I have now been back in Rodeo/Portal for a little over week and the rains have been surprising. The monsoons are in full force and not a day has gone by without rainfall. When the desert where I am camped is dry, a look toward the surrounding mountains often reveals low dark, clouds and rains in the distance. At night the roads are full of toads - spadefoots, greens and even a few big river toads.
Here in the San Simon Valley, where the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts converge, the landscape has changed. But the monsoon rains are prevalent throughout the southwest, and my friend Brent and his seven students had encountered wet conditions west in the Tucson area and came east to New Mexico a day a head of schedule. That was good as I had mistakenly thought the 40th International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) started one day later. Due to the Millsaps College (Jackson, MS) crew's arrival on Tuesday, I was able to spend that afternoon and evening with them in the Chiricahuas. They camped in Sunny Flat Campground in the Chiri's Cave Creek Canyon and when I met up with them they were flipping rocks in search of the giant vinegaroon or whipscorpion (Mastigoproctus giganteus). As I said hello to Brent and his students Aaron and Ashley who I had met in May and was introduced to the rest of the Field Arachnology Course students, many of them already had vinegaroons climbing on their arms.
After the students were done playing with the vinegaroons I followed the group back to their campsite. Not long after the skies opened up and we sought shelter under the ramada of a neighboring campsite. We had coolers of beer and I hung out with them in the beautiful mountains into the night.
Wednesday I decided that I would join them for their trip two hours northeast to the Gila National Forest. They would camp at Cherry Creek, which is at 6800' elevation in the mixed confifer forest about fifteen miles north of Silver City. Wednesday night the IHS would begin with an icebreaker, but I decided to skip that in favor of spending more time with the Millsaps crew who intended to search for the beautiful resident tarantula species, Aphopelma marxi. Brent also had some specimens of scorpion and tarantula from Utah and Arizona that I wanted to photograph. So I invited a few of the students to ride in my truck and Lillian-Lee, Frances, Niki rode with me as our group stopped for breakfast in Lordsburg, groceries and laundromat in Silver City and then arrived at Cherry Creek. As they began to set up camp, Brent and I walked across the road to an embankment where he had found Aphonopelma marxi burrows in previous years and within a short time I found a perfect silk-covered burrow and shined my flashlight beam inside to reveal a pretty female tarantula. The students were called over and Niki used my water jug to simulate flooding and coax the tarantula to emerge.
I originally thought I might leave early enough to drive back in time for the IHS icebreaker, but I stayed until just before dusk and drove back exhausted. I had hoped to road cruise some of the northern roads, but it was still light as I made it back to Silver City and started down the major highway toward Lordsburg. The four-lane highway was surprisingly deserted, but I was too tired to drive very slowly. Still, when it narrowed to two lanes I encountered a Prairie Rattlesnake on the road. It was a fiesty little bugger and it wasn't until the next day when I saw my photographs that I noticed a bit of blood on it that was likely from a glancing strike of a car tire.
I stopped for fuel in Lordsburg and by the time I got on the interstate (I-10) rain had begun to fall. I was unhappy about that as I really hoped to find rattlesnakes on Highway 80 between the interstate and camp. This 25-mile stretch, which passes through the Peloncillo Mountains at Granite Gap, is home to natural intergrades of Prairie and Mohave rattlesnakes as well as pure bloodlines of each. But the torrential rains had made the road a toad wonderland. My slow driving wasn't to look for snakes on the road and beside it, the pace was instead necessary to weave through the spadefoot toads enjoying the shower. I photographed several as they are highly variable, but then was overwhelmed by their abundance and just carefully drove the remaining miles hoping to squish as few as possible.
Thursday morning I arrived at the Chircicahua Desert Museum's Geronimo Event Center for the continental breakfast that would precede each morning's lectures. The lectures kicked off with a herpetologist associated with the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History, which I have previously mentioned is located here in the Chiricahua Mountains. His presentation was on my favorite group of lizards, the horned lizards of the genus Phrynosoma. Thursday, Friday and Saturday I attended most of the lectures, returning to camp during the two-hour lunch break each day. About 180 people were in attendance and I was surprised at how well the event had held up over the years. A little online research informed me that the last IHS I had attended was 26 years earlier, in Seattle in 1991. My old friend Scott Michaels and I had attended about a half dozen between the mid-80s and that 1991 trip.
The 40th IHS concluded Saturday night with a banquet featuring a steak dinner and cheesecake dessert. An old friend of mine from reptile shows in the Pacific Northwest, Giovanni Faglioli of The Bean Farm, walked throughout the crowd pouring tequila shots from a giant bottle. The banquet lecture was delivered by celebrity herpetologist Mark O'Shea and it was educational, entertaining and brilliant. His red hair now long and grey, the diminutive Brit regaled us with his reptile stories from his childhood in England's Midlands to the present. His stories included a number of bites from venomous snakes and chronicled his annual expeditions from his first visit to Florida through his trips around the world on research teams and film projects for Discovery Channel, National Geographic and his O'Shea's Big Adventure.
This Wednesday evening many of the people who attended the IHS including Mark O'Shea and many new arrivals will convene back at the Geronimo Event Center for the icebreaker that kicks off the first Biology of Snakes Conference. Yesterday was a day of rest for me, but I plan to spend the next two days before that conference begins doing some hiking in the mountains. Legendary snake man and photographer Bill Love told me about a spot for Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes and I am eager to trek up to high elevation in pursuit. However, any field hunts whether hiking or road cruising are at the mercy of the monsoon rains that have resulted in a very wet week.
PS: A reminder that I have an eight-minute video slideshow of photos from the first six months of my 2017 adventure on YouTube. --- Also, my recent wildlife images are more numerous on Instagram than on my website or SmugMug at this time. You don't have to use Instagram or have the app to view my photos. Just click the link to open in your web browser.