#85 - Cat Drama

I've already begun training at the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center (V.I.C.). I spent yesterday morning and all day today at the V.I.C, and many people - mostly serious birders - stopped by to chat. The Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (F.O.C.C.C.) is a non-profit, volunteer-operated service contracted by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Coronado National Forest, to autonomously operate the gateway to the Chiricahua Mountains.

The Chiricahua Mountains is Arizona's largest sky island range, some 40 x 20 miles in area. Its incredible diversity of flora and fauna occupies six life zones from desert scrub to mixed conifer forest. Influenced by the Rocky Mountains to the north, the Sierra Madre Occidental to the south, and at the confluence of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, the area is also affected by the low elevation of the continental divide between Animas and Deming, New Mexico, which allows connection to the Great Plains. The Chiricahuas host half of all North American bird species and half of its bats. From 4800 feet near the VIC up to Barfoot and Rustler Parks between 8000-9000 feet, the Chiricahuas reach their apex at 9763 ft. Visitors can start at the VIC and spend 1.5-2 hours on a primitive single lane mountain road to crest the Chiris and head down the other side through Pinery Canyon to visit the Chiricahua National Monument, a completely separate park. It is a rugged drive worth taking, and although the prime spot for birders is the easily accessible South Fork Road only 1.5 miles from the VIC, many ascend the mountain road in search of higher elevation species like Mexican Chickadees and Red-faced Warblers.

But this post is about cats. Because as much as those I encountered this weekend had finding 'lifer' species among the more than 250 species of land birds on their minds, the topic of discussion was cats. Two separate incidents had campers buzzing. Saturday morning a mountain lion was seen crossing the road between Idlewild and Stewart campgrounds by a reliable source. This brazen stroll was unusual in the canyon, and campers needed to be warned to keep a closer eye on children and pets. Mountain lions are secretive and seldom seen, and are more a threat to deer and occasionally livestock. Word of the lion didn't cause great concern.

But Friday night a more unusual event took place, and today I was sent up canyon to Herb Martyr campground to post notice about what campers were calling a "bobcat attack". Apparently a bobcat actively was hunting pet dogs and contacted campers in their tent. I spoke to four separate parties and their stories agreed that despite screaming and chasing this bobcat did not want to be deterred from the scent of Fido. It moved about the campground focused on areas where dogs had been present. In fact, it would repeated return to a spot underneath a parked vehicle where scared campers secured their dogs during the fright. All campers reported that the cat was not seen again on Saturday night, but I hung a warning on the camp outhouse nevertheless. We left messages for Arizona Game and Fish and the Forest Service and went about our day. The highlight of my drive up to talk to campers and post warnings was stopping to photograph a Whiskered Screech-Owl that has become known to birders. Now that I know where it is I am hoping to get a better image, but here's a first glimpse.

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Tuesday morning I am joining a nature walk focused on birds, plants and trees led by a local expert who gives private guided walks to guests of Cave Creek Ranch. Sadly, few people who stop by the VIC want to know about rattlesnakes and tailless whipscorpions.

Best, MJ

#84 - Antelope Road

Set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul, you’ve got to run like an antelope out of control!
— "Run Like an Antelope", Trey Anastasio, PHISH

27 driving hours, 1900 miles, three overnights. Tulsa, Lubbock, Deming. I arrived a day ahead of booking at Rusty's mid-morning Thursday. "Pretty Girls" by Karin Slaughter read through my truck's speakers kept me rolling, and when that audiobook ended I mixed southern rock with another chapter of Nick Offerman's "Paddle Your Own Canoe", a heaping helping of wisdom with the subtitle "One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living".

Chicagoland to Tulsa, Oklahoma was uneventful; my road miles stamina was fleeting at best. Day two's accomplishment halted in Lubbock, Texas, a South Plains town perhaps best known as the birthplace of Buddy Holly. It is the northwestern part of the state, south of the panhandle and I woke Wednesday morning within striking distance of Rusty's RV Ranch, but my reservation wasn't to begin until Friday. I decided to head towards Las Cruces, New Mexico and decide then whether I would continue west. The day would become hot, in the upper 80s, and under a mostly cloudless sky I drove on past arid grassland oil pump fields, which occasionally were interrupted by areas of cattle lands. Lubbock connects to Roswell, New Mexico by Highway 380 after passing last through Plains, Texas. I found this stretch to be "Antelope Road".

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Groups of Pronghorn were abundant. Technically not antelope at all, these beasts are a perfect example of parallel evolution. Americans named them that due their identical niche and resemblance to Old World antelope. Pronghorn are actually members of the giraffe family and are most closely related to that long-necked mammal and the Okapi of central Africa. They are more distantly related to deer and bovids including cattle, goats, sheep and true antelope.

I paused to photograph the unsurprisingly UFO-themed Roswell welcome sign, but passed quickly past its alien-centric gift shops, book stores, International UFO Museum and restaurants (including a flying saucer shaped McDonalds) and headed west toward the Sierra Blanca. I could have descended southwest on Highway 70 to have more of a crow's flight toward Las Cruces, but by chance decided to stay on 380 and pass through the mountains on what I would learn was called Billy the Kid Trail. I confess I was clueless that I would stumble upon the late 1800's frozen-in-time town of Lincoln, a town made famous by one of the most violent periods in New Mexico history. Here was the epicenter of the Lincoln County War and famous and infamous characters of the Wild West including Pat Garrett and a man born Henry McCarty but known as William H. Bonney or Billy the Kid. During a pee break at a roadside historical monument on the other side of town I also learned that this was an area where Japanese railroad workers were held in encampments after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The third day's shunpiking was beautiful and took in an area of New Mexico I had yet to travel. Highway 380 continued through Capitan and on to Carrizozo before joining 54 and returning me to familiar roads as I headed south through Alamogordo and on toward the Organ Mountains and Las Cruces. I passed by Holloman Air Force Base and heard overhead fighter jets on my way past White Sands National Monument. Last year I had stopped year and played in the gypsum dunes, but this time I cruised on past having decided to drive on to Deming, New Mexico before bringing the last full day of driving to a close. Deming isn't even two hours from Rusty's, so I was hoping that a phone call the next morning would get me onto the ranch one day early. When I got Rusty on the phone after a shopping trip at Deming's Wal-Mart, she said, "come home".

I had no idea what to expect when I returned to my Wheelhouse. All winter I worried that I should have set mouse traps. Scat proved that at least a few little rodents had sought refuge in my rolling home, but the RV was no worse for the wear. In fact, it smelled fresh and was remarkably clean. For two days now I have gone about the business of rigging and reorganizing, sorting and stowing. I best get back to work.

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#83 - Spring Has Sprung

Spring has sprung. Snake someone. Or two. That number again is O-U-8-1-2.
— two knuckleheads

Gibberish, really, but thirty-plus years later I still recall the above nonsense. It appeared like yesterday when I strolled Crabtree Nature Center yesterday seeing turtles and bullfrogs gathering warmth and waxwings flittering overhead. It was something me and my old roommate Todd, certainly mostly a result of his goofiness, used to say back in our twenty-something haze of Busch beer and Cuervo Gold tequila. The 'snake' certainly reflects me and the OU812 references Van Halen, which was in heavy rotation during the days of my bed surrounded by python cages and Todd doing backflips after every tequila shot.

Spring definitely has sprung, Chicago style. Two days ago I woke to a dusting of snow, yet yesterday I was sweating in my hoodie as I hiked the suburban Chicago preserve. I was out trying to blast the cobwebs off my photog skills and find some cardio stamina after a long sedentary winter. I did photograph my first reptile of 2018, the suntanning Painted Turtle seen below.

  Painted Turtle ( Chrysemys picta )

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Monday I will be heading southwest. The San Simon Valley and surrounding Peloncillo and Chiricahua Mountains call. My lonely Wheelhouse needs its windows opened to the warm breezes of April. I've booked a month at Rusty's RV Ranch and then am trading volunteer hours at the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center in the Chiricahuas for a campsite there. I will be posted at the "V.I.C." from June through September, greeting birders, hikers, campers and sharing my passion for the fauna and flora of the great Sky Island.

Spring has sprung and I am springing. And with the emergence of rattlesnakes from their dens, this blog rejuvenates. All the best, MJ

#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