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28 September 2010

Gray Hawks of San Pedro

Gray Hawks (Asturina nitida) are some of the rarest hawks of the United States.  Their native range barely touches southeastern Arizona and the Big Bend and Brownsville areas of Texas.  In SE Arizona, I've had the pleasure of spotting pairs of Gray Hawks at San Pedro (early September) and also near the Patagonia-Sonoita Preserve.

Gray Hawk
Gray Hawk
The hawks call is quite distinctive, a mournful, or at least plaintive, repeated whistle.  I got to hear it frequently as they circled overhead at San Pedro.

Gray Hawk
Gray Hawk
Unfortunately, the photos weren't great as they only took flight for a few minutes, and I had to find clearings among the trees.  But they do show the banded tail, which combined with the call and some observation with binoculars, confirmed the identification.

The Gray Hawk is a unique species that used to be considered a Buteo, but also has some Accipter characteristics. It is now in a genus of its own. It primarily eats lizards, but various references indicate it will occasionally capture birds and frogs as well.

24 September 2010

Southwestern Fence Lizard

The following lizard is certainly a Sceloporus species, and I believe it to be a Southwestern Fence Lizard, Sceloporus cowlesi. It was spotted near the San Pedro House in the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area.

Southwestern Fence Lizard
Southwestern Fence Lizard
These lizards are said to be almost indistinguishable from the Plateau Lizard, Sceloporus tristichus, so I'm relying on the known ranges for this identification, according to A Field Guide To Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona.

21 September 2010

Sleepy Orange

The Sleepy Orange butterfly (Abaeis nicippe) is a common southern butterfly whose larval foodplant are sennas (one of the reasons I'm planning to add Desert Senna to my garden).  They typically sit with their wings closed,providing a view of a pale yellow coloration.  I was lucky at San Pedro and caught a nice view of its wings open.  Unfortunately, it was a good 20 feet or more away, but the photo is usable none-the-less.

Sleepy Orange Butterfly
Sleepy Orange at San Pedro

17 September 2010

White Tailed Deer

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Ramsey Canyon was a small group of White Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) wandering near the stream.  A monsoon thunderstorm had just meandered through the canyon, and it was clear that the deer had gotten a bit wet.

The entire group (appeared to be two females and one fawn) had very little fear of me and another hiker nearby, and continued to graze on some of the grasses growing in the wooded canyon.

White Tailed Deer
White tailed Deer (fawn)


White-tailed deer while not uncommon in Arizona, are not nearly the common siting as in much of the Eastern USA.  In fact, I've seen many more Mule Deer in Arizona than white tailed.  The range of the White tailed pokes into southeast Arizona and up through the Mogollon Rim country and into the Grand Canyon area of Northern AZ.  Mule Deer, on the other hand, inhabit most of Arizona, including some lower desert areas.

In Ramsey Canyon it is unlikely that these deer have any consistent predators.  Occasionally Black Bears are seen in the canyon, but they typically leave deer alone.  Mountain lions are also very rarely seen, which would probably represent the primary threat to these deer.

14 September 2010

Queen Pupa

Another great day in the backyard, where a Yellow Warbler and Black Phoebe came to visit, a Giant Swallowtail fluttered through, and one of my Queen larvae entered its chrysalis (aka pupa) stage.  I quick inspection at dusk didn't turn up any other larvae or pupa, but it was quickly getting dark, so they could easily be overlooked.

Queen Butterfly Pupa
Queen Butterfly Pupa
I suppose this post could be considered part 3 of a Queen Butterfly series, with part 1 showing an adult and part 2 the caterpillar/larvae.

One interesting feature of both Monarch and Queen butterfly pupa is the gold stripes and spots, evident in both photos here.  As far as I've been able to research, there are no clear conclusions as to why these gold spots exist.  The color is not a pigment, but rather iridescence.  One study I found reference to believes that these spots somehow tie to scale production and coloration of the butterfly.  If anyone has better information please post a comment!
Queen Butterfly Pupa - close-up of gold iridescence

12 September 2010

Queen Larva

Queen Butterfly Larva
Queen Butterfly Larva
While many butterflies actively lay eggs during many times of the year, it seems that late summer and early autumn is the peak of activity. My recent trip to San Pedro last week turned up many caterpillars and larvae, as did the trip to Boyce Thompson two weeks ago. Even in my back yard there is a nice batch of Queen Butterfly larvae.

Just like in adult form, the larval form of the queen looks very similar to a Monarch.  And like the Monarch, they are fond of Milkweeds.  These larvae in my backyard in Maricopa were found on a Mexican Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica), which is also sometimes called Mexican Milkweed.  We'd planted Mexican Bloodflower both because of its excellent flowers, which butterflies seem to like, but also because of the attraction that Queens and Monarchs have to it.

Queen Butterfly Caterpillar
Queen Butterfly Larva
As mentioned in my last Queen post, the attraction to Milkweed is believed to be because it results in a toxic build-up in the larva and ultimately in the adult butterfly.  Birds and other predators have learned about this and typically leave the burnt-orange colored butterflies alone.

Hopefully the caterpillars in my yard will survive to the next stage (pupa, or chrysalis; not cocoon, which is specific to moths), but unfortunately the Milkweed that these larvae are on is not in great shape, and has been struggling to survive the summer.  I've been considering relocating a few of the caterpillars to a healthier milkweed.

Update: The caterpillars did progress to chrysalis - see the Queen Pupa post for more.

10 September 2010

Western Pondhawk

The San Pedro River is a rare river indeed - it originates in Mexico and flows northward into the USA. Given its trajectory and that it rarely dries up it provides a corridor for many neotropical species of plants, animals, and insects to move into Arizona. it is a great draw for amateur naturalists and hikers alike, and the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area (SPNRCA) helps to preserve its future.

San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area (SPNRCA) is a hotbed for snakes, lizards, and birds. And to many people's surprise, it is an excellent location to observe unique dragonflies. The river itself provides excellent habitat for dragonflies that tend to like moving water, and there are spots where small ponds provide additional habitat for other species.

I took a quick trip to the SPRNCA last weekend, and my casual observation noted 4 or 5 dragonfly species, most of which are difficult to photograph as they rarely if ever stop to perch. The Western Pondhawk (Erythemis collocata) is an exception in that it will perch for a few seconds now and again.

Western Pondhawk Dragonfly
Western Pondhawk (male)
The male Western Pondhawk is relatively easy to identify with its blue body, turquoise eyes, and green face.  Females are also distinctive, though generally green in color.  It is in the skimmer family, and is a rather large dragonfly.  The males tend to patrol small lakes and ponds and perch low on sticks or even on the ground at times.

The Western Pondhawk range extends from Mexico through the southwest USA, and up into the southern reaches of British Columbia.  Note that while there is little overlap with the similar Eastern Pondhawk, there are a number of intermediate/hybrid pondhawks, even in Arizona.  There is still some controversy over whethr these "intermediates" that show features of both Eastern and Western pondhawks are truly hybrids, a separate species, or just a normal variance.

07 September 2010

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

Update: January 24, 2011:
I missed posting this to Macro Monday by a day when I first posted this (I guess I forgot what day it was), and it has always bugged me. Hopefully no one minds using this old post for the January 24 Macro Monday!

Ramsey Canyon in the Arizona Huachuca mountains is world renowned for its diversity of life. The majority of the attention it receives is on the large number of hummingbird species that frequent the area, as well as a number of other bird and butterfly species that are difficult to find anywhere else in the USA outside of the 'sky islands'.

However, one of my favorite endemic species is the Yarrow's Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii). This lizard is confined to specific habitats in the sky islands, making it a rarity of sorts. However, when in the correct habitat they are easy to find and generally relatively tame.
Yarrow's Spiny Lizard
This lizard let me snap over 30 shots from various angles, allowing me to get the one above showing off the blue throat and the various other colors of its scales.  In fact, I was so close that I was at the limit of the close-focus capability of my 300mm F/4 lens.

The Yarrow's Spiny Lizard is most likely to be seen near creek beds in rocky canyons, such as Madera Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, Miller Canyon, etc.
Yarrow's Spiny Lizard may be casually confused with other similar sized Sceloporus species, but the best distinguishing field mark is a black collar that is usually plainly evident.  Both of the above photos show this feature.

04 September 2010

Empress Leilia Butterfly

No sooner than I comment that I've never seen an Empress Leilia (Asterocampa leilia) on my Desert Hackberry (Celtis pallida) yet this year than one shows up, and soon joined by a second.

Empress Leilia Butterfly


These should be quite common on the Desert Hackberry, which is the butterfly's larval food.  The male Empress Leilia often wit on or near the Hackberry in wait for a female to come by to deposit eggs .

Like many butterflies, the Empress Leilia is much more colorful with its wings expanded.


Empress Leilia Butterfly
The above photo was taken the previous day at Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ.  It is clear that this is a much more colorful butterfly than the top photo would initially indicate - even though this butterfly is clearly quite worn.  Its left wing has several chunks missing, which is typical of a butterfly of a week or two weeks age.  It's a tough life!

03 September 2010

A Neon Dragonfly

One of the highlights of any southern Arizona nature outing is seeing the showy Neon Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula croceipennis) patrolling streams and rivers. Its neon red coloring really catches your eye, and the fact that it is considered a large dragonfly helps it stand out further.
Neon Skimmer


This Neon Skimmer was seen at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in their demonstration garden area near a small man-made stream.  And for as red as the above picture looks (click on it for a full size view), its back-side (top-side) is even brighter.  Unfortunately I was only able to snap a photo of its top side from a great distance.

Neon Skimmer is a species unique to the southwest, though it can occur as far east as east Texas, and as far north as central California near the Sierra Nevada mountains.  And there are a number of other colorful red skimmers that could be mistaken at casual glance, including Flame Skimmer and Roseate Skimmer.

01 September 2010

Golden Paper Wasp

I had a wonderful look at what I believe to be a Golden Paper Wasp while on a recent trip to Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, AZ.
Golden Paper Wasp, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, AZ

Golden Paper Wasp (genus Polistes) is very common in much of Arizona, though I'm not certain of the exact species.  As always, comments are welcome with suggestions of the proper species identification.


The above photo was taken with my 300mm f/4L IS lens at F/4.5.  I'm always impressed with the ability of my 300mm F/4 to perform in pseudo-macro roles.  While at Boyce Thompson, I alternated between my 100mm F/2.8 macro and this lens, and I must say that I prefer the 300mm in most cases as it gives a better working distance.  If I couple the 300mm with an extension tube
or two for closer focus, my 100mm is relegated to indoor super macro work.