#106 - Arizona Tarantulas - a December Field Trip with Brent

Aphonopelma catalina, A. chalcodes, A. madera, A. paloma, A. parvum, and A. saguaro, with a guest appearance by A. superstitionense. All in one week; the first week of December. Seven of Arizona’s tarantula species, which sounds like a big number until you realize that sevenTEEN can be found within the borders of “The Grand Canyon State”.

  Saguaro, icon of the Sonoran Desert where Brent and I spent the first week of December

Saguaro, icon of the Sonoran Desert where Brent and I spent the first week of December

Full disclosure: the Aphonopelma superstitionense specimens (both male and female) were collected by someone else in advance of our arrival, which allowed Brent Hendrixson and I to only briefly search for this species before concentrating our efforts elsewhere. Three other species were either not targets at all or only of secondary interest. A. chalcodes is Arizona’s most ubiquitous tarantula, widely ranging across the state south of the Colorado river. This species wasn’t of interest. We saw some open burrows but left them alone. Most had been plugged up as this species becomes dormant in late fall and winter and doesn’t resume activity until spring. Brent found one small specimen while flipping rocks in the Santa Catalina Mountains. We did make a trip to an area near the Pinaleño Mountains for A. parvum, in a desert grassland where it is active and breeds in the fall after the syntopic A. gabeli and A. vorhiesi found in the same area become dormant after their late spring and summer breeding seasons, but we were also drawn to the area by a desire to search the nearby mountain range as well. In October Brent had stayed with me in Cave Creek Canyon and we had found A. parvum in the desert grassland near Portal, AZ then and didn’t need to see it again, but just wanted to see if the population between Willcox and Safford was still active the first week of December. Finally, A. madera was another species that wasn’t a goal of this field trip as it has been encountered a number of times previously, but we decided to hike in the Santa Ritas and were just curious if males were still to be found. It was a pretty chilly morning during our ascent of Old Baldy Trail, but the sun was warming Madera Canyon when we were done with our hike so we drove the paved roads and finally I saw one male on the road as we were exiting the canyon. 

So what determined what the target species were? Well, Brent has now disclosed via a social media teaser the project he has been working on so I guess I can reveal it here. He has been seeking and photographing specimens to produce a comprehensive field guide to the scorpions and tarantulas of the United States featuring his own high quality isolated-on-white portraits of each species. Even species he has found and photographed over the years have been sought again over the past couple in order to re-photograph with new gear and technique. Readers of this blog know he already had visited me a few times earlier in the year (see #96, #102) and this early December trip before I headed to Chicago/Malaysia for the winter was to complete his 2018 search for United States tarantulas and scorpions. Our two primary targets were two elusive, difficult to find species: Aphonopelma catalina and A. saguaro. America’s smallest tarantula, A. paloma, became a secondary target as I wanted to see it at the species’ type locality near Maricopa, between Phoenix and Tucson.

After storing my Wheelhouse at Rusty’s north of Rodeo, NM, I drove to Phoenix and spent Friday night in a hotel near the airport. Saturday morning I picked up Brent and we hiked a trail in a canyon where A. superstitionense lives. We didn’t find the species active that day or locate any burrows, but as I wrote above a friend of Brent’s who lives in Mesa had already found him both males and females a few weeks earlier, and they were from the same canyon. So that night we picked up those specimens before enjoying a nice Thai dinner. Sunday we moved from Phoenix southeast to Tucson and detoured to the A. paloma site near Maricopa along the way.

  Type locality,  Aphonopelma paloma .  This sandy soil is very difficult to dig in. This desert is primarily vegetated with shrubs like creosote bush and triangle-leaf bursage with some brittlebush or desert-thorn. The short trees in the image are paloverde, and although not seen in this photo the area also has sparse cacti including fishhook barrel cactus and saguaro.

Type locality, Aphonopelma paloma. This sandy soil is very difficult to dig in. This desert is primarily vegetated with shrubs like creosote bush and triangle-leaf bursage with some brittlebush or desert-thorn. The short trees in the image are paloverde, and although not seen in this photo the area also has sparse cacti including fishhook barrel cactus and saguaro.

  Burrow,  Aphonopelma paloma .  This is a classic  A. paloma  burrow with a crescent-shaped pile of excavated sandy soil to one side of the perfectly round burrow opening. The smallest species in the United States, this one-inch long tarantula lives in burrows the diameter of a pea. The tiny tunnels can be complex and deep and the composition of the earth also makes it very difficult to extract these spiders.

Burrow, Aphonopelma paloma. This is a classic A. paloma burrow with a crescent-shaped pile of excavated sandy soil to one side of the perfectly round burrow opening. The smallest species in the United States, this one-inch long tarantula lives in burrows the diameter of a pea. The tiny tunnels can be complex and deep and the composition of the earth also makes it very difficult to extract these spiders.

  Adult female,  Aphonopelma paloma , Pinal County, Arizona.  Legspan the diameter of a quarter.

Adult female, Aphonopelma paloma, Pinal County, Arizona. Legspan the diameter of a quarter.

The Paloma species group of Aphonopelma is unique in its miniaturization. Comprised of a dozen species that live among larger species, but not among other “mini tarantulas”, the seven Arizona representatives are A. paloma plus A. mareki, A. parvum, A. phasmus, A. prenticei, A. saguaro, and A. superstitionense. For the most part they breed in the autumn after the active periods of the larger tarantulas in the area are coming to an end. With the above female A. paloma “in the bag”, Brent and I next turned our sights on A. saguaro.

We left the Maricopa - Casa Grande area and checked into the Tucson hotel where we’d spend the next five nights. Just down the road was a Whole Foods Market where we’d get most of our meals and it had a bar where we enjoyed a few beers Sunday night with more over the course of our stay. Monday morning we met up with Paul & Karla, a husband and wife from the Wickenburg, Arizona area that Brent had known previously. They wanted to hike and search for tarantulas with us and they were waiting for us at Bear Canyon west of the Santa Catalina Mountains when we arrived. This is where we would search for Aphonopelma saguaro. We were fortunate to come across a couple of burrows right along the trail and Brent persevered to dig among roots and rocks for quite some time to extract a tiny adult female. Later after a nice hike Paul tried his hand at digging another on our return trek. While he was at it Brent went down the trail in search of a male and as I started to follow and saw him approaching I witnessed him look down and give me the thumbs up. Right there at his feet along a little stream was the only male we would see.

   Aphonopelma saguaro , female (top) and male, Bear Canyon, Pima County, Arizona

Aphonopelma saguaro, female (top) and male, Bear Canyon, Pima County, Arizona

After lunch Paul & Karla also joined Brent and I for a trip into the Santa Catalina Mountains where we drove up to nearly mile-high elevation, parked and climbed a mountain trail in search of the endemic Aphonopelma catalina. We had little expectations going in of finding the cryptic burrows of females in the rugged and rocky mountain terrain, but were hoping to come across males wandering the trail ascending the Sky Island. On the climb up we found a male at almost exactly one mile above sea level (5267 ft at 2:42 pm), saw nothing else as we pushed on for a couple more miles and then found another male in a hole in the trail descending the trail two hours later within a couple hundred feet of the first male. Searching the area near the males did not result in finding any female burrows and we later said goodbye to Paul & Karla and ended up at Whole Foods for dinner.

Tuesday was our Madera Canyon visit and Wednesday the trip out toward the Pinaleños and the nearby A. parvum site. Each night Brent and I had been trying to catch sunset photos without the sky cooperating, but on Wednesday night we made our third attempt at Catalina State Park and were able to catch a colorful Sonoran Desert dusk on the Nature Trail Loop.

  Sunburst at Catalina State Park

Sunburst at Catalina State Park

  Pink Sunset at Catalina State Park

Pink Sunset at Catalina State Park

On Thursday we returned to the Santa Catalina Mountains to search the area where the two male Aphonopelma catalina had been found on Monday afternoon. They had been encountered so close to each other and the area was along a flat stretch of trail with extensive grassy and rocky areas where females must occur. Other than the desert grasses the vegetation was mostly limited to sparse bushes and the occasional small emory oak tree. Rain had been forecast for the latter half of our week and we had been fortunate so far, but Thursday there was an 80% chance of precipitation predicted for the afternoon so we were up the trail early and searched with some sense of urgency. I’ve blogged and published about A. chiricahua, another Sky Island endemic, and people ask why these spiders are so elusive or difficult to find. There are a number of reasons including steep and rugged terrain with heavy cover and cryptic burrows that may be atypical (e.g., beneath cover, not perfectly round, not covered or accompanied by silk). Brent focused on flipping rocks and searching near them while I used my walking stick to move the tall grasses to look for burrows that might be hidden from view. Beneath the numerous rocks, Brent found a four-inch Southwestern Black-headed Snake (Tantilla hobartsmithi), a scorpion (Superstitionia donensis), a young A. chalcodes tarantula, and even a mouse, but neither of us found what we were looking for. I found some holes that were promising enough to pour some water into but saw nothing and started second-guessing myself, wondering if some I dismissed as rodent holes might actually be tarantula burrows. The skies were threatening and after an exhaustive search of the area we decided to move up the trail. We hadn’t gone far before I found the day’s only male on top of a large boulder and Brent looked a few feet below it and saw a hole. It wasn’t instantly recognizable as a classic tarantula burrow but there was a clump of silk outside it that Brent called “crusty”. We actually wondered whether it could have been this male’s retreat before maturity. Brent got his digging gear out and went to work on it even if we were still doubtful. The ground was very rocky and he immediately had difficulty excavating around the tunnel. We thought that a huge rock might make proceeding impossible, but after removing several large rocks beneath a larger one, Brent could scrape away at the exposed earth and perhaps five minutes later said he saw legs. It would have been so easy to give up on this hole. At discovery it looked questionable and during digging it seemed improbable that the terrain was even workable. The first glimpse of the forelegs had us believing it was a young spider so we were extra surprised when it finally came into view and we knew we had an adult female Aphonopelma catalina, a spider we doubted would see.

   Aphonopelma catalina , female, Santa Catalina Mountains, Pima County, Arizona

Aphonopelma catalina, female, Santa Catalina Mountains, Pima County, Arizona

   Aphonopelma catalina , male #1, Santa Catalina Mountains, Pima County, Arizona

Aphonopelma catalina, male #1, Santa Catalina Mountains, Pima County, Arizona

Our early start to try to find our spider before rain washed out the rest of our week meant that we had achieved success by 10 a.m. As it turned out, the rain didn’t fall until after dark, but we didn’t know that yet. We just knew that we had exceeded our expectations for the week and had found all of our targets. We went to Whole Foods for lunch and then realizing that the afternoon might be dry decided to hike into nearby Pima Canyon. Each day of the week we had hiked 6-10 miles and it was great to get one more beautiful Sonoran Desert experience before I would head to Chicago and Brent would return to Mississippi.

Friday we checked out of our Tucson hotel and moved back to Phoenix in preparation for Brent’s early Saturday morning flight. We decided to return to the A. paloma type locality site as during our first visit we didn’t find any males. We were more interested in knowing whether they were still active than collecting or photographing. What we discovered is that the female burrows we had found six days earlier were now plugged and again we saw no males. We had caught them right at the end of their season. And so it was also the end of the season for us. We returned to Phoenix and again found a Thai restaurant for dinner and before dawn Saturday morning I dropped Brent off at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. I then drove four hours back to Portal to pick up my parrot Jesse. She had been kindly cared for by my friend Carol while I was off chasing hairy spiders. Then I drove a few hours east to overnight in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This morning I drove 570 miles from Las Cruces to Elk City, Oklahoma. I have 1000 more miles to Chicago …

#105 - Happy December

5 a.m. Hotel near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. I left Cave Creek Canyon for the winter yesterday at dawn. Rain was falling and the surrounding peaks had a beautiful dusting of snow.

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One week ago was my last day hosting at the VIC. I was happy that I had the most visitors and highest merchandise sales of the month during my final shift. It has been such a pleasure to share my passion for the area and wildlife with birders, hikers, campers and others who are fortunate to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the Chiricahua Mountains. My final day numbers had already eclipsed those of the previous days of the months before 3 p.m. rolled around and a surprise party for me inflated the visitor count. The entire Friends of Cave Creek Canyon [FoCCC] board plus spouses and other friends turned up to give me a wonderful farewell and thank me for my service. It only took the arrival of the first six or seven before it dawned on me that something was up. I was presented with the 2018 Volunteer of the Year award and paid registration for next year’s Biology of Pitvipers 3 Conference, and Vice President and VIC Manager Mike Williams proclaimed me “the best volunteer” they have had. Bob & Sheri Ashley, owners of the Chiricahua Desert Museum and Eco Publishing, who also serve on the board, gave me a signed Tell Hicks print of three Brachypelma tarantulas. Then two dozen people or more, including a few volunteers from the VIC and Forest Service, had cake and milled about as other visitors continued to arrive and I went from celebration to information.

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For over seven months I lived and worked and played in the northeastern Chiricahuas and there will only be a three month break before my return. 2018 was full of amazing experiences, many of which were recounted here. I am grateful to FoCCC for the opportunity, and it was very kind of them to acknowledge my efforts as they did. I look forward to my 2019 adventures in Cave Creek Canyon and continuing to play a role in the FoCCC mission of “inspiring appreciation & understanding of the beauty, biodiversity & legacy of Cave Creek Canyon”. Friends of Cave Creek Canyon is non-profit all-volunteer organization that was chartered in 2011 by passionate residents of the Portal, Arizona and Rodeo, New Mexico community, and has individual, family and business members from all over who contribute to FoCCC efforts in this enchanting canyon.

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As I prepared my Wheelhouse for winter storage over the past week, the U.S. Forest Service brought three horses and six mules to the corral where I was camped for over six months. The mules must have had draft horse dams as they are huge! I enjoyed watching them graze on the hillside before I left. Thursday I brought my parrot Jesse to stay with Carol who is in charge of the FoCCC educational outreach and is introducing students to the wonders of Cave Creek Canyon. Jesse will stay with Carol for eight days or so while I am in the Phoenix and Tucson areas with Brent Hendrixson who arrives at the airport here in Phoenix this morning.

Friday morning I woke in the pre-dawn dark to rain and once the sun rose I saw that the higher peaks surrounding me had been dusted with snow. I had no choice but to put on my rain jacket and load my truck and hitch up the Wheelhouse. It was just after 7 a.m. when I pulled out of the canyon for the year and headed to breakfast at the Rodeo Cafe. Then I dropped the RV off at Rusty’s RV Ranch for 90 days of storage and headed to Phoenix by way of Tucson.

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So here I sit in a Phoenix hotel before sunrise. I will be in hotel rooms for the next ten nights as Brent & I search for late fall-winter breeding tarantulas before I drop him back at PHX on December 8 and make my way back to Chicagoland via a return to Portal to pickup Jesse and then Las Cruces, NM, Elk City, OK and Rolla, MO. December 11 I expect I will be dining at my favorite sushi restaurant in South Barrington, Illinois with Joel and wearing my North Face parka.

All the best, MJ

#104 - November Surprises

  Sonoran Gopher Snake, young of the year

Sonoran Gopher Snake, young of the year

For four nights I left the cold water in my Wheelhouse kitchen dripping. Overnight lows, typically at about 4 a.m., were below freezing. The coldest day it got down to 20ºF at my Corral, and was just over 14 a couple of miles up canyon (500’ in elevation) at SWRS.

A few of the days the temperature barely got above 50 in early afternoon and I realized that maybe I wouldn’t see another live snake in 2017.

I was less concerned about tarantulas. I knew that Brent and I are spending the first week of December between Phoenix and Tucson and I know we will scare some up.

Sadly, the last snake I had seen was a young of the year Sonoran Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer affinis) that had just been struck by a vehicle. Nothing is worse in herping than coming across a snake writhing and twisting, disfigured by a wheel. It was eight days ago. Before the big cold spell.

So, yesterday, as I drove north on Highway 80 returning from shopping in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, it was a surprise to see a snake stretched across my lane. The temperature was in the low-60s, with the sun bright in the San Simon Valley. The first snake I saw appeared to be about two-and-a-half feet long. I had the cruise control set at 70 mph and it took a minute to come to a stop off the shoulder in high desert grass. As I ran back south on the highway, the snake vanished, which reinforced my suspicion that it had been a Sonoran Whipsnake (Masticophis bilineatus) . They don’t stick around to play.

Ten minutes later I had just passed Apache, Arizona and the Geronimo Surrenders Monument. Apache sits along the highway where the road runs east towards the pretty much inaccessible Skeleton Canyon in the Peloncillo Mountains and the view on the left is the highest peaks of the Chiricahuas. There along the road is a tiny country school where the few local children are bussed for class.

I did a double-take even at speed at a clump in the middle of the southbound lane. A vehicle had just passed and an early thought was whether it could be something dead-on-road, but I also thought it might be rope or some sort of tie-down strap as it was in a coil, not out-stretched like most snakes are. I reversed my truck along the shoulder until I came even with the ‘clump’ and still wasn’t sure it was organic. But as soon as I stepped out onto the highway a young-of-the-year Sonoran Gopher turned towards me. As I bent over to scoop it up, I was greeted with the typical Pituophis bluff-hissing strike and soon had it entwined in my warm fingers.

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I have observed countless gopher snakes this season and, unfortunately, close to half were dead-on-road. That has been particularly true of the past couple months as the paved roads in southeastern Arizona and bootheel New Mexico sure take their toll on these amazing snakes. They are beautiful and so beneficial. Fortunately, it also seems like they are fecund.

Then today I had a tarantula surprise. I was doing maintenance around the RV and camp when the guy who runs the VIC stopped by the Corral. I opened my gate and he pulled his ATV in for a chat. Some time during our conversation I looked down beneath the front of the Wheelhouse and saw a very small mature male tarantula walking along, plenty warm in the midday’s sixty degrees. But I still had to wonder where it was before dawn while my sink water was still dripping to prevent freezing.

#103 - November

I didn’t think I’d be blogging from Cave Creek Canyon in November. When I signed on to be a host at the Visitor Information Center my end date wasn’t clear, but I hoped they’d let me stay through August. Here I am; until November 30.

New hosts have come and gone and there are two ‘host units’ here now besides me. They will be staffing the VIC six days a week. After training one of them this past weekend, I now only am scheduled for Saturdays in November. Three more shifts. The last on November 24.

Yesterday I spent some time ‘weed whacking’ around the other host RV sites. It was clear and sunny. The temperature reached 77ºF. Sunset is around 5:20 pm right now and the temperature starts to drop quickly around 4 pm, but we are treated to warm days. Mornings are crisp, even close to freezing, but this past week has been absolutely lovely. Bluebird skies, wonderful afternoons.

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Last night I did my laundry at Cave Creek Ranch. It’s been so nice having big commercial machines at my disposal, and at no charge too. CCR is owned by the president of Friends of Cave Creek Canyon and he graciously gives VIC hosts a place for mail, package delivery and laundry. They ask that we wait until 4 pm when their housekeeping staff has gone for the day to launder our clothes. That is also the time that Laura (who also volunteers at the VIC) or one of the other ladies that runs their office feeds alfalfa pellets to the resident Coue’s White-tailed Deer. Last night I counted 21 in the pen where they pour the pellets onto the ground. I got there just before feeding time and a few of the incredibly tame deer tried to follow me into the laundry room as it is next door to the room where they know their food is stored. Almost always at the same time there is a coati and a skunk or two milling around the feeders. As my clothes soak and spin I sit and watch all the amazing wildlife that has become accustomed to life at the Ranch. The laundry room is also where my mail and packages are placed after arriving at the Ranch and I sort through it with camera in hand. The silly White-nosed Coati seen here put on quite the show for the two couples sitting on the porch watching the critters with me. Laura was working in the office and she came out just as a flock of White-winged Doves fled the scene. It got quiet and no birds were around. That means predator and she had noticed a hawk fly into the large trees that shade the primary feeding area where this coati was. It flew off to a tree beyond the pen where the deer were feeding and I trained my long lens on it. To be honest, I am not certain whether it is a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk, although Cooper’s are more common in Cave Creek Canyon. Both are smallish with long tails that allow them to soar and maneuver through the trees in pursuit of their (primarily) bird prey. They are very similar in appearance and this one appears to be a juvenile male. The Cooper’s Hawk is larger, but that is subjective and there is size overlap, but it also has a more ‘blockish’ head and longer, somewhat rounded tail. In flight, this raptor’s tail looked squared off, but very long so I have posted these images to iNaturalist hoping someone will have a strong opinion. I’ll update this section if there is a consensus on iNat one way or the other. I called it a Cooper’s to Laura and the guests, but I am actually leaning more toward Sharp-shinned.

[EDIT: The consensus among the ‘experts’ on iNat was Cooper’s]

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I have a room booked in Phoenix for November 30 so I have three weeks left of this year’s Chiricahua Mountain odyssey. After picking up Brent Hendrixson at the airport the first day of December, he and I will search for a few tarantulas between Phoenix and Tucson, returning to Phoenix the night before he departs on December 8. Then I will take a scenic route back to Chicago, hoping to find fall color, waterfalls or other landscape subjects. By mid-December I will be watching Chicago Blackhawks games with Joel and seeing how the new head coach they announced yesterday fares with the roster and the past few year’s disappointment after winning three Stanley Cups in the previous handful of seasons.

My Days Until app tells me that there are now 63 days until I depart for Malaysia via Hong Kong. I FaceTimed with Mark a couple days ago and both of us will be counting down the winter days until we share a cold Tiger lager at Hotel Equatorial in Penang. But first I must brave the Chicago chill for what will be about three weeks. I’ll keep busy with doctor, new eyeglasses, and the sorts of things you can’t do when you spend seven months in the wilderness. I am also busy writing. I have been typing my experiences from a life of snakes and spiders and considering releasing a memoir. I think I may even have a novel in me. At the very least, I can come up with another article for the British Tarantula Society. Aphonopelma chiricahua revisited?

On the subject of writing, during my overseas travels in January I intend to blog at least once a day. I will do my trip journal here for any interested readers to follow.

Until next time, MJ

#102 - Another Adventure with Brent

Happy November!

Autumnal change has shifted my activity patterns. Early October brought unusual rains and frigid temperatures to Cave Creek Canyon and I resigned myself that this year’s nightly road cruising was over. Nocturnal snakes became diurnal as the Arizona Sycamore leaves yellowed and the fading sun quickly brought chill. I began to spend my days hiking mountain trails not to look for reptiles and arachnids but rather reaching destination goals and exercising while taking in the fall colors in the Chiricahuas. But I also wanted to search for the autumn-breeding tarantulas of the region.

Brent Hendrixson was on yet another extended field research excursion as part of his sabbatical, and had been transversing the southwest in pursuit of tarantulas. With earlier trips focused on scorpions, he was now visiting localities of many of our American Aphonopelma tarantulas and photographing not only our theraphosid spider diversity, but also the breathtaking vistas throughout their range. I followed his progress knowing that he would make his way to my camp, and we would seek the elusive Chiricahua Mountain tarantula, and maybe sneak in some landscape photography.

Readers may recall that in late June I stumbled upon a tarantula burrow up canyon above the Southwestern Research Station and was fortunate enough to extract a very elusive spider (see blog entry #94 “An Endemic Tarantula”). This Aphonopelma chiricahua was a surprising reward on a very hot and dry June 21. You also might remember my #96, which told tales from Brent’s August visit with his summer Millsaps College course students and our trip to find another tarantula native to a Sky Island range, Aphonopelma peloncillo in the foothills of the Peloncillo Mountains. I would write up both experiences in an article for the British Tarantula Society entitled “American Mountain Endemics” (JACOBI, M. 2018. American Mountain Endemics. Journal of the British Tarantula Society 33(2): 10-16). You may download the article by clicking here.

Hopefully many of you have watched my video on Aphonopelma marxi, the namesake of the Sky Island diversity or Marxi group of U.S. tarantulas. If not, click here. This group of spiders is of particular interest to me as my passion is for the fauna and flora of our Madrean Sky Island ranges, many of which are part of the Coronado National Forest. However, the closest population of A. marxi to Cave Creek Canyon is in the Gila National Forest, north of Silver City, New Mexico. This is about a two hour drive northeast of my camp at the corral. There lies the Pinos Altos Range of the Mogollon Mountains near the Continental Divide.

During the drive up to the A. marxi site I had encountered a wandering mature male Aphonopelma hentzi just outside of Lordsburg, New Mexico. This is the United States’ most abundant and widespread tarantula and a native of the Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert.

   Aphonopelma hentzi , male, October 21, 2018

Aphonopelma hentzi, male, October 21, 2018

During a very recent run to Lordsburg for supplies I encountered three male A. hentzi, and the first one was very unusual. It was in great condition, which on October 21 is certainly not what you’d expect from a summer breeder that has wandered for months. Perhaps even more surprising was this spider’s location. I had never found one so far west. The two I would find on my return from Lordsburg were in the Animas Valley, east of the Peloncillo Mountains. This is where I would have expected to be the species’ westernmost limit in this area. But this guy was about one half mile from the Arizona border, west of Highway 80, between Portal, AZ and Rodeo, NM in the San Simon Valley. The other “desert” species of this area, including A. vorhiesi, A. gabeli and A. chalcodes, are also late spring through summer breeders, and those males have disappeared. Finding a “Texas Brown” tarantula so late in the year and so close to Arizona was very unexpected. In fact, the only Arizona records that Brent and his colleagues noted in their 2016 Aphonopelma revision were two females that Brent had found in Greenlee County, Arizona three miles west of the New Mexico border, about sixty miles north of my state line New Mexico male.

The mature males that interested me though, as the leaves of cottonwoods, sycamores and maples changed with the season, were a dwarf species from the desert grassland and a mountain endemic named for the Chiricahua Mountains. Aphonopelma parvum is a diminutive newly described species from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico that is typically active in November and December. From my home in Cave Creek Canyon the population of interest would be one along State Line Road between Portal and Rodeo. And, of course, Aphonopelma chiricahua was what I would expect to be active at a similar time in the mountains, and what would be my primary target.

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As Brent spent October traveling from locality to locality - and species to species - west of me, I texted him images of males I found here. The first of interest was found on October 9 just after midday crossing the road 1.6 miles from my camp, just west of Portal. Air temperature was 62ºF and the elevation 4790 ft. I considered it Aphonopelma parvum due to its small size. After all, the specific epithet of that species means “very little”. However, it was somewhat in an odd area between where I have now found A. parvum and A. chiricahua. As it was missing a leg and was thereby less ‘photogenic’, I took the above image for size reference and released him rather than saving him for Brent’s eventual arrival back in the Chiricahuas.

   Aphonopelma chiricahua , mature male

Aphonopelma chiricahua, mature male

On the morning of October 11 I found an even smaller male near the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, at 4912 ft elevation, just one third of a mile down canyon from my camp. Freshly matured, this beautiful little boy was very black and had long fiery orange-red hairs on his abdomen. I didn’t record the air temperature just before 8:00 a.m. when I encountered him crossing the road, but reviewing weather data collected at the Southwestern Research Station shows that it was in the low 50s there five hundred feet higher so I expect it was in the high 50s at the entrance to the northeastern Chiricahuas. This male was collected for Brent Hendrixson’s research.

The next tarantula of note was discovered in the outdoor restroom building behind the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center (VIC). As I unlocked the men’s toilet on the morning of October 17, I found a small deceased tarantula that appeared to be an immature female. It also was collected for Brent. It was following yet another period of autumn rainfall here in the canyon and the temperature was quite chilly that morning.

On Monday morning (October 29) I drove up the mountain to hike the high elevation Crest Trail near 9000 ft. Brent had spent a few days in Phoenix and while I climbed the trail out of Rustler Park he began his five-hour drive toward Portal. The Chiricahuas had experienced several days of beautiful mild weather, with temperatures in the canyon below reaching 80ºF after fifty degree mornings, and it was reasonably warm and very sunny up among the peaks. Along my hike I saw at least fifty baby Slevin’s Bunch Grass Lizards (Sceloporus slevini) sunning themselves, a pair of Mountain Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus jarrovii) and, sadly, on the drive back down a dead-on-road (DOR) Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei). Also spotted were several Red-tailed Hawks, numerous Western Bluebirds and Yellow-eyed Juncos and many other montane birds.

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I was back in the canyon by about 1pm and not too long after Brent pulled into the corral, already 8000 miles into this research road trip. On his drive south from the interstate (I-10) he had found a male Aphonopelma parvum near Granite Gap where Highway 80 passes through the Peloncillo Mountains into the San Simon Valley. After he settled in and we got caught up we decided our first adventure would be to drive out to State Line Road to a site where he had previously found A. parvum. This tiny species lives in burrows the size of a pea and they typically have excavated soil scattered to the side of the entrance.

In the video below you will see one of the females we extracted. Believe it or not, this was actually what Brent considered a “HUGE” female. We were able to find several of these tiny females in a short span, but were somewhat surprised that we didn’t find any males moving about or hiding in clumps of grass. We did, however, find a Desert Box Turtle as we were leaving. We then decided to drive back north toward Granite Gap to perhaps find a male where Brent had found one earlier. Only a handful of miles north, when we were near Rusty’s RV Ranch where I lived four months last year and the first month of this season, we found a male. The images following the video clip show the female and male of this little tarantula.

   Aphonopelma parvum , adult female, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum, adult female, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

   Aphonopelma parvum , adult male, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum, adult male, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Tuesday October 30 Brent and I explored Rucker Canyon at the south end of the Chiricahua Mountains. I had never visited the area and was looking forward to seeing the “flatter” southern Chiris. After a pit stop farther south in Douglas, Arizona, we drove back up to Tex Canyon Road and west into Rucker Canyon. Brent wanted to search for a “small black tarantula” that a friend of his had reported finding in numbers while flipping rocks looking for reptiles. We flipped a lot of rocks over a couple of hours, but never saw a tarantula. However, we did find quite a number of black and red Phidippus jumping spiders (probably P. carneus), scorpions (Paravaejovis spinigerus) and centipedes. While I was sitting at a picnic table at Camp Rucker (Walnut Grove Campground) photographing two jumpers, Brent went to flip more rocks and returned with an absolutely huge jumping spider feeding on a grasshopper. The spider’s abdomen was already huge, but its gluttony apparently had no bounds. Brent was able to carry it to me on the stick where it was perched devouring the insect.

  GLUTTONY:  Phidippus  vs. grasshopper

GLUTTONY: Phidippus vs. grasshopper

We left Rucker Canyon and found our way west and then north up the west side of the Chiricahuas and headed toward Chiricahua National Monument (CNM). Several days earlier CNM’s Facebook page had a video of their Visitor Center staff releasing a male tarantula that would be Aphonopelma chiricahua. We figured that a drive through the CNM would be worthwhile and then we would drive up Pinery Canyon to Onion Saddle and back down the other side (“my side”) of the range back into Cave Creek Canyon. Not long after we passed the entrance gate we saw a male on the road, which was fortuitous as he was the only spider we would see there. We continued to drive through CNM to Massai Point where I took some photographs and then, satisfied with finding a male of our target species, we began the climb up the northwest side of the Chiricahuas. As we ascended the rugged mountain road we came upon a rafter of about a dozen Gould’s Wild Turkey. I have seen many of them over the past few days, from canyon to peaks, on both sides of the mountains. Back at camp we went out to Vista Point for some twilight landscape photography.

  Cathedral Vista, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

Cathedral Vista, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

Yesterday was Halloween and the last day of Brent’s visit. I had anticipated that we would search for A. chiricahua burrows, probably near where I had found that female in a burrow back on June 21. However, it is an extremely elusive species and Brent was discouraged by the dozen or so attempts he had made to find this species over the past decade. After being on the road staying in tent or hotel for a long stretch, he was also looking forward to getting home to Jackson, Mississippi. He decided not to spend the night and asked me what hike I would recommend. He wanted to hit the road by mid-afternoon and take a break from spider hunting by exploring one of the trails that I frequent. I suggested that we drive up to the top of the mountain back to Onion Saddle and then hike the Barfoot Lookout Trail. Brent had been up to the top before and we drove up and over Onion Saddle the previous day, but he had never seen Barfoot or Rustler Park. After four or five days of very mild “Indian Summer” weather, it was colder Halloween morning and when we got up over 7000 ft it was cloudy and I worried that the amazing views we would have from the montane trails would be obscured by the fog. However, after driving into Rustler Park and showing him the area where our hiking club had encountered a tarantula at over 8500 ft. ten days earlier, and then driving to Barfoot Park and giving him a tour there, the cloud cover was parting a bit. Although it was a crisp 40ºF there at 8400 ft. and we were both wearing shorts, we at least had vests or flannel shirts and decided to stick to hiking the Lookout Trail. After our hike we drove down the mountain and before we descended to Onion Saddle Brent shouted for me to stop. Even though it was pretty cold I had been scanning the road for snakes, as I had seen that dead-on-road Twin-spotted Rattlesnake two days earlier. But before he jumped out of my truck Brent said, “I think I saw a tarantula”. Sure enough, there in the road was an adult male Aphonopelma chiricahua. It was not even half the size of the one we found in CNM the day before!

It is not uncommon for high elevation populations of animals to be considerably smaller, and we discussed the miniaturization of species with altitude. I suggested we pull off the road and walk around a bit and see if we found any other spiders. Brent began flipping roadside rocks and I walked back up the road looking in the ground litter on each side of the road for burrows. After a short period of time I called out to Brent that I had found another male! This one was curled up on top of a grass tussock and was in even better condition than the male Brent fortunately saw on the road. He also was very small - perhaps an inch and a half in diagonal legspan. As I showed Brent where I found him I began to closely examine a variety of wispy grass that covered much of the road shoulder. Before long I had found two small holes that weren’t much larger in diameter than the Aphonopelma parvum holes we had extracted females from two days earlier. They weren’t covered with silk and I wasn’t initially certain they would be tarantula burrows, but they were perfectly round and very clean and I soon became hopeful. Both holes were partially obscured in the middle of a patch of this fine grass. Brent began to flood the burrow and we were greeted by the forelegs of a tarantula! He poured a little more water and as it rose again and protruded from the burrow mouth a bit more, Brent used his other hand to scoop beneath the spider with a small trowel and our gorgeous prize, a surprisingly small adult female A. chiricahua, was out in the open. Below she is in all her glory, photographed later on my camp’s picnic table. After the image is another short video clip of Brent handling the spider in the field.

   Aphonopelma chiricahua , adult female, 7765 ft., Chiricahua Mountains

Aphonopelma chiricahua, adult female, 7765 ft., Chiricahua Mountains

The second burrow I discovered was also occupied by A. chiricahua. It was a smaller immature spider. So Brent’s ‘day off’ from searching for tarantulas suddenly had - so far - resulted in four specimens of the one species to elude him for some time. To quote his social media post when he posted his own photograph of this beautiful female: “Long story short: this was the find of a lifetime! I have spent more than a decade looking for this incredible spider and TODAY was the day! I present to you an adult female Aphonopelma chiricahua from Cochise County, Arizona. Many thanks to @jacobipix for finding the burrow and giving me a place to crash for a few days!”

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Brent now had three males (two little guys from our high elevation ‘hotspot’ and the much larger male from CNM), one mature ‘high altitude’ female and a bonus immature. But we weren’t done. After returning down to my camp (after passing a troop of eight White-nosed Coati), I needed to drop something off at the post office so we drove into Portal and very close to where I had found the little male back on October 11 we found yet another male!

Today November begins and after training a new VIC host the next two days I will only have a few Saturdays remain as a VIC host. I’ll be staying until the end of the month, but have plenty of free time and also time to do some other non-hosting projects at the VIC. My tentative plan is to put winterize the Wheelhouse on November 30 and move it to storage at Rusty’s RV Ranch. Brent intends to fly back to Arizona for the first week of December to look for a couple of other late fall-winter active Aphonopelma (A. paloma, A. superstitionense) and we discussed me joining him. Then I will return to Chicagoland for a few weeks prior to my January Malaysia trip. And then perhaps back to Cave Creek Canyon in March?