Following the success of the 2014 trip, I put together another expedition to visit southern Arizona for a second time. This time I had chosen to spend about 2-3 days exploring some of the locations from the previous trip, that way I could see the difference between the two years in terms of insect diversity. So, for the 2015 trip I decided to only explore both the Santa Rita Mountains and the Atascosa Highlands, and revisit the canyons I had been to in 2014. I felt I had not completely explored these regions previously and as the 2015 trip progressed, I soon realized how much I had missed.
2015: A Place Both Familiar and Unfamiliar
Following the success of the trip to southern Arizona in 2014, I organized the second annual expedition to Arizona and decided to bring along a new group of eager entomologists. However, instead of going straight to the campsite we decided to take a small detour to the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. Since none of us had ever been there, we did not know what to expect and therefore kept our eyes open for anything that might make us revert back to our younger selves.
The side trip to the Desert Botanical Gardens ended up being a lot of fun and a very worthwhile adventure. We were able to see hundreds of different desert plant species and to our surprise, a good majority of them were blooming! The countless number of different cacti that were present and labeled here was astounding. We all learned quite a bit of information about the Sonoran Desert and the plants and animals that are endemic to the region. While walking around the garden and admiring all the wonderful desert plants, we found quite a few insects hanging around the flowers of blooming cacti and were pleased to see a good number of different species. After completing the loop around the gardens we decided to continue to our first destination, the Santa Rita Mountains.
On our way south to our destination we were met with dark clouds and a lot of rain. At first it seemed as though we were going to be dealing with thunderstorms all the way to our campsite in Madera Canyon but to our relief the storms had already passed over that area and were beginning to clear up once we arrived. That evening the group an I quickly set up our campsite at the Bog Springs Campground and proceeded to eat dinner as fast as we could so that e had enough time to set up the black light. Once all our dishes were cleaned and put away, I quickly pulled out the black light equipment and set up a white sheet between two nearby trees. I then placed the small black light over the top of the sheet so that it would hang down in front of it. As soon as the set up was complete I immediately started up the generator and plugged in the black light.
Within minutes insects began to show up to appear on the sheet and the insect hunt for the Arizona 2015 trip had now started. The usual species came to the sheet including a few small Noctuid moths, Chrysina gloriosa, Hyles lineata, and some true bugs that I later identified as Miridae. After about an hour of black lighting we decided to turn the light off and explore the area around the campsite to see what kinds of creatures were crawling about in the grass and bushes. To our surprise we found a few species of darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae), some small scorpions, and around two or three millipedes. We ended up calling it a night after that because we all knew we had a big day ahead of us and needed all the rest we could get.
Our first stop on this adventure was at the top of Madera Canyon near the parking lot for the Mt. Wrightson trail-head area. Even though I was visiting the same place again it felt as though I was visiting for the first time. This year was already much wetter in comparison to the previous year and because of this a lot of this were much different about the surrounding vegetation and insect species present. The area around the trail-head parking area was still wet from the rain the day before and rosemary had taken the place of the desert Ceanothus that had been there in 2014. The “dry” creek that was near the parking lot was most definitely not dry anymore and in fact was flowing pretty swiftly.
In this creek area I managed to find a number of different plant and insects that I never saw the previous year. Some of the insects I found were Papilio multicaudata (Two-tailed Swallowtail), Adelpha eulalia (Arizona Sister Butterfly), Corixids, Notonectids, Libellulids, Pentatomids, and a few different species of Hesperiidae. As far as plants go, there were a multitude of different wild flowers and hidden underneath the flowers and grass were some small cacti. The area remained a predominantly oak and pine mixed forest but along the creek there were some sycamore trees and smaller willows mixed in as well. Overall, this area had transformed into a completely different place from what I remembered during the 2014 trip and I was excited to continue exploring the area next on our list.
After some brief rainstorms and a quick lunch we made it to the Proctor Picnic area. During the previous year I had discovered a trail that was alongside a waterfall and some small pools of water with a few cool creatures swimming around inside them. In 2015 however, the once dry waterfall and small pools were now a strong flowing creek and very refreshing waterfall. Before we explored this new-found waterfall area, we thoroughly explored the location labeled “Proctor Picnic Area”.
This familiar place had also undergone significant changes from the previous year and felt almost brand new. There were blooming Velvet Pod Mimosa (Mimosa dysocarpa) everywhere and many of the mesquite trees were covered in giant mesquite bugs. The grass surrounding the picnic area was now a bright green instead of a more yellowish color as well. Other thorny shrubs in the area were now had small yellow flowers that were frequently visited by bees, wasps, and a slew of other insects. Species I had never seen before were now common and appearing all over the area. I managed to see or collect the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), the Southern Dogface (Zerene cesonia), and Phanaeus quadridens, just to name a few.
As we wrapped up in the Proctor area around the parking lot, we then trekked through the “Proctor trail” to the area near the waterfall I mentioned earlier. The trail continued down along the waterfall and ended in a large riparian habitat lined with very large sycamore trees and oaks. The “almost dry” pools and trickle of a waterfall were now quick-moving and flowing steadily. The riparian habitat was a completely new experience and housed some amazing diversity. Tall bushes of flowering plants lined the creek below the waterfall and surrounding the bushes were smaller wild flowers teeming with insect activity. A good amount of bird species were also present, along with some cool amphibians like the Canyon Tree frog.
Another difference about this year from the last was that there was an incredible amount of different blooming wildflowers and desert plants. Because of this wide array of nectar sources, an outstanding amount of insect species had gathered in the area, making for a great collecting day and photo shoot. Quite a few of the plants around the area belonged to the genus Baccharis, which are notorious for attracting impressive amounts of insects wherever they grow. This abundance of flowers attracted insects such as Metalmark butterflies (Rhiodinidae), digger bees, leaf-cutter bees, sweat bees, Swallowtail butterflies, blister beetles, flower beetles, flower scarabs, small wood-boring beetles, shield bugs, assassin bugs, hover flies, and day flying moths. This small riparian was by far one of my favorite places of both this trip and the previous one, but little did I know there was much, much more in store for me and my group.
After fully exploring the regions at the top and bottom of Madera Canyon, we then set our sights on the Florida Canyon/Box Canyon Road area. Despite having some light showers dampen the insect activity just a little, we had finally made it to the Florida Canyon trail head. From here we followed the canyon trail, which coincidentally runs parallel to the Santa Rita Experimental Range Station, to a number of interesting habitats that housed an interesting diversity of insects and plants.
At the entrance of the canyon we were surrounded by large oak trees and a wide variety of thorny bushes and cacti. As we moved further into the canyon we passed by a number of cacti species and eventually crossed the creek that was flowing parallel to the trail. The creek itself had a wonderful diversity of aquatic insect species including Belostomatids (Toe biters), Corixids (water boatmen), Notonectids (backswimmers), and Gyrinids (whirligig beetles).
Eventually we came to a part of the trail that was completely over grown with wild cotton and could no longer continue forward. It was a little unfortunate we couldn’t explore anymore of the canyon but to our surprise we came across a very rare creature. I found the very large caterpillar of the beautiful Splendid royal moth (Citheronia splendens sinaloensis) casually feeding on the wild cotton that completely surrounded us at one point on the trail. It was a wonderful find that was quickly followed up by some other great finds as we exited the canyon. As we were leaving the canyon we came across cactus weevils (Cactophagus spinolae), cactus longhorn beetles (Moneilema sp.), and a bush filled with net-winged beetles (Lycidae).
The next day we continued our adventure and embarked to Peña Blanca Lake, which is tucked away in the Atascosa Highlands northeast of Nogales Arizona. In the previous year, this part of the trip was by far the driest and had the least amount of daytime insect activity. During 2015 however, it was the complete opposite in both of those categories and I was excited to see what was in store for my group and I.
Upon arrival to our campsite we quickly set up our tents, had lunch, and then immediately began to explore the area. We came across an amazing amount of insects, plants, and other wildlife. There were many flowering plants and cacti in bloom and because of that, the large amount of insect activity was no surprise. The insects ranged from butterflies to bees and from flies to beetles, making this previously insect “lacking” area teaming with species to be found. Another surprise to my group and I were the number of snakes we found in the entire area we were exploring. Fortunately for us a Herpetologist was camping next to us and was able to catch and identify the snakes he found, as well as the ones we pointed out.
For the last part of our long and amazing adventure I decided to take the group to a place unknown to all of us. Sycamore Canyon is a very well-known place to many different types of scientists and is also known for its abundance in insect and plant diversity, particularly that of the nocturnal insect diversity at the black light. After a somewhat quick and bumpy drive on dirt roads, we made it to our destination. The canyon itself is not very expansive, but because of its location in between a few small mountains, a pristine riparian and open grassland habitat can be found here.
We explored as much of this area as we could before the sun began to go down. At least four to five hours went by before it was time to pack up and head back to camp, but not before seeing some incredible amounts of species diversity. Walking through the riparian habitat allowed us to see a wonderful array of butterflies pollinating the flowers that were blooming all along the small creek. From swallowtails to sulfurs, the amount of new butterflies we continued to see was incredible. I was particularly excited due to the abundance of caterpillars that I had never seen before. We managed to come across bees, wasps, beetles, flies, grasshoppers, katydids, true bugs, and even caddisflies all through the area. It was a very satisfying and uplifting end to the long adventure this 2015 trip to Arizona.
This entire expedition was a resounding success and everyone who was part of this adventure still expresses their enjoyment about it to this day. 2015 was a very interesting year in southern Arizona for me and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I only wished that we would have spent more time down there, as with any amazing excursion similar to this one. I saw an unimaginable amount of flora and fauna diversity and was excited to plan the third annual trip to Arizona in 2016. Due to the fact that both the 2014 and 2015 trips were to the same locations, I planned to choose another place to explore for 2016 and thus the third annual expedition to Arizona was set.