#79 - "Herping with Friends" - Rodeo, New Mexico

I often wonder who reads this blog. My earlier versions saw more frequent commenting and when they were part of the Blogger network I would get readership data. However, since I integrated it here on my new website powered by Squarespace, I haven't had any sense of who is reading and why. Imagine my surprise when I discovered today that it was read by law enforcement. I'll save that story for the end, but those who know me know that I am a law-abiding man, a former firearms instructor and the son of a police chief. I've spent decades looking for critters in nature and have always taken nothing but photos, and left nothing but footprints (and sometimes blood). I've traveled the world over the last decade and seen rare and coveted creatures and never once removed them from their habitat. So I am glad that I finally had an encounter with a wildlife officer protecting the organisms I adore. But we'll come back to that.

I've been on the road all year and have spent most of my time alone. That is my preference, but it was nice to feign a bit of gregariousness during the two conferences that took place over the past two weeks. Yesterday I had three visitors come down from Albuquerque, but it wasn't until this morning that I actually met them.

I met Candace online when she wanted to get her first tarantula. Her fiancé Brandon worked at a pet store where they had a big Lasiodora parahybana (Salmon Pink Bird-eating Tarantula) and she was doing research prior to getting it as a gift. We began to correspond via email and I learned that she was from upstate New York and had only been in New Mexico for a year. She told me that she was interested in venomous snakes and had a stint working at the Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque. We had intended to hook up prior to my brief return to Chicago, but that never worked out. However, yesterday she and Brandon drove down to the boot heel with their business partner Tom who was Candace's mentor in learning how to handle venomous snakes. The three of them have a new enterprise called HD Reptile, which will involve itself in various activities including education, but which seeks to provide snake abatement services to film and TV productions in the greater Albuquerque region.

This trio of snake lovers came down yesterday and checked in to a hotel in Lordsburg, New Mexico fifty minutes northeast of here. That's the closest chain motel style lodging. I thought I would see them yesterday, but they chose to do some road cruising in New Mexico alone and that was complicated by darkening skies and incoming rain. The monsoons are tricky. Earlier in the day only a 15-30% chance of rain was predicted, but by afternoon when Candace and I were texting each other it became predicted that at sunset there would be a 60% chance. I could look outside and get better info. We definitely would get a bit of a deluge.

I wished them luck on their cruising and texted Candace a bunch of info on which roads were best for which species. I became increasingly worried that my own sunset drive and road cruising after dark would be rained out, and texted Candy to tell her that I was going to head out early and perhaps I would come across their vehicle later. I drove south on 80 and then turned at Portal Road to cross into Arizona and head into the Chiricahuas. As I've stated before, I often don't know where I am going until the last second. I rarely plan and just go wherever on whim and fancy. Instead of turning into Cave Creek Canyon I decided I wanted to do some scenic four-wheeling and went toward Paradise. As I've described before, this is a particularly rugged road and it did not disappoint. The torrential rains had flooded dips in the road and created rock slides that had dumped boulders at some crossings. No car could have driven my path. I enjoyed the drive and how my truck handled the road. This is the stretch where I had seen a cinnamon Black Bear over a month ago, but it was much rougher going than it had been then. When the winding road met back up with Forest Road 42, which is in the heart of the Chiris south of Barfoot and Rustler Parks, I turned left and descended the mountain road toward Cave Creek. This is where I had recently seen a gorgeous Black-tailed Rattlesnake and I had hoped maybe I would see something interesting. Maybe even another cool mammal. The previous night's road cruising I had seen a skunk and a kit fox with a kangaroo rat in its maw. But all I saw was gorgeous scenery and the dust my truck stirred up.

When I got back down to Cave Creek Canyon I don't know why I turned into South Fork Road. I've mentioned this birding mecca before, but some weird instinct told me to check it out. It may be that I had overheard some people at the Biology of Snakes conference say that they had photographed a gila monster there after it had been noticed by some birders. But I just turned into the side road and within 100 yards slammed on the brakes. I first thought it might be a stick as it was laying perfectly stretched out, but instinct told me it was a snake. I lept out of my truck wondering if I was crazy and then looked upon a bucket list snake. There on South Fork Road was a Northern Green Ratsnake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia). It was a little over two feet long and was transitioning from young pattern and color to that of the adult. This is a rare and protected snake and I couldn't believe my good fortune.

Senticolis triaspis intermedia  (Northern Green Ratsnake)

Senticolis triaspis intermedia (Northern Green Ratsnake)

By the letter of the law, you are not allowed to "harass" or "molest" these snakes at all, and that even includes pursuing them for a photo or moving them off the road to safety. We'll come back to this, but I did use a stick to move it to a roadside rock where I captured this image, and then I did enjoy watching it slither away into the forest away from truck wheels. I only photograph, but I'm not going to leave a magnificent snake like this in harm's way.

I was pretty excited and all of a sudden very awake. This was a bucket list snake and it was completely serendipitous that I was in the Chiris at that time at all, and being on South Fork Road was unusual and completely random. I wondered what the trio from Albuquerque was up to then, and wished they had been with to see the snake, but I was alone without cell signal and just pumped my fist and moved on.

On the road out of Cave Creek Canyon I came across a mature male Aphonopelma gabeli tarantula crossing the road. I photographed him and moved him roadside and then continued to State Line Road. Sadly, I doubt anyone cares what you do to a spider. I stopped to evaluate the skies. I had picked up cell signal and Candace was discouraged by the rain. I could see that the clouds were ominous to the north and east so I decided to head south. Instead of turning into New Mexico, I took State Line Rd. down to Hwy. 80 south of Rodeo and continued southwest for about twenty miles. The skies ahead were fairly clear and sunset quickly turned to dark. The ABQ Crew had hoped to find Mohave Rattlesnakes and I had told them that Highway 80 was the place for that species. They should drive north and south of Rodeo on 80 after dark. However, they had come down a bit early, wandered east toward Animas and then, tired from the drive down from ABQ, had headed back to Lordsburg when the rains fell. But I was south of Rodeo and there wasn't a single rain drop. After driving into Arizona for a ways I turned around and headed northeast toward Rodeo. As luck would have it, just on the southern outskirts of town, I found a beautiful Mohave Rattlesnake on the road. This snake species in infamous due to its particularly virulent venom, which contains something aptly called Mojave-toxin that causes both neurotoxic and haemotoxic effects. It is the snake in North America I would least like to be envenomed by and what I consider the most dangerous. I exercised extra caution, but this gorgeous boy was very cooperative and never struck as I moved it from harm's way for a roadside photo shoot. 

Crotalus scutulatus  (Mohave Rattlesnake)

Crotalus scutulatus (Mohave Rattlesnake)

But that was last night, and certainly doesn't qualify as "Herping with Friends". I was alone and wished they had been there to see both the Green Ratsnake and this gorgeous and dangerous Mohave rattler. I texted what I had found and later sent images.

This morning they ABQ Crew from HD Reptile came down to Rusty's and I finally met them. My plan was to take them into the Chiricahuas for a scenic drive that would end at the high elevation locality of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei) I had observed and reported on over a week ago. I knew that Dave the researcher had done his survey the previous week and I hoped maybe we could make a quick visit so the ABQ trio could see this amazing montane species. We had the site to ourselves and they scrambled the talus slope. I stayed down around the bottom of the great rockslide as my injuries from my falls during the last visit still bother me a great deal. They marveled at the abundant spiny lizards including many young, which is what these dwarf mountain rattlesnakes feed upon. They shouted down that they had seen a treefrog that I presume is the Canyon species Hyla arenicolor. Then they shouted that they had finally seen an adult disappear into the rocks and were able to get a photo of just its tail. Brandon heard a few others rattle, but they weren't able to see any others as they stumbled across the treacherous slope. I had been flipping rocks in the adjacent meadow hoping to see an Arizona Mountain Kingsnake or something like that and returned to discover a neonate Twin-spotted Rattlesnake crawl beneath a rock at the very bottom of the talus slope. I yelled up what I had observed and told them it was likely to still be there if they came down. Although most of the slope is maybe six feet or more of rock pile, the bottom edge where it was was firm ground beneath and when they finally descended I just flipped the rock and we got our images. The little baby was very cooperative and climbed up a big rock and then a bit of vertical wood and seemed unperturbed by the camera flashes going off.

Crotalus pricei  (Twin-spotted Rattlesnake)

Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnake)

We left the area and headed back down the mountain. On the way we passed a vehicle that was unmarked but looked like law enforcement. After a little while I noticed the vehicle behind me and pulled over so it might pass, but fully expected that it would pull behind me and "light up". Sure enough, flashing blue and red lights had me putting my truck in park. The officer first explained that I had been driving left of center, which seemed odd to me as most of the road is only wide enough for one vehicle and is a rugged rocky road without striping. But I apologized and explained just that. He then said he had reasonable cause to search my vehicle for wildlife. I won't provide the details here of why he had that "reasonable suspicion", but we were very happy to allow him access to the vehicle. I was worried about the ABQ Crew's snake hooks, which were in the back of my truck. As I stated before, by the letter of the law you aren't supposed to disturb fauna at all; not even to save it from oncoming traffic. However, the officer was extremely reasonable and his concern was for the protected and declining Twin-spotted Rattlesnake population. I mentioned that I had met Dave and that is when he surprised me. Apparently Dave, the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake researcher who I had only met once and only a bit more than a week earlier, had told the wildlife officer about our encounter.But that's not what really surprised me ... The wildlife officer said he knew who I was and had read this blog! I was of course a bit shocked by that, but my first thought was that if he had read my blog and been to my website he would certainly know that I don't collect wildlife. My second thought was that this Dave must have provided my truck and license plate info, which is how the officer found my full name and then my blog. I may have a past history in the pet trade, but I only dealt in captive bred animals and never have collected or kept wild-collected reptiles. And I have been retired from the pet trade and for almost five years now except for a little tarantula breeding,  haven't kept snakes in over ten years, and now do not keep any live animals except my parrot. 

The officer was firm, but extremely reasonable, professional and pleasant to talk with, and I assured him that we had nothing and would never collect. The five of us talked for maybe ten minutes and he explained the protection these snakes receive. And as the son of a retired police chief, I have always had nothing but respect for any law enforcement and appreciate their job. That applies even more for someone who is protecting the fauna I love. I very much appreciate the efforts of wildlife officers everywhere. I was very glad to learn what protection is in place and am hopeful for the future of these little montane snakes. It was a pleasure and a honor to be able to photograph a couple. I never got to see an adult, but babies are a good sign for the future. I don't know if I will revisit the site. I'd love to see and photograph an adult, but it is difficult terrain to work and scrambling on the rocks also endangers the animals living there. It would be difficult to get a good image without manipulating the snake at all and that is illegal and whether you collect or not the officer explained that is what wildlife law considers "a take". I am sure Bob Ashley will let me photograph one of his captive specimens if I really need a pic of an adult.

We bid farewell and drove back down to Cave Creek Canyon. Brandon particularly was interested in looking for rock rattlesnakes so I took him to the Herb Martyr area where I have been looking for them, but we didn't stay long. The group was tired and looked forward to a rest before going out road cruising in New Mexico tonight. Our next stop was Vista Point for the classic Chiricahua photo op. Then I took them to Chiricahua Desert Museum before returning them to my campsite. Tonight I hope I'll see them on the roads. But it is raining now ...