Megadiversity of Moths

Oculea Moth up close. Photo by Quill Anderson

The scene:  The Madrean Sky Islands, an archipelago of dozens of mountain ranges that unify the spirits of the Rockies and the Sierra Madre, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts.  This is a land of astonishing diversity by almost any measure.  The following story is based on a visit more than a decade ago to the Ash Canyon property of Noel McFarland in the SE part of the Huachucas, a range noted for abundant and varied birds, mammals, and reptiles.

But birds, mammals, and herps are not why I came to see Noel McFarland.  He is a collector of diversity with a twist all his own.  McFarland knows moths.  I follow him through several rooms where he works.  Noel collects more than moths, it seems, and twenty years’ accumulation of boxes, books, papers, and other memorabilia fills his spaces the way floral diversity fills a rainforest.  Continue reading

Bats, Cuckoos, and Happiness

Granite Dome at sunset

After a day spent mostly at the computer screen, I need to stretch.  Granite Dells stretches me, pulls me irresistibly into the mazes of outcrops and canyons, especially appealing when thunderheads have finished their rumbling and are sailing away across the heavens, mission accomplished.

I head toward Granite Creek, its cottonwoods pulsing with the choruses of strident cicadas.  Though monsoon storms have been modest at best in this neighborhood, the weeds, native and otherwise, are dense and lush.  Fortunately, mosquito populations here are lower than last year, and as long as I keep moving, I avoid serious blood-letting.

There are signs here indicating that this is a restoration area, and the twenty-foot cottonwoods and shorter velvet ash and hackberry trees are evidence that recovery is occurring.  A developer had grand plans for this area, and he drained a small recreational lake that had been used by residents and tourists alike in the “good old days” of early Prescott.  He also cut out the willows and cottonwoods that framed the pond and leveled the whole works for his development.  There were plans for a bridge across Granite Creek where now there is a fair-weather ford—a  bridge that might have impeded Wood Ducks and Black-Hawks as they flew up and downstream searching for food.  With money pouring from his deep pockets and machines moving the earth with seeming impunity, he didn’t take one thing into account: his development was right next to the property of one of the Dells’ most colorful characters, Happy Heavenly Oasis (no, this is not a pseudonym).  Continue reading

Surprises

Rodeo grounds open space, Prescott, Arizona

Surprises.

A friend of mine sent me a newspaper clipping and asked “What the heck is going on here?”  Entitled “ ‘ Porpoisidal’ Dolphins,” the article quotes some marine mammal researchers who witnessed “violent and fatal” attacks by bottlenose dolphins on harbor porpoises.  They were baffled that one marine mammal would attack and kill others not likely to be direct competitors, but they speculated that high levels of testosterone might have been involved.

It’s challenging to evaluate such reports because of our human perspectives.  We shake our heads at human gang-rapes and shooting sprees, somewhat comforted that these are aberrations even among humans.  We accept the range of human variability without recognizing anything similar among other animals.  Then some researchers discover panicidal (murderous) chimps or individual baboons that stalk and kill young antelope.  Then there is Fifi, behaving just fine at home but becoming a raging pack animal out to kill when running loose with other “domestic” dogs.  These are perhaps the flip side of cases where the lion lies down with the lamb, where the tiger mother raises piglets or the she-wolf raises a feral boy.  You can advance hypotheses about the overwhelming strength of maternal instincts or the corrupting influence of testosterone; some may prove true, others not.  The interesting thing is that we are surprised.     Continue reading

Borderlands Musings

Cajon Bonito in Sonora in August 2011

BORDERLANDS MUSINGS
By Walt Anderson
Four decades ago, I was a grad student in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Well before Arizona gained its strong reputation as a hotspot for American birding, there was a small community of birders who sought out the neotropical specialties that crossed the border and the eastern vagrants that popped up now and then in desert oases. There were seasoned experts like Gale Monson, whose knowledge of Southwest birds was encyclopedic, and ragtag graduate students like Carroll Littlefield, an expert on Sandhill Cranes, and Ted Parker, later considered by many as the superstar of birders and field ornithologists. There was none of the competitive, obsessive listing that later infected the birding world, a narrow-minded focus on seeing and ticking off species as fast as possible, the interest in each bird satisfied by a mere checkmark. No, these were naturalist birders, keen observers who sought to learn about the entire ecosystems in which birds were a part. Where a bird nested, what it ate, how it migrated or molted—such were the questions that occupied the curiosities of this generation of field biologists.

Whenever possible, we would load up a tank of gas at twenty-some cents per gallon and take off to one of our favorite oases, ostensibly to bird, but even more so to explore wild places and experience the joys of discovery in nature. Often our paths took us through the dusty border town of Douglas, Arizona under the appalling smokestacks of Phelps Dodge, then likely the largest single point-source of pollution in the Southwest, if not America as a whole. Continuing east along teeth-chattering gravel roads, we passed through the “malpai” badlands of rocky hills, creosote bush, ocotillo, and occasional flash-flood-prone desert washes. We’d pass the old ranch of Texas John Slaughter, where we’d stop to glass for whistling ducks, Neotropic Cormorants, Vermilion Flycatchers, and other oasis birds drawn to the artesian springs there (later much of this became the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge established primarily to help save native fishes of the Rio Yaqui watershed).

Our final destination lay at the end of the road just into New Mexico right where that state intersects with Arizona and Sonora: a green finger of Mexican riparian woodland, Guadalupe Canyon. We would stop up at the Magoffin ranch house to pay our respects and get their generous permission; then we’d explore the main canyon of large cottonwoods and sycamores and venture up thorny side washes for arid-adapted specialties. At night, we would listen and watch for the Ridgeway’s Whip-poor-will (now called Buff-collared Nightjar), one of the species that barely entered the United States at this point.

We were certainly aware of the proximity of Mexico, but only because we could count birds seen on this side of the weak barbed-wire fence for our U.S. list. At night as we lay in sleeping bags under the canopy of trees and the overarching dome of stars in an unpolluted sky, we might awaken to the footsteps and breathing of men, usually alone or with one companion, heading north to work, seeking employment opportunities that were unavailable south of the border. We might meet them at dusk or in early morning, where a polite exchange of “Buenos Dias” or “Hola” along with shy smiles would be the extent of our interchange.   Continue reading