#99 - Summer's End

Somehow the autumnal equinox occurred Saturday without any ceremony on my part. Time flies, and all that. The mornings here in the high desert certainly are crisp, but as the sun rises the days still seem quite summery.

I know the chiggers still think it is summer as I incessantly itch and have irritating welts all over. I earn spare change doing landscaping around the visitor center, and weed whacking the tall grasses that have overgrown our gardens and paths means that I am barely compensated for the misery of the microscopic yet ferocious red bugs. Laying my gardening clothes on my bed wasn’t particularly wise. Tonight I am laundering everything in hot water.

It has been almost a month since I’ve written. I don’t know where to begin, and certainly can’t recount the last thirty days of summer. I’ve been doing pretty much what I always do - three days as VIC host, hikes in search of wildlife in my free time - but I have spent an increasing amount of time just relaxing and reading and enjoying the cooler nights and mornings. As reptiles disappear, and wildflowers and autumn colors increase, I’ll be trying my hand at more landscape and scenic photography.

 New Mexico State Highway 9 heads west into the sunset from Animas towards Antelope Pass (Animas Mountains) with Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains in the distance.

New Mexico State Highway 9 heads west into the sunset from Animas towards Antelope Pass (Animas Mountains) with Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains in the distance.

One major thing to report is that I purchased plane tickets to join my mate Mark and his family & friends in Malaysia for a third time. January 7 I will try to survive a 17-hour flight to Hong Kong. If that doesn’t sound brutal enough, once I land I have a 12-hour overnight layover. And, no, I am not going to be able to blow $250-300 on a hotel room to pass out. I’ll be laying on the airport floor in misery. Anyone with a secret stash of Ambien? Email me …

From Hong Kong I fly to Penang off the northwest coast of mainland Malaysia. I will arrive 24 hours ahead of Mark & Co., and will need that day to try to recuperate from my two-day journey. I’ll be staying a total of four nights at a very nice hotel there and expect to spend the first day doing a lot of napping interrupted by occasional Tiger lagers in the pool. After a few days with my British companions, we all will board a “puddle jumper” flight up the coast to Langkawi near Thailand. It’s close enough that there is even a ferry that cruises north on the Strait of Malacca (Andaman Sea), but we’ll take a 30-minute flight and then our entire group will be shuttled from the airport to Berjaya Resort for a two-week stay. By now Mark has probably stayed there thirty times and we are treated like royalty. I look forward to my third stay in one of their rainforest chalets surrounded by dusky langurs, colugos, tokay geckos and more. We’re even talking about taking a day trip to Thailand’s Pattaya Beach. It’s just 90 minutes each way by speedboat ferry.

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The trip means I’ll certainly be in Chicago on January 7 when my first of six flights leaves O’Hare Airport, but I am not sure of much about what I’ll be doing until then. My volunteer position here at the Chiricahua Mountains’ Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center has grown into a part-volunteer, part-paid position as “caretaker” and I’ve been welcomed to stay as long as I wish and return as soon as I can. I have committed to the end of October, but may stay longer - perhaps even into December. They’d love for me to come right back in February after my trip. We’ll see …

In other news, the new issue of the British Tarantula Society Journal has an article I wrote on the mountain tarantula that lives here in the Chiricahuas and another mountain endemic from the Peloncillo Mountains to the east. If you wish to read you can visit this website’s publications page to download the PDF. While there you may want to check out some of my other articles that are available for direct download.

Another new feature of this website is that I have split the galleries into dedicated pages for each type of animal. I’ll start working on uploading many more images soon.

I’ll be back soon with blog entry #100!

All the best, MJ

#98 - Another Visit

I hadn't seen Chad Campbell in far too long. I tend to lose touch with people even in the best of times, and heading out to live on the road at the beginning of 2017 didn't lessen that propensity. Still, more sociable people can always reach out to solitary me, so I am never willing to take all the blame. And Chad did just that with an unexpected text asking whether I'd pick him up in Phoenix if he landed there. I have no clue how long it had been since we'd had any contact other than liking each other's Instagram posts, but it didn't affect my reply. I told him Tucson or El Paso were cool as they are 2.5 and 3 hours away, respectively, but Phoenix (5 hours) was a no.

 Chad and a Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Portal Cafe

Chad and a Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Portal Cafe

There is a very, very short list of people that have an open invitation to visit me and Chad certainly was on it, but after a few casual mentions last year to a few of the honorees of that mental list, I really didn't talk to anyone at all this year. As you read in the previous blog entry, my bonus dad Joel just visited and we had arranged that trip even before I left his house the day after his birthday in mid-April. He was set to spend my birthday here with me the first week of August and, other than visits by my arachnologist friend Brent Hendrixson, I didn't anticipate any other visitors. But Chad was itching to return to Arizona after his previous visits to Tucson for American Tarantula Society conferences that have since fizzled out, and without much hesitation he bought his plane tickets and I scrambled to switch with other volunteers to free up my schedule not one week after I had taken an entire week off from the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center in the northeastern Chiricahua Mountains to spend all my time with Joel.

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Jump ahead to another trip to Tucson the night before picking up a guest. Again I wanted to road cruise for sidewinder rattlesnakes, and this time a guy I met through Instagram had recommended a road west of the one I had cruised the night before I picked up Joel. Heading out past the Old Sasco Ruins through rugged Sonoran Desert into a stormy dusk, I truly felt in the middle of nowhere. Just off the interstate the town of Red Rock, Arizona is new modern suburbia, but quickly the cookie cutter adobe family homes give way to sandy desert grassland scrub. Then, out of nowhere, I came upon a massive feed lot and sights and smells that will turn you off of beef for life. Thousands upon thousands of cattle stood shoulder to shoulder and I looked away and picked up the pace before the strong odor became too much. The pavement then ended and the dirt road soon disappeared into saguaros reaching toward the purplish gloomy sky and I was swallowed by the desert. I was glad there was still light so I could read the warning signs about road closures, flash flooding, federal agents and more, and I drove deep into the desert between the mountains and back out to learn the area before darkness. The road had many steep dips that recent rains had filled with water and rocks and several crossings were of great concern. One held as much water as I'd ever want to drive my truck through (and I did it four times) and another was very wet but also very rough with big rocks that had washed into the crossing. There were many "stream crossings" and quite a bit of rough road. That night I tested my truck more than any other.

  Portrait of that night's Sonoran Desert Sidewinder ( Crotalus cerastes cercobombus )

Portrait of that night's Sonoran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus)

  Sonoran Desert Toad ( Incilius alvarius ), one of several from my Old Sasco Road adventure.

Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius), one of several from my Old Sasco Road adventure.

Flashing forward once more, the next morning I was back at Tucson International Airport early enough for a local beer. As I finished up and started towards Chad's arrival, he texted me that he was already outside having a cigarette, his very short flight from Phoenix arrived early. His first request, even before he had left Minneapolis, was that we head from the airport directly to In 'N Out Burger, the legendary West Coast fast food icon. Then it was off to a giant liquor store I had scouted the day before for a connoisseur's collection of West Coast India Pale Ales for Chad, plus a small selection of lagers for me including not only Grand Canyon pilsner but my beloved Imperial from Costa Rica. Then we headed east to Willcox for groceries and on to an area known to contain two tarantula species, which Chad had explored a couple years prior during one of his Tucson visits. Rain shortened our time - and unsuccessful search - at the tarantula site, and we pushed on back here to Cave Creek Canyon. Chad would be the first visitor to actually bunk in my Wheelhouse and we had groceries and beer to stow and food to grill. But first Chad unpacked some very generous birthday gifts he had hauled all the way from Minneapolis, incurring overweight bag charges in the process in order to bring me some special beverages and a coffee cup. There were two imperial stouts and a giant Ziploc bag containing eight pint cans of one of my personal favorites brewed in Minneapolis - Indeed Brewing Company's Mexican Honey Imperial Lager.

Chad's visit was only from midday Friday to midday Tuesday so we were working with limited time. Chad wanted to see tarantulas and rattlesnakes most and that he did. Saturday we made a trip into New Mexico and down into the Peloncillo Mountains to search for the tarantula I had pursued with Brent and his students only a couple weeks earlier. Successful in finding that special American spider again, I then took him to the scorpion site where I had taken four of Brent's students. 

   Aphonopelma peloncillo , a Peloncillo Mountains endemic

Aphonopelma peloncillo, a Peloncillo Mountains endemic

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Chad had only seen Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes before, and he added quite a few more of those to his life list, plus many more first-time ('lifer') Mohave Rattlesnakes and one special encounter with the third species of our trip, my favorite, the Black-tailed Rattlesnake. And he found it himself! I had taken up South Fork Road and South Fork Trail in search of the Elegant Trogon, the rare bird people come from around the world to see here, and - though we didn't find the trogon - during a search of a cabin for jumping spiders Chad found a young blacktail a few feet off the ground, nestled in the rock exterior rock wall. The snake didn't move as we took in situ photos of how we found it, including the smartphone image to the left, and then Chad returned to my truck which was parked nearby to get the rest of our needed camera gear and one of my snake hooks. Black-tails are usually placid rattlesnakes and this yearling snake certainly was very cooperative as I then moved it onto a nearby group of flat rocks so that we could photograph it further. 

  Chad's "lifer" Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus )

Chad's "lifer" Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus)

Another snake that Chad had repeatedly mentioned that he was hoping to see was a kingsnake. We have two here, the tri-colored Mountain King here in the mountains, and the Desert Kingsnake in the foothills and surrounding desert. Both can be very elusive so it was quite a thrill when one night's road cruising, the night we went down to the Peloncillos, included this beautiful black-hooded king.

  Desert Kingsnake  (Lampropeltis splendida ), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Desert Kingsnake (Lampropeltis splendida), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Chad and I share a love of jumping spiders and he has become quite accomplished at doing true single-exposure macrophotography of jumpers using the same 1:1 100mm Tokina macro lens I use plus a 2.5X magnifier and a special light set-up. We were fortunate to find quite a few special jumping spiders during his visit. One was at almost 8400 ft elevation at Barfoot Park, and we also found cool jumpers right at my camp at the corral and a number of photo sessions took place on my picnic table.

  Chad photographing a jumping spider in the high elevation mixed conifer forest of Barfoot Park

Chad photographing a jumping spider in the high elevation mixed conifer forest of Barfoot Park

  One of Chad's images from the above photo shoot ( Phidippus toro , female) © Chad Campbell

One of Chad's images from the above photo shoot (Phidippus toro, female) © Chad Campbell

On Chad's last night here, we went for another dinner at Portal Cafe and then Chad chose to return to the corral to enjoy some beer, conversation and image processing over another night of road cruising for snakes. But on the way back into the canyon we were destined for one more snake during his visit, which he called his "snake-cap", and it was a special one at that.

  Our "snake-cap", adult Sonoran Lyre Snake ( Trimorphodon lambda )

Our "snake-cap", adult Sonoran Lyre Snake (Trimorphodon lambda)

I don't know where I'll be next year, but if I am in the Chiricahuas I am hoping Chad will return and bring his girlfriend April with. We even talked about getting a small gathering of mutual friends together for more herping and spidering fun and more connoisseur brews and good food. 

  This "spirited" Mohave Rattlesnake ( Crotalus scutulatus ) put on quite the show for Chad as it tried to "kiss" me

This "spirited" Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) put on quite the show for Chad as it tried to "kiss" me

#97 - 54 - Adventures with Yet Another

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2300 miles, 25 or so live rattlesnakes, 54 years. One amazing visit.

Three French hens, two turtle doves. And a trogon in a sycamore tree.

Those are just few of the numbers from my birthday week, which began two days before the 5th when I drove to Tucson to look for sidewinder rattlesnakes that Friday night before picking up my stepdad Joel from the airport midday Saturday.

2.5 hours to Tucson, an oil change, Wing Stop lunch and an afternoon escape-the-heat matinee of Mission Impossible - Fallout later, I was at the Motel 6 North Tucson.

That night I found my lifer Sonoran Desert Sidewinder. The next morning another lifer - this time a Sonoran Desert Tortoise.

  Sonoran Desert Sidewinder ( Crotalus cerastes cercobombus ), Pinal County, Arizona

Sonoran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus), Pinal County, Arizona

  Morafka's or Sonoran Desert Tortoise ( Gopherus morafkai ), Pima County, Arizona

Morafka's or Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai), Pima County, Arizona

Then it was the airport and a scenic drive up the Catalina Mountains, followed by some Tucson shopping, groceries in Willcox and a dusk check-in for Joel at Rusty's RV Ranch. A short time later it was Joel's lifer rattlesnake as I spotted a Western Diamondback on the roadside only five minutes after leaving Rusty's to take him into the Chiricahuas for the first time. In the excitement I shooed it off the highway without capturing an image, but Joel got the thrill of seeing me move it from the road and see it slither into the desertscrub. As we entered Cave Creek Canyon it was rattlesnake number 2, a Western Black-tailed that a couple of guys had discovered. We asked if we could join them so Joel could see my favorite rattlesnake. It wasn't necessary as he'd see a few more during the adventures to come.

My diary will get fuzzy here as we did so much it would be impossible for me to recount it all chronologically without overlooking something. The snakes are a blur. So I'll forge ahead to the next day - Sunday the 5th, my 54th birthday. I had something different planned and our final destination was the wild west town of Tombstone, Arizona. First there was a stop in Douglas to see the wall between that city in extreme southeastern Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico on the other side. Then we headed west along the wall, on to Bisbee for coffee and, finally, were walking the dusty cowboy streets of Tombstone. A beer at Doc Holliday's Saloon, some shopping and then lunch at Big Nose Kate's Saloon and before long we were back in Bisbee to have a beer at Old Bisbee Brewing Company. Back in the Chiricahuas for dinner time we grilled up steaks at my corral.

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Road cruising followed, as it did every night, and Joel saw Diamondbacks and the deadly Mohave Rattlesnake, which would be the most frequently encountered snake over the week and two dozen rattlesnake engagements. In fact, we saw the largest Mohave I've seen one night in a very unexpected location. But of all the snakes the one we both will remember most is a big beauty of a Western Black-tailed that was crossing the primitive mountain road at 7500 feet elevation in the early afternoon. My goal for the week was always to get a photo of Joel with a rattlesnake. I didn't want him to get too close, but I think this image speaks a thousand words.

This beast was a spectacular example of the species that is my favorite rattlesnake both for its beauty, habitat and fairly gentle disposition. When a carload of birders descended the mountain road I had already moved it off the road, but I asked them if they wanted to stop for photos. It was a rare moment of wanting to share the joy of the experience and the majesty of the snake.

  Portrait of a Beauty    Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus ), Chiricahua Mountains

Portrait of a Beauty

Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Chiricahua Mountains

  Beast Mohave    Mohave Rattlesnake ( Crotalus scutulatus) , San Simon, Arizona

Beast Mohave

Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus), San Simon, Arizona

Other adventures included a trip up the mountain road over the top of the mountain to descend through Pinery Canyon to the northwestern side of the range for a visit to the Chiricahua National Monument. This special place has incredible rock formations - pinnacles, hoodoos, balancing rocks. We took in views like the one below at Massai Point, but then would take perhaps our most arduous hike of the week when we summited Sugarloaf Mountain.

  Joel at Massai Point in the Wonderland of Rocks - Chiricahua National Monument

Joel at Massai Point in the Wonderland of Rocks - Chiricahua National Monument

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While we were at Massai Joel had asked what the structure atop a distant peak was. I had to look at it through binoculars and then I looked at the map and figured it out. He had no idea what was in store for him when I drove to the parking lot trailhead.

The trail was only one mile or so each way, but it climbed about 500 feet to an elevation of 7400 ft and was often steep and slippery.

Another adventure was our first birding trip. I wanted Joel to see the Elegant Trogon, the bird people come here from around the world to see, the Mexican bird that perhaps numbers only 60 in the United States. We parked in a prime area and I got out and only moments later was pointing out the dazzling male above us. I hadn't walked six steps. Good fortune smiled on us.

Each day we hiked, dined, road cruised. We were constantly on the move except one afternoon in Rusty's swim spa relaxing with a cold cerveza.

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Snakes, birds, snakes, snakes. Tarantulas, vinegaroons, scorpions. More hikes. Each day was filled with activity and as the week began to wind down I asked Joel if he was interested in a road trip. I thought perhaps he'd want to see somewhere else in the southwest and we decided to limit it to a three hour drive. I mentioned a few options, but the one that immediately was of interest was Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument north of Silver City, New Mexico. I had visited the Gila National Forest in the region a few times last year, but had never gone to the Cliff Dwellings. It was pretty spectacular. I admittedly am not one for history and historical sites, but at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument you can actually enter the cliff dwellings unguided and see where Mogollons lived for twenty years or so in the late 1200's. It was certainly worth the trip and the winding and climbing scenic mountain drive there and back added to the experience.

  Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

  Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

It was an action packed week that left me exhausted. Saturday morning I picked Joel up one last time at Rusty's and we made the 150 mile trip to Tucson Airport. Then I turned around and headed home with a brief stop in Willcox for a few groceries and some lunch. As I type this Monday afternoon I am preparing to head to Tucson again Thursday. I will once again spend an evening looking for sidewinder rattlesnakes and then Friday morning pick up my buddy Chad at the airport for his five day visit. I'll close now leaving y'all with a short video of me wrangling one of the beautiful black-tailed rattlesnakes Joel got to see during visit. I don't usually have a cameraman so it was nice to be on the other side of the lens and get some memories captured. Below the video I'll post a list of just some of the animals Joel got to see during his week.

MJ wrangling a Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Snakes: Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Mohave Rattlesnake, Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Sonoran Lyre Snake, Sonoran Whipsnake, Mexican Hog-nosed Snake

Lizards: Yarrow's Mountain Spiny Lizard, Striped Plateau Lizard, Sonoran Desert Whiptail, Clark's Spiny Lizard, Crevice Spiny Lizard

Amphibians: Mexican Spadefoot Toad

Invertebrates: Vorhies' Tarantula, Desert Blonde Tarantula, Devil Stripe-tail Scorpion, Vinegaroon, Dung Beetle

Mammals: Black Bear, Coue's Desert White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Coati, Rock Squirrel, Coyote, Mexican Long-tongued Bat

Birds: Elegant Trogon, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Rivoli's (Magnificent) Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Mexican Jay

AND SO MUCH MORE ...

 

#96 - Adventures with Others - Another Endemic Tarantula and More ...

I spend most of time alone by choice. It fits my personality. It is my preference. And it allows for maximum flexibility. I am guided by whimsy and most adventures are unplanned. I may in one moment alter my course or choose not only a new destination, but a different activity. Many of my hikes or drives, if not most, unfold naturally and often surprise me. My experiences are treasured alone in glorious solitude and then later shared here or via Instagram.

However, as I get ready to go to Tucson this weekend to pick up Joel and share this wonderful wilderness for a week, I am still savoring memories from a two day adventure with Dr. Brent Hendrixson and seven of his students from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Brent has visited the American Southwest for a couple of decades and usually leads a summer field course that visits many amazing places. This year's course was Biogeography of the American Southwest and before they visited me his group had explored Arizona's Superstition and Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park and the Grand Canyon. After they left here they headed to White Sands, National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns for the bat flight and Texas' Davis Mountains before driving home.

  Cathedral Vista, Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by B.E. Hendrixson (second from left) with me looming behind a great group of students.

Cathedral Vista, Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by B.E. Hendrixson (second from left) with me looming behind a great group of students.

Last year Brent brought a different group here to the Chiricahuas for a single night and I had spent time with him and a few other students the month previous in both the Tucson and Phoenix areas. This year he had three nights planned for Cave Creek Canyon, but sadly they only stayed two. Still we made the most of the two days with adventures to the Peloncillo Mountains, Chiricahua Desert Museum and here within the Chiris.

While his crew set up camp at Sunny Flat Campground I joined them and met the seven students. Our plan was to head to the Peloncillos an hour and a half away to look for the endemic tarantula Aphonopelma peloncillo at its type locality. After spending over a week with eight people crammed in a van full of gear, the three girls were happy to be able to stretch out in my truck for the drive east into New Mexico and then south and southwest to the bootheel along the borders with Arizona and Mexico. Brent and the four guys piled back into their 12-passenger van that, as in years previous, was decorated with large tarantula magnets. The ladies were lovely and it was refreshing for this old loner to be surrounded by the vibrance and beauty of youth. Temperatures reached 109F in Animas where we turned south, but I had the A/C cranked and we listened to music from one of their iPhones.

Ninety minutes or so later, about thirty minutes after the paved road gave way to dirt and then rocky trail, we assembled in the chaparral-like oak woodland of the Peloncillo foothills. Last year I had searched the site we were visiting for the burrows of female tarantulas without success. I had found mature male Aphonopelma peloncillo while road-cruising for snakes, but had struck out when it came to locating burrows. That would change as the seven Millsaps students, their arachnologist leader and I dispersed and prowled the grassy area of the type locality (the precise location a species is described from). Having located the endemic A. chiricahua by pure chance (see #94), I was looking forward to finally finding a female A. peloncillo after last year's failures. It did not take long.

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Above is the silk-covered burrow of the first tarantula we located. This grassy field is grazed by open range cattle and among the cow piles and animal bones and ant mounds the students first found turreted holes belonging to wolf spiders or irregular openings belonging rodents. But within five minutes this distinctive silky entrance was discovered and Brent said to me, "You want the honors?" before explaining to his students that I had found and extracted tarantulas around the world. I used both flooding and tickling techniques and soon saw the gorgeous hairy legs of our prize.

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The beginning of her tunnel angled sharply another direction rather than descending directly into the earth so when she would retreat even a short distance she would be lost from sight. I alternated between pouring water down the tunnel to move her towards me and then tickling for several series before I was able to get my tickling twig behind her and tap her forward and out into the light. 

   Aphonopelma peloncillo , Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Aphonopelma peloncillo, Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Some rain drops began to fall, but our group continued to search the meadow. I returned to my truck to get a container for the tarantula as Brent wanted to take a couple specimens back to Mississippi. While I was away they located another burrow and I brought more water so that Brent could take his turn at extracting one of these beauties. The image below is the second female, photographed at my campsite the next morning on a flat piece of rock.

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As long as we were in the Peloncillos I also wanted to visit the type locality of the endemic scorpion, Diplocentrus peloncillensis. It is perhaps my favorite U.S. scorpion species and I had luck finding it each time I had tried last year. Rather than black-lighting at night as I usually do for scorpions (super effective, very easy work), I had always just flipped rocks at the site, which is on a north-facing slope that holds more moisture. The three mile or so drive up the mountain road (Geronimo Trail) between the tarantula and scorpion sites is a bit rough, and Brent didn't want to do it in the rental van. So I invited four of his students to climb into my truck and we headed up to a scorpion area atop a hill that is surrounded by a spectacular vista. I gave the team quick instructions and within minutes they had found a handful of scorpions.

  Diplocentrus peloncillensis , Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo County, New Mexico near the Arizona state line and not far from the Mexico border.

Diplocentrus peloncillensis, Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo County, New Mexico near the Arizona state line and not far from the Mexico border.

My group walked down the road a bit to photograph the vista and then, as the dusk skies began to darken and a few more rain drops fell, we went to rejoin Brent and the other three. I hadn't driven far back down hill when I slammed on the brakes. Although small, the unmistakable shape of snakes leaps off of the roads for me, and I looked out my window at an eighteen-inch gorgeous olive serpent with a brightly colored belly. Everyone got out of the truck to hold our prize Ring-necked Snake.

  Abby with our colorful friend

Abby with our colorful friend

  Regal Ring-necked Snake ( Diadophis punctatus )

Regal Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

When we got back to the tarantula site Brent told me that they had located and marked two more burrows and would leave them be if I wanted to record GPS coordinates. My friend Chad is visiting in three weeks and maybe I'll even take Joel down there to see one. Our plan was to wait for darkness a bit longer and then road-cruise our way back. Brent wanted to find at least one male and I was looking forward to showing his group a rattlesnake. Ten minutes or so after we began our drive back we came across our first - and only - male tarantula of the night on the road. The image below was captured the next morning at my corral.

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I was quite surprised that we didn't encounter more males, and for some time all I saw on the road was toads. We were driving faster than I normally road-cruise as the group didn't want to be up all night and I realized that I probably would miss any very small snakes. However, there was no way I would overlook a three-foot rattlesnake stretched out in the road, and I was soon excited to be able to show the students an adult Prairie Rattlesnake.

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The rest of the ride was uneventful; the roads oddly deserted by the live and dead snakes I usually observe. Even the jackrabbits and cottontails were scare, with mostly banner-tailed kangaroo rats and other rodents darting between pavement and shoulder grass. Back in the canyon I enjoyed a nightcap with the Millsaps crew, but they quickly disappeared into their tents leaving Brent and I to one last beer.

The next morning I spent a few hours doing my usual routine and then joined them at their campground at 9. One of the scheduled activities was to visit an area in Cave Creek Canyon past the Research Station where flipping rocks usually yields vinegaroons. Each student was required to give the rest of the group a presentation at various sites during their trip, and this day Abby, who is holding the Ring-necked Snake above, shared information about vinegaroons, not the least of which is their defense response releasing a chemical cocktail that includes a powerful concentration of acetic acid that gives these harmless “whipscorpions” their popular name. When Brent picked up the first one he purposely elicited a defense response so the students could smell the strong vinegar scent on his hands.

  Brent shows a young vinegaroon ( Mastigoproctus tohono ) to the group while Richard takes profuse notes and O.C. ponders

Brent shows a young vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus tohono) to the group while Richard takes profuse notes and O.C. ponders

After a quick lunch back at their campsite, our next destination was the Chiricahua Desert Museum. I had spoke to owner Sheri Ashley in advance of the Millsaps visit and suggested that Brent contact her to arrange a tour. The amazing museum is equal parts reptile exhibit, snake breeding facility, desert garden, historical exhibit and gift shop/bookstore, and I knew the group would enjoy. But my expectations were exceeded when Rachel, one of the reptile keepers, took us to the off-exhibit buildings to view their behind-the-scenes reptile breeding operation. Some students had never held a snake and were apprehensive at first, but it was wonderful to see Marlee hold snakes as below.

  Marlee with a Mexican Pine Snake

Marlee with a Mexican Pine Snake

When we eventually made it back to Sunny Flat Campground everyone was looking forward to relaxing in their hammocks. Brent and I sat sipping a beer and before long were quizzing the students about the biogeography of the Sky Islands including the Chiricahuas. Arachnologist became mixologist as Brent made me a couple of refreshing mint juleps to go with my Dos Equis ambers. We had a relaxing rest of the afternoon, but another thrill was about to come. 

We wanted to visit Cathedral Vista closer to dusk for group photos including the one that kicked off this blog, and walked down the road, made the short hike out to the viewpoint and then returned. Walking back a family with a young boy on a training wheels equipped bicycle headed towards us and said a snake had just crossed in front of them. Sunny Flat is a popular place for my favorite rattlesnake, the Western Black-tailed, and they seemed to know that was exactly what it was. We searched the bushes and grass where it was said to have gone to no avail, and Brent and I returned to the campsite. But one of his students, Liam, had continued to poke around the area and I heard him calling. I shouted back and forth and learned that the rattlesnake was right there in front of him so I grabbed one of my snake hooks and my camera and rushed back over to him. Sure enough, a gorgeous black-tail a bit over three feet long was at the grassy edge and I grabbed it. 

Brent hadn’t joined us yet and as he started our direction I had already told the family, who was now watching and Liam had told that I do this all the time so don’t worry, that I would relocate the snake so it wasn’t by their campsite. Two days earlier someone had reported a black-tail at the same exact campsite so I decided it might be time for me to move the beauty somewhere less frequented by kids on bicycles. I shouted to Brent to return to my truck and grab my big storage tub so I could contain it. He brought it over and then I had Liam hand him my camera so he could take the image below.

  Me and a Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus )

Me and a Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus)

The following portrait of the snake was taken when I released it, coincidentally near the vinegaroon site from earlier that day. I excused myself from the group long enough to drive up canyon, release and photograph the snake, and then make a quick pit-stop to my Wheelhouse for some dinner. When I rejoined them later the group had set up a sheet and lamp to attract moths (and jewel scarab beetles that sadly didn’t come) and the students got to see sphinx moths and hawk moths and a myriad multitude of smaller moths and beetles. We hung out for a couple more hours before I bid them goodnight. The next day I had to man the Visitor Center and, after stopping to say goodbye, they pushed on to the final five days of their adventure.

   Crotalus molossus

Crotalus molossus

#95 - Monsoons & Mountain Trails

The trail to Silver Peak is four and a half miles. With its trailhead just up the road from my campsite, and beginning with an ascent of a ridge just behind my corral, the Silver Peak Trail #280 has an elevation gain of three thousand feet. It is a true test of endurance. Many locals hike the "first mile to the first gate" as exercise. Despite the thousands of feet of vertical ascent ahead, this switchback-free stretch is one of the toughest along the trail, states the trail description.

Even though I can shortcut the trailhead and climb the hill behind the corral to access the trail, I waited until this morning to visit it for the first time of the year. I did not heed the forecast. Two days ago monsoon season officially kicked off with localized thunderstorms that brought close to an inch of rain to Portal, Arizona just outside the mountains, but curiously barely registered on the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) weather monitor three miles up canyon from me.

The North American monsoon generally affects the area from the second week of July until as late as mid-September. It is also known by locally biased names like "Arizona Monsoon, New Mexico Monsoon, and Southwest Monsoon", but North American is most appropriate as the pronounced increase in thunderstorms and rainfall is seen over much of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico and is geographically centered over Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental range. Wind patterns reverse in summer as the land that has been intensely heated by the sun (thermal low pressure) causes the prevailing winds to start to flow (high pressure) from moist oceanic areas to the arid landscape. Monsoon season begins as early as late May in Mexico and arrives in Arizona and New Mexico as summer begins and June gives way to July. As temperature cools in September and drier conditions prevail, the monsoons lose their energy.

This year has been particularly dry in southeastern Arizona. Locals tell me how there was "no winter". Snow and rain were scarce. The SWRS reported one day with 0.13" precipitation in January. One significant day of rain in February brought that monthly total to just under two inches. March had one day of rainfall (0.47"), and April and May were completely dry. When a fluke rainstorm fell for two days in mid-June it was a gift from the skies, but it was due to a tropical storm off the Gulf of Mexico and didn't herald the beginning of our rainy season. But when less than a quarter inch fell on June 29 at SWRS, but closer to an inch was seen in Portal, residents rejoiced. The monsoons wouldn't truly begin for another ten days or so, but the ocotillo greened and then bloomed, the grass at the VIC grew a bit greener and baby lizards emerged.

 The Fingers can be partially seen at right

The Fingers can be partially seen at right

As I passed the first 'pedestrian gate' on Silver Peak Trail this morning, I was posting scenic snapshots and videos to my Instagram story. I then looked up at The Fingers, a rocky hand reaching to the sky from the peaks, and saw the storm that was about to envelop me. I posted both my apprehension to continue on and that caution wasn't my style, and then had only moments to find a large boulder formation to protect my camera in before I was soaked and scurrying down trail to find any tree that would offer cover. Torrential rain fell and thunder boomed as lightning cracked. It would be more than an hour before I crawled out from under that pinyon pine and I was saturated. I looked back up at The Fingers and saw a waterfall had formed on an adjacent steep cliff. I had been upset with myself for not carrying my large camera bag, which as a rainfly, or at least not having a trash bag in my small knapsack to protect my camera and lens. I retrieved the lens from beneath the boulder overhang and started down the trail, but the rain started again. Once again, I huddled beneath the mediocre cover of a scraggly desert pine and this time tried to make room in my pack for the camera. It wasn't until I got back to camp that I realized that I am a bonehead and my Lowe camera knapsack actually does have a rainfly. Not that it would have mattered. When the storm's darkness came over the mountain and down the trail I had no choice but to become drenched squatting anywhere I could.


But let's go back almost two weeks to the last day of June and a different, and much drier, mountain trail. It was a day I will always remember. The Trans-mountain Road, or Forest Road 42, climbs Cave Creek Canyon up the mountain to Onion Saddle, where you can crest the northern Chiricahuas and descend Pinery (Pine) Canyon to Chiricahua National Monument or choose to drive south toward Rustler and Barfoot Parks. Onion Saddle is about a dozen miles up the mountain from Cave Creek Canyon, much of it on winding, primitive road with numerous single-lane switchbacks. The pavement ends just three miles up canyon from the Visitor Center, passes SWRS three-quarters of a mile later, and then the primitive road ascends from 5400 feet to 7600 feet at Onion Saddle. There you either drop down the mountain towards the Monument and paved roads north to Willcox, or continue to climb to Rustler Park (8500 ft) and Barfoot Park (8200 ft), where a network of trails centered around the Crest Trail (#270) runs along the peaks (hence, "crest") to the apogee at Chiricahua Peak (9700 ft). During the Horseshoe 2 Fire of 2011, much of this montane area burned and the landscape and associated trails continue to recover. Volunteer trail crews hike with chainsaws to part trees that continue to fall over the many paths that explore this alpine region.

With the monsoons yet to arrive, June is the hottest month of the year. The temperature can be as much as fifteen degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler at Barfoot and Rustler than down in Cave Creek Canyon, which itself is often as much as ten degrees cooler than the desert just outside the mountains. Barfoot and Rustler Parks are set in mixed conifer forest and the landscape is more Rocky Mountains than Sonoran or Chihuahuan Desert. Adding to the allure, they are home to montane wildlife like Steller's Jays, Mexican Chickadees, Cliff Chipmunks and, for me sexiest of all, the small, mountain rattlesnake - the Twin-spotted. Although the Trans-mountain Road is steep and rugged, with amazing vistas mixed with scary, sheer drop-offs along its single vehicle width, I ascend it as often as I can to reach cooler climes and gorgeous surroundings.

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My long-time readers will remember stories about this diminutive rattlesnake from last year's blog entry on searching the expansive high elevation talus slopes that form its habitat. Those with keen memories will also recall that I had quite the tumble on the sharp rock causing blood loss to my legs and body fracture to my ring flash. This year I have confined my exploration to the base of the rock slides and adjacent wooded areas and meadows. But discussing trails with both visitors and locals had me intrigued to explore the high altitude trails of the region.

I had tried to access Barfoot a couple of days earlier, but as I drove from Barfoot Junction where you head left toward Rustler or right for Barfoot I crossed the cattle guard and was stopped by several real-life cowboys ranging cattle. It was a curious sight above 8000 ft. and I couldn't recall seeing any cattle this high before. But, there I sat, perplexed, watching a half dozen dogs circling four head of cattle lined up on the road with three or more people in Stetsons, boots and demin on horseback directing the dance. After I sat there some time, one horseman came my way and I soon realized that it was a boy no more than 14. I swear he even had tobacco in his mouth when he tipped his hat to me. Pulling his horse up beside my truck, he told me that it would be awhile. He said if he let the cattle break free they might not be able to round them up again. No worries, I told him, and I backed down the road and eventually moved on to Rustler to photograph the elusive and nervous Cliff Chipmunk.

Cliff_Chipmunk.jpg

But the trail that continued to interest me was Barfoot Lookout Trail. Although I knew that the fire lookout cabin that was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps no longer exists, after being burned during the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire, the summit of Buena Vista Peak (8800 ft) now has a little stone-walled viewing area and offers a breathtaking panorama of the surrounding mountains overlooking prime rattlesnake habitat. There also is a solar panel station and radio repeater and the foundation of the old cabin and outhouse may be seen.

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Although the Crest Trail itself intersects the Barfoot Lookout Trail, I would be starting at the lower terminus near Barfoot Meadow. It begins to climb adjacent to Barfoot Spring and after passing through a stand of burned timber reaches a thicket of quaking aspen saplings. Eventually the trail bends sharply to the left and the last three or four hundred yards climbs the mountainside without any switchbacks. Once you reach Barfoot Saddle you are at the Crest Trail junction where I chose to make the climb to Buena Vista Peak.

Along the way I would see more Yellow-eyed Juncos, a bird that thrives at the mountain tops, baby Yarrow's Mountain Spiny Lizards and, during my initial descent, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds feeding at the Bearlip Penstemon flowers abundant on the mountain slope.

 The road up to Barfoot (FR 357) looking down east from the "lookout"

The road up to Barfoot (FR 357) looking down east from the "lookout"

 Looking west down on whence I came ...

Looking west down on whence I came ...

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Just enjoying the trail, reaching the summit, and meditating on the spectacular vistas would have made for a wonderful Saturday. But the best was still to come. At some undisclosed point during my descent, I would stumble upon what I consider the jewel of the mountains - The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake. This protected species is a denizen of talus slopes and rock slides, but is known to be found away from much rock in the vicinity of rotting wood and other forest cover beneath the conifers. A streak of silver flashed upon the trail. I leaped forward, almost stumbling over a log or two. I am sure comedy ensued, but not even a bear was present to witness my grace. Disappearing beneath a rock on the other side of the trail, the cooperative snake gave me time to toss off backpack, camera, binoculars, hat and probably even my glasses as I tried to switch from long bird lens to macro setup in seconds. I didn't have an external flash so the lowly built-in speedlight would have to suffice. I think I may have had enough time to chug some water and wipe my brow before I kneeled beside the rock and tried to catch my breath. I had had only a momentary glimpse, but there was no mistaking that this must be a Twin-spotted Rattlesnake. The species only rarely reaches two feet in length, and this snake was every bit of it, maybe more. Nothing else was silver-grey and little else lives at 8500 feet elevation. As a protected species, it is unlawful to pursue, harass, etc. and certainly restrain or collect, so I wanted to disturb as little as possible as technically even flipping the rock would be pursuing. But flip I did, and beneath was an adult Twin-spot as big as they come and suprisingly cooperative. I wished I could pose it on rock for a better photographic setting, but I snapped a few images and then videotaped it with my iPhone as it slithered into the forest.

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The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei) is the smallest American rattlesnake and occurs at the highest altitude. It is a protected species found in the United States only in Arizona’s Chiricahua, Huachuca, Santa Rita and Pinaleno Mountains. Our western subspecies ranges south into Mexico (Sierra Madre Occidental) with an isolated subspecies being found in northeastern Mexico (Sierra Madre Oriental). Diminutive and slender, it is a silver, blue-grey or greyish-brown rattlesnake that only rarely reaches two feet in length. Its head is not as broad as that of most rattlesnakes, and with paired dorsal blotches that give it its name, limited range, specific habitat, and orange color of the newest rattle segments, it cannot be confused with any other snake. The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake is primarily known from Petran Montane Conifer Forest at elevations of 7500-9000 feet where it is generally an inhabitant of expansive talus slopes and rocky outcrops, but this photo depicts an example of a snake found in adjacent alpine forest among rotting logs and rocks. I encountered this very large adult along a trail at 8500’ while descending from one of Chiricahua’s peaks. The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake is active during the daytime and primarily feeds on the Mountain Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii). Its young are born in summer when baby lizards are abundant in its rocky home. July and August is also the time when breeding takes place. Like other montane rattlesnakes, it delays fertilization of its ova and development takes place very slowly, resulting in birth of a handful of small live young the following summer.
— Michael Jacobi, for Friends of Cave Creek Canyon Newsletter

In closing, finally, I'd like to apologize for not posting for three weeks and make you aware of a Chiricahua Mountain Wildlife slideshow video I have published to my YouTube Channel. It is a compilation of many of my wildlife images captured from April through June 2018. Please enjoy. Cheers, MJ