#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?