#82 - 2017, A Year in Review

Happy Holidays to those who celebrate Festivus, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas or any other Winter Solstice events. All the best in the coming year.

This morning I posted on Instagram for the first time in a minute, joining the trend of #bestnine to post nine image collages sharing my favorite images from 2017. With nine months on the road focused on capturing wildlife photographs, my selections were difficult and ended up being fairly random, and I cheated by making three posts to extend my choices with a post each for higher vertebrates (birds and mammals), reptiles and invertebrates. I'll share them here before continuing with this final blog entry of 2017 - my first post in over three months.

This first collection features my favorite photo of the year in the center. It was captured on a stormy beach of the South China Sea at Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo and depicts a female Crab-eating or Long-tailed Macaque with her child. Clockwise around the duo (starting at top left) are a Gold-fronted Woodpecker in Rio Grande Village campground at Big Bend National Park, Texas; an Orang also from Borneo, a Vermillion Flycatcher also from Rio Grande Village, a Greater Roadrunner from Texas, a Blue-throated Hummingbird - the largest species north of Mexico photographed in southeastern Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, a Spectacled or Dusky Langur from Langkawi, Malaysia, an Oriental Pied Hornbill also from Langkawi and, finally, an American Kestrel captured in Arizona.

This first collection features my favorite photo of the year in the center. It was captured on a stormy beach of the South China Sea at Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo and depicts a female Crab-eating or Long-tailed Macaque with her child. Clockwise around the duo (starting at top left) are a Gold-fronted Woodpecker in Rio Grande Village campground at Big Bend National Park, Texas; an Orang also from Borneo, a Vermillion Flycatcher also from Rio Grande Village, a Greater Roadrunner from Texas, a Blue-throated Hummingbird - the largest species north of Mexico photographed in southeastern Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, a Spectacled or Dusky Langur from Langkawi, Malaysia, an Oriental Pied Hornbill also from Langkawi and, finally, an American Kestrel captured in Arizona.

Choosing reptile images was exceptionally difficult. I could have easily chosen all rattlesnakes. I am disappointed that I didn't include any horned lizards, one of my favorite scaly beasts. My selections ended up being seven snakes, one lizard and a crocodilian, but are not representative of the amazing reptile fauna I observed. The top row begins with a Kukri snake found near the pool at Langkawi Resort, Malaysia. The common name comes from a Nepali sword and refers to the stiletto-like enlarged teeth this mildly venomous snake possesses. The vivid green viper in the top middle is a species of temple viper found at Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo and the top right is a Mexican Hog-nosed Snake feigning death on a roadside in southwestern New Mexico during one of my many night's road cruising during my four month stay in the San Simon Valley between the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona and the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. The middle row is three venomous reptiles from the southwestern United States. The Gila Monster was observed in extreme southeastern Arizona on the Geronimo Trail along the Mexico border, the gorgeous red Western Diamondback Rattlesnake was coiled on the road at the New Mexico/Mexico border just north of Antelope Wells border crossing and, finally, the beautiful and dangerous Mohave Rattlesnake was found at dark on the south end of the main drag of Rodeo, New Mexico which became my home.

Choosing reptile images was exceptionally difficult. I could have easily chosen all rattlesnakes. I am disappointed that I didn't include any horned lizards, one of my favorite scaly beasts. My selections ended up being seven snakes, one lizard and a crocodilian, but are not representative of the amazing reptile fauna I observed. The top row begins with a Kukri snake found near the pool at Langkawi Resort, Malaysia. The common name comes from a Nepali sword and refers to the stiletto-like enlarged teeth this mildly venomous snake possesses. The vivid green viper in the top middle is a species of temple viper found at Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo and the top right is a Mexican Hog-nosed Snake feigning death on a roadside in southwestern New Mexico during one of my many night's road cruising during my four month stay in the San Simon Valley between the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona and the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. The middle row is three venomous reptiles from the southwestern United States. The Gila Monster was observed in extreme southeastern Arizona on the Geronimo Trail along the Mexico border, the gorgeous red Western Diamondback Rattlesnake was coiled on the road at the New Mexico/Mexico border just north of Antelope Wells border crossing and, finally, the beautiful and dangerous Mohave Rattlesnake was found at dark on the south end of the main drag of Rodeo, New Mexico which became my home.

I wonder how many invertebrate images I took in 2017. I chased them alone whenever I could, and spent a bunch of time with Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his Millsaps College crew hunting scorpions, so picking nine was damn near impossible. As I look at my selections I can't believe what I excluded from Borneo, Malaysia and the U.S. I can't believe I didn't include one of the beautiful Silver Argiopes from Florida or Texas, or the wonderful orbweavers from Malaysia. The top row here depicts an endemic scorpion from the Peloncillo Mountains, followed by the beautiful Grand Canyon black tarantula - photographed not near the canyon itself but rather in the mountains north of Silver City, New Mexico, and, lastly, the largest centipede I have ever observed in the U.S., which I saw in the Chiricahua Mountains' Cave Creek Canyon one night with Randy Gray. The middle row begins with an unidentified  spider from Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas. The center is probably my best arachnid image and is a Desert Blonde Tarantula (Aphonopelma chaclodes) in its retreat in a rock face at Tortilla Flat near Mesa, Arizona. The spiny orbweaver that concludes the middle row is one of about fifty I found on one trail in Everglades National Park. At the bottom are a Rio Grande Gold Tarantula from near Laredo, Texas, a Crab Spider with an egg sac from the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson and the last image is a Desert Hairy Scorpion from Utah that was collected by the Millsaps crew, but I photographed in a campsite in New Mexico.

I wonder how many invertebrate images I took in 2017. I chased them alone whenever I could, and spent a bunch of time with Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his Millsaps College crew hunting scorpions, so picking nine was damn near impossible. As I look at my selections I can't believe what I excluded from Borneo, Malaysia and the U.S. I can't believe I didn't include one of the beautiful Silver Argiopes from Florida or Texas, or the wonderful orbweavers from Malaysia. The top row here depicts an endemic scorpion from the Peloncillo Mountains, followed by the beautiful Grand Canyon black tarantula - photographed not near the canyon itself but rather in the mountains north of Silver City, New Mexico, and, lastly, the largest centipede I have ever observed in the U.S., which I saw in the Chiricahua Mountains' Cave Creek Canyon one night with Randy Gray. The middle row begins with an unidentified  spider from Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas. The center is probably my best arachnid image and is a Desert Blonde Tarantula (Aphonopelma chaclodes) in its retreat in a rock face at Tortilla Flat near Mesa, Arizona. The spiny orbweaver that concludes the middle row is one of about fifty I found on one trail in Everglades National Park. At the bottom are a Rio Grande Gold Tarantula from near Laredo, Texas, a Crab Spider with an egg sac from the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson and the last image is a Desert Hairy Scorpion from Utah that was collected by the Millsaps crew, but I photographed in a campsite in New Mexico.

Even though I feel like if I chose twenty-seven photos next week many would be different, I think the three collages above do represent my 2017 portfolio well. The biggest surprise was definitely how much bird photography I did. The initial months of the year were spent in Florida and Malaysia/Borneo and weren't focused on reptiles. I was more of a generalist and took advantage of the amazing opportunities I had. As enamored as I am of creepy crawlies, seeing orangs in nature or staying where three species of hornbills fly overhead can distract you from chasing those that slither.

Even today, only hours after creating the collages and posting them to Instagram, I am quite shocked that something as elusive as the Green Rat Snake, a 'lifer' species that I serendipitously encountered at dusk on a lucky drive in Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, was not among my photo choices. How can that be? I must have truly had a wonderful year.

I certainly don't want to wrack my brain to attempt a list of top 10 experiences from 2017 much less place them in order of importance. I also don't want to just consider wildlife encounters as the only successes. So I will just try to recall some random events from each month.

JANUARY 

I am always impatient and waiting on both my truck and RV was brutal. Once the truck came I fled the north and started my year on the road living out of motels. I am not a big fan of Florida, but the wildlife makes a visit worth it for me. Looking back over my early 2017 Insta posts, I certainly started what was supposed to be a simple and frugal lifestyle poorly. I lived the good life and certainly didn't starve myself. The highlight of the month was returning to get my new RV and then settling into Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park for the first of several visits. 

FEBRUARY

February saw me store my RV in Florida and return to Chicago to fly to Malaysia for three weeks in Sarawak (Borneo) and Langkawi. I won't recount all the adventures had there. The interested reader can revisit my blog posts. But it was an amazing experience with good friends that featured amazing life experiences like seeing orangutans. I made my second visit to Langkawi Island and my first to Borneo. Flying to the other side of the world is not something I enjoy and I don't know that I will do it again. So I reflect often on the many things I saw, and also the relaxing time just kicking back with a cold tiger at the resort pool with my mate Mark & his family.

MARCH

I chose to spend all of March in Florida and much of it was at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, which certainly is a wonderful and very peaceful place to stay. In retrospect, I wish I would have ventured out more. I enjoyed the quiet campground and the gators and wading birds that I would watch every day. I loved the wild turkeys that visited me each morning. I would see garter snakes on the crushed limestone road in and out of the park enjoying the early warmth, but didn't really do much hardcore snake-hunting.

APRIL

April saw me finally move west and I quickly headed to Texas where I would spend the month first at Sea Rim State Park on the ocean in the southeast and then to Lake Casa Blanca State Park in Laredo and later to Seminole Canyon, progressing farther west along the Mexican border as the month went on. I also spent a week north of Mexico in Alpine. I enjoyed Texas, but still didn't do all the snake hunting I wish I had. Even during my stay in Alpine to work on the overdue BTS Journal I should have gone out more at night. Big Bend National Park was definitely the highlight of the month, and crossing the river for a day trip into Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico on horseback was a special experience. Big Bend is an amazing place and I look forward to spending more time in Texas in the years to come.

MAY

May saw me heading across New Mexico toward Arizona. I spent some time in Deming, NM, but was soon on toward Tucson where I would first meet up with Brent and his students. The place I parked my rig in Tucson was the worst place I would stay all year, but I enjoyed the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains, both before and during Brent & Company's arrival, primarily searching for scorpions but also just enjoying the gorgeous mountains. Between Tucson and Phoenix I spent a few days with the Millsaps crew and we also ventured down to the Santa Ritas where I definitely will spend more time in 2018. After we parted ways, I spent a couple of days down there myself, but soon headed toward Rodeo, Mexico where I would remain until mid-September.

JUNE TO SEPTEMBER

Rusty's RV Ranch was the perfect place for me, and one week's stay soon became four months. I did return to Chicagoland in late June, but was soon back in time for the monsoons and the two reptile conferences I attended at the Chiricahua Desert Museum. The highlights were many in the Chiricahuas, the Peloncillos and the San Simon Valley between. Seeing a reddish bear crossing a mountain road while four-wheeling through the rocky flooded road ... the Green Rat Snake ... my first Black-tailed rattlesnakes. Every single night I encountered rattlesnakes and saw other amazing wildlife. If I start recounting episodes I will be writing forever ...

SUMMARY

All in all I drove some 20,000 miles in 15 states over the almost nine months on the road. I visited four national parks (far less than my original plan) and six state parks. Things changed when I became sedentary in the Rodeo, NM area and I expected to see many more parks than I did. I didn't live as frugally as I had hoped, nor did I spend any time truly off the grid camping for free. That's why I am back in Chicagoland hunkering down for the winter. I learned my lessons. I am just glad I stayed safe and didn't have any truck or RV troubles. I long to be back west and come spring will head back to Rusty's where my RV is overwintering. My 2018 road trip will be about finding a decent place to camp where I can stay and work nearby. If I can succeed at that my wildlife adventures will be during my free time and I'll be able to sustain a simple life in scenic surroundings. I'll have an icy winter to ponder it all.

Currently I am just a working stiff, paying my bills and trying to save to head back west. Part of me dreads going to work, but the other is happy to keep busy and not be idle. I enjoy the job less and less every shift, but - glass half full - it could be worse. Is it spring yet?

#81 - "End of the Road" - Rodeo, New Mexico

What twisted insanity brings me to face another Chicago winter?

All good things come to an end
— English proverb (from Geoffrey Chaucer)
Flames to dust
Lovers to friends
Why do all good things come to an end
— All Good Things (Come to an End), Nelly Furtado

The Western Horse Lubber grasshoppers first appeared on the boot heel roads a bit over two weeks ago. Eyes trained to scanning the pavement for tiny arachnids and small snakes, I became overwhelmed by targets for my vision. My truck weaved as I did my best to avoid crushing the colorful insects. Taeniopoda eques is a large grasshopper species found in the arid lower Sonoran life zone of the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. It is one of the largest grasshopper species in North America with females reaching three inches and nine grams. The grasshoppers are mating and then dying off. Their subterranean egg pods overwinter and hatch with the next year's monsoon rains. For the thousands and thousands of Western Horsee Lubbers that have been on the area roads over the past few days and crawl about my campsite, this is the end of the line.

Oh, when I think about the old days,
Lord, it sends chills up and down my spine,
Yeah life ain’t what it seems, on the boulevard of broken dreams,
Guess I opened my eyes in the nick of time,
’Cause it sure felt like the end of the line.
— Allman Brothers Band (1991)
Taeniopoda eques (Western Horse Lubber Grasshopper)

Taeniopoda eques (Western Horse Lubber Grasshopper)

My own end of the line (or road) isn't as dramatic or fatal, but there are moments when it feels like it. Only four nights remain in my Wheelhouse. You'd think I'd be smart enough to avoid the brutal Chicago winter, especially since I lived away from it for about 15 years until four winters ago, but I have resigned myself to the harsh reality of all good things come to an end.

Those who have followed my blog throughout my 2017 odyssey will know that my nomadic vision and beginnings were altered when I found myself in the San Simon Valley. I didn't leave. My original plan was to experience the wonders of the Chiricahuas and the unique riparian habitats that draw species found nowhere else in the U.S. for a week. I arrived at Rusty's RV Ranch on the 15th of May intending to stay one week between the Peloncillo and Chiricahua Mountains. I will leave Thursday four months later. Here on the Arizona border in extreme southwestern New Mexico I have found a home. Some day I won't leave.

Wednesday I will winterize my RV and finish loading my truck. Thursday morning before I begin the 1700 mile, 25 hour drive back to suburbia, I will move the Wheelhouse to the storage area of Rusty's and protect it from the elements with a cover that will hopefully stand up to the strong winds of late winter. It does get below freezing here and occasional snows do fall before daytime warmth brings a thaw. My goal is to return by mid-May 2018. We will see what curveballs life has in store.

Absent during the initial invasion of the black, yellow and green Western Horse Lubber grasshoppers, as that species' numbers increased another huge grasshopper species began to be ubiquitous. Brachystola magna, the Plains Lubber, is almost as large, but not as distinctively colored. There are always new beginnings, new wonders, and change. Change is inevitable. And relentless.

Brachystola magna (Plains Lubber Grasshipper)

Brachystola magna (Plains Lubber Grasshipper)

There is nothing permanent except change.
— Heraclitus
You need to learn patience, you grasshopper.
— Nicholas Sparks

#80 - "Trogons & other 'Lifers'" - San Simon Valley, NM & AZ

I've mentioned before that people from around the world visit the Chiricahua Mountains for the birding, and that there is no greater prize than seeing an Elegant Trogon during one of these trips. I am no birder. I don't even own binoculars and the bird photography I have done this year has surprised me. I am much more interested in the creatures on the ground. However, I am often visited South Fork Road and Trail in Cave Creek Canyon, and that is mecca for the flocks (sorry) of birders who flock (sincere apologies) to the Chiris. During those visits, especially in May and June, I have seen hordes of birders chasing the Elegant Trogon. This is a quetzal relative that is resplendent in every way. I have heard the majestic birds calls on most visits to the road and also in the Herb Martyr region a bit further into the mountains. It is a distinct voice and always reminds me that this rare and colorful bird is somewhere in the surrounding trees. Well, this past week, during a serendipitous visit to South Fork Trail (at the end of the road) I finally watched a male trogon flit from tree to tree in front of me. I took no photographs as all I had was my iPhone and my macro rig. I wasn't bothered. I just enjoyed watching him fly, marveling at the red breast, dark head, long tail feathers white beneath and goldish on the back, and the brilliant greens of its back. Since I have no images to share here are a few attributed photos in the public domain.

Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) male - By dominic sherony - Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083266

Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) male - By dominic sherony - Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083266

Elegant Trogon male from behind - By Dominic Sherony - originally posted to Flickr as Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10091341

Elegant Trogon male from behind - By Dominic Sherony - originally posted to Flickr as Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10091341

For birders this is what would be called a 'lifer', as in a once in a lifetime sighting. In my mind, there is a difference between observing "bucket list" species and those that are "lifers". I have a "bucket list" of favorite snakes I'd like to see, but a true "lifer" would be one that is rare or uncommonly seen; the proverbial needle in the haystack. For example, I still am hoping to see my first in situ (wild, in place in nature) Rock Rattlesnake, but, in truth, it is one of the most common rattlesnakes within the Chiricahua Mountains so my not finding one is a just chance. It isn't unusual enough to see one for it to be a "lifer". The Elegant Trogon was a "lifer" bird for me, but South Fork Road also yielded a true "lifer" snake - the Green Rat Snake (Senticolis triaspis). I discussed this species and shared one of my images in my last blog entry (#79), but I will share another now.

Northern Green Ratsnake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia), South Fork Road, Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona

Northern Green Ratsnake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia), South Fork Road, Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona

This "needle in the haystack" snake certainly qualifies as a "lifer" for any herper (reptile hunter). I spent time with a man named Randall Grey at the two reptile conferences who afterward attended a Field Herpetology course at the Southwestern Research Station of the American Natural History Museum in the Chiricahuas. This station is just beyond South Fork Road and at the turn off for Herb Martyr Road. The "lifer" he wanted to see most was the Green Ratsnake that I stumbled upon when a whim made me turn into the road on that fortuitous evening.

While I am far from a birder, I do enjoy birding and all of nature. Words cannot describe the thrill of watching the trogon I saw flying about me. But that feeling did not match coming across the ratsnake. It is a matter of preference and perspective. There are "bucket list" reptiles that I'd rather see than "lifer" birds. And Friday night I saw a personal favorite for a second time (Black-tailed Rattlesnake) while finally coming upon another bucket list herp - the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum). 

Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum), Geronimo Trail, Cochise County, Arizona

Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum), Geronimo Trail, Cochise County, Arizona

It was Friday night. The monsoon rains continue to affect the region and, during a violent thunderstorm, high winds and torrential rains Wednesday evening, something like twenty area power poles had been toppled. The surrounding region was without electricity from about 7 pm Wednesday until midnight Thursday/Friday (29 hours). Friday evening we lost power once again despite hot sunny weather. We guess that they had to shut it down to finish the repairs. My RV becomes very hot without air conditioning so I headed out much earlier than usual for my nighttime drive. I just wanted the cool air inside the truck, but it was still more than two hours before sunset when I normally begin road cruising. I decided I would make the 60 mile drive to Douglas, Arizona and do a little shopping and afterward drove the back roads out of Douglas rather than taking the highway back northeast. There is a route that takes you along the Geronimo Trail, past the San Bernardino National WIldlife Refuge (SBNWR) and into the Peloncillo Mountain Wilderness where the rugged road continues through the mountains into New Mexico. My route to camp eventually took more than five hours.

The first creature I stopped to photograph was west of SBNWR. It was a mature male tarantula crossing the road presumed to be Aphonopelma vorhiesi. A little farther on I came upon what would be the first of about a dozen live rattlesnakes of the evening (three species). The Western Diamond-backed (WDB) Rattler was also upon the road, and I stopped to photograph it and record GPS data. It was a more typically colored WDB without the coral/pink/red hues of those I normally find in southwestern New Mexico

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

As I preceded after my encounter with this first rattler of the night, my eyes scanned the road. I just caught a brief glimpse of something in the roadside scrub that made me slam on the brakes. I don't think my mind finished processing what it was until I had scrambled out of the truck with camera in hand. Sure enough, the brilliant pink and glossy black venomous lizard moved deceptively quickly into the surrounding scrub as I scraped my legs on the vegetation in pursuit. It was a very uncooperative model, constantly moving and finding its way into the heavy cover. The image above is the best of the small series of images I could capture. I watched it for some time, but it eventually rested in a dense clump of scrub and I gave up and pushed on.

I had only driven the Geronimo Trail through the entirety of the Peloncillos on one other occasion and that was southwest toward Douglas and in the middle of the day. Driving deeper into the mountain wilderness at night was eerie. The roads are very rugged and narrow and winding. The monsoons have made them rougher and each dip is flooded with rainwater. The pass is known to be a center of drug smuggling and illegal immigration so there is a slight danger that adds to the experience when it is pitch black and your eyes are glued to the road. The concentration becomes intense as my daytime visits have revealed the steep canyons where the road falls off into. I saw big owls on the road, which would fly into a roadside tree and then alight into the air when I approached that tree perch. Later I would also see a smaller owl species. I never got a good enough look for identification. I came across a young skunk that was more white than black. I found Sonoran Desert Toads, which are infamous for the hallucinogenic properties of their psychoactive and poisonous skin secretions. I did not lick. As I wound deeper into the mountains and just after I crossed the unmarked state line, I encountered a Black-tailed Rattlesnake. It has become a personal favorite both for its beauty and its calm nature. The first specimen of this species I encountered was in the Chiricahuas. That Arizona specimen was from higher elevation (6000') and, therefore, more yellow. But this one was still a beauty.

Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Geronimo Trail, Peloncillo Mountains. Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Geronimo Trail, Peloncillo Mountains. Hidalgo County, New Mexico

The night continued to produce more snakes and after I exited the mountains and the Coronado National Forest I would come across more rattlesnakes. After the road became paved (my normal southern limit of my regular road cruising route), I came across the largest and calmest WDB I have seen in New Mexico. It was an impressive beast with a spectacular rattle. I would see more and also an adult Prairie Rattlesnake and a young Desert Kingsnake. It was an amazing evening and I saw more live snakes than on any other night's road cruising. Whether the Gila Monster was a "lifer" or just a "bucket list species" is a matter of perspective and preference. Each creature I encountered was special in its own right.

All the best, Mike

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

#79 - "Herping with Friends" - Rodeo, New Mexico

I often wonder who reads this blog. My earlier versions saw more frequent commenting and when they were part of the Blogger network I would get readership data. However, since I integrated it here on my new website powered by Squarespace, I haven't had any sense of who is reading and why. Imagine my surprise when I discovered today that it was read by law enforcement. I'll save that story for the end, but those who know me know that I am a law-abiding man, a former firearms instructor and the son of a police chief. I've spent decades looking for critters in nature and have always taken nothing but photos, and left nothing but footprints (and sometimes blood). I've traveled the world over the last decade and seen rare and coveted creatures and never once removed them from their habitat. So I am glad that I finally had an encounter with a wildlife officer protecting the organisms I adore. But we'll come back to that.

I've been on the road all year and have spent most of my time alone. That is my preference, but it was nice to feign a bit of gregariousness during the two conferences that took place over the past two weeks. Yesterday I had three visitors come down from Albuquerque, but it wasn't until this morning that I actually met them.

I met Candace online when she wanted to get her first tarantula. Her fiancé Brandon worked at a pet store where they had a big Lasiodora parahybana (Salmon Pink Bird-eating Tarantula) and she was doing research prior to getting it as a gift. We began to correspond via email and I learned that she was from upstate New York and had only been in New Mexico for a year. She told me that she was interested in venomous snakes and had a stint working at the Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque. We had intended to hook up prior to my brief return to Chicago, but that never worked out. However, yesterday she and Brandon drove down to the boot heel with their business partner Tom who was Candace's mentor in learning how to handle venomous snakes. The three of them have a new enterprise called HD Reptile, which will involve itself in various activities including education, but which seeks to provide snake abatement services to film and TV productions in the greater Albuquerque region.

This trio of snake lovers came down yesterday and checked in to a hotel in Lordsburg, New Mexico fifty minutes northeast of here. That's the closest chain motel style lodging. I thought I would see them yesterday, but they chose to do some road cruising in New Mexico alone and that was complicated by darkening skies and incoming rain. The monsoons are tricky. Earlier in the day only a 15-30% chance of rain was predicted, but by afternoon when Candace and I were texting each other it became predicted that at sunset there would be a 60% chance. I could look outside and get better info. We definitely would get a bit of a deluge.

I wished them luck on their cruising and texted Candace a bunch of info on which roads were best for which species. I became increasingly worried that my own sunset drive and road cruising after dark would be rained out, and texted Candy to tell her that I was going to head out early and perhaps I would come across their vehicle later. I drove south on 80 and then turned at Portal Road to cross into Arizona and head into the Chiricahuas. As I've stated before, I often don't know where I am going until the last second. I rarely plan and just go wherever on whim and fancy. Instead of turning into Cave Creek Canyon I decided I wanted to do some scenic four-wheeling and went toward Paradise. As I've described before, this is a particularly rugged road and it did not disappoint. The torrential rains had flooded dips in the road and created rock slides that had dumped boulders at some crossings. No car could have driven my path. I enjoyed the drive and how my truck handled the road. This is the stretch where I had seen a cinnamon Black Bear over a month ago, but it was much rougher going than it had been then. When the winding road met back up with Forest Road 42, which is in the heart of the Chiris south of Barfoot and Rustler Parks, I turned left and descended the mountain road toward Cave Creek. This is where I had recently seen a gorgeous Black-tailed Rattlesnake and I had hoped maybe I would see something interesting. Maybe even another cool mammal. The previous night's road cruising I had seen a skunk and a kit fox with a kangaroo rat in its maw. But all I saw was gorgeous scenery and the dust my truck stirred up.

When I got back down to Cave Creek Canyon I don't know why I turned into South Fork Road. I've mentioned this birding mecca before, but some weird instinct told me to check it out. It may be that I had overheard some people at the Biology of Snakes conference say that they had photographed a gila monster there after it had been noticed by some birders. But I just turned into the side road and within 100 yards slammed on the brakes. I first thought it might be a stick as it was laying perfectly stretched out, but instinct told me it was a snake. I lept out of my truck wondering if I was crazy and then looked upon a bucket list snake. There on South Fork Road was a Northern Green Ratsnake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia). It was a little over two feet long and was transitioning from young pattern and color to that of the adult. This is a rare and protected snake and I couldn't believe my good fortune.

Senticolis triaspis intermedia (Northern Green Ratsnake)

Senticolis triaspis intermedia (Northern Green Ratsnake)

By the letter of the law, you are not allowed to "harass" or "molest" these snakes at all, and that even includes pursuing them for a photo or moving them off the road to safety. We'll come back to this, but I did use a stick to move it to a roadside rock where I captured this image, and then I did enjoy watching it slither away into the forest away from truck wheels. I only photograph, but I'm not going to leave a magnificent snake like this in harm's way.

I was pretty excited and all of a sudden very awake. This was a bucket list snake and it was completely serendipitous that I was in the Chiris at that time at all, and being on South Fork Road was unusual and completely random. I wondered what the trio from Albuquerque was up to then, and wished they had been with to see the snake, but I was alone without cell signal and just pumped my fist and moved on.

On the road out of Cave Creek Canyon I came across a mature male Aphonopelma gabeli tarantula crossing the road. I photographed him and moved him roadside and then continued to State Line Road. Sadly, I doubt anyone cares what you do to a spider. I stopped to evaluate the skies. I had picked up cell signal and Candace was discouraged by the rain. I could see that the clouds were ominous to the north and east so I decided to head south. Instead of turning into New Mexico, I took State Line Rd. down to Hwy. 80 south of Rodeo and continued southwest for about twenty miles. The skies ahead were fairly clear and sunset quickly turned to dark. The ABQ Crew had hoped to find Mohave Rattlesnakes and I had told them that Highway 80 was the place for that species. They should drive north and south of Rodeo on 80 after dark. However, they had come down a bit early, wandered east toward Animas and then, tired from the drive down from ABQ, had headed back to Lordsburg when the rains fell. But I was south of Rodeo and there wasn't a single rain drop. After driving into Arizona for a ways I turned around and headed northeast toward Rodeo. As luck would have it, just on the southern outskirts of town, I found a beautiful Mohave Rattlesnake on the road. This snake species in infamous due to its particularly virulent venom, which contains something aptly called Mojave-toxin that causes both neurotoxic and haemotoxic effects. It is the snake in North America I would least like to be envenomed by and what I consider the most dangerous. I exercised extra caution, but this gorgeous boy was very cooperative and never struck as I moved it from harm's way for a roadside photo shoot. 

Crotalus scutulatus (Mohave Rattlesnake)

Crotalus scutulatus (Mohave Rattlesnake)

But that was last night, and certainly doesn't qualify as "Herping with Friends". I was alone and wished they had been there to see both the Green Ratsnake and this gorgeous and dangerous Mohave rattler. I texted what I had found and later sent images.

This morning they ABQ Crew from HD Reptile came down to Rusty's and I finally met them. My plan was to take them into the Chiricahuas for a scenic drive that would end at the high elevation locality of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei) I had observed and reported on over a week ago. I knew that Dave the researcher had done his survey the previous week and I hoped maybe we could make a quick visit so the ABQ trio could see this amazing montane species. We had the site to ourselves and they scrambled the talus slope. I stayed down around the bottom of the great rockslide as my injuries from my falls during the last visit still bother me a great deal. They marveled at the abundant spiny lizards including many young, which is what these dwarf mountain rattlesnakes feed upon. They shouted down that they had seen a treefrog that I presume is the Canyon species Hyla arenicolor. Then they shouted that they had finally seen an adult disappear into the rocks and were able to get a photo of just its tail. Brandon heard a few others rattle, but they weren't able to see any others as they stumbled across the treacherous slope. I had been flipping rocks in the adjacent meadow hoping to see an Arizona Mountain Kingsnake or something like that and returned to discover a neonate Twin-spotted Rattlesnake crawl beneath a rock at the very bottom of the talus slope. I yelled up what I had observed and told them it was likely to still be there if they came down. Although most of the slope is maybe six feet or more of rock pile, the bottom edge where it was was firm ground beneath and when they finally descended I just flipped the rock and we got our images. The little baby was very cooperative and climbed up a big rock and then a bit of vertical wood and seemed unperturbed by the camera flashes going off.

Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnake)

Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnake)

We left the area and headed back down the mountain. On the way we passed a vehicle that was unmarked but looked like law enforcement. After a little while I noticed the vehicle behind me and pulled over so it might pass, but fully expected that it would pull behind me and "light up". Sure enough, flashing blue and red lights had me putting my truck in park. The officer first explained that I had been driving left of center, which seemed odd to me as most of the road is only wide enough for one vehicle and is a rugged rocky road without striping. But I apologized and explained just that. He then said he had reasonable cause to search my vehicle for wildlife. I won't provide the details here of why he had that "reasonable suspicion", but we were very happy to allow him access to the vehicle. I was worried about the ABQ Crew's snake hooks, which were in the back of my truck. As I stated before, by the letter of the law you aren't supposed to disturb fauna at all; not even to save it from oncoming traffic. However, the officer was extremely reasonable and his concern was for the protected and declining Twin-spotted Rattlesnake population. I mentioned that I had met Dave and that is when he surprised me. Apparently Dave, the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake researcher who I had only met once and only a bit more than a week earlier, had told the wildlife officer about our encounter.But that's not what really surprised me ... The wildlife officer said he knew who I was and had read this blog! I was of course a bit shocked by that, but my first thought was that if he had read my blog and been to my website he would certainly know that I don't collect wildlife. My second thought was that this Dave must have provided my truck and license plate info, which is how the officer found my full name and then my blog. I may have a past history in the pet trade, but I only dealt in captive bred animals and never have collected or kept wild-collected reptiles. And I have been retired from the pet trade and for almost five years now except for a little tarantula breeding,  haven't kept snakes in over ten years, and now do not keep any live animals except my parrot. 

The officer was firm, but extremely reasonable, professional and pleasant to talk with, and I assured him that we had nothing and would never collect. The five of us talked for maybe ten minutes and he explained the protection these snakes receive. And as the son of a retired police chief, I have always had nothing but respect for any law enforcement and appreciate their job. That applies even more for someone who is protecting the fauna I love. I very much appreciate the efforts of wildlife officers everywhere. I was very glad to learn what protection is in place and am hopeful for the future of these little montane snakes. It was a pleasure and a honor to be able to photograph a couple. I never got to see an adult, but babies are a good sign for the future. I don't know if I will revisit the site. I'd love to see and photograph an adult, but it is difficult terrain to work and scrambling on the rocks also endangers the animals living there. It would be difficult to get a good image without manipulating the snake at all and that is illegal and whether you collect or not the officer explained that is what wildlife law considers "a take". I am sure Bob Ashley will let me photograph one of his captive specimens if I really need a pic of an adult.

We bid farewell and drove back down to Cave Creek Canyon. Brandon particularly was interested in looking for rock rattlesnakes so I took him to the Herb Martyr area where I have been looking for them, but we didn't stay long. The group was tired and looked forward to a rest before going out road cruising in New Mexico tonight. Our next stop was Vista Point for the classic Chiricahua photo op. Then I took them to Chiricahua Desert Museum before returning them to my campsite. Tonight I hope I'll see them on the roads. But it is raining now ...

#78 - "Talus Tumble: Snakes & Blood" - Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The first time I fell hurt. The second tumble down the steep talus slide left me with a broken ring flash. The third time I was bloodied. Both legs are bruised and sliced open and my left wrist has a mild sprain.

I had driven high into the bear country of the Chiricahuas in pursuit of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei). It primarily inhabits expansive rock slides known as talus slopes in sky island hardwood and conifer forests. They are mostly known from 8000-9000' in elevation and most populations are found on south-facing rock slides where these slender 16-20" rattlers feed on spiny lizards (Sceloporus).  

Sadly, these protected snakes are collected by poachers. They are rare and their scarcity, small size, and docile nature makes them prized serpents in the illegal exotic pet trade. I met a man named Dave who has studied them for 19 years and has attempted to have this area closed to protect the rattlesnakes. That has failed, but he visits often and warns snake hunters about collecting them. During my visit three young men that were at the IHS, including one who was a speaker after winning the Junior Herper grant in the 19-22 year-old category, were warned by Dave who sees all snake hunters as potential poachers.

This steep rock slide covers acres. I found a total of three newborn Crotalus pricei. I took nothing but photographs and left a bunch of blood. 

This steep rock slide covers acres. I found a total of three newborn Crotalus pricei. I took nothing but photographs and left a bunch of blood. 

My view of the Chiris as I sat near the top of the talus slope and ate my lunch.

My view of the Chiris as I sat near the top of the talus slope and ate my lunch.

I searched the edges of the rock slide, but couldn't resist climbing the treacherous rocks. When I had arrived I met two young guys from Texas A&M who will be at the Biology of Snakes Conference that starts tonight. They told me they had seen one Twin-spotted Rattlesnake about 2/3 of the way up to where the peaks are surrounded by trees. I continued to climb, often sliding and stumbling on the steep talus slope. It isn't easy going up, but it is much worse going down.

I saw nothing except snails, spiders and the occasional spiny lizard on my ascent, and once I reached the rock faces that still stand I sat and ate my canned tuna lunch. I used my iPhone to capture some scenic video clips for my Instagram and Snapchat stories. I will share my Snapchat story of the day at the end of this blog entry.

After I finished my lunch I continued my search laterally across the sliding chunks of limestone and took what would be my second significant fall onto the rocks. During this tumble my ring flash broke away from the hot shoe of my camera body. I love my Sigma ring flash, but for some reason the part that goes into the hot shoe is plastic and not metal as it is on my Nikon speedlights. This is the second time this piece has broken and I will have to send to factory for repair. I was relieved that the lens and body were fine, as was my own flesh. By this time the skies had darkened and I decided that two falls were enough and I should try to get down to the forest floor before the afternoon monsoon rains began to fall.

I have always found descending trails more difficult than climbing them. This has only increased with age as my knees often remind me. Descending a rock slide is a whole 'nother story. I am tall and heavy and tried to keep my center of gravity back to minimize the slipping and sliding. However, often times I would fall back on my arse to break my speed. There was a little island of grass clumps and rocks that I wanted to investigate and I did my best to maneuver myself in its direction. I fell back on my butt when I reached it and looked to my side and gasped. There were three baby Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes sunning themselves in a rock crevice.

My ring flash was broken and the cloudy skies necessitated flash. As they reacted to my presence and began to slither into the safety of the surrounding rocks I quickly reached for my iPhone. This horrible image is all I could capture.

Several newborn Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes) catch some sun on a talus slope at 8600' elevation in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Several newborn Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes) catch some sun on a talus slope at 8600' elevation in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Words cannot describe how excited I was to see these snakes. They were near the top of my bucket list of snakes to observe in nature. I was disappointed that my DSLR was unusable due to the ring flash breakage, and even more disappointed that I had left my recently acquired point-and-shoot camera in my truck. The entire reason I got the point-and-shoot camera was to be able to capture good images while climbing or hiking when I didn't want to lug along the weight of my DSLR or risk its safety. However, nothing could diminish the joy of seeing these little snakes. Protected and at risk from poaching, this rare little serpent was a dream discovery and I sat and enjoyed them until they retreated into the rocks.

When the newborn rattlers disappeared my heart was pumping and I was re-energized. I decided to descend to my truck to retrieve one of my Nikon speedlight flashes and a soft box in case I found more. However, the adrenaline was pumping and I tried to make my way down the rock slide too quickly. I slipped and before I could drop my rear end on the rocks my tumble turned into a fall. My big body crashed down the rocks and I slid perhaps twenty feet. When I stopped moving I felt pain in both shins and my left wrist. I first looked at the camera that was on a sling around my body, and then looked at my heavily tattooed legs, which were now covered in blood. I had a gash and a large hematoma on my right shin and a cut on my left. I sat for five minutes or so regaining my composure and then bandaged myself with the bandanna in the pocket of my shorts. I was relieved nothing was broken and it looked like stitches wouldn't be required. I stood to double-check and rotated my sprained left wrist. All was reasonably good and I sat back down to rest some more.

As I sat in a heap on the rocks I saw Dave and his little white dog approaching. He had warned the Canadian guys about poaching and eyed me suspiciously. I told him what I had found and also how I had fell. I told him I was likely done for the day, but would like to come down and chat with him about the rattlesnakes and his attempts to close the area for their protection. After chatting with him for awhile, I retrieved the flash and made my way along the edge of the rock slide. Renowned reptile guy Bill Love had told me he had frequently encountered the alpine rattlesnakes where the talus slope meets the forest, and I was a bit injured to consider climbing back up the rock slide. As luck would have it, I found another newborn Twin-spotted Rattlesnake and was able to capture a decent image with my DSLR.

Crotalus pricei, Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, newborn in shed, 8600', Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona.

Crotalus pricei, Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, newborn in shed, 8600', Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona.

Bloodied and bruised, once this snake disappeared in the rocks I decided it was time to return to camp and clean my wounds. But the rattlesnake adventure was not over...

The road to the top of the Chiricahuas is scenic and rugged and I recounted my first ascent in an earlier blog entry. I drove back down toward Portal slowly taking it all in. I was at 6000' in elevation when the winding road delivered me another bucket list snake. Crawling across the rocky dirt road was a gorgeous adult Black-tailed Rattlesnake as big around as my wrist and perhaps 3 1/2 feet long. Black-tails occur at various elevations and those found at this height are noted for their beautiful yellow ground color that contrasts magnificently with the dark blotches and markings. This snake was stunning. Black-tailed Rattlers are also noted for their placid disposition, and this big beauty barely rattled and never struck as I photographed and filmed it on the road and then moved it to safety for more photos. It coiled in defense, but otherwise tolerated me and posed for the image below.

Crotalus molossus, Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Crotalus molossus, Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake

I am writing this Wednesday morning, two days after the big and bloody snake adventure. Yesterday I did computer work and rested my very sore legs. In addition to the cuts and bruises, my thigh muscles ache from the climbing. I only left camp yesterday to drive east to Animas to pick up some snacks and soda from the Valley Mercantile. I have only driven this road at night since my return and marveled at the flooded roadside desert scrub. The monsoon rains have created temporary ponds and as I rounded one bend I saw a turtle on the road. Yes, a turtle in the desert. Ornate Box Turtles, which are mostly terrestrial, are known from this area, but this was one of the two species of mud turtle found in the Sonora and Chihuahua Desert of the bootheel. The Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens) is semi-aquatic and escapes the dry and hot periods in burrows it digs.

Kinosternon flavescens, Yellow Mud Turtle

Kinosternon flavescens, Yellow Mud Turtle

I'll leave you now with a compilation of video clips I captured on my iPhone Monday and posted to my Snapchat story. If you snap you can add my exoticfauna account. Please note that this video contains secret info - the locality where I found the Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes. I post it here only for my small group of blog readers. The video is unlisted on YouTube and I would appreciate you sharing this with nobody.