Harbison's Research Trips

Harbison collecting insects during a research trip to Isla Santa Catalina in the Gulf of California, date unknown.

An important part of the research history of the San Diego Natural History Museum has been the many collecting trips organized by scientists since the early 1900s. These trips covered areas such as southern California, Baja California, central and southwestern Arizona as well as places like the Coronado Islands and Guadalupe Island; specimens were gathered for research as well as for museum display. Charles Harbison began taking research trips almost as soon as he began his career with the museum.

On his first trip in 1935, an East Coast sphinx moth collector had hired Harbison as an expedition leader to search for moths in northern Baja. Though that trip was not specifically for the museum it was to be a model for the countless trips that Harbison would make throughout his career. Typically Harbison would set out in his Model A car, packed to the gills with various supplies, and then return home with specimens of all kinds. Harbison was not only interested in collecting and researching insect species but also taking note of other animals and plants in the area, often helping fellow researchers such as L. M. Huey with the collecting of specimens. Though Harbison himself did not chronicle the research trips he made, some accounts of these trips have survived from different sources, including newspaper and/or bulletin articles, journals of other staff members such as L. M. Huey, or even permit requests from the museum director for the scientists. The following timeline chronicles Harbison's participation in research trips from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Harbison's car, Susie, a Model A


Harbison is hired along with a C.M. Brown by a sphinx moth collector from the East Coast to explore the northern half of the Baja peninsula in search of moths. The trip takes most of February and March of that year and ends near Punta Prieta. This was one of the trips where Harbison traveled by his infamous Model A car, "Susie." 


Harbison on a research trip to Cantiles Canyon, 1936.

November 12, Harbison accompanies L. M. Huey and Mr. Lichty on research trip to Cantillas Canyon. Harbison helps to trap some specimens of birds and mammals for Huey. On one occasion Harbison gives Huey a scare when he fails to turn up for several hours; "it seems Harbison had not returned and I commenced to worry a bit over his absence. He finally turned up about 7p.m.---2 hours after, tired and hungry- having neither lunch nor water with him. He had eaten part of a barrel cactus and found a drink of water in the middle of the afternoon in the upper reaches of the canyon."


February 29, Harbison accompanies L. M. Huey and Norris Bloomfield on a moth and mammal collecting trip. The areas they plan on going to include Tinajas Altar, Tube Wells, Agua Dulca Mountains, and Piracho in central and southwest Arizona. The trip lasted through the 25th of March.


November 14, Harbison accompanies L. M. Huey on a research trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. On Nov. 26, they moved on to a new area called Quatovaquita. "Insect collecting looked very bright as numerous butterflies were present and gave Harbie many thrills." Dec. 1- Harbison catches wild boar babies when the mother abandons them. Dec. 2- One of the little pigs, whose sibling had died, is being tamed by Harbison; "It follows him about like a little dog" Dec. 7- "caught moths all evening. A heavy flight of very interesting species was on and Harbie wanted all he could get."


April 9, Harbison accompanies L. M. Huey and the Bancrofts bound for central and lower California. First camp is eight miles east of San Vicenta. April 14/15- This entry recounts the story of how Harbie did not return after dinner; the others left the car lights on for him, but he did not find his way back until the next morning. Note: the last part of the notes from this trip is missing.


May 8, Harbison accompanies L. M. Huey on a trip to western and central Arizona. May 9- Entry talks about a hole in the gas tank; Harbison stops it up with his finger till a plug of some sort is made. With only seven of the 17 gallons left, they are at least 40 miles away from everything, and slightly worried, but obviously able to proceed. May 14- "Harbie collected insects up the wash and in the evening as he was setting his line of traps he caught a male gila monster." 

Harbison on research trip to Baja, Mexico, date unknown.


March 13, Harbison accompanies L. M. Huey on a six-week trip to central Baja California. This trip was to be the first expedition since December of 1941, owing to the war. The locations to be visited were San Francisquito Bay, Los Angeles Bay and Santa Catarina Landing. Huey's main objective was to finish gathering data on the kangaroo rats of the area, while Harbison was to gather herbarium and entomological specimens for the museum's collections from those localities that were not as yet represented. They returned with specimens of kangaroo rats as well as dwarf screech owls, desert flies and bees, tiny elf owls, pocket gophers, new specimens of the bright red cardinal bird first found in the area in 1944, and specimens of cacti and marine fossils. It should also be noted that from this trip duplicate collections would also be made for the Mexican Government under the exploratory agreement, as a token of good will for all the permits that were granted in order to make the research possible.


March, (Exact date unknown), Harbison accompanies Ethel B. Higgins on a trip that covers the length of the Baja Peninsula.


March 30-April 3, Harbison led a group excursion to Baja that included Richard Schwenkmeyer, Jerry Powell, an undergraduate student from UC Berkeley, Charles Kingery, George Pournelle, James Sams, and William McTear. The trip is to areas of Cantilles, or Tajo Canyon near Rancho El Topo on the desert side of Sierra Juarez. The trip was listed as for collecting "fauna & flora of the region."

September 7-11, Harbison accompanies James Sams and Richard Schwenkmeyer to the Tajo Canyon region of Baja. Trip listed as for "study and collecting purposes". November 5-21, Harbison accompanies Ethel B. Higgins and Cornelia Heller to the vicinities of La Paz and Loreto in Baja. Trip listed as being for the "scientific collecting of fauna and flora" in the region. 

Harbison enjoying some time outdoors.


August 10 to 16. Harbison traveled to coastal Baja California Norte with Jerry Powell and James Rohlf. Harbie was searching for larvae of an agave skipper (Megathymidae) that he later described. They worked out of a motel at Colonia Guererro up the Santo Domingo River to San Quintin Bay. They had good collecting at several sites.


September 6 to 10. Harbie traveled to San Quintin/Arroyo San Simon area in Baja California Norte, accompanied by Dr. John A. Comstock, former director of the LA County Natural History Museum, and M. J. McKenney, a graduate of Stanford Univ. and former Junior Naturalist in Harbie’s program, along with Ian Moore, F. X. Williams and others. Details of the trip were given by Harbison when he described the new megathymid in Transactions of the San Diego Society of Natural History, 12(12): 231-262, 1957. McKenney and Comstock collected most of the type series, and at least one moth was newly described from specimens they collected (Noctueliopsis grandis Munroe, 1974).


October 14 to 16. Harbie and Arthur A. Lee traveled to the area around Punta Prieta, Baja California, in search of a second new megathymid species, which had been discovered by a botanist, Dr. E. Yale Dawson, in October 1946.


(Exact dates unknown) Harbison takes part in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Doldrums Expedition. This boat trip took him to Clipperton Island, which is 1,000 miles west of Costa Rica and Barro Colorado Island, off of Panama. A collection of insects from the trip was later displayed at the museum in March 1965. Harbison was quoted as saying, “This trip was an apex of my career.”

December 24 to 30. Took Ethel Bailey Higgins to Santa Maria Sky Ranch and south to Colonia Guererro. Returned north Dec. 30. Mrs. Higgins is 92 and still remarkably active [letter from Harbison to Powell, Feb. 12, 1959].


October 2 to 6. Vicinity of Punta Prieta, Baja California. Although his previous trip was successful, Harbie felt the series of specimens was insufficient for describing the new species of megathymid, and he revisited the area (apparently alone) and captured numerous additional specimens.

Harbison (second from right) and unidentified colleages on a Lepidopterist Society field trip, 1967.


March 15 to April 26 (6 weeks). Harbison participates in the Belvedere Expedition to the Gulf of California. The itinerary of the expedition is given in detail by George Lindsay (Trans. San Diego Soc. Nat. Hist. 13(1): 1-44, 1962), who was Director of San Diego Natural History Museum. This account reports that Harbison “collected about 10,000 arthropods.”

August 29 to September 9. Harbie returned to the Punta Prieta area of Baja California, in an attempt to confirm the larval host and obtain early stages of the new megathymid skipper he had sought in 1956 and 1961. The effort was partially successful.

October 6 to 9. Harbie again returned to the Punta Prieta area. He was accompanied by Fred T. Thorne, an experienced butterfly researcher who had been Agricultural Commissioner for the San Diego Dept. of Agriculture, and after retirement was a part- time curator of entomology at San Diego Natural History Museum. They succeeded in capturing a fine series, and Harbison completed the study.


March 18 to 21. Harbie again organized and led a trip to Cantillas/Tajo Cañon. This group included Betty Mackintosh, from Chula Vista, Jerry Powell from U.C. Berkeley, Paul Opler, a graduate student at Berkeley, and four or five others. The group split into two parties. One led by Harbison, into the Tajo branch, had considerable difficulty making the steep descent. The other party, including Opler, Powell, and two young teenage girls who were not experienced hikers, came down the south, or Cantil branch, and met the Harbison group after two days. The canyon had suffered an extensive fire about four years earlier, Harbie thought, which burned the skirts from all the palms and killed many trees. Insect collecting was hampered by cool, windy conditions much of the time.

September 21 to October 23. With Darley Howe and Gordon Marsh, who was a coleopterist, Collection Manager of the Natural History Museum at U.C. Irvine, and former Junior Specialist in Harbie’s program, Harbison drove through Sonora and Sinaloa to Mazatlan, ferried to La Paz, collected in the Cape District, then northward the length of the Peninsula.


Around August 30 to September 1. Harbison went on a three-day trip to Tajo/Cantil with Betty Mackintosh and her husband, and stayed at El Topo Ranch with the Sandovals.


(Exact dates unknown). David Faulkner (in Environment Southwest, Summer 1987: 13-16) mentions Harbie’s last trip into Tajo Canyon, at age 69, during which he fell and suffered a head injury and had to be assisted out of the canyon.