Rocky Mountain High - The End

Mark Walker MWalker at
Sun Aug 18 17:44:24 EDT 2002

Ken Davenport commented on my less than successful 2nd-to-the-last vacation
day, and asked if that was the way my vacation could possibly end.  Sadly,
many of my adventures do end just like that - though I haven't actually
ended up in jail yet (well, not since I was 16 - but that's a story better
suited for an evening around Leroy's moth sheet).  God is good, and though I
needed a little humbling, it would turn out in the end that this Rocky
Mountain High adventure was not going to end on such a frustrating note. In
fact, I had no idea what fantastic surprises lied just hours ahead.
We stayed in Gallup, New Mexico on Thursday, arriving very late - but not
too late to enjoy a much needed limeade from Sonic.  Now this is true
refreshment.  Too bad we don't have any Sonics in California.
On Friday, August 2, we awoke to dismal weather - and the rain followed us
all the way into Arizona.  Our destination for the evening was Tucson, where
we were planning on hooking up with Bill Mooney to do some twilight lepping
(it's moth season in SE Arizona).  As always, I chose as roundabout a
driving plan as I could muster.  No sense in sticking to the highway - it's
always better to choose a road less traveled (now where I have heard that
before...).  We drove south on highway 191 to Eager, Arizona, and then west
to Hon Dah.  I was pleased to see very little evidence of the fires that
were still burning.  There was plenty of pristine mountain habitat to
explore, but the rain kept pouring.  There would be no lepping in the White
Mountains of Arizona on this day.  
We cut south through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, but I refrained
from doing any trespassing.  I'm encouraged by all the prime insect habitat
that remains locked up on Indian lands, but truly wish that I could explore
it more freely.  And then there is the whole Indian gambling thing - a
wonderful economic boost, I'm sure, but the explosion in development it
promotes is more than a little depressing to a nature boy.  Even here in my
home of Oceanside we're being inundated.  Too bad we can't think of a more
natural way for Indian Reservations to generate much needed revenue - like
harvesting peyote or something (hey - it works in Columbia).
Just kidding.  Really.
So we drove on, south on highway 60 - with Christian sleeping most of the
way.  You'd think I'd been overworking the poor lad, the way he sleeps all
day.  It must be a teenager thing.  I guess he's saving up his energy for
the X-games or something.  He missed the whole Salt River Canyon excursion,
which is quite a spectacular drive.  The descent is rapid, and the scenery
most Arizona-like.  It was an unexpected surprise.  I tried to wake him, to
no avail.  As we ascended the opposite side we transcended between the Fort
Apache Reservation to the San Carlos Apache Reservation.  Wow - how I'd like
to spend a week hiking around this country.  At this point, I was pleased to
see that we were skirting the edge of public lands - the eastern boundary of
the Tonto National Forest.  I was also ecstatic to see patches of sunlight
busting through the cloud cover.  It was good to see the sun - I hadn't
enjoyed it since my evening in Ouray.  We decided (well, actually Christian
was still sleeping) to stop and have a look around.
To my surprise, we found a good number of species on the wing.  One of the
most abundant was Mitoura siva (Siva Hairstreak).  With juniper abounding,
the butterfly could readily be found at nectar.  There was little nectar to
be found, but where it existed, so did the Hairstreak.  Other butterflies
included Adelpha bredowii eulalia (Arizona Sister), Amblyscirtes aenus
(Aenus Skipper), Thorybes pylades (Northern Cloudywing), Atrytonopsis lunus
(Lunus Skipper), and Staphylus ceos (Ceos Skipper).  But the weather didn't
hold long, and soon we were on our way to Oracle.
We decided to meet Bill and friends directly in the field at Pena Blanca.
By the time we reached Nogales, Arizona, the monsoons were in full swing.
The skies were black, and lightening was striking all around us.  We
wondered if our evening might not get cut short on account of flash
flooding.  We met Bill and Jim Mouw at the campground at Pena Blanca, and to
our surprise the rain had stopped and remained stopped the remainder of the
evening.  This was my first time in this region, though I've long heard
about it in Lep lore.  I was surprised at how much oak there was - and at
how fast it was recovering from the recent drought.  The oak trees were
busting out with new greenery, sending out subtle invitations to the many
insect consumers who favor oak woodland and its canopy.
Bill is passionate about his work.  It's always recommended that you hang
out with people who have a passion for what they do.  It makes sharing
adventures with them far more interesting as well as rewarding.  He and Jim
had already squared off three separate lighting locations in and around the
campground.  We saw plenty of evidence that this was a favored lighting
spot, including many dozens of Automeris cecrops pamina still clinging to
low hanging branches.  For those who don't know, these are just one of the
many showy Saturniid moths that might show up at lights in southern Arizona.

The set up time for a night at the sheet can be greatly minimized through
proper organization and equipment preparation.  Bill and Jim have it down to
a science.  In just minutes we had three separate rigs erected, generators
primed, and camp chairs positioned for the upcoming show.  Just after dusk
the excitement began.  Slowly at first, and then ever-increasing in
frequency, the moths came.  Moths at the sheet, moths in your face, moths in
your ears, moths in your envelopes - the moths were everywhere.  Big ones,
little ones, fat ones, skinny ones - and the whole time Bill is conducting
with his syringe-filled hands as if the whole thing were a choreographed
rock opera.  My mouth remained open, my jaw to the dust - which isn't
recommended when mothing at Pena Blanca.  I ate my share of moths that night
- and found them a little too powdery and scaly for my liking.
Of course, it wasn't hectic enough that we had literally hundreds and
thousands of moths to deal with all at once at the sheet - we had three
sheets to deal with, all outside of walking distance from each other.  This
would require hourly shuttling back and forth, with each trip resulting in
more and more moths gaining permanent access to the minivan.  Even this
shuttling about wasn't enough, as Bill purposefully placed one of his rigs
on the top of a treacherous hillside that was covered with "wait-a-minute"
bush (remember these?  They are butterfly friendly).  There was only one
trail up that hill - and that was blazed straight up the side of it.  I
thought I caught Bill snickering under his breath on one of our many ascents
up that hill as I lunged forward, gasping for air, only to have pieces of
flesh torn out by the thorny underbrush.  Oh!  That wasn't Bill snickering -
that was my son!  Smart aleck. 
By the way, that's another thing that is not recommended.  Gasping for air
at a moth sheet in Pena Blanca.  You get way more than air that way.
Of course, every time we ascended that hill we found the sheet covered with
moths.  Our ritual would include a good combing of the assembled audience in
the hopes of finding something new.  Bill maintains very thorough records
from his frequent visits to various moth sites in Arizona.  He knows that
Pena Blanca is among the best locations for diversity.  His personal records
for species counts have been phenomenal, with something like 9 different
Saturniids and 19 different Sphingids in a single night.  Before this night
was over (which was well after 4:00 a.m.), we managed to pull in 8 different
Saturniids and 17 different Sphingids.  One shy of each record.  Not bad for
my first experience at Pena Blanca.
Another thing worth mentioning is that Pena Blanca is so well known among
entomologists and hobbyists, that on any given night you are bound to have
like-minded visitors who'll come and share in fellowship around your
photon-generators.  This night was no exception.  A vacationing beetle
enthusiast from Redding, California shared our sheets for a couple of hours,
as did a professor from Tucson.  Later in the evening, a butterfly dealer
from SW Florida stopped by in fascination (touting several captured
Tarantula's).  He was also vacationing, and not involved in any commercial
activity, but rather enjoyed exploring southwestern deserts looking for
strange creatures.  He took my son out a little later to look for scorpions
- apparently they glow under a black light - and later managed to talk my
son into taking home a Tarantula.  Great - first Slim the Snake, and now
Hairy Larry.  My wife will be soooo pleased.
Poor Christian didn't make it past 3:00 a.m.  The moths were still coming in
like flies (?) when we decided to shut it all down at 4:00 a.m.  Even in our
final round, we managed to pick up a new species for the evening.  We took
everything down in record time, and by 5:00 a.m. we were back to Bill's
house to crash for a few hours.  Us daytime leppers ain't got nothing on
these nocturnal folks.  Yeah - we may run around a lot flailing our arms and
pretending to break a sweat - but these people are just downright insane.
To bed at 5:00 a.m.?  And back at it again the following evening?  Sheesh.
This is the real Iron Man contest.
So on Saturday, August 3, my son and I headed west in the final leg of our
trip.  The Rocky Mountain High trip was finally coming to a close, and the
two of us felt like we REALLY needed a vacation now.  But what a way to
finish it off!  I will not soon forget my eventful evening with friends at
Pena Blanca, nor will I soon get around to mounting all of the really cool
moths that I took!  Sheesh - when will winter arrive?
Mark Walker.
ps:  do you have any idea how fast your Cornell drawers fill up with SE
Arizona Sphingids and Saturniids?
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