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Moth Week in Madera Canyon

 

Jeff Babson at the sheet

Jeff Babson, of Sky Island Tours, set up a black light and sheet to view moths in Madera Canyon. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

Beetles almost stole the show until the moths appeared in Madera Canyon, just in time to celebrate one of the last days of National Moth Week (Moth Week.)

On July 26, 2014, a small but enthusiastic group of moth fans (including this reporter) assembled in the Madera Canyon Picnic Area where wildlife viewing specialist, Jeff Babson, set up a mercury vapor lamp to attract moths to the sheet he’d hung among the sycamore, oak and juniper trees.

Jeff Babson, wildlife viewing specialist for Pima County, examines moths and other insects attracted by a mercury vapor lamp he set up in Madera Canyon Picnic Area near Green Valley, Arizona, on July 26, 2014.

Jeff Babson, wildlife viewing specialist for Pima County, examines moths and other insects attracted by a mercury vapor lamp he set up in Madera Canyon Picnic Area near Green Valley, Arizona, on July 26, 2014.

Babson, owner and operator of Sky Island Tours, has conducted educational events for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the University of Arizona, the Tucson Audubon society and Pima County. For the last two years, Babson has led Moth Week events in Southern Arizona.

A global citizen scientist event, Moth Week encourages people to learn about moths and their role in our ecosystem. Moth Week started in 2005 as a series of small community moth night events in East Brunswick, New Jersey. In 2012, after the moth night series received an award from the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, the sponsors of moth nights took the event to a new level—a national moth week.

Now moth-viewing celebrations are held across the United States and around the world during the last full week in July—a time of year when moths are abundant almost everywhere.

This year, for the first time since Moth Week was established, moth celebrations were held in all 50 of the United States and in 25 countries. Both public and private moth-related events were held across the state of Arizona in celebration of Moth Week 2014.

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon, east of Green Valley and south of Tucson, lies in the heart of the Santa Rita Mountains. The area is famous for its exotic and abundant wildlife and plants. According to the Friends of Madera Canyon, more than 230 species of birds, including 15 species of hummingbirds, have been recorded in the canyon. But that’s not all—Madera Canyon has spectacular moths, if you’re patient enough to wait for them to appear.

As the sun set last Saturday in Madera Canyon, the two-note call of the Common Poorwill (a nocturnal bird in the nightjar family) rang out. Babson took out his smart phone and with his iBird Pro 2 app, played the sound track of a poorwill’s call. Clear as a bell, the real poorwill answered the recording.

One of the Chrysina beetles that was attracted to Jeff Babson's mercury vapor light in Madera Canyon near Green Valley, Arizona on July 26, 2014.

One of the Chrysina beetles that was attracted to Jeff Babson’s mercury vapor light in Madera Canyon near Green Valley, Arizona on July 26, 2014.

The sheet didn’t stay empty for long. The first visitors were not moths, but beetles—beetles of all shapes and sizes and colors. The larger beetles hit the sheet with a thud, and slid down the cloth to the ground.

“When beetles land, it’s a controlled crash,” said Babson. “They’re about as agile as a C-130.”

What Arizona’s beetles lack in grace, they make up for with their diversity and beauty. The first beetle that hit the sheet was a Chrysina, one of the jeweled scarab beetles for which Arizona is famous.

There are three green Chrysina beetles in Southeastern Arizona, and all three would eventually visit Babson’s mercury lamp.

Chrysina beyeri, one of southeastern Arizona's three Chrysina beetles, walks on the leaf litter in Madera Canyon near Green Valley, Arizona on July 26, 2014.

Chrysina beyeri, one of southeastern Arizona’s three Chrysina beetles, walks on the leaf litter in Madera Canyon near Green Valley, Arizona on July 26, 2014.

A number of glorious jewel scarab beetles (Chrysina gloriosa) were drawn to Jeff Babson's mercury vapor lamp on July 26, 2014. Babson set up a sheet and his lamp at the Madera picnic area in Madera Canyon near Green Valley Arizona, as part of National Moth Week. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

A number of glorious jewel scarab beetles (Chrysina gloriosa) were drawn to Jeff Babson’s mercury vapor lamp on July 26, 2014. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

The glorious jewel scarab (Chrysina gloriosa) is emerald green with silver stripes on its outer wing cover or elytra. Beyer’s jewel scarab (Chrysina beyeri) is apple green with striking purple legs. The third Chrysina beetle that frequents Madera Canyon is Chrysina lecontei, LeConte’s scarab, the smallest and most rare of Arizona’s apple-green scarabs.

 The Rock Stars of Moth Week

Many people think of moths as the butterfly’s drab cousins—those tiny tan or white insects that flutter around our porch lights, or invade our pantries and closets. In reality, moths are a diverse and beautiful group with more colors and patterns then you might imagine.

Moths are also important bioindicators. Like the canary in the mine, moths warn us of changes in the environment. Moths are also important pollinators. Sphinx and hawk moths pollinate that famous Southwest cactus, the night-blooming cereus.

A large sphinx moth (Pachysphinx occidentalis) appeared at the National Moth Week event in Madera Canyon on July 26, 2014. The Pachysphinx moths have a wingspan of about 4-5 inches. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

A large sphinx moth (Pachysphinx occidentalis) appeared at the National Moth Week event in Madera Canyon on July 26, 2014. The Pachysphinx moths have a wingspan of about 4-5 inches. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

Moths the Size of Birds

Soon the moths come flying in—the first moths include the white-lined sphinx, the most common sphinx moth in and around Tucson. According to Babson, white lined sphinx caterpillars are voracious eaters.

“Their caterpillars are like teen-aged boys. They’ll eat anything,” said Babson.

As the moths begin to outnumber the beetles, Scott Hampton, a visitor in the last days of his vacation, drops by the sheet. A knowledgeable insect aficionado, Hampton first admires the beetles, then moves on to the moths. He recognizes many moth species and rattles off both common and scientific names with equal aplomb.

As Hampton and Babson bend over the sheet, a mighty moth—larger than a hummingbird—hits the cloth and flutters for a while until it settles down. With a wingspan of 4 1/2 to nearly 5 7/8 inches this moth is one of the Pachysphinx species, probably the Western Poplar Sphinx, Pachysphinx occidentalis. Soon a second Pachysphinx hits the sheet and it too settles down. Easily handled, these big moths are harmless and fragile. Moths don’t bite or sting, and many never feed as adults.

Scott Hampton holds a Poplar Sphinx (Pachysphinx occidentalis), one of the largest moths found in Madera Canyon, Arizona. These nocturnal moths are as large as some hummingbirds. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

Scott Hampton holds a Poplar Sphinx (Pachysphinx occidentalis), one of the largest moths found in Madera Canyon, Arizona. These nocturnal moths are as large as some hummingbirds. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

Several hours pass with many exclamations made over the moths and other insect visitors. The moths easily outnumber the assorted click beetles, ichneumon flies and tiny parasitic wasps. Tonight the group didn’t collect moths. Babson and Hampton took photographs of moths to confirm identities of the more cryptic species or just to share their finds with friends.

The moths are still arriving, but it’s time to go home. The moth fans say their “goodbyes” as Babson takes down his equipment. Another Moth Week is coming to an end. It’s been gloriosa.

 

 

Previously published in the Green Valley News and Sahuarita Sun

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