Tropical Buckeye Dark form


Common Buckeye

When I put trips on the schedule, I don’t often look at the weather forecast for the date of the trip.  I figure the chances of it be correct are not that great, so what’s the point.  As luck would have it, I scheduled my annual butterfly trip to Harshaw on the coldest morning we have had since February!   At this point there wasn’t a whole lot to do about it except go ahead and hope for the best.

Rabbitbrush, a shrub in the aster family, is the last major nectar source for butterflies in southeast Arizona before the first hard freezes of the season.  So any butterfly worth it’s salt will be in attendance.  We set out with reserved anticipation.

Arriving at my favorite rabbitbrush patch, I saw a Queen as soon as we got out of the car.  That was a positive development!  In short order, we saw another.  Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all!

As things turned out, we counted 23 species in about two hours.  Not a record-setting tally, but good considering that the temperature has barely inched into the 60s by the time we were done.

We had six pierids (Checkered White, Orange Sulphur, Dainty Sulphur, Cloudless Sulphur, Tailed Orange, Southern Dogface, and Mexican Yellow), all three ladies (American, Painted, and West Coast), and both buckeyes (Common and Tropical).  For the last species, we had the typical and the ‘dark’ form.  Other nymphalids included American Snout, Texan Crescent, Variegated Fritillary, and Arizona Sister.

Among the gossamer wings, we had winter form Leda Ministreak, Reakirt’s Blue, and Western Pygmy-Blue.  The skippers included Dorantes Longtail, Common/White-Checkered-Skipper, and Desert Checkered-Skipper.  We had no swallowtails or metalmarks.

There was also a plethora of grasshoppers present, including Plains Lubber and Differential Grasshopper.

It was a spectacular morning with a terrific group!






Surprising Visitor at Sweetwater Wetlands

Yesterday I led the monthly Sweetwater Wetlands birding walk for Pima County Department of Natural Resources, Parks, and Recreation.  I was joined by eight eager birders on a beautiful early November morning.

Before we even left the parking lot, we had seen Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Verdin, and Song Sparrow.  We also scoped a obliging Red-tailed Hawk on a power pole a couple of hundred yards down Sweetwater Drive.  Crossing the bridge, we headed down the east side of the wetlands we saw the first few of what would be many Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  They are really stunning birds!

The first recharge basin yielded dozens of American Wigeons, as well as a few Mallards.  A dozen or so Killdeer were joined by a single Least Sandpiper.  Along the trail we added a nice male Costa’s Hummingbird going after an insect breakfast.  At the ponds we added Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Common Gallinule, Great Egret, Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy Duck.  In the rushes, we added Red-winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds.

Overhead we saw American Kestrel and Cooper’s Hawk.  We heard, but did not see, Soras and Marsh Wrens.

The star of the show was a brilliant male Baltimore Oriole in the southwest corner of the wetlands.  Talk about gorgeous!!  A most agreeable fellow too, as he remained in view off and on for several minutes.  The oriole adds to the list of eastern birds that have appeared at Sweetwater in fall over the past few years, joining Chestnut-sided and Yellow-throated Warblers and others.

We totaled 36 species for the morning.

Thanks to everyone who came out!



Recently, I was watching the local morning news program as I made coffee and tried to wake up.  A piece came on about the dangers of living in rattlesnake country.  At the conclusion of the segment, the reporter stated that the best way to avoid being bitten was ‘.. stay indoors and stay away from wildlife.’

I’m not kidding.  I wanted to scream!  That is like saying there’s no use in getting on a plane because it’s just going to crash.  I was furious.

I have spent countless hours in the field in southern Arizona over the years and have never been bitten by a rattlesnake (or any other snake for that matter).  I have seen dozens of these remarkable serpents.  A few of them have rattled and assumed a defensive posture.  The vast majority have either completely ignored me or have remained calm.  Either way, not one of them has struck at me.

Are rattlesnakes a potential hazard?  Sure.  But driving your car everyday is infinitely more dangerous than being bitten by a rattlesnake.  (Funny how all of these hazards exist in the U.S. (rattlesnakes, alligators, whooping cough, etc., etc.,) that everyone freaks out about but nobody hesitates for a second to get into a car, which is by far the most dangerous thing we do everyday).

If you live in Arizona, anywhere in Arizona, you are in rattlesnake country.  When you are outside, whether in your yard or in the wilderness, be alert.  Watch where you place your hands and feet.  If you hear a rattle, look around and locate the snake and move away from it.  Don’t panic and blindly run in a random direction, as you may step right on the snake.

It’s not a hard concept to understand.  Most of the rattlesnake bites in the U.S. are the result of what Harry Greene calls ‘testosterone tyranny’- young males (up to age of around 30), disregard or do not appreciate the dangers of interacting with these snakes.  Oh, and consumption of alcohol is often involved (big surprise there).

So get over this rattlesnake fear.  There are much more important things to worry about while you are driving to the store, texting your friends while behind the wheel.



A Glowrious Beetle

PhengodeslmexicanaCarrieNationPicnicArea13ix14Last weekend I set up my blacklight sheet in the Mt. Wrightson picnic area in Madera Canyon.  It was an opportunity for me to do some blacklighting at a higher elevation (about 5500 feet) than my usual spot at Madera picnic area.

Along with the moths, tree crickets, mantispids, and other insects that were attracted to the light, was one really cool beetle.  It, I should say he, because that’s what it(he) was, was a phengodid beetle, better known as a glowworm.

Relatives of fireflies (Lampyridae) and soldier beetles (Cantharidae), glowworms get their name from the bioluminescence produced by the eggs, larvae, and adult females of the this family.  Males can also be weakly bioluminescent.

There are many other fascinating details in the biology of glowworms.  First, the adults are not known to feed.  The larvae prey on millipedes.  This is a potentially problematic food source for the young, as many millipedes are chemically protected from predators.  Larval glowworms get around this difficulty by coiling around the front of the millipede and reaching under the head of the prey to deliver a dose of toxic saliva through it’s long mandibles.  The saliva contains digestive enzymes that not only instantaneously immobilize the victim, but also begin the process of digestion.  Once the meal is finished, the only reminder of the millipede are the disarticulated rings of it’s exoskeleton!

Wait!  There’s more!  Adult female glowworms are larger than the males and look very much like the larvae.  The main differences are that the adult has compound eyes and mature reproductive organs.  She has no wings and therefore cannot fly.

One of the most striking features of adult males are the large feathery antennae.  These structures function to collect the pheromones released by the female for breeding.

The wings of adult males are short and membranous, giving him a rather unbeetle-like appearance.  Males are often attracted to lights in wooded habitats.

This is a relatively small family of beetles- about 180 species worldwide.  Twenty-three of these are known from North America, representing six genera.  The species that showed up was Phengodes mexicana, based on the dark wingtips.  Another local species, P. arizonensis has uniformly yellowish-brown elytra.

Sweet Morning at Sweetwater

GreenHeronAguaCaliente6ix09This morning I had the pleasure to lead seven birders on a walk around Sweetwater Wetlands, one of the premier urban birding sites in the country (in my humble opinion).

One of the first things we notices was the abundance of dragonflies on the wing.  We saw many Blue Dashers, Flame Skimmers, Blue-eyed Darners and Common Green Darners.  We also spied smaller numbers of Giant Darner, Wandering Glider, Mexican Amberwing, and more.

But back to the birds.  We quickly found a southbound Olive-sided Flycatcher, which was perched near a Tropical Kingbird, allowing for a good study of the two genera.  We also had Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, among other songbirds.  Songs Sparrow and Abert’s Towhee were vocal and conspicuous.

Two of the three recharge basins were dry, yielding only Killdeer, but the third had some water in it and produced the day’s only Spotted Sandpiper.

We saw several Green Herons, as well as a Great Egret, trying to look inconspicuous among the bulrushes.  It didn’t succeed very well!  We had a quick view of a single Sora, a family group of American Coot, and several Common Moorhens.

The duck numbers are still low, but we did see Northern Shoveler and Mallard, with three female Blue-winged Teal.

We had good looks at a pair of young Cooper’s Hawks before they got nervous and flew off.

All in all, it was a wonderful morning with some great folks!




Southwest Wings Madera Canyon Overnight Trip

The second tour I lead for this year’s Southwest Wings Festival was a Madera Canyon/Santa Cruz Valley Overnight trip.  Joined by birders from Phoenix, California, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, we left Sierra Visit in a light rain and dark skies.

Our first stop was the south entrance to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.  The semi-desert grasslands in this spot quickly produced Botteri’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, several Swainson’s Hawks, Cassin’s Kingbirds, and a Pronghorn!

We then hit the Paton Birding Center in Patagonia, a site where more people have picked up their lifer Violet-crowned Hummingbird than any other single spot.  We got Violet-crowneds, as well as, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, Inca Dove, and many other birds at Paton’s.

A quick trip to the Patagonia Roadside Rest yielded Thick-billed Kingbird, Varied Bunting, Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens, Bell’s Vireo, and Western Tanager. The Rest is a good spot to hear the disjointed, almost bizarre, song of Yellow-breasted Chats.  It sound like about four or five different species are singing instead of one aberrant warbler!

From Patagonia it was on to Madera Canyon.  The very first bird that we saw at Santa Rita Lodge was Plain-capped Starthroat!  This rather drab but strikingly marked hummer has the longest bill of any North American hummingbird.  Everyone got on it, except for one person.  I was mentally pleading with it to show itself again so this person could get some photos.  Sure enough- about 15 minutes later it reappeared any everyone was happy.

We then hiked up the Carrie Nation trail to see if we could get on an Elegant Trogon.  After a long walk, we waited for about 45 minutes without success.  All was not lost, however, as we did see a Western Wood-Pewee on a nest, Greater Pewee, Plumbeous and Hutton’s Vireos, and American Robin.

The next morning, we rose early to head into Montosa Canyon.  We got Rufous-winged Sparrow and several Scaled Quail on the drive in.  We picked up Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, but missed on Black-capped.  There were also no Five-striped Sparrows detected.

After a filling breakfast at the Amado Inn B&B, we headed to Rio Rico, where we added Tropical Kingbird.  There was a flock of about 20 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks hanging out in a pasture with a bunch of cows.

From there, we headed southwest to Pena Blanca Lake.  The area was pretty quiet, but we did see several Western Tanagers, in addition to Vermilion Flycatcher and Blue Grosbeak.


Overall, this tour produced 83 species!




Southwest Wings California Gulch Trip Report

As I have done for the past couple of years, I kicked off the Southwest Wings Festival with an overnight trip to California Gulch.  I was joined by birders from California, Kentucky, Washington, and Tennessee. We left Cochise College on a beautiful summer morning with high expectations and equally high spirits.

Our first stop was on Blue Haven Road in Patagonia.  Here we had Black and Turkey Vultures, Cassin’s Kingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and some others.  From here it is a short walk to the Paton Birding Center, a famous birding spot in southeastern Arizona.  We quickly picked up Violet-crowned Hummingbird, the signature bird for the Center.  We also added Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and other goodies.

We continued down Route 82 to the Patagonia Roadside Rest, where our target was Thick-billed Kingbird.  Success!  We had an adult and a recently fledged juvenile in the same binocular view!  We added Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Bell’s Vireo, and Varied Bunting here as well.

It was on to Kino Springs from Patagonia.  We quickly spotted a juvenile Gray Hawk that was whining constantly for food.  A nearby telephone pole produced an adult that was ignoring the cries of its offspring.  We also picked up Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Barn and Cliff Swallows, and Lazuli Bunting.

By then it was lunchtime, so we headed to Rio Rico and ate in the welcome shade provided by cottonwoods along the Santa Cruz.  While eating we added Abert’s Towhee.  With full bellies, we crossed the river and picked up Tropical Kingbird, which were very vocal.  We also picked up Black-bellied Whistling-Duck here.

Heading north, we checked into the Amado Inn B&B.  Wayne and Jeanene provide excellent accommodations and delicious food, so if you are ever in the area and need a place to stay, definitely check them out.  Plus we added Bronzed Cowbird at their feeders!

We then piled back into the van for the long trek into California Gulch for Five-striped Sparrow.  As we headed west, I noticed that some really dark clouds were building over the Atascosa and Pajarito Mountains.  This was not a positive development, as that was where we were headed.  As we got closer to the Gulch, conditions continued to deteriorate.  As the Pajaritos disappeared from view because of heavy rain, I told the group that we would have to turn back if we hit the storm (I was thinking that being stuck for hours (or days) for one bird was not worth the risk).  The wind picked up and lightning cracked the sky, as rain started to fall.  That was it.  We had to turn around.  In the process of which, I managed to get the van stuck in some deep mud.  Son of a biscuit!  After some hard digging, we managed to free the van and get out before things got really bad.

We retired for dinner to regroup.  As a consolation prize, I offered to take the group owling.  That was met with enthusiasm and we headed out again.  Only to be skunked by the nocturnal birds.  Drat!!

The next morning, before breakfast, we visited the Amado Pond.  Here we added Snowy Egret, Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, and Spotted Sandpiper.  We also got good views of several Black-bellied Whistling-Duck chicks following their parents around the margin of the pond.

After stopping in Montosa Canyon, which was fairly quiet, we went to Madera Canyon.  On the way in we added Botteri’s Sparrow.  At Madera Picnic Area we got Western Wood-Pewee and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher.  From there it was up to do some feeder watching at Santa Rita Lodge.  Within about 20 minutes, we got good views of Plain-capped Starthroat, the star of the trip for some.

We returned to Sierra Vista via Box Canyon Road.  Along the way, a road-crossing Gila Monster provide a good photo-op! We added Hooded Oriole, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and others here.  The best bird was a juvenile Golden Eagle, crying from the top of a cliff before taking wing and majestically sailing over the ridge.

For the trip we ended up with 89 species.  It was a great group and it was great fun being out with them on this tour!

Moths in Tucson Mountain Park

Last night, Julie Strom and I hosted a Nature Nights: Bats and Bugs event at Ironwood Picnic Area in Tucson Mountain Park.  Julie handled the bat portion of the program and I took care of the bugs.  We had a good turnout of people, bats, and bugs!

Julie started things off with a presentation on the diversity and biology of bats.  Once the bats awoke, Julie used a bat detector to help participants appreciate the activity of these remarkable animals.

Insect activity picked up at about the same time as the bats got going.  We had antlions, stinkbugs, a few wasps, and, of course, beetles and moths.  The most popular was the White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata).  I am sure the large size and pink hindwings had something to do with their popularity.

Another popular moth was Euscirrhopterus cosyra. the staghorn cholla moth.  This beauty has broad white stripes on brownish forewings and bright orange hindwings.  This species is somewhat unusual in feeding on the stems of cholla cacti as a caterpillar.  It’s colors are so bright that one of the participants thought it was a butterfly!

Eye-catchingly snow white with black spots, Doa ampla is a member of the Doidae.  This family is sometimes known as the Euphorbia moths because of their caterpillar foodplants.  D. ampla is a striking moth to say the least.

Thanks to all who attended!  It was a beautiful night made better by good people and outstanding animals!DoaAmploaIronwoodPicnicArea25vii14EuscirrhopterusCosyraIronwoodPicnicArea25vii14






Nationl Moth Week is here!

The third annual National Moth Week is here.  Last night the first of my moth nights was held at Middle Bear Picnic Area on Mt. Lemmon in Coronado National Forest.  It was a beautiful night in the cool, pine-scented air at about 5,000 feet elevation.  The moths did not disappoint.

Among the highlights were a couple Bertholdia trigona, a beautiful brownish moth with red highlights, a silver spot bordered in yellow on the forewings, and a pinkish-red abdomen.  This species is a tiger moth, a largely colorful group of moth in the family Erebidae (subfamily Arctiinae).

Another tiger moth to pay a visit was a single Gardinia anopla, a big, metallic blue moth whose caterpillars feed on algae growing on trees.  This moth looks very much like a spider wasp to me.  We did not see this thing fly in, but just as I was getting ready to take the light down, it crawled out from behind the light and dazzled us with its striking coloration.

One of my personal favorites was Callistege intercalaris, a member of the Noctuidae with a unique combination of grayish-brown wing stripes that enclose impossibly black patches.  A remarkable moth that is one of three species in it’s genus in North America.

A late arrival was Phaeoura perfidia, an exceptionally large geometer (Geometeridae).  When it showed up I initially thought that it was a sphinx moth or possibly a silk moth.  It is about three times the size of most other geometers.  The shape though is that of a typical geometer.

We also had White-lined Sphinx moths, many scarab beetles, mantisflies, and many, many other moths.  It was a great night with some truly fantastic insects!  Thanks to all who came out!  CallistegeincalarisMiddleBear20vii14GardinaanoplaMiddleBear20vii14





Another Moth Profile


I have been doing some ‘scouting’ for National Moth Week recently.  Basically, I am setting up a blacklight and see what turns up.  Last night the star of the show was Norape tenera.  Dozens of them showed up at the light.  So, it seemed a good time to talk about these moths a little bit.

First, they have no common name, like the vast majority of moths.  They belong to a group known as flannel moths (Megalopygidae).  One of the most amazing things about these moths concerns their larval stage.  The caterpillars have setae that are often covered by long, silky hairs (which are responsible for the name ‘puss caterpillars’ for the larvae).  The setae can produce rather painful stings.  In my yard the larvae feed on acacias.

N. tenera is one of three species in the genus in western North America.  The flight season of the adults is July through September.  Eleven megalopygids occur in North America.  The species was described in 1897 by Herbert Druce (1846-1913), a British entomologist who did a lot of work on African Lepidoptera.  Somewhat confusingly, there was another British entomologist named Druce, Hamilton Herbert (1869-1922).  The second Druce was an authority on the Lycaenidae (blues, hairstreaks, and coppers).




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