This blog post covers just 9 days in the field, June 1 – 9, during which we did a loop from El Paso to Southeast Arizona and back, looking for more new native vascular plant genera. In gorgeous White Sands National Park, New Mexico, which features the largest gypsum dune field in the world, we caught up with our first new genus, Pseudoclappia, a yellow-flowered shrub in the aster family. Near Las Cruces, NM, along the Rio Grande, we saw a nice collection of plants before being chased off by a thunderstorm, but did not find our target, likely due to drought. We camped near I-10 in south-central New Mexico, among Scaled Quail and Roadrunners.
On the second day we reached Kartchner Caverns State Park, AZ, a location we like very much. Before camping, we located Aristolochia, called Dutchman’s Pipe because of the shape of the flowers. We were pleased to see both a flower and several fruits, which are inflated, winged pods. This was our fourth and final genus in the family.
Above: Bridled Titmouse, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal AZ
On Day 3 we finally were able to replace the tire destroyed in Big Bend a week before. We drove through the eastern section of Saguaro National Park and located a new cactus genus, Peniocereus, which flowers at night, later in the year, with large white flowers like a Saguaro. We’ll check for flowers when we return in August. We finished the day in the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson, where we saw two new genera, Coreocarpus (another yellow aster family member) and Dicliptera (a purple flower in the interesting acanthus family), but could not locate a rare orchid genus, perhaps because of drought.
Our fourth day was spent in Sabino Canyon, on the east side of Tucson. This is a marvelous location with a fine trail system. One target here was a shrub in the pea family, Coursetia, which we found fairly easily. Here we enjoyed a singing Rufous-winged Sparrow during our picnic lunch; saw a beautiful mallow, Gossypium thurberi, in flower; and encountered quite a few Round-tailed Ground Squirrels. But we did not find our second target, Plumbago, a popular garden plant. We see these everywhere in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but we have never been able to convince ourselves that the plants were naturally occurring; it is widely planted there because it is so good for butterflies.
We tried again for Plumbago a little farther west in Pima Canyon, but it was too hot to complete the hike. We retreated again to the Santa Catalina Mountains, where there are a few dispersed camping sites at 8000 feet elevation, where we could escape the heat. We spent the next day in camp for a break, and to issue the previous blog post. At dusk a Peregrine Falcon ripped through our campsite and landed in a nearby pine, where it roosted for the night – very cool!
On Day 6 we returned to Pima Canyon for another try at Plumbago, and this were time successful. Heading south towards the Mexican border, we tried, at the poorest possible time of year, for yet another yellow aster-family genus, Lagascea. The outcome was predictable, but the location, Rock Corral Canyon, was new to us and quite lovely, providing three new plant species. Pena Blanca Lake, north of Ruby Road, barely yielded new genus Elytraria (another member of the acanthus family), because we were very late in the season for this spring-flowering plant. The heat was oppressive so instead of camping we headed into Nogales, where we ate at a restaurant (though outside) for the first time in about 15 months.
After a night in Patagonia State Park, we walked from our site to the Sonoita Creek Trail, where we first saw Black-capped Gnatcatcher in 2002. This time we were looking for Barkleyanthus, a ragwort shrub, which was easily found, adding another genus. This is a really birdy trail! Our next site turned out to be inaccessible because a short private section of the road was gated. As the other end of the road was hours away, we decided to punt and try again in August.
We spent the night in Chiricahua National Monument, with its lovely rhyolite formations. While I was recording bats (including Fringed Myotis and Pallid Bat), Eileen was reading in her camp chair, when a skunk walked right underneath her! There are four possible species of skunks here, so I chased it down, but it was just the commonest species, Striped Skunk.
On Day 8, we crossed the Chiricahua Mountains on Forest Route 42, and then spent time photographing birds and mammals at Cave Creek Ranch and at David Jasper’s private residence, both in Portal, AZ. Birders are welcome at both sites. All the photos in this blog post were taken at these two locations. We saw male and female Lucifer Hummingbirds at Jasper’s; this is a scarce breeder in the U.S., being found only in extreme southeast Arizona (rare) and Big Bend National Park, TX (uncommon).
Our plan had been to return to the higher elevations of the Chiricahuas to camp, but we decided instead to try for White-sided Jackrabbit. This species requires grassland of extremely high quality, with few to no shrubs. It is found in northern Mexico and in a single valley in the extreme southwest corner of New Mexico. Most of the tiny U.S. population, thought to be on the order of 60 individuals, occurs on private land. The only publicly accessible area in which to look for them is along Animas County Road 01, from Milepost 32 to perhaps Milepost 40. We had done several multi-hour searches of this stretch of road over the years, without success, but most had been early or late in the year, and I wondered if we might do better in really hot weather.
This species seems to be very nocturnal, more so than other jackrabbits, so we planned to start about half an hour after sunset. Once we reached the area, we mounted our thermal scope on the outside of our vehicle, to look for heat signatures; got our brightest light sources, binoculars, and a laser pointer ready; and reviewed the field marks in case we had just a several-second view. We finally started off, and in less time than it took to get everything ready, we were watching three White-sided Jackrabbits unconcernedly foraging close to the road, in our headlights, providing excellent views!! A fourth animal was seen briefly, as well. We eventually made it to camp about 6 hours later than originally planned, but thrilled with the results.
In total, during this loop, we had 8 successful plant genus searches and 8 failures, and found one new genus serendipitously (without a lead). We will return to this area in August, in the hope of seeing some of the many plants that flower if there are good monsoonal rains in July.