travelog 70

Mothing with Michael

Let's flash back a little bit: it's January 2001 somewhere in the hinterland of Sonora. We chug along a dusty road. Suddenly a red pickup truck appears behind us, its driver obviously in a hurry. As nice drivers, we naturally make room. However the car doesn't pass us, but stops at our side. And what do we hear? "Do you speak English?", a very polite young man asks us. Had he asked something like "Is it a diesel?", our meeting certainly would have had another ending! Michael, and his then girlfriend, had seen our PocoLoco already far away from the paved road but they absolutely wanted to know what this strange vehicle was all about. That's why they followed us onto the dirt road until they finally caught up with us. A conversation started quickly and soon we discovered similar interests, Michael identified some trees for us, and finally invited us to visit him in Tucson, Arizona. Since 2001 we've seen each other many times in Tucson but this time Michael traveled a little farther south than Sonora, Mexico, his usual area of study. He's coming all the way to central Mexico to see moths and other bugs.

Our destination lies in the surroundings of Huejuquilla el Alto, from the canyons in the foothills of the Sierra los Huicholes far up into the mountains. This time we're on our way with tent and sleeping bags, something a little unusual for us. Our camp spots have to be chosen very carefully. Michael needs trees to install his observation station. Oak forests, deep canyons, or cliffs just above canyons are ideal places. Of course we also have to make sure that we don't set the tent up in a shallow depression or a rainwater drainage. After all we're traveling during the rainy season. Michael's insects, especially the moths, are the most active just about 2-3 weeks into the rainy season. The first night on a clearing between oaks is almost the most spectacular. The tent is made for 6-8 people, so there's plenty of room for the three of us. Michael puts up his white sheet between two trees. Two blacklights are hung between other trees alongside the sheet and connected to the car battery. At nightfall we light the blacklights and soon the first moths flutter to the light where they settle on the sheet or on trunks and leaves of nearby trees. Around midnight we retire to the tent. Later we wake up to lightning and thunder. Soon the rain sets in. But we're lucky. The thunderstorm passes through right above our heads but the weather god has mercy and our tent doesn't have to pass a serious test. The next morning we take fantastic pictures of various moths. We also find the maxim for this trip: "It's all Sonoran crap!", meaning that Michael has already seen most of these insects in Sonora, in northern Mexico.

During the day we drive to the next interesting place, of course stopping along the road for exciting plants. Thanks to the rains, many things are in flower. A low Erythrina, likely to die back to its roots during the dry season, is adorned with bright orange flowers. Sometimes the seeds of various Erythrina species are sold in Mexico as lucky charms. The purple flowers of a clove species cover the road embankment. Various species of sage flower in hues of red and blue. Trees we only know without leaves glow in varying shades of green. Hills and mountains are dark green, yellow meadows are transformed into green lawns, and in dry river beds water accumulates in big pools. What a difference from April when we last visited this area!

Between Huejucar and Huejuquilla el Alto, the states of Jalisco and Zacatecas form fingers that fit together. Every few kilometers another road sign reminds us that we driven into the other state again. There's a new paved road past Huejuquilla that already leads far up into the Sierra los Huicholes. Another road construction crew is working from Estacion Ruiz on the Pacific coast in the state of Nayarit. One day soon the two teams should meet up and connect the roads somewhere in the sierra. First we explore the area around San Juan Capistrano where we had searched successfully for a new locality of Echinocactus grusonii on another trip with other friends. We find a place to spend the night near a bridge over a still dry river. One can clearly see that this place will be flooded by a real flash flood but tonight we take the risk of having to evacuate the tent. The road is almost untraveled and nobody has an interest in what we're doing here. A small, narrow canyon accomodates bats and a huge owl in a little cave. We're deep down in a beautiful canyon. Despite being at only 1000m (3300 feet) altitude, the temperatures drop to a very comfortable level as soon as the sun disappears. The night doesn't yield many moths and of course most of it is "Sonoran crap" anyway. With an overcast sky we light a fire and fry some bacon and eggs with tortillas. We even have some steaming hot coffee. The tent is stowed in the car when the first rain drops fall. Nonetheless we hike down into the canyon to see Echinocactus grusonii growing in the cliffs. When the rainy season is in full progress it will be difficult to get through here but right now we can still climb over the big boulders in the mostly dry riverbed. We drive on in the rain but as soon as we leave the canyon we're greeted by the sun and a blue sky. Again and again Michael wants to stop to show us an interesting tree. Once it's some Bursera species, then a Manihot, then yet another tree, the bark of which is used by the locals. At a short stop in San Juan Capistrano we find out that this tree is called "Cuachalalate" (Amphipterygium molle). One crushes the bark a little bit and boils it until the water has a brown color. Supposedly this tastes better than coffee and is really good for body and mind. When we are ready to take off, a woman runs over to the car and gives us a little bag with "Cuachalalate" bark. Of course we prepare the bark the next morning as directed. Though the beverage has nothing in common with coffee it still tastes very good and after a few sips we already feel much healthier.

Now we're driving up into the Sierra los Huicholes. In long curves the newly paved road snakes up to 2700m (8860 feet). We stop many times for interesting plants or magnificent views. Agave maximiliana and Nolina parviflora thrive up here. We also see various cacti. In a very short time we have moved from tropical decidous forest into pine and oak forests. At a vantage point with fantastic views far down to the valley of the Rio Atengo, we climb around in the rocks and cliffs. This place is also a sacred place of the Huichol Indians. Echeveria agavoides and Sedum hintonii grow between the rocks. Unfortunately the road construction has destroyed a lot. Excavation material and garbage have been thrown over the cliffs and buried the plants. We still find some Huichol relics on the rocks and even a little garden planted with Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, which of course will never survive up here. The road still goes up until we are finally stopped by a man along the roadside. He would like to get a "rite" (spanishized for "a ride"), but we really don't have any room in the car. We notice his little moustache and his very soft Spanish. Finally he tells us that the ride would only be for a kilometer, so we squeeze him onto the backseat. This is the longest kilometer in our lives! We have a pleasant conversation and Don Melecio shows us a small road that leads to a piece of his land where he invites us to spend the night. After about 7 kilometers we reach Canoas and he finally gets out. Then he tells us that the road is good for another 4 kilometers until we reach the construction site. We drive on around a curve and reach the end of the good road and the construction site after 500 meters. These were the shortest 4 kilometers of our lives! We try the small road that Don Melecio pointed out to us and drive up to a small clearing between pines and oaks where we set up the tent. Huge boulders are strewn in the forest and most are covered with interesting plants and carpets of moss. Growing on the rocks a Manfreda species saves itself from being eaten by the goats. We also find Mammillaria senilis and "papas del monte", a tiny, wild potato that can sometimes be found in Mexican markets during its season. We light a camp fire to keep us warm at 2700m. This time we have less luck with the weather and it starts to rain in the evening. At nightfall a man comes by with his dog. He also sports a little moustache and in a soft Spanish he warns us of wolves, bears and mountain lions. Because of the unpleasant weather we go to bed early. Around midnight we wake up to the heavy breathing of an animal just outside our tent. A hungry bear? Suddenly we hear yapping and decide that it must have been a starving dog, regaling himself on our chicken bones. Nevertheless the deep sleep doesn't really want to come back. Our camp fire survived the rain and we can quickly light it up with some more pine needles and dry branches. Hot coffee and an American breakfast strenghten us. Later we accidentally meet Don Melecio again along the road and tell him about the wolves, bears and mountain lions. He laughs out loud and says that these beasts are long gone from around here.

We spend another night in a meadow between huge oak trees not far away from Monte Escobedo. Gigantic green leaves glow in the evening sun and we discover the not yet fully developed inflorescences of Polianthes platyphylla, now Agave polyphylla. If you discover one plant you can suddenly see that the entire meadow is covered with them. The green leaves are absolutely inconspicuous and could also belong to a terrestrial orchid. Michael has an extremely good feeling for this place concerning the insects. In the evening we sit around the campfire, after all we're still at 2400m (7870 feet) altitude. The insects come to the lights only slowly. We all hoped for more. And of course it's again a lot of "Sonoran crap". Now we're off towards Guadalajara but soon we leave the highway for the mountains and drive up to a high mesa where Agave rzedowskiana was described growing in some beautiful cliffs. The place is simply wonderful but the wind is too strong. On the one hand no moths would come by and on the other hand we don't want to be blown off the cliff in the tent. A little further on we find another acceptable place with oak trees. Between the dry leaves Michael discovers a flowering Dorstenia species. On a hilltop we find more strange plants and we can't determine if they belong to the agavaceae without seeing an inflorescence. Beautiful and compact specimens of Agave guadalajarana thrive on the slopes in almost pure rocks. We photograph a big, green shimmering beetle, a Chrysina species, on oak leaves. Only one intoxicated Mexican stops to have a little chat with us. Soon he explains over and over again that we can stay as long as we want, even for a year. When we assure him that we will not leave our garbage, he instantly tells us that we can throw out the garbage of the whole world here. No problem, he says, no Mexican would ever notice it! About which he's probably not that wrong - nonetheless we take out our garbage. Along the road back to the pavement we pass flowering Agave tequilana, a rare sight since the inflorescences are normally cut off to harvest the plant to use it for tequila production. On the embankment, the last aztec lilies, Sprekelia formosissima, are flowering. Soon an unpleasant odor sneaks into the car. We're approaching the Rio Santiago which is carrying the sewage of the northern part of Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. The closer we get the more unbearable the odor of the "Cloaca Guadalajara" becomes. White crests dance on the river, the water is blackish-brown. San Cristobal de la Barranca lies at the paved road towards Guadalajara. The people here must have lost their sense of smell long ago, how else can they stand living next to that river? The sewer odor accompanies us for a while but then we get higher and it smells of fresh grass and rain.

Another highlight of our trip is the visit to a waterfall in the more tropical part of Michoacan. South of Reyes we visit the Chorros del Varal. You have to climb down 786 stairs to get into the canyon. Then you balance on a hanging bridge over a roaring river and walk a little downriver to a view point in front of the Chorros. The Chorros del Varal are waterfalls that come out of volcanic cliffs. Curtains of water fall into the river over a distance of about 200 meters (660 feet). The area is extremely green. The foliage of the trees is dense; climbing plants twine into the sky; "uvas del monte", wild and inedible grapes tempt with their beautiful purple hues; colorful butterflies sail from flower to flower. Graptopetalum pentandrum is almost invisible between all the greenery. And Sedum hemsleyanum has totally elongated rosettes thanks to the abundance of water. We're tempted to take a bath and cool down in the river but, as one can presume, this river is as polluted as many others. And so we bath in our own sweat which one breaks into easily in the tropical heat. After climbing up 786 stairs, at least in the shade of enormous fig and wild avocado trees, we desperately need a rest. Tonight we have to carefully choose a place to set up the tent. Thick clouds hang in the sky. The earth here is black and terribly loamy and we can see drainage channels from the rain everywhere. For lack of anything better we finally agree on a not so ideal place just on the road and are lucky again. We're spared by the rain. Michael carries the car batteries down 100 steps into the canyon and sets up his lights at the first landing. We have to almost bath in insect repellent to keep off all the biting beasts. Despite the heat we all wear long sleeved shirts and even hoods to protect ourselves from beetles and insects which are attracted by the lights and try to crawl under our clothes. The moths take their time and Michael suspects that we're too far into the rainy season. Most of them have already laid their eggs and died. Nonetheless we can observe some beautiful specimens, but again, it's mostly "Sonoran crap"

Now we'd like to entertain you entomologically interested readers with a few of the names of the moths we saw on our trip. There's that small, yellow, hairy moth, Megalopyge bisessa, better known under it's apt common name peanutbutter moth. You don't have to get very close to the moth with your nose and you can smell the peanutbutter! A male Estigmene albida that Michael shows us, smells less tempting. If you press the moth in the right spot, it sticks out some hairy tufts, the coremata. It spreads an intensive odor of cat excrement. It apparently has the effect of an aphrodisiac on the females. Another small moth looks like a wasp with its slender wings and the striped body. A salmon-colored female, Copaxa lavendera, has its wings decorated with silvery windows. A huge moth, Ascalapha odorata, is very dark colored and adorned with eyes on the wings. It's commonly known as the black witch. This moth sails through the air almost like a small bird and sometimes migrates into the northern US. Bigger moths, i.e. Copaxa muellerana, sport huge colorful eyes on their wings to keep off hungry enemies. The color of Automeris aff. boudinotiana is an inconspicuous salmon but if you bend back the big wings two huge black eyes with white pupils stare at you. Arsenura polyodonta has another strategy. This moth is so well adapted to its surroundings with its gray-brown-black pattern that you almost can't find it on the bark of oak trees. Dysdaemonia boreas is another not very attractively colored moth but it has beautiful processes at the end of its wings. Eacles oslari is another big moth with a beautiful yellow, purple and black pattern. Especially nice is Syssphinx raspa with its yellow-gray patterend wings with prominent white margins. The lower wings are mostly hidden but glow in a wonderful red with a white margin. Another interesting moth, Xylophanes eumedon, is from the genus of the sphinx moths and looks like a fighter jet with its green, gray, white, and brown coloring and the slender, pointed wings.

As you can see we're not only enthusiastic about agavaceae and crassulaceae. Michael managed to infect us with the moth fever!

June 2006

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen