Back from almost a week on the road to SE Arizona on an excellent trip in search of some special butterflies we’ve been looking for over the past couple of years. A bit more than a 7 hour drive from Albuquerque, we spent the first few days based in Sierra Vista checking out some of the canyons we’d visited in early September last year and a few new spots we missed on that trip. We followed that with a few days based in Tucson to explore Montosa, Box, and Madera Canyons south of Tucson and made several stops in Tucson’s Catalina Mountains along the highway up the mountain to Summerhaven.
One of the targets for the trip, of which we’d see the first of three species on our first afternoon in Garden Canyon is the Arizona Giant-Skipper.
The next morning, we met our friend, Bob Behrstock, an incredible natural history guide who led our 2012 trip to Panama, and who joined us in search of another of our target species, the Chiricahua White. This is a cool butterfly we’d had on our ‘must see’ list for at least two years, but should be flying there now usually high up among the tops of the ponderosa pines but occasionally coming down to water. Bob led us to just the right spot way up Sawmill Canyon, and it wasn’t long before we spotted a couple of them way up in the trees. It wasn’t much longer after that we finally got good looks at a few closer to ground level.
What makes this species particularly interesting is the sexual dimorphism between the males and females; unlike most butterflies having minor differences between the sexes, the female of this species is strikingly different in color and appearance.
Birders use the term ‘tick’ as an exclamation when they add a new species to their life list and the term ‘dip’ when they miss out on seeing one they’d hoped to see. I have no idea where these terms originated, but we certainly got to tick this species off finally!
The day provided us with sightings of a good variety of species for this late in the season and we started to build our trip list that would eventually reach more than 50 species. Some of the ones we saw that day included the Southern Dogface,
a very friendly Red-spotted Purple who seemed to enjoy Rebecca’s company,
and the flamboyantly colorful Gulf Fritillary.
While waiting for those Chiricahua Whites to come down out of the trees, I also got to see a Yellow-eyed Junco. Although we see plenty of Dark-eyed Juncos around here over the winter, this was probably the first Yellow-eyed Junco I’ve ever seen.
Perfectly attired for the beginning of autumn is the colorful Satyr Comma, a species that is much less common around Albuquerque than the similar Hoary Comma.
Often, these butterflies sit with their wings folded, camouflaged as just another dry leaf.
The common names for this type of butterfly comes from that white ‘comma’ you see on the hindwing. (A related species that I haven’t yet seen has a white dot next to that comma, leading to its wonderful name, the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis).) Another photo that came out surprisingly well that day was this Sleepy Orange. Photographing a butterfly with an uncluttered background can be difficult to achieve in the field, so it’s always a treat when it works out that way.
Several species of lizards were seen in different habitats including the Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard. They wait patiently for their prey to come close and then react quite quickly to grab their unfortunate victims, an event I’ve only seen twice now.
Early the next morning we headed off for the Tucson area, checking out Box, Madera, and Montosa Canyons along the way. In Box Canyon, we surprised a rather large mammal across the canyon that we at first were certain was a mountain lion which would’ve been our first sighting of that elusive species, but after looking at the one picture I got before it disappeared looks to be more like a coati, still a pretty cool critter to get to see.
In the surprisingly small world of butterfly enthusiasts, it continues to amaze me how friendly and helpful the experts are at helping us newbies identify the butterflies we see and help us in finding them. In addition to Bob Behrstock’s help in ticking off those Chiricahua Whites and spotting two species of Giant-Skippers, another recognized expert, Jim Brock, who’s led us on several butterfly adventures in recent years, gave us a few tips on some of the specialties in the Tucson area. While we’d ‘dip’ on the rare Elf butterfly in Montosa Canyon, we did identify its host plant Hairy Fournwort (Tetramerium nervosum) and would later ‘tick’ off the Poling’s Giant-Skipper (Agathymus polingi) right where Jim said we would in the Shindagger (Agave schottii) across the highway from the Molino Basin Trailhead.
Another plant that would prove crazily productive for all manner of insects was the Desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides). At the Proctor Road entrance station to Madera Canyon, several of these bushes were full of various beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, and butterflies.
There were several other katydid species on the bushes and a good variety of grasshoppers, many of them mating. One of my favorites from Arizona trips is the very large and colorful Horse Lubber.
Some of the butterflies on those bushes included a Great Purple Hairstreak, Gray Hairstreak, this Palmer’s Metalmark,
lots of American Snouts,
Fatal Metalmark, Western Pygmy-Blue, and Texan Crescent, and several others. Recognizing how popular that plant was, we’d be sure to check it out whenever we’d spot it during the rest of the trip.
That area was also good for the delightfully named Empress Leilia.
Heading further up the canyon, in the creek bed by the Mt. Wrightson Picnic Area where we’d gotten our first Arizona Hairstreak during an earlier visit in April, a small puddle drew in another good variety of species including a pair of Southern Dogface, Red-bordered Satyr, Tiny Checkerspot, Red Admiral, and even a couple more Chiricahua Whites. I almost thought I was back in the neotropics when I spotted the brilliantly colored Colorado Hairstreak, a species that usually hides that color behind closed wings.
Our last full day before heading for home was spent checking out several locations along the Catalina Highway east of Tucson. Lower on the mountain, we got great looks at a Verdin and a couple of Rock Wrens.
and on that Desertbroom would see several Empress Leilias, Queens, and even a fresh Monarch on its way to Mexico for the winter.
Tromping around the shindagger on a rather steep slope at Molino Basin, we’d ‘tick’ off our final new species for the trip, the Poling’s Giant-Skipper, a single individual that popped up out of the grass to perch a short distance away on the side of a rock.
Easy drive home with a stop for lunch at Rockhound State Park near Deming NM, where we were amazed to see hundreds of Western Pygmy-Blues nectaring on a low-growing species of that Baccharis.
Roadtrips are always great for opening your eyes to new experiences and reinvigorating interest in exploring and seeing new things. Might just have to take another one soon.