Monday, October 31, 2011

Saguaro National Park BioBlitz: At the Madrona Ranger Station in the Rincon Mts.

Last weekend, citizens and scientists came together to assemble in 24 hours an inventory of all the species of plants and animals that inhabit the two parts of Saguaro National Park, one (West) where I live in the Tucson Mountains and the other (East), older and larger one that covers parts of the Rincon Mts. Of course, there was much more to it than that 24 h rush. There was of course the long and thorough preparation by the team of the National Park and National Geographics. Everything very efficiently planned and executed, as far as I could see from the remote outpost that I had signed up for: the oasis of Madrona in the foothills of the Rincons, an old ranger station without public access but with a fragile, beautiful riparian habitat at its heart. Several perennial pools are fed by bedrock springs and drain into Chimenea Creek.

Canyon Tree Frogs and Lowland Leopard Frog
Madrona has been the focus of a "Pulse Study" in 2003, of ongoing monitoring of water levels and chemistry, and of several herpetological studies since then. The pools proved their importance for the survival of several endangered species during the drought of 2005-6 when canyon tree frogs, lowland leopard frog, and Sonoran mud turtles survived in the Madrona Pools but disappeared from nearby streams that went completely dry.

I was driven up to Madrona by our group's coordinator  Mike Ward. Mike turned out to be the perfect person to keep going a camp full of up to 50 school kids, chaperoned by their teachers, and  a bunch of scientists who were at times probably all a little bit overwhelmed by the demands of teaching the kids, finding the species to inventory, and the rocky terrain that we were moving around in.  Mike stayed cheerful and kind, matching us up with our groups, getting everybody fed with interesting freeze dried meals, keeping an experienced first responder team around, and he still found breaks to quietly play his guitar at times.

Mating Buprestid Beetles and Skipperling
But mostly, breaks didn't exist. Right after we arrived, I tried to explore the area and actually found that the insect fauna was still much more active and prevalent than I had expected this late in October. Then the first school classes arrived and we were called to pick up our kids. From then on, we were supposed to return and switch groups about every half hour, so all students could accompany the turtle trapping group, butterfly and bird watchers, several general entomologists, and researchers who studied frog populations, measured water quality and more. After a short lunch, more of the same.

Ninth Graders of Sabino High
By then, many of the students had developed special interest in certain kinds of research and had moved from observers to active participants who contributed very actively to ongoing projects. The kids in my group  found many insect species that I would have overlooked on my own.

The caterpillar of Agrius cingulata (Pink-spotted Hawk Moth)
It is difficult to identify many arthropods to species level in the field. Instead, I tried to keep a continuous log of everything we observed with my camera. I don't think we covered much more than half a mile up and down stream and up one dry, rocky canyon, but repeated visits to the same locality soon revealed distinct changes of visibly active insect species during the progressing daylight hours.
Mexican Yellow,  Sleepy Orange and Southern Dogface Butterflies in a seep at noon, where we found hundreds of  Queen Butterflies in the morning
At night, I had two black lights set up, and most of the insects drawn to the illuminated sheets were different from what we found during the day. As the night progressed we also saw a shift from early visiting small moths (Actiids), grasshoppers and beetles to a few late arriving bigger sphinx moths  and water bugs.

Rustic Sphinx, black lighting sheet and Toe-biter
 The other attraction of the night was the bat station, where  four species of bats were recorded (sonograms) trapped, measured,  identified and released.We all marveled at their angry little faces, sharp teeth, big ears, translucent but strong wings, and listened to their clicking, squeaking voices. Bats that were released flapped close to the faces of giggling teenagers who very quickly turned into interested students as fascinating stories about some of the smallest mammals, their ecology and challenges unfolded.

Finally the night was too far gone to put up my tent, and I was still hoping to see the resident ringtail, so I lay down under the unbelievably bright stars, watched a huge shooting star, listened to great horned owls who kept hooting their duet right above me....

When a group of National Park officials from Washington arrived in the morning they were treated to amazingly detailed reports of our activities given spontaneously by some of the students (who must have gotten more sleep than I) and a visit to a mist net set up at one of the pools to catch birds.

Red-naped Sap-sucker
 Our ornithologist demonstrated on  a  beautiful male Red-naped Sap-sucker how a bird in hand can be sexed, aged, and evaluated for its breeding status and fat reserves. We learned that surprisingly many species from the north interrupt their migration in Arizona to undergo a month-long molt before they move on to their wintering grounds further south.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Madrona Ranger Station, in parts because it is a very rare and beautiful place, but mostly because of the great people whom I met there who all joined forces there to help protect this natural gem.

Dicromantispa sayi, a Mantis Fly
 Of course, the expectation was that we scientists would go into the field, find as many species as possible, identify,document and list  them and then deliver those data to the base camps to be counted and published in Saturday evening's news on television. The Rincon Base Camp had been asking for data repeatedly during our stay. I think most entomologists could not quite accommodate those requests: I spent all of Sunday formatting and choosing the relevant photos, identifying them and the few specimens that I had collected, and sending the questionable ones out for expert opinions. While I didn't come up with any totally unexpected or even new species I hope that with over 120 identified and photo-documented species I contributed a solid piece of data to the Saguaro National Park BioBlitz for the Madrona Ranger Station. Please click here to see all arthropods that are identified at least to genus level


  1. It was an incredible project and I think all involved felt fortunate to take part. Your experience sounds fabulous! Love your photos, as always!

  2. Hallo Margarethe,
    wie schön, einmal über den großen Teich zu blicken. FLora und Fauna sind ja sehr vielfältig. Die Insekten - wunderschön.

    LG Heidi