I decided to use up some airline miles before they expired by doing a week of combined birding and butterflying in southeast Arizona. I knew it would be early for most butterflies, but there had been some recent sightings, and the birds were pretty awesome, so I booked a couple of days in Madera Canyon in the extreme south and a couple days in Scottsdale to be near the eastern mountains.
I’ve already posted about the first stop on the trip en route to Madera, at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, where there were a couple of butterflies on the wing. So my hopes were pretty high heading even farther south, but what I didn’t count on was how atypically wet Boyce Thompson is compared with the rest of southeast Arizona. And it’s been an exceptionally dry winter, with no recent rains.
Even in the Santa Rita Mountains, where Madera Canyon is located, it’s been quite dry and cool. Madera Creek, which runs through the mountains, was flowing well, but there were exceptionally few nectar sources. So I turned my attention those first couple of days to birds and birding.
Not to bury the lede (in newspaper terms) but I was successful in seeing an elusive male Elegant Trogon that had been all the buzz among birders when I arrived. It led trogon-chasers on a merry scramble through extensive mesquite and scrub under junipers, and from sycamore to sycamore along Madera Creek, before everyone but me gave up. Perseverence paid off (so did risking death by cholla cactus in the shorts I was wearing) and I had about a half hour of alone time with this amazing cousin of the quetzal. He proved very confiding once the crowds of people with bazooka-sized telephoto lenses left; this photo is from very close up with my little point-and-shoot Lumix.
No, it isn’t a butterfly, but there is a butterfly story here. This is an Elegant Trogon that has been hanging out in Madera Canyon, Pima Co AZ [2018 MAR 05, photo by REB]
There is of course that old adage that life is the route, not the destination, and this is often true in natural history as well. Though I had searched in vain for the previous two days for one of my target butterflies for the trip, Desert Marble (aka Pearly Marble in the Glassberg lexicon), I had pretty much given up on seeing it this trip. But good things come to all who wait, and while I was waiting on the trogon’s next appearance (and watching a Red-naped Sapsucker whack away on an oak), something white fluttered by and landed literally at my feet. And while it took off before I could get a shot of its underside, the dorsal view of this Desert Marble in this environment is diagnostic, and you can even see the marbling on the underwing through the dorsum!
Desert Marble at about 5,000 feet elevation in Madera Canyon. Note the faint watermark of the “marbling” showing through from the ventral hindwing. [2018 MAR 05, Pima Co AZ, photo by REB]
And that was the last butterfly I saw in Madera Canyon. But on my last day before headed up to Scottsdale, I hiked up nearby Florida (pron. Flo-REE-dah in these parts) Canyon, mostly with a pair of Rufous-capped Warblers in mind (they proved to be a no-show for me) But also I went up the Florida trail in the hope that the translation “flowered” from the Spanish would prove apt and that wildflowers would be attracting butterflies. It did — sort of. There were a few flowers out, notably Fairy Duster, Calliandra eriophylla
. But there was also a good bit of damp sand along the creek trickling down the canyon, and that’s where I found my first and best butterfly of the day (and the second of my five Grail species for the trip), Golden-headed Scallopwing.
Golden-headed Scallopwing at the base of Florida Canyon, Santa Cruz Co, AZ. This dime-sized skipper looks a lot like our mid-Atlantic Hayhurst’s that dipped its palpi into some gold leaf. [2018 MAR 07, photo by REB]
There were other butterflies, too; a Southern Dogface racing up the canyon, and a handful of Pipevine Swallowtails. In AZ as here in the East, Pipevine is a very early swallowtail. And there was a duskywing of some kind patrolling a stretch of the narrow trail that defied my attempts to ID or photograph it. At several spots along the creek, though, damp soil held Southwestern Azures (the cinerea
ssp of Echo Azure, Celastrina echo
), all of which bested my photographic powers.
Giving up on the warblers, I started my descent back down the canyon and spent about 20 minutes trying to get a bead on a hairstreak zipping around in the oak canopy. Never did, but a few minutes later snagged this mystery lycaenid (?hairstreak) on the afore-mentioned Calliandra. It’s worn almost to the point of transparency, and best I can figure is a likely candidate for Sylvan Hairstreak, Satyrium sylvinus itys, though well out of its normal flight period. Suggestions on ID most welcome! [Update: some LepLog readers also suggest this could be a worn azure, which makes more sense given the time and location]
Mystery hairstreak on buds of Fairy Duster. Possibly a Sylvan Hairstreak, Satyrium sylvinus itys? [2-18 MAR 07, Florida Canyon, Santa Cruz Co AZ, photo by REB]
My last day in the extreme southeast I had planned to spend time at the famous (to birders) Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia AZ to spot a rare Violet-crowned Hummingbird. En route I stopped off at another likely-sounding butterfly spot, Sonoita Creek Preserve, where a post on NABA’s Recent Sightings page a week or so previously had a good but short list of butterflies on some variety of ragwort. So I set off on a VERY LONG walk through the desert on a very hot March day in search of the creek and then for what I imagined would be fields of ragwort (which is how we see it here in the East). An hour later I was still trudging about in the ocotillo and cacti.
My expectations of butterflies were low after trekking through ocotillo forest for an hour.
When I did find the creek, it was mostly a dry wash. And no nectar in sight. Far off in the distance, on a dry bank of a feeder creek, I spotted ONE tall shrub that — being the only nectar game in town — had quite the little coterie of butterflies. On inspection, there were only two butterfly species: the nearly ubiquitous Pipevine Swallowtail, and clouds of Texan Crescents.
Pipevine Swallowtail on what turned out to be a very different kind of ragwort than I am familiar with here in the East, the tall, woody shrub Barkley’s Ragwort. [2018 MAR 06, Sonoita Creek Preserve, photo by REB]
There were literally dozens of Texan Crescents on a couple of shrub ragworts at the end of Blackhawk Canyon Trail where it meets Sonoita Creek Trail in the Sonoita Creek Preserve. [2018 MAR 06, Sonoita Creek Preserve, photo by REB]
I eventually uncovered a couple more of these tall, rangy ragworts, including one very near the intersection of Blackhawk Canyon Trail and Sonoita Creek Trail that held half a dozen American Snouts, not surprising because the low creek bottom at this point was still rather moist and supported lots of hackberries (the Snout’s larval host). And the third target butterfly of the trip, a metalmark! In this case, Zela Metalmark, Emesis zela
One of half a dozen American Snouts on a ragwort shrub. [2018 MAR 06, Sonoita Creek Preserve, photo by REB]
Target butterfly 3 of 5 on this Arizona trip, Zela Metalmark (note the black splotch on the DFW). [2018 MAR 06, Sonoita Creek Preserve, photo by REB]
And that’s about it for Arizona butterflies on this expedition. Despite the great recommendations of veteran members of the Central Arizona Butterfly Club Janet Witzeman and Ron Rutowski, the season was too early and the desert too dry around Phoenix and Scottsdale to yield more than a few more dogfaces, pipevines, and a probable buckeye. And I left two of my original targets on the table for the next trip — Mormon Metalmark and the ‘Pima’ variation of Sara Orangetip. And more birds to go back for too (although I did get the Violet-crowned!).