Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Meet the Bio Bus

”What the….?” must be the reaction of many a motorist sharing the highway with this RV, decked out in snazzy graphics depicting North American wildlife, especially insects. The story behind this rig is truly intriguing, and we owe it to our neighbors to the north for coming up with the idea.

I had the pleasure of spending a day with the Bio Bus team at Picacho Peak State Park north of Tucson, Arizona on April 20, 2010. It was the culmination of a desire to meet one of the members of the crew since about 2002.

While soliciting photographers to contribute images to the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, I had the good fortune to cross paths with Jay Cossey, a professional nature photographer in Canada. He has stayed in touch ever since, and was delighted to inform me that he had gotten this job a couple years ago. Jay figured that at some point the Bio Bus would be passing near Tucson, and sure enough, here it was.

The Bio Bus is a research effort of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, based at the University of Guelph. It has been on the road since 2008, traveling across Canada for the most part, but also venturing into the U.S. as spring and summer slowly creep northward. The goal of the mission is to collect mostly invertebrate specimens for DNA “barcoding,” a method by which one gene with species-specific variation is used to identify a species. The result is that many “species” formerly recognized by mere morphological (physical) characteristics turn out to be a complex of species that are discernable only through genetic analysis.

The RV, which rides like a dream, amazingly enough, can accommodate four people along with all the gear necessary for navigation, collection, and day-to-day living. Graduate students and others rotate along the route, but Jay has been a pretty constant presence since last year.

This year’s organizer, Jill, has been there, too, making certain that permits are secured for collecting in state and provincial parks, making contacts ahead of the bus’s arrival, and generally being an incredibly diplomatic ambassador for the project.

Our day at Picacho Peak was reasonably productive, though the most abundant insects were large blister beetles (Lytta magister) that eventually became rather annoying with their droning flight drawing our attention from other creatures. We ended the day with a tasty dinner at a steakhouse in Tucson.

Thank you Jay, Maneer, Rene, and Jill for the warm welcome and camaraderie in the field. May you have a successful journey up the west coast and back across Canada this summer.

Please visit the Bio Bus website. Also, be on the lookout for a “Gigapan” of all of us atop the RV at Hopefully, one of those big blister beetles didn’t fly in front of the lens….

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tumamoc Hill

I finally got my act together and made my first ascent of Tumamoc Hill, just west of downtown Tucson, on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010. The public is only permitted on the property during weekends, and you must stay on the paved road at all times. Why? Well, this particular parcel of land has a very unique history.

The sign pictured above reads: University of Arizona Desert Laboratory, founded in 1903 as the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory, Tumamoc Hill, United States Geological Service. Indeed, this butte has served as a living laboratory for a very long time, and non-university and non-government personnel need to be restricted to protect the study plots. Consequently, the area is closed to the public weekdays from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM. The hill is very popular with the exercise-minded on weekends. Birdwatchers, botanists, and nature lovers in general also visit. I spotted this Cooper’s hawk while at the summit.

The Carnegie Institution of Washington chose this site to establish an ongoing study of the adaptation of plants to aridity, beginning in October, 1903. That mission continues to this day. The University of Arizona purchased the facilities (several buildings occupy the area) in 1956 to house their new department of geochronology.

Meanwhile, the United States Geological Service (USGS) conducts two major long-term projects: Biotic response to climate variability; and Landscape change in the Southwest.

Walk all the way to the top and you might see a flock of white-throated swifts, or some of the insects they are feeding upon. You will also be treated to some pretty stunning views of Tucson (with the Rincon Mountains in the background), and the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The entire butte is 860 acres (3.5 square kilometers), but 320 acres, including a handful of study plots, changed hands in February, 2009. This came as a result of a state trust land auction in which Pima County made the winning bid (and only bid). Prior to that, Tumamoc Hill was more or less the poster child for a movement to reform state trust land policies. A 2006 effort to change the state trust land system via a state constitutional amendment failed.

Human occupation of this site actually dates back as far as the Hohokam tradition of the Native American Southwest. With any luck, our collective footprint on Tumamoc Hill will continue to be relatively light, while continuing to shed light on the changes in climate, flora, and fauna here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Springtime in Pima Canyon

The Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association had a field trip to Pima Canyon last Saturday, April 3, and I was privileged to be invited to go along. I wish to thank Fred Heath for furnishing transportation. Our small group was looking mostly for butterflies, of course, and we collectively saw twenty-one species, but it was the incredible variety of wildflowers that got our attention most of the time.

Fred is very knowledgeable regarding the flora of the Santa Catalina Mountains, where Pima Canyon is located, and he was able to name most of the flowers, and find cryptic ones. I passed right by this larkspur (Delphinium), for example, assuming it was “just another lupine.”

Most of the time, this canyon runs dry, but the winter rains and snowmelt this year have the water cascading down the stream in abundance. The extra moisture meant that we saw flowering plants typical of more moist riparian zones. Take this common monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus, for example.

The flowers, in turn, did offer nectar for many of the butterflies we observed.

This Texan crescent, Phyciodes texana, was flitting from blossom to blossom on the common fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii) that is so abundant right now.

Pima Canyon is just a short drive outside of Tucson, and a very popular spot for hikers, so it can be a bit crowded on weekends. Just the same, I encourage visitors to southern Arizona to consider this scenic canyon as a potential day trip. It takes a bit of time to get into the heart of the canyon, but once there the shade afforded by the cliffs, cottonwoods and other trees is a welcome relief from the heat. You can always cool your heals in the creek, too, provided it is running, of course.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Catalina State Park

My friend Margarethe Brummermann was kind enough to invite me to join her for a hike in Catalina State Park last Tuesday, March 30. I had never visited this park in spring before, and this year is so spectacular that I couldn’t pass up the chance to see what the landscape looked like.

Catalina State Park actually lies within the Coronado National Forest, and is known for the nearly 5,000 saguaro cacti within its boundaries. Indeed, there are some truly magnificent specimens of this giant to be found there.

The park was slated to become a housing development in the early 1970s, known as “Rancho Romero.” However, a petition to re-zone the land for this purpose met with stiff public resistance. State Representative Charles King of Tucson then requested a feasibility study to assess the options for protecting the scenic and historical area. Though it was found the acreage met the criteria for a state park, a vote by the Arizona Parks Board on December 10, 1973 was against that idea.

Subsequent grassroots efforts and coalitions of non-profit groups ultimately led to King submitting House Bill 2280 to the 1974 session of the state legislature. It passed, and was signed into law by then-Governor Jack Williams on May 1, 1974.

The park’s master plan was crafted by many players, including students at the University of Arizona. It was approved on December 9, 1977. Still, the park’s current status was not fully achieved until April 22, 1991 when the last land exchanges became final.

Today, park visitors can enjoy all manner of passive recreation, from hiking to horseback riding, camping and picnicking. A day at the park costs $7 per vehicle, or $3 for an individual on foot or bicycle. Thankfully, despite closure of most state parks in Arizona due to a government budget crisis, Catalina State Park remains open, at least for now.

What can you expect to see in the park, besides saguaros? Well, how about some of the more than 150 species of birds that have been seen there? I can also attest to lizards, butterflies, and a seemingly endless variety of wildflowers that call the place home. You can see a few of them over at my Flickr photostream.

Thanks again to Margarethe for the great company, and sharing her own knowledge of flora and fauna.