Around Pena Blanca Lake

by Dan Weisz

Web presentation by Douglas Everett @ Hummingbird Market

On Monday, I visited Pena Blanca Lake on a Jeff Babson-led Sky Island Tours group, with the purpose of looking for dragonflies.  The monsoon rains have the effect of giving the desert a Second Spring.  The hillsides were covered with green plants and new growth which is accompanied by an explosion of insect life.  We didn’t have to walk very far and spent our time near the shallow water and mudflats at the southern edge of the lake.  Below is a sample of the many lifeforms we saw.

A Black Setwing Dragonfly shows a very different wing pattern when at rest.  Dragonflies usually hold their wings out to their sides while at rest.  Damselflies hold their wings back along their abdomen.  This Setwing is holding its wings downward and forward.

A Viceroy Butterfly landed on a plant above us.  The Viceroy looks similar to Monarch and Queen butterflies but the Viceroy has a black line curling across the middle of its hindwing.  Viceroys are also unpalatable to birds, so they won’t eat Viceroys preferring better tasting butterflies.

A Gray Sand Dragon circled around us continuously and would land on the wet sandbar.  As you can see by looking at its enlarged tail, it is part of the “club tail” family of dragonflies.  This dragonfly is less than 2.5 inches long.

Meanwhile, butterflies would also often land on the mud.  This Elada Checkerspot butterfly is “mud-puddling”.  These insects land on mud or wet sand to drink up the salts and amino acids and other nutrients present.  The Elada is a small butterfly with a wingspan of about an inch.

The Widow Skimmer is a spectacular looking dragonfly.  It gets its name from looking like it is dressed in mourning clothing.  Widow Skimmers are common throughout the United States.

We only saw one species of caterpillars on our walk- that of the Tiger Moth.  There are many types of Tiger Moths and I do not know what type of caterpillar this one is, but these types have been called woolly bears.  Personally, I was too hot to try to figure out how to predict our winter based on this caterpillar’s look.

This damselfly (see how it is holding its wings) is called a Arroyo Bluet.  It has a black abdomen with blue rings around it.

The Mexican Forktail damselfly was near the Arroyo Bluet above.  You can see the differences in the colors of their thorax, and the middle and the end of their abdomen.  A blade of grass cuts across the photo.  There was so much green vegetation around it was difficult to get a clean look at many of these insects.

The Red Satyr Butterfly is brown with one eyespot and an orange blush on each wing.  Usually it sits with its wings closed, so it was nice to see all of the upper wing here. Again, grasses obscured our views most of the time.

Two Elada Checkerspots.

A Painted Lady puddling.

And finally, a Mexican Amberwing dragonfly.  These are the smallest dragonflies in Arizona.

To get to Pena Blanca Lake, take the Ruby Road exit off of I-19, just five miles north of the border with Mexico.  Drive about ten miles westward and the lake is in a narrow canyon next to the Pajarito (Little Bird) Mountains.   The twin peaks to the south of the lake look white at sunset, perhaps giving the lake its name (Pena Blanca, or White Rock).

Special thanks go to Jeff Babson for ID’ing each of these beauties.   To learn more about Jeff’s Sky Island Tours, go to and check out his event calendar