#80 - "Trogons & other 'Lifers'" - San Simon Valley, NM & AZ

I've mentioned before that people from around the world visit the Chiricahua Mountains for the birding, and that there is no greater prize than seeing an Elegant Trogon during one of these trips. I am no birder. I don't even own binoculars and the bird photography I have done this year has surprised me. I am much more interested in the creatures on the ground. However, I am often visited South Fork Road and Trail in Cave Creek Canyon, and that is mecca for the flocks (sorry) of birders who flock (sincere apologies) to the Chiris. During those visits, especially in May and June, I have seen hordes of birders chasing the Elegant Trogon. This is a quetzal relative that is resplendent in every way. I have heard the majestic birds calls on most visits to the road and also in the Herb Martyr region a bit further into the mountains. It is a distinct voice and always reminds me that this rare and colorful bird is somewhere in the surrounding trees. Well, this past week, during a serendipitous visit to South Fork Trail (at the end of the road) I finally watched a male trogon flit from tree to tree in front of me. I took no photographs as all I had was my iPhone and my macro rig. I wasn't bothered. I just enjoyed watching him fly, marveling at the red breast, dark head, long tail feathers white beneath and goldish on the back, and the brilliant greens of its back. Since I have no images to share here are a few attributed photos in the public domain.

  Elegant Trogon ( Trogon elegans )   male -  By dominic sherony - Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083266

Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) male - By dominic sherony - Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4083266

  Elegant Trogon male from behind  - By Dominic Sherony - originally posted to Flickr as Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10091341

Elegant Trogon male from behind - By Dominic Sherony - originally posted to Flickr as Elegant Trogon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10091341

For birders this is what would be called a 'lifer', as in a once in a lifetime sighting. In my mind, there is a difference between observing "bucket list" species and those that are "lifers". I have a "bucket list" of favorite snakes I'd like to see, but a true "lifer" would be one that is rare or uncommonly seen; the proverbial needle in the haystack. For example, I still am hoping to see my first in situ (wild, in place in nature) Rock Rattlesnake, but, in truth, it is one of the most common rattlesnakes within the Chiricahua Mountains so my not finding one is a just chance. It isn't unusual enough to see one for it to be a "lifer". The Elegant Trogon was a "lifer" bird for me, but South Fork Road also yielded a true "lifer" snake - the Green Rat Snake (Senticolis triaspis). I discussed this species and shared one of my images in my last blog entry (#79), but I will share another now.

  Northern Green Ratsnake ( Senticolis triaspis intermedia ), South Fork Road, Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona

Northern Green Ratsnake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia), South Fork Road, Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona

This "needle in the haystack" snake certainly qualifies as a "lifer" for any herper (reptile hunter). I spent time with a man named Randall Grey at the two reptile conferences who afterward attended a Field Herpetology course at the Southwestern Research Station of the American Natural History Museum in the Chiricahuas. This station is just beyond South Fork Road and at the turn off for Herb Martyr Road. The "lifer" he wanted to see most was the Green Ratsnake that I stumbled upon when a whim made me turn into the road on that fortuitous evening.

While I am far from a birder, I do enjoy birding and all of nature. Words cannot describe the thrill of watching the trogon I saw flying about me. But that feeling did not match coming across the ratsnake. It is a matter of preference and perspective. There are "bucket list" reptiles that I'd rather see than "lifer" birds. And Friday night I saw a personal favorite for a second time (Black-tailed Rattlesnake) while finally coming upon another bucket list herp - the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum). 

  Gila Monster ( Heloderma suspectum ), Geronimo Trail, Cochise County, Arizona

Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum), Geronimo Trail, Cochise County, Arizona

It was Friday night. The monsoon rains continue to affect the region and, during a violent thunderstorm, high winds and torrential rains Wednesday evening, something like twenty area power poles had been toppled. The surrounding region was without electricity from about 7 pm Wednesday until midnight Thursday/Friday (29 hours). Friday evening we lost power once again despite hot sunny weather. We guess that they had to shut it down to finish the repairs. My RV becomes very hot without air conditioning so I headed out much earlier than usual for my nighttime drive. I just wanted the cool air inside the truck, but it was still more than two hours before sunset when I normally begin road cruising. I decided I would make the 60 mile drive to Douglas, Arizona and do a little shopping and afterward drove the back roads out of Douglas rather than taking the highway back northeast. There is a route that takes you along the Geronimo Trail, past the San Bernardino National WIldlife Refuge (SBNWR) and into the Peloncillo Mountain Wilderness where the rugged road continues through the mountains into New Mexico. My route to camp eventually took more than five hours.

The first creature I stopped to photograph was west of SBNWR. It was a mature male tarantula crossing the road presumed to be Aphonopelma vorhiesi. A little farther on I came upon what would be the first of about a dozen live rattlesnakes of the evening (three species). The Western Diamond-backed (WDB) Rattler was also upon the road, and I stopped to photograph it and record GPS data. It was a more typically colored WDB without the coral/pink/red hues of those I normally find in southwestern New Mexico

  Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus atrox )

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

As I preceded after my encounter with this first rattler of the night, my eyes scanned the road. I just caught a brief glimpse of something in the roadside scrub that made me slam on the brakes. I don't think my mind finished processing what it was until I had scrambled out of the truck with camera in hand. Sure enough, the brilliant pink and glossy black venomous lizard moved deceptively quickly into the surrounding scrub as I scraped my legs on the vegetation in pursuit. It was a very uncooperative model, constantly moving and finding its way into the heavy cover. The image above is the best of the small series of images I could capture. I watched it for some time, but it eventually rested in a dense clump of scrub and I gave up and pushed on.

I had only driven the Geronimo Trail through the entirety of the Peloncillos on one other occasion and that was southwest toward Douglas and in the middle of the day. Driving deeper into the mountain wilderness at night was eerie. The roads are very rugged and narrow and winding. The monsoons have made them rougher and each dip is flooded with rainwater. The pass is known to be a center of drug smuggling and illegal immigration so there is a slight danger that adds to the experience when it is pitch black and your eyes are glued to the road. The concentration becomes intense as my daytime visits have revealed the steep canyons where the road falls off into. I saw big owls on the road, which would fly into a roadside tree and then alight into the air when I approached that tree perch. Later I would also see a smaller owl species. I never got a good enough look for identification. I came across a young skunk that was more white than black. I found Sonoran Desert Toads, which are infamous for the hallucinogenic properties of their psychoactive and poisonous skin secretions. I did not lick. As I wound deeper into the mountains and just after I crossed the unmarked state line, I encountered a Black-tailed Rattlesnake. It has become a personal favorite both for its beauty and its calm nature. The first specimen of this species I encountered was in the Chiricahuas. That Arizona specimen was from higher elevation (6000') and, therefore, more yellow. But this one was still a beauty.

  Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus ), Geronimo Trail, Peloncillo Mountains. Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Geronimo Trail, Peloncillo Mountains. Hidalgo County, New Mexico

The night continued to produce more snakes and after I exited the mountains and the Coronado National Forest I would come across more rattlesnakes. After the road became paved (my normal southern limit of my regular road cruising route), I came across the largest and calmest WDB I have seen in New Mexico. It was an impressive beast with a spectacular rattle. I would see more and also an adult Prairie Rattlesnake and a young Desert Kingsnake. It was an amazing evening and I saw more live snakes than on any other night's road cruising. Whether the Gila Monster was a "lifer" or just a "bucket list species" is a matter of perspective and preference. Each creature I encountered was special in its own right.

All the best, Mike

  Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus atrox ), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Hidalgo County, New Mexico