“It’s a snout storm!” Vicki, a member of our group joked as we hiked into the fabled Sky Island mountains that transect the U.S. -Mexico border. It was the tail end of the monsoon season and the air was thick with butterflies, most notably the migratory American Snout.
Smaller than a monarch, the mottled grey, orange, and white butterfly is a phenomenon of nature. In 1921, a flock estimated at more than 6 billion “darkened the sky” over the Rio Grande. The migration lasted 18 days. Here in Arizona, back in the 1940’s, locals say the lights had to be turned on in Tucson in the middle of the day to see amongst the Snouts.
I remember another outrageous display of migratory butterflies I witnessed one summer flying over my former property near the border: pale yellows up from Mexico, a sensual drift that filled the sky like lazy pollen fall, the epitome of natural magic.
“Must be because of all the rain we’ve had this season,” said Birdie, another member of our group. Along with a parade of wildflowers, the hillsides are rich with newly greened thornless acacia shrubs and hackberry bushes
“Hackberry bushes are the American snout’s host plants,” said Vicki.
It’s a pleasure to share company with naturalists who are keen to identify plants, bird calls, and insects. Birdie is a former biology teacher and local resident; Vicki with her husband Gerry continue to volunteer with the Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association after long careers in the National Park Service.
Together, we are trekking to the natural spring my partner Steph and I adopted through Sky Island Alliance’s Adopt-a-Spring Program. This is our final visit monitoring the spring’s on-going health; it’s water quality and flow, flora and fauna. We will pass on what we’ve learned to Sky Island volunteers Birdie, Vicki, and Gerry, the new stewards of the spring. Through each season of the next year or more, they will play a crucial role in maintaining this vital wildlife corridor in the borderlands.
Joining us is Rich Bailowitz, an Entomologist and co-author of the book “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora.” He is always on the look-out for new species and he will not be disappointed today.
“I was a butterfly freak first,” Rich said. But when U.S Fish and Wildlife Service asked me to do another order of insects besides butterflies I chose aquatic insects rather than terrestrial and ended up writing the book.”
On the way up the hillside, Rich pointed out an orange and black butterfly with white spots – an Empress Leilia – hugging a hackberry. We also spotted a Mexican yellow alighting on one of the thornless acacia shrubs.
Gerry stopped in front of me, cocked his head, and listened intently. “Do you hear that? he asked smiling. “I think it’s a Cassin’s sparrow.”
The rainy season plus the sparrow’s irresistible need to breed could have brought out this secretive resident of the Southwest grasslands. We could also hear mighty cicadas, the ubiquitous “Saints of Summer” in the Sonoran Desert, washing over us in waves, building to a thundering crescendo, then subsiding abruptly.
Large Sonoran grasshoppers that we thought would die back over the summer flit back and forth in front of us, revitalized with the monsoon rains. They were everywhere in the ground cover, like fibers in the wall-to-wall carpet of common purslane and grama grasses covering the desert floor.
On top of the hill, we looked down into the cool cleft of the spring hidden in a grove packed with sycamore trees, cottonwoods, willows, and walnut. Vicki noticed a large nest camouflaged in the canopy of the tallest cottonwood. I wondered if the nest belonged to the grey hawk we spotted here last time, but the nest is too high to identify.
“It’s good for the hawk that the nest remains hidden,” Vicki said. “It needs to remain a mystery,”
Later, we heard it, the scolding screech of the hawk, maybe aggrieved at the encroach of humans upon its private domain.
The spring was as monsoon green as expected. Tall cattails shot up from one of the pools and plump grasses grew from another. At the first pool, wild grape vines circled around flowering Desert Cotton, a host plant for desert moths. In the spring there is no denying the primal relationships between every living thing. All life in the spring is hosted, or it will not exist.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
Right away, Rich noticed a damselfly in the Ciénaga surrounding the spring; a stunning springwater dancer. The entomologist Odonata-spotting vision is as alert and practiced as the hawk. Odonata, the ancient order of carnivorous insects that dragonflies and damselflies belong to, have been found in fossils dating back to 325 million years, around the time dinosaurs began to appear. The word Odonata, derived from “odonto,” the Greek word for tooth, refers to the strong teeth found on the mandibles of most adult Odonata.
I learned to tell other-worldly dragonfly and damselflies apart. Dragonflies are mostly shorter with thicker bodies and huge eyes (think The Fly) that practically wrap around the whole face. Damselflies have ethereal, twig-like bodies. Their eyes are large too but distinctly separated. The difference in wing size and position is the key to a clear identification. The dragonflies’ wings are larger and perpendicular like an airplane at rest while damselflies’ narrower wings come together above the body.
While the others in our group measured the length, width, and depth of the ever-changing water level of the spring’s top pool, Rich trekked to the bottom pool of the vertical seep, his large white butterfly net outstretched. Each will be quickly identified and then released. With practice, he’s developed the sensitive dexterity needed to grasp and safely immobilize tiny insects in the hand before letting them go.
One of the first found was a black and white damselfly, an extremely uncommon species found only in the Arizona borderlands, the only place it’s ever been recorded.
“If anyone wants to see this Damselfly,” Rich said, “they have to come to southeastern Arizona.”
“Plus, this one only comes out in the morning when there is dim light or when a storm is coming,” he said as he looked up at the darkening sky overhead.
In no short order, Rich found a red Neon Skimmer Dragonfly, a Great Spreadwing, the largest damselfly in the region, a Lavender Dancer and a bright blue Spine-Tipped Dancer. He then spots the rarest find of the day: a diminutive Slough Amberwing Damselfly. Altogether, Rich identified eleven species of Dragonflies and Damselflies that day, two of them new. After all his years of field research, Rich still shakes his head in wonder
As Steph showed the new stewards how to find and chart water flow in the Spring’s bottom pool, Rich pulled out a field journal and noted his findings before they could be forgotten.
Preserving the Mystery
Our work at the spring finished, we follow Birdie to the end of the seep where we will all hike out. At a fork in the arroyo, I decided to veer down a path less taken. There, in the bottomland, I found a mound of deer bones, a recent kill, a reminder that we are walking in lion country. With countless caves pocketing the cliffs and ribbons of hidden springs, the Sky Island mountains of southeast Arizona host cougar and bobcat, ocelot and jaguar. Besides aquatic and terrestrial insects, there is much more here than meets the eye. What remains hidden and left alone stands a good chance of surviving.
“The last time I saw this spring, at least a decade ago, it was beaten down by cattle,” Birdie said. “Now that the cattle are no longer here, the spring has reverted back to its natural state and it’s recovering beautifully.”
The danger, of course, is that humans will not protect a paradise we don’t know exists. Taking great care not to disturb, volunteer naturalists gain rare access into our hidden world and they are reporting back. Regional guides like the “A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora” help us identify and understand what we see there.
Steph and I miss the spring already, but we know we are leaving it in good hands. As we learned more about its native flora and fauna over the last year, we experienced profound connection, healing a primal wound of separation we human beings are often unaware we carry. The spring gave us much more than we were ever able to give her.
Climbing up and out of the arroyo, up hillsides of blue wildflowers and pink velvet pod mimosas, we heard a sudden rush of wind in the canyon behind us. Seconds later it began to pour.
“Rain in the desert is a blessing,” said Gerry. To be rained upon in the desert is to be twice blessed.”
To volunteer go to Adopt-a-Spring Monitoring at Sky Island Alliance: https://www.skyislandalliance.org/volunteer-get-involved/volunteer-position-descriptions/