Over the past four years I have been fascinated with the natural wonder that is the southern region of Arizona. In 2013 I watched a few videos on what kind of insect diversity southern Arizona possess and was instantly set on heading out there myself. As an added encouragement to go through with planning a trip to the area, I looked through the moth collection at the Bohart Museum of Entomology and found that there were a ton of different species I could find add to my personal collection. At the time I wasn’t too familiar with the species found in that region, but I utilized both resources on the internet and books to know what species of Lepidoptera could be seen in southern Arizona, in order to prepare myself for the upcoming adventures.
2014: Venturing Into the Land Unknown
After much preparation for my first ever expedition to the southern region of Arizona, I was finally on my way. It had taken about 13+ hours of driving to reach our first destination but it was well worth the wait. Since this was my first year ever exploring the region, it became more of a scouting mission to navigate through the mountain ranges and canyons and find the places we were looking to visit. In addition to this trip being my first time here, the other entomologists who I went with were also first timers to the region, so this was truly an adventure into the unknown.
Due to the fact that I was leading the expedition, I tried to plan visit a good majority of the popular insect rich locations that I had researched before the trip. Our first stop was the Santa Rita Mountains, and in it, the wonderful Madera Canyon. I had researched this location very thoroughly because of its famed reputation by many insect collectors and naturalists.
When I finally made it to the top of the canyon I was blown away by the amazing scenery and the amount of diversity in both flora and fauna. There were bushes filled with flowers and the surrounding environment reminded me of the foothills of the western Sierra Nevada. It wasn’t more than five minutes out of the car and I was already swinging my net around catching everything I could keep my eyes on before getting distracted by something else that I saw. Once I was able to move past the parking lot, I managed to explore the area within the actual canyon and the Mt. Wrightson trailhead. After spending about two hours or so here my group and I decided to head back down the road to the base of the canyon.
We continued down the road until we reached a place called Proctor Picnic Area. On the way to this new location we passed through a few different habitat types. From the top of the canyon it started as a mixed oak/pine forest, and slowly became a mixed oak woodland, dominated by large oaks and sycamore trees. After the oak woodland it became more of an oak savanna and gradually became a more open grassland type habitat with some larger shrubs and mesquite trees mixed in. At the base of the canyon it became more of a desert/thorny shrubland until much farther down the road passed the Proctor area it was predominantly desert, lacking the grassland type vegetation.
This Proctor area we visited was in a transition zone between the desert grassland and oak woodland, so there were some larger trees scattered in the area along with very large thorny shrubs, tall grass, and mesquite trees. This unique mix of habitat types held a surprisingly different diversity of insects than that of the area near the Mt. Wrightson trailhead.
This canyon lived up to its reputation and I was amazed at the amount of different species that were new to me and the others I was with. Higher up in the canyon I found insects such as Dull firetip skippers, Pipevine swallowtails, soldier beetles, pleasing fungus beetles, cloudless sulfur butterflies, Zela metalmarks, tachinid flies, and assassin bugs, just to name a few. The insects that I found closer to the bottom of the canyon in the Proctor area however, were much different. There I saw tarantula hawk wasps, wood-boring beetles, longhorn beetles, Queen butterflies, velvet ants, rainbow scarab beetles, and very large robber flies.
2014 was much drier year than I anticipated, but it being my first time ever visiting this place, I didn’t care all that much. Also, despite being a drier year, the abundance of insects in the region was in no way “less than normal”. Collecting in other canyons during this trip such as Florida Canyon, Box Canyon, Peña Blanca Canyon, Garden Canyon, and Carr Canyon, proved to me that in other locations the drier weather did not affect the insect abundance at all, both during the day and at night.
Both Florida Canyon and Box Canyon were similar to each other habitat wise and the overall vegetation consisted mainly of mixed grassland, small thorny shrubs, and cacti, with a nearby riparian/oak woodland. There were not as many insects here as I had hoped, but that was mainly due to the very open and hot environment around the trail.
Peña Blanca Canyon was also somewhat dry and had less flowering plants than the last few places we visited but it was no less satisfying to be there. The area was mostly an oak woodland that followed a dry creek bed, which was also bordered by a mixed grassland and desert shrubland. The one plant that dominated the second habitat type was Ocotillo, which is a very tall and very thorny plant, that flowers when the summer rains come. Each of these areas all had a very interesting set of insects and plants that made the experience all the more enjoyable.
Both Garden and Carr canyons were a much different experience habitat wise than all the previous canyons we had visited. These canyons were part of the Huachuca Mountains, which are farther east than the Santa Rita Mountains, and closer to the southern border of the state. Also, I believe the reason the habitat was so different from the other mountain range we visited was due to the fact that both Garden and Carr canyons were on the eastern side of the mountains, unlike Madera, Florida, and Box Canyons which were on the western side of the Santa Ritas.
The difference in the overall environment is most likely the reason for the stark difference in insect diversity. Garden Canyon was dominated mostly by a mixed oak and juniper forest. As I proceeded up the canyon I noticed a very gradual change in vegetation. The oaks stayed constant all the way up the canyon, but other trees and plants became noticeable, such as Sycamore trees, Agave, small cacti, Arizona walnut, and tall grass. There were some other large bushes and shrubs that also appeared going up the canyon but I was unable to properly identify them.
Now back to the insects. Their was a whole new slew of different species I had not encountered in Santa Ritas but were abundant here in the Huachucas. Insects such as cicada killer wasps, blister beetles, metallic click beetles, tiger swallowtails, bordered patch butterflies, flower beetles, shield bugs, and carpenter bees. It was incredible to almost feel as if you were transported to an entirely new state because of the difference in habitat types and insect/plant diversity. I was glad this was the last part of the trip for 2014 because it was such a wonderful end to an already spectacular adventure.
After successfully visiting all the places I had selected for the excursion, I felt that the whole adventure was a phenomenal success. By the time my group and I were leaving the state I was already thinking of what kind of trip the next year will hold, and because of this overwhelming curiosity to explore more, this ended up becoming the first year of the annual Expeditions to Arizona.