#75 - "Father's Day Bear" from Paradise, Arizona

Happy Father's Day to both of mine and you or any of yours. It is 105ºF. Tomorrow will be hotter. An extreme heat advisory is in effect through Thursday and Tucson may break record temps of 115-117ºF. I've picked the right time to be headed north.

This morning I knew I had only a few hours before furnace-like air would drive me into air conditioning. It was beautiful at 6:30 a.m. I sipped my coffee on my campsite patio and the air was only in the low 60s. But I knew comfort would be short-lived.

I drove into the Chiricahuas without a game plan. A casual hike was the most likely way to spend my morning, but when the road turned to head into Cave Creek Canyon I decided to go straight to Paradise. For five weeks I have always followed the road left, but today a whim steered me straight. The pavement quickly ended and the rocky dirt road carried on. The only thing I knew about Paradise was that the George Walker House would be found there five miles further on. It offers lodging and is an oasis for birders. Casual visitors are welcome to enjoy birds drawn to the feeders. Paradise is an old mining town and its year-round population is twelve. Yes, 12.

I wasn't thinking about George Walker House as the road became narrower and rockier and I reached for the dial to put my truck into four wheel drive. I was just taking in the scenery and the view of the "backside" of the Chiris I have enjoyed since mid-May. The familiar sign warning of smuggling and illegal immigrants was joined by those warning of the primitive unmaintained road ahead and its serpentine path. As always, I had the road to myself and I enjoyed the rugged driving.

Traveling the five miles was scenic and fun and I finally came to the end of Portal-Paradise Road. The T-intersection with Turkey Creek Road gives you the option of turning left toward the George Walker House (GWH) and the few other scattered buildings and continuing on toward the high elevation Rustler Park or heading to San Simon, AZ twenty-five miles farther to the north. I pushed on south and slowed to take in GWH from the road. I knew the hosts were very welcoming and it was tempting to just laze on the property and photograph birds. However, I was really enjoying the winding, rocky primitive road and decided I'd climb toward Rustler Park and then do the loop back into Cave Creek Canyon. Mule Deer and Pinyon Jays were the most common sights. In the Chiris you find three magnificent blue-colored jays: the Mexican Jay or Western Scrub at lower elevations and the darker blue and dark-crested Steller's Jay usually higher elevations. A fourth blue jay – the Pinyon Jay – is occasionally seen, but its range is farther north. It is the Arizona subspecies of the Mexican Jay I see most. They are beautiful birds, albeit raucous and bold. Jays aren't favorites of birders because of their scavenging, nest raiding and aggressiveness, but they're among my favorite birds. The Steller's distribution extends into Washington State and I enjoyed them near Seattle when I lived there.

The wild narrow road continued to twist and dip south of Paradise and I tried to identify other birds that flitted across my path. Then I saw something large in the road. Two hundred plus pounds large. The rusty fur confused me momentarily, but there was no mistaking the bear when it bounded up the hillside into cover. I had no opportunity to really observe it much less capture a photograph. When I first sighted the bear the road was rising and I briefly lost sight of it before my truck crested the hill and descended quickly toward the large russet mammal. I then realized that it had been attracted to the stream that the road crossed in this valley. I stopped in the six inches or so of water in the stream bed. This was the second stream crossing I had made, but it certainly was the more dramatic.

I sat in my truck for ten minutes hoping to see the bear again. Then I pushed on. South Turkey Creek Road is a beautiful scenic drive leading southwest, especially when you have a vehicle made for rugged driving. I would have hated to be in a car. It was a struggle to keep driving slow in hopes of being quiet enough to encounter wildlife as I really wanted to blast it.

Turkey Creek Road ends at 42 Forest Road, which goes by different names at different points. At this second T-intersection I had the option of turning right to continue on the narrow mountain road to ascend to Rustler Park or turn left and descend back toward Cave Creek Canyon and Portal. I chose the latter. When I neared the AMNH Southwestern Research Station there was a Survey Checkpoint manned by two U.S. Forest Service Rangers. This voluntary survey about my usage of the Coronado National Forest took about fifteen minutes. I'm sure it took longer since I had spent the past two months in and out of the national forest here and in the Catalinas and Santa Ritas and beyond. 

Seeing the bear was very special. I told the ranger about it and he called it a "cinnamon". The black bear is smallest and most widely distributed bear in North America. It is the only species found in Arizona. Most are some shade of black or brown, but the rusty coat I saw is referred to as cinnamon. I mentioned before how few javelinas and coyotes I've seen, and how jackrabbits and cottontails are ridiculously abundant. I've commented on the deer that I see every morning in the Chiris. I also have seen many Mule Deer at dusk or dark when road cruising. What I don't think I've mentioned is the hordes of small rodents that sprint across the road when I am cruising at night. I don't know one species from another, but I've distinguished several varieties of smaller "mice" and gerbil-sized mice with long tails and my favorite, the Kangaroo Rat. These are much larger and have large hind feet and run bipedally. They can leap incredible distances (six feet or more) from a run of about 6 mph. I watch them dash to the other side of the road to elude my truck and then when they get to the 18" high roadside grass they spring a couple feet in the air right over it. But seeing a wild animal your own size is a much more dramatic experience. Seeing a mammal larger than me – male orangs in Borneo this past February - was mindblowing.


#74 - "The Most Bitten Man" - Rodeo, New Mexico

Bob and Bettina are birders. This is Mecca for their kind. They have been full-time RVers for four years and often have called Rusty's RV Ranch home. They're gone now, but I would see them most days not only here at the ranch, but on South Fork Road, which is the precise location where the many people called "BIRDERS" congregate to worship the avian jewels of the region. I doubt Bob and Bettina mind the label.

When Candace wrote me about coming down from Albuquerque with her fiancée (they ended up not coming and hopefully we will hook up in July), her email had the subject "Tarantula man!!" I don't mind that label. But she knows me because of my work with tarantulas, whereas many more people might call me "snake man". It's all a matter of perspective and recent memory. When I worked at On Target Range & Tactical Training Center I was called "Spider Mike". This was to distinguish me from another Mike who worked there, but then he was usually called "Gunny" as he was a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant. My co-workers associated me with tarantulas because at the time I had just closed a business that was focused on them and had mentioned by Animal Planet book Tarantulas

The odd thing is that I haven't been doing much tarantula hunting. I've done more scorpion hunting, even more birding, and mostly have been searching for the reptiles that have fascinated me since I was at least nine years old. Snakes have been more often part of my life than tarantulas or spiders, and at times I was working with other reptiles and might be known better as "gecko man" than "Spider Mike". But I am comfortable with "Tarantula man!!" as theraphosid spiders will always be a passion and are part my expertise. I may be looking more for snakes, but I am still the Editor of the Journal of the British Tarantula Society.

Candace's email subject amused me mostly because I have taken to using the term "birder" disparagingly. I am sure they are all lovely people, but they come across as some devoted cult, all sixty-ish, quiet, grey-haired and bearded men and tiny women whose often thin bodies seem to be receding into their khaki Columbia hiking wear. They wear matching floppy hats and clutch the Nikon or Swarovski binoculars slung around their wrinkled necks. They drive Subaru wagons or sensible crossover utility vehicles decorated with bumper stickers declaring their liberal politics and nature causes.

Here at Rusty's I am known as "the snake guy". There are few guests at this time of the year, which I've been told is even slower now than it has been for years, but most would either be birders or astronomers. There has to be a "Telescope Tim". Last week a couple of tent campers were known as "the lizard guys". Bob and Bettina told me that they introduced themselves as exactly that. I wouldn't be surprised if their response was to point at my rig and say, "Oh, Mike over there is a snake guy".

The animal-related moniker of my twenties was "the most bitten man". I had met the only guy I ever was roommates with while managing the reptile & small animal department for the twenty-plus store Noah's Ark Pet Center chain in the Chicago suburbs. Todd owned a mobile home and managed the puppy department and I lived in his spare bedroom for a year or so. Snakes bit me every day. I was pinched by powerful hermit crab claws and screamed in intense pain when a prairie dog bloodied my finger. Ferrets, Arctic foxes, lizards, snakes, hamsters and even a Cobalt Blue Tarantula sunk their teeth or fangs into me. Between my work and my personal menagerie of reptiles and arachnids, it seemed like I was bitten every day by some creature or another. I don't know how many puppies or kittens left bite marks on Todd, but I know he was fascinated by all of my bite stories and always introduced me as "the world's most bitten man". The name stuck for quite awhile.

My focus certainly has returned to snakes. I'm hoping next month's monsoon rains will have me enjoying the arachnofauna of the region, but it is certainly the herpetofauna that fascinates most. My attendance at two herpetological conferences next month certainly announce my return to being "the snake guy". Just as long as I never return to being "the most bitten man". I intend to keep myself a safe distance from the rattlesnakes I pursue.

All the best, MJ

#73 - "Humpday Randomness" - Rodeo, New Mexico

Observations & Musings:

  1. Tomorrow Candace and her fiancé are coming down from Albuquerque. I've never met Candace; she found me online when she became interested in her first tarantula. She's a snake wrangler that has lived in Albuquerque for a year after moving from upstate New York. Until recently she worked at the Rattlesnake Museum in ABQ, but now is involved in a start-up company doing snake abatement and wrangling for film & TV productions in the desert. We'll meet tomorrow and they'll camp here for maybe a few days and snake hunt with me.
  2. The canyon wrens love swiping food from Jesse's outdoor play stand. I think they might have a nest beneath my Wheelhouse so I am apprehensive about moving it early next week.
  3. I am surprised by the few coyotes and javelinas I have seen. Driving the roads every dusk and dark you would expect to see more coyotes, but I have seen one in mid-afternoon and only saw my second last night. I know they're common here. Maybe it is that they don't have to wander to hunt because there are a gazillion jackrabbits & cottontails. I saw a bunch of bands of javelinas in Texas, but here I saw one youngster (~20#) on Portal Road just outside of the Chiris one morning and a band of about six one evening during dusk.
  4. I am not surprised I haven't seen them, but not only are mountain lions and ocelots found in this region, but also JAGUARS! I have seen ocelot scat while hiking.
  5. My plan for my short visit to Chicagoland is to just relax and do some daily Netflix & Chill. Have new House of Cards, Bloodline, Flaked, Last Kingdom, etc. to watch, plus a bunch of new comedy specials. I'll do laptop work and couch surf. I also expect to eat a lot of sushi (Wok n' Fire, Kumi, Sushiya) and fish tacos (Mago, Houlihan's).
  6. For some absurd reason, I waited until today to use the swim spa here at Rusty's RV Ranch. Was so amazing to soak. I didn't do the hot tub thing ... I used the wave jets to create current to swim against and then used the spa nozzle blast seat. It's a multifunctional cool-down experience. Tonight after road cruising I am going to lay in it under the stars.
  7. The stars! I can't believe I haven't commented on the amazing night sky. Every night I gaze skyward in rapt astonishment. When I arrived at Rusty's there were a number of rigs set up with incredible telescope arrays. This area is well-known for its incredible stars. There is zero light pollution. I really should do a long exposure photograph tonight. Hmmm...
  8. F*CK THE PENGUINS. Hockey fans will understand.
  9. I really wish I could make smoothies. I could buy a killer blender, but I can't buy fresh produce. When groceries are sixty miles away and it's hotter than hell, fruit is a luxury.
  10. I like to enjoy the cool mornings and warm nights. During the heat of the day I like to read and nap. Good night!

#72 - "The Chiris" - Portal, Arizona

The Trans-Mountain Road is rugged and narrow. With four-wheel drive engaged, my truck left a cloud of dust as it followed the serpentine path climbing toward Barfoot and Rustler Park. I had driven this rocky dirt road all the way up to an elevation of 9000’ and these montane camps a few weeks ago, and documented my white-knuckle drive in an earlier blog entry. In many places the edge of the narrow road falls into steep canyons and no guardrails or even a rocky shoulder exist to assuage the fears of this height-phobic driver. But today I wouldn’t be traveling that far beyond the turn off for the Southwestern Research Station and Herb Martyr Road. I had been hiking segments of the Basin Trail and the connecting trails that wind around Herb Martyr campground. The trails here can be very difficult to follow and signage is minimal. Flash floods rearrange the terrain and forest fires alter the landscape. Years after a fire the torched trees continue to fall and block the paths. The best map is disappointing, but I consult it and the several GPS apps on my iPhone often, as well as an app called AllTrails that allows you to download some maps to your phone for offline use. Trailblazers sometimes create new side trails that confuse me, especially when the path becomes obscured at stream crossings. Many of these crossings are dry creek beds and it can take some trial and error to finally find your path. I don’t mind stopping to rehydrate and double-check my direction. My hiking style is very much “stop and smell the roses”. I am looking for creatures that can be overlooked by the driven hikers who are after a workout or an endurance test. My pace is deliberate with many long pauses to absorb the breathtaking scenery.

Yesterday I had decided to follow the Trans-Mountain road to the northern terminus of the Basin Trail and hike south toward Welch Seep. The drive from Rusty’s RV Ranch to Portal, Arizona takes maybe 30 minutes, mostly because my driving style matches my hiking. In the early morning the road in is alive. Mule Deer forage at the roadside as do the ubiquitous Black-tailed Jackrabbits and cottontails. A couple mornings ago I came across a gorgeous pale Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. Horned Lizards come out of their roadside burrows to catch some morning rays. Vultures are everywhere, feasting on the carcasses of vehicle-trampled jackrabbits and rabbits from the night before. Occasionally I have glimpsed Javelina, although they seem much more secretive here than they had been in Texas. The occasional Greater Roadrunner darts across the pavement. I drive slow taking it all in.

Early morning Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake on the Portal Road

Early morning Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake on the Portal Road

Past Portal the Portal Road continues into the Chiricahua Mountains and Cave Creek Canyon. The paved road continues past Cave Creek Ranch and Birder’s B&B and the visitor center. Farther on are little side roads that lead to primitive campgrounds and eventually the road takes a hard right turn with an the unpaved South Fork road heading to birder’s paradise. This road and the rocky stream bed trail that is found at its terminus are the birding hotspot of the Chiris. As you continue deeper into the northeastern Chiricahuas the pavement finally ends and you re-enter private land. The Chiricahuas are part of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, but there is much private property and scattered residences. The unpaved road continues to the turn-off for American Museum of National History’s Southwestern Research Station, which lies at the junction with Herb Martyr Road. I have visited the Research Station and its Chiricahua Nature Shop several times, but usually pass it as I climb two miles on the increasingly rocky road to the Herb Martyr Campground and the trailheads of Snowshed Basin Trail, Ash Spring Trail, Greenhouse Trail and the aforementioned connections with the Basin Trail.

I found the trailhead by using the GPS coordinates I had found online and found a little side road that led to a dispersed camping site where I could park off the main road and in some shade. The trail began as a two-track and after a short distance narrowed and descended to the north fork of Cave Creek. A faint path tricked me into first following the edge of the creek, but then I recalled reading that trailblazers would follow this for an especially rugged two miles to reach North Fork Falls, where during spring snowmelt a fifty or sixty foot waterfall can be viewed. I had taken screenshots of the website chiricahuatrails.com so I would have access to trail notes without cell signal or wifi. I reviewed these images and walked back to cross Cave Creek and find where the trail continued sharply to the left and ascended. For another mile or so the Basin Trail climbed via switchbacks that led to a spectacular view of Silver Peak, the Cave Creek Basin and the red cliffs of Cave Creek Canyon and Reed Mountain behind. Silver Peak seemed so far in the distance and so high, but I had climbed that trail earlier in my stay from its trailhead back near the visitor center.

The Chiricahua Mountains have a base elevation of about 3500’ above sea level and climb to the 9,759’ (2,975 m) Chiricahua Peak. The grasslands and deserts in the lowlands give way to Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir forests at high elevation and five of the nine life zones are found in the Chiris (Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, Transition, Canadian, and Hudsonian). Cave Creek Canyon is perhaps the jewel of the entire mountain range and having it twenty minutes from camp is part of the reason for my extended stay here in Rodeo, New Mexico. 

From the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon website:

Wrapped around the always-flowing Cave Creek, Cave Creek Canyon is considered by many to be the crown jewel of this magnificent mountain range. It is the largest and most biologically diverse canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. It is a favorite haunt of bird watchers and nature lovers, and is the home of the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station and the small communities of Portal and Paradise.

Cave Creek Canyon is one of Conservation International’s 34 Global Biodiversity Hotspots. It provides habitat for approximately 370 species of birds, 170 species of butterflies, hundreds of plant species and over 70 species of mammals including ocelots, collared peccaries, mountain lions, coatis, black bears, ringtails, and white-tailed deer.

The animal’s mentioned above are what my old friend Dr. Fred Sherberger would refer to as “charismatic megafauna”. These are the sexy beasts that your average nature lover cares about. But for those of us in pursuit of “creepy crawlies”, the Southwestern Research Station lists include 32 species of snake including seven rattlesnakes and the Arizona Coral Snake and 26 species of lizard including the Gila Monster. The invertebrate fauna is incredibly rich and diverse. I have seen amazing butterflies and dragonflies. Arachnids are abundant but secretive. You won’t see big orbweaver webs in the blazing sun. Come monsoon season other secretive creatures like spadefoot toads will emerge from their aestivation.

From the American Museum of Natural History website:

Bio-geographically, the Chiricahua Mountains are located at a crossroads between distinct desert and mountain biotas. At lower elevations, species are influenced by both the Sonoran Desert to the west and the Chihuahuan Desert to the south and east. At higher elevations, there is a mixing of plants and animals from the Rocky Mountains, to the north and the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Mexico. The uniqueness and diversity of the biota is well recognized by ornithologists, herpetologists, and entomologists. Cave Creek Canyon is also recognized as one of the top birding localities in the United States.

I am looking forward to my return in mid-July and stay through August. The Southwest Monsoon rains fall from July through August into early September. The landscape will be transformed and wildlife activity will increase. I now will be attending both the 40th International Herpetological Symposium (July 19-22) and the 1st Biology of Snakes Conference (July 27-29), both of which will be held at the Chiricahua Desert Museum's Geronimo Event Center. Herpers from all over will take advantage of the monsoon season's affect on reptile and amphibian behavior. I can't wait.

I stopped by to see Bob Ashley at the Chiricahua Desert Museum after my morning hike yesterday. He graciously gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of his off exhibit reptile collection. He has at least three snake rooms dedicated to rattlesnakes, mountain kingsnakes and other species with an emphasis on desert herpetofauna. One air-conditioned room is for montane species. Another room houses primarily lizards, but contained some invertebrates, amphibians and turtles. Bob promised that we would all have a more thorough tour of his collection during the symposium, but I appreciated the quick personal tour especially the opportunity to see just about every species, subspecies and locality of rattlesnake imaginable.

All the best, MJ

#71 - "Playing Possum" from Animas, New Mexico

My left hand suddenly became wet and I noticed a few droplets of blood on my hiking shorts. Dripping from my wrist, the blood fell to coagulate on the dusty red earth beside Highway 81. I had been driving toward the Mexico border and gasping in awe at the spectacular lightning storms over the Animas and Peloncillo Mountains. Now I was standing on the roadside. It was still at least an hour until sunset.

I uncurled the fingers of my left hand to view the source of the warm wet blood. In my palm rested a perfectly healthy Texas Horned Lizard. I had temporarily restrained about a dozen of these spiky broad and flat lizards over the past few weeks to pose them for roadside images, but this is the first that had squirted blood from its eyes.

Ethology is the science of animal behavior. Ethologists use the term tonic immobility or thanatosis to describe what we like to call playing possum. It also is known as apparent death or by slang terms like feigning death or playing dead.

The Virginia Opossum or "possum" is a marsupial that has an involuntary response to perceived threats that results in mimicking both the appearance and smell of a sickly or dead animal. But it is far from the only animal that has evolved apparent death behavior. Even animals you might think of as invincible predators like sharks have highly developed tonic immobility behaviors. I've witnessed similar behavior in spiders, beetles, treefrogs, and iguanas, and in alligators turned onto their backs. 

Horned lizards have suffered being called horny toads or horned frogs. These thorny reptiles can hardly be mistaken for amphibians, but their scientific name Phrynosoma means "toad-bodied". Their rough scales are ornamented with incredible spikes and they have broad and flattened bodies. Their coloration serves as effective camouflage. But they also employ a wide variety of means to avoid predation. When a potential threat approached their first defense is to remain still to avoid detection. If approached more closely they often will run in short bursts, zig-zagging and stopping abruptly to confuse the predator's visual acuity. Should the threat continue they puff up their bodies to erect their spines and appear larger and more difficult to swallow. At least eight species, including the Texas species P. cornutum I have encountered in southwestern New Mexico, also have the ability to squirt an aimed stream of blood from the corners of the eyes. This blood spurt may reach a distance of up to 5 feet. They squirt blood by restricting the blood flow leaving the head, which increases blood pressure and ruptures tiny vessels around their eyelids. This incredible behavior not only confuses predators, but also the blood tastes foul to some predators like canines and felines. Both wild and domestic dogs and cats pose a threat to horned lizards, as do predatory birds that apparently don't find the blood squirting so unappealing. For the record, this "ocular autohemorrhaging" has also been documented in other lizards including the Yarrow's Spiny Lizard that I also encounter regularly here in southwestern New Mexico.

Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Another reptile from this region exhibits interesting behavior when threatened. A hog-nosed snake will roll onto its back to appear to be dead when threatened by a predator, while a foul-smelling, volatile fluid oozes from its body. Its gaping mouth often is bloody. However, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, it can be 'tricked' into erecting its tongue. As I photographed this Mexican Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi), a guy I met on the road was wagging his finger at the snake to get it to flick out its tongue for a better image. 

A Mexican Hog-nosed Snake feigns death

A Mexican Hog-nosed Snake feigns death

Other threat displays do not feign sickness or death. Rattlesnakes have evolved a familiar warning, but in truth many snakes rattle their tails. Rattlesnakes, members of the most highly evolved of all snakes - pitvipers, just have taken it to another level. They have hollow, interlocking segments of keratin [modified scales] at the tips of their tails. The contraction of tail muscles produces an incredible warning sound, but a kingsnake or other snake can produce a nice buzzing by vibrating its tail when in contact with dry leaves. Still, the rattlesnake has perfected the warning. It can vibrate its tail up to 50 times a minute and maintain the pace for three hours. One night two Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes I interacted with backed away from me and both ended up secreted in the grasses and other cover surrounding an agave. I forgot to record GPS coordinates and returned to the spot ten or fifteen minutes later to do so and found them still buzzing away and the sound could be heard thirty or more feet from the bush.

And, of course, many snakes hiss and puff up their bodies to appear larger. Chameleons are just one well-known lizard that, like our horned lizard, inflates its body when threatened. Birds, mammals ... there are probably few animals that don't have representatives that employ the 'look bigger" defense. But let's go back to snakes ... One dramatic example of puffing up the body in threat display is the cobra's hood. Cobra skeletons have special elongated ribs that erect the loose skin and scales of their necks when muscles are contracted and they flatten their necks. This hood may be displayed in the familiar defensive pose, but also as a cobra is moving as it slithers away. Our Mexican Hog-nosed Snake has a very cobra-like hood. Last night's snake never went as far as tonic immobility or apparent death. It huffed and puffed like most snakes, but also flattened and spread its hood to great effect. You can see its flattened neck "hood" in the image below.

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi), Grant County, New Mexico

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi), Grant County, New Mexico