenger of harvester ant waste, but as of yet remains unidentified even to genus.

The pulp in the center often dries as a solid mass, and when it is nearly fully dry, it is sweet as candy. It has a similar flavor to dried figs but is even more scrumptious.

I hiked to the top of a hill of black, volcanic rock just to see what was about. Keep in mind this area is baked by the direct sun many days of the year and probably receives an average of less than 10 inches of rain a year.

The north side of this rock had several lovely crustose lichens.

On the way up, I must have come close to this Canyon Wren's nest.

Patrolling territories on top of the hill were a few of these gorgeous flies, about an inch and a half long. I first thought they were robber flies, in the family Asilidae. But a quick check of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America quickly led me to the family Mydidae, the Mydas Flies. And then checking, I was able to compare to my friend Philip Kline's photos of what has been identified as Mydas ventralis. When another individual flew by, the one on territory would employ it in an aggressive chase, then come back a minute or two later and perch on the same rock or one nearby.

Linda Nelson with Ragged Top in the distance.

On the way back down the hill, Linda and I watched this Ornate Tree Lizard. Notice the blue belly and turquoise and yellow throat.

One of the desert washes that fills up with a violent flood during the monsoon rains, due to arrive any day.

It was so dry, not many insects were around. This is a Cream Grasshopper, Cibolacris parviceps.

But even in the driest, hottest areas, cicadas are noticeable from their loud buzzing. In one of the washes, we heard two species. One gave a repeated "bzt-bzt-bzt..." a little faster than 4 notes per second. I tracked a couple down and got photos to determine they were Diceroprocta arizona. Notice the very long wings and the muted colors and patterns on the body.

The other had a higher pitched, constant buzz, "czczczcz..." It was the same one I hear in my neighborhood in Tucson, Diceroprocta apache. Notice on this one the darker background color, orange highlights, and pale wing edges.