#104 - November Surprises

  Sonoran Gopher Snake, young of the year

Sonoran Gopher Snake, young of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2874.jpg

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

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

#103 - November

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

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

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

Silly_Coati_110618.jpg

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

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

Accipiter_CCR_B_110618.jpg

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

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

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

Until next time, MJ

#102 - Another Adventure with Brent

Happy November!

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

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

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

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

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

   Aphonopelma hentzi , male, October 21, 2018

Aphonopelma hentzi, male, October 21, 2018

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

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

Aphonopelma_mparvum_100918.jpg

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

   Aphonopelma chiricahua , mature male

Aphonopelma chiricahua, mature male

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

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

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

IMG_2773.JPG

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

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

   Aphonopelma parvum , adult female, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum, adult female, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

   Aphonopelma parvum , adult male, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum, adult male, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

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

  GLUTTONY:  Phidippus  vs. grasshopper

GLUTTONY: Phidippus vs. grasshopper

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

  Cathedral Vista, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

Cathedral Vista, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2845.JPG

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

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

#101 - Winter? Photography and More.

 This image taken in the 1930s in Portal shows the banner I wish still was here. “Welcome to Cave Creek, the Yosemite of Arizona”.

This image taken in the 1930s in Portal shows the banner I wish still was here. “Welcome to Cave Creek, the Yosemite of Arizona”.

This past week the weather was odd.. Less than three weeks ago summery 90 degree days followed crisp mornings, but then summer gave way to … winter? Very warm days and cool nights ushered in autumn, but then a cold front due to tropical storms enveloped the Chiricahuas. The spectacular rhyolite rock faces that have given Cave Creek Canyon the nickname “Yosemite of Arizona” disappeared into the clouds. In fact, I had driven northeast into the Peloncillo Mountains and the clouds were lying on the road.

 Wintery precipitation on my truck the morning of October 16.

Wintery precipitation on my truck the morning of October 16.

I chase snakes and, thereby, chase warmth. But the truth is that my half dozen years living in Seattle were perfect for me: rarely hot, rarely cold, almost always hoodie and shorts weather. I enjoy cooler, more temperate, weather. Here, however, I never quite expected to be lamenting the fact that I left the jeans I had bought for my Chicagoland winter job at Cabela’s back at Joel’s house.

In my two years living in my Wheelhouse I had never encountered freezing temperatures. As November approaches I had wondered how well my RV, which is technically not a four-season camper, would fare. The greatest concern I experienced was my propane supply. My parrot Jesse requires that I keep the Wheelhouse warm even during the day when I am out exploring or hosting the VIC. Even with the thermostat set to maintain 67F I was burning through propane at an alarming rate. I have three tanks and two are online at a time. Refilling or exchanging them necessitates a one-hour drive each way. I have a friend who is going to give me a fourth tank, but a two-hour-plus trip may still become a weekly routine when the cold weather stays. I’d really like to stay here until perhaps mid-December, so I think I’ll have to get a little electrical space heater to supplement my RV’s propane-fueled furnace.

 iPhone image of the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon in the cloudy gloom

iPhone image of the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon in the cloudy gloom

Thankfully, autumn has returned and after a week where the mercury barely rose above 45F and it often was quite chillier, yesterday when I closed the visitor center my truck thermometer read 68F. The previous day when I left the VIC and returned to camp I found a tiny yellow spider on my truck’s tailgate. I was so happy that my favored fauna was still active.

 Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

 Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

This little spider had a body length of perhaps one-quarter inch. When I post macrophotography images to social media (and this is technically, supermacrophotography) I often am asked how large the subject was. Close-up images of spiders are novel to many people and now that I have reluctantly returned to Facebook I have an increasing number of Portal and Cave Creek Canyon locals seeing my photos. Macro images make tiny subjects seem huge, especially since in post-processing they are typically cropped to frame the subject even further.

The above spider was photographed using a life-size macro lens (Tokina 100mm). That means it at its full extension it is at a 1:1 ratio; the subject is viewed and captured at its actual size. For subjects that are very small I attach a 2.5x magnifier lens (Raynox DCR250). This set-up takes some getting used to. The working distance is very small. The front of the lens is within two inches of the subject and manual focus is required. However, I do not focus the lens and keep it at full extension (1:1). I move the subject or the lens to focus, increasing or decreasing the distance.. This can be quite a trick, especially if the subject is moving! However, this little Crab Spider was fairly cooperative and the cool autumn air worked in my favor. The spider was content to rest in place for some time so I captured these images using a tripod and moving the subject to focus. That allowed me to use Live View (camera LCD display rather than viewfinder) to zoom way in and digitally magnify my subject. I then moved the rock or leaf the spider was perched on until the focus was perfect, turned off Live View and then released the shutter.

IMG_2645.PNG

As the season advances I will have fewer and fewer opportunities to photograph spiders and snakes. One question I have been fielding at the VIC is whether snakes are still active, usually asked by someone who is hoping NOT to see one rather than someone who pursues them like me. I was pleased that yesterday when temperatures finally returned to the 60s that one couple who stopped by informed me they had encountered a diamondback rattlesnake sunning itself on Portal-Paradise road. In my last blog entry I shared an image of a young-of-the-year Sonoran Gopher Snake that I discovered on October 7 while walking my 100-yard path between my camp at the corral and the VIC. A more recent snake was also a “young-of-the year”. The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake seen here I found on Portal Rd. on October 13 when the cold front first began. It had been raining for a day and a half and was drizzling at the time. My truck’s thermometer read only 52F as it sluggishly slithered on the slick, wet pavement. I escorted it to safety in the roadside grass and the image is a screenshot from an iPhone video as it slowly moved on.

I hope these aren’t the last two snakes I see in 2018. I now have four days free and will be hiking and am hopeful to find more and perhaps some other arachnid macrophotography subjects. But with fall colors coming I am excited to start doing some landscape photography. It is time I shared more of the grandeur of this area, and not just the majestic animals that inhabit it. I’ve spent a great deal of down time at the VIC viewing YouTube landscape photography and long exposure photography tutorials and even want to try my hand at some “fine art” landscape photography. Whereas pure landscape images are descriptive, revealing only what the eyes can see, “fine art” landscape photography is an artistic interpretation of the scene and finished images are more surreal, with long exposure techniques giving photos a very serene quality by smoothing out light and sky and water. I also want to try some long exposure astrophotography at night to capture the Milky Way above the Chiricahuas. As snakes and spiders enter their winter slumber, this is how I will be spending my days and nights in Cave Creek Canyon before I plan a scenic route back to Chicago that will include some other landscape photography locations.

As for the other wildlife of Cave Creek Canyon, there are still plenty of my favorite birds, the hummingbirds or colibris, to enjoy. America’s two largest species, the Blue-throated and Rivolis, are massive enough to overwinter. Many of the others have left, but yesterday I still marveled at Broad-tails and Anna’s coming to the VIC feeders. I still will have a chance to photograph them. Woodpeckers are prominent in fall and they and raptors make up my other two favorite birds and I will pursue them with camera in hand. Mammals like bobcats and bears may appear before my lens.

***

My mate Mark has just made yet another trip to Borneo and I am now counting down the days until I travel to that part of the world again. I was so disappointed when I woke this morning and realized that I keep thinking and saying that I fly out of Chicago on January 7 when in fact it isn’t until January 9. Two more days, o m g. But I have much to look forward to here yet, and I am also looking forward to spending some down time in Chicago and seeing family and finally meeting the newest member, Joel’s little dachshund puppy Buddy.

MJ

#100 - One Hundred Posts

What once was a tarantula hobby-related blog called Kiss My Big Hairy Spider, became a Pikey’s story when I hit the road in January 2017. KMBHS had 142 posts that were mostly of interest to arachnoculturists, and it was time to move on. My nomadic travels abroad and all over the southern US, as well as my retirement from the pet trade and keeping reptiles & arachnids, required evolving into something broader and much more current and relevant. The Blogger version of PIKEY: Shunpiking and Boondocking; the Gypsy Life saw 68 entries before I moved my blogging once again, this time here my own website. Now the blog has no name. The calendar pages keep turning and now it is October 2018 and I’m still on wheels. My journey and journal continues.

 I later released this guy in the Corral on a piece of tin I have laid out to attract his kin.

I later released this guy in the Corral on a piece of tin I have laid out to attract his kin.

Autumn has set in here in the Chiricahuas and the mornings are brisk. Still, the ectothermic creatures are active and so are those with internal furnaces. This morning, as I walked down to the Visitor Info Center to make phone calls after being informed that there was a fire up-canyon near the Southwestern Research Station, a young of the year Sonoran Gopher Snake crossed the little trail that connects my camp at the corral with the ‘VIC’. I brought it with me as I talked with various people regarding the fire. The local who originally entered my camp to notify me said something about a possible evacuation of the canyon. I wondered if I hitched my Wheelhouse up and headed out into the foothills whether I would just keep going. Then I wondered just how long it would take to break camp since I have now been stationary for about six months. At this point, I’m homesteading.

But a gypsy must wander …

Tangentially related to my Pikey spirit, it is Irish Music Week here in Portal, Arizona. I was unaware until a few days ago, but apparently it is an annual instructional camp for Irish Music players that’s been jamming at the mouth of the Chiris for going on ten years. I kept the VIC open late on Friday so 20 or so students to come by, and it turned out that the woman who runs the camp used to be a VIC Host like me. Guess that’s how a remote hamlet in extreme southeastern Arizona became home to the event. Thursday afternoon I attended a dinner at Portal Cafe where the eight or so instructors performed for a crowd that included the 40 or so students of the camp as well as just about everyone from the Portal-Rodeo area.

As this year charges to its end, I reflect on how different it has been to the first half of last year, when the Pikey blog began. In 2017 I had a Trip Log and it documented my wandering, something that is absent from 2018. I was back and forth from Florida in January, first without a Wheelhouse that had yet to be delivered. My first night inside my shiny new RV was January 29 near Lake Park, Georgia. But on February 9 I was off to Borneo and Malaysia so my Trip Log shows my RV life being put on hold as I traveled back to Chicago to fly to Dubai and Kuala Lumpur before arriving in Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo on February 11. I returned to the states at February’s end and was camped back at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in south-central Florida by March 4, returning to where I had spent those first days of February. Next was a trip to the Everglades before returning to KPPSP for the end of March and then pushing on across southern Texas for the entire month of April. The beginning of May 2017 saw me bounce around New Mexico and Arizona chasing Brent Hendrixson and his field arachnology students, but once they moved west toward California in mid-May I headed to the Rodeo, New Mexico - Portal, Arizona area to see the Ashley’s Chiricahua Desert Museum. I knew Bob and Sheri Ashley through the IHS (International Herpetological Symposium) and their NARBC (National Reptile Breeder’s Conference where I had been exhibiting my tarantulas and holding my own Arachnogathering), and I wanted to see the reptile exhibits and museum they had built at the crossroads of New Mexico’s Highway 80 and the road that leads into the Chiricahua Mountains. Not counting a brief visit to Chicagoland June 23-July 10, I wouldn’t leave Rusty’s until mid-September.

This year I left Chicagoland in mid-April and headed right back to Rusty’s RV Ranch north of Rodeo, NM, the wonderful RV Park in the San Simon Valley between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo Mountains where I became sedentary on May 15 during my 2017 travels. That’s when a one week booking became a four month stay. Having stored my winterized Wheelhouse at Rusty’s since mid-September, I drove straight to Rusty’s and resumed living there as if I’d never left. I had arranged to be a volunteer host at the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center just west of Portal, Arizona in the Chiricahua Mountains starting June 1. I booked one month and then in mid-May, since my work at the visitor center began soon after arrival instead of June, I relocated into the canyon where there are four RV sites for VIC volunteers and, occasionally, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) road crews. Two host couples where already occupying two sites in the main area below the VIC so I was offered the USFS corral site above the VIC. Initially apprehensive, I quickly learned that it was paradise. My own gated RV site surrounded by at least five acres of fenced in land with spectacular views has since become my homestead. The USFS has limits on how long a volunteer can remain camped here (3 months), but Friends of Cave Creek Canyon asked for a special dispensation to allow me to stay longer. And here I am in the second week of October, sipping dark coffee against the morning chill.

But a gypsy must wander …

gypsy.png

As I mentioned in my last entry, my end-date this year is undecided. But I better make up my mind. I have until the beginning of January to get back to Chicago and, since I have the opportunity for at least some income here, it may be that I stay until mid-December or so. I probably wouldn’t have a chance to earn anything back in Chicago, especially since I don’t really want to try to get a job for a month or two and quit on New Year’s Day in preparation for spending January in southeast Asia.


In closing I guess I should mention the new tarantula mini-documentary I made. On October 2 I made a trip up to the Gila National Forest north of Silver City in Graham County, New Mexico. This is the southeast of the discontinuous range of perhaps America’s most handsome tarantula, Aphonopelma marxi. A high elevation tarantula from the Colorado Plateau of the United States’ Four Corners region (Utah, Colorado, Arizona & New Mexico), my filming site was among tall pine trees at nearly 7000 ft. elevation.