#87 - Happy Mother's Day

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.
— Mark Twain

Happy Mother's Day to mothers, sons and daughters everywhere and husbands and sisters too. In loving remembrance of the mom who enjoyed or at least tolerated some of my trouble, not to mention the huge snakes and loud guitars and other trangressions.

Some words on snakes, but first a little more about birds ...

Yesterday I snuck a few more species onto the bird list I posted in the previous entry. I still have one more week until it is officially my first month back in New Mexico/Arizona, so I have time to increase the list's numbers. Yesterday morning I again joined Laura and Steve for their South Fork Road & Trail birding as representatives of Friends of Cave Creek Canyon. I was able to add Hutton's Vireo, Violet-green Sparrow, and the Cordilleran Flycatcher to my 'life list'. I told Laura that I had just posted my 'first month bird list' and it had - then - 71 species. She asked how many were firsts, better known as 'lifers', and I said probably about 80%. The highlight of our early morning birding hike was again a male Elegant Trogon. This time we had the pleasure of joining what became a gathering of viewers watching his show and he gave a grand performance, at one point dashing to a nearby tree trunk where I watched him snatch up a meal. After he returned to his previous perch we all saw that it was a big caterpillar, one of the trogon's favorite prey items, and we watched him smack it repeatedly on the perch until it was subdued and then it disappeared down his gullet in one big gulp. I am still struggling to capture a crisp image with the limits of my gear and the distance and light of the wooded canyon canopy, but here is the best photo I was able to capture yesterday.

   Trogon elegans , just above the 'Bathtub', South Fork Trail, Chiricahua Mountains

Trogon elegans, just above the 'Bathtub', South Fork Trail, Chiricahua Mountains

On Thursday morning I drove south of Rodeo on Highway 80 into Arizona toward Rucker Canyon. My destination wasn't into the Chiris and Rucker Canyon itself, but rather just the start of Rucker Canyon/Texas Canyon road. My VIC colleague Steve Wolfe (not to be confused with Laura's Steve) had told me that here was a good spot to add another 'lifer' – the Western Burrowing Owl. My favorite birds are hummingbirds, woodpeckers and raptors. I began to type 'in no particular order', but the truth is that raptors including owls, or maybe even especially owls, are my personal choice. The Whiskered Screech-owl I have visited a few times now along the main Chiricahua forest road (FR42) is one of my most beloved birds of the year, and when at the start of South Fork Trail the bird I seek most is not the Trogon but the Northern Pygmy Owl. I have yet to see that elusive yet diurnal little owl, and I get jealous of the reports from visitors who see it, especially one group who watched one feed on a pretty yellow warbler. There is a stretch of snags, dead trees and cover just up from the road-ending berm where the trail begins that is a favored location, but I haven't had the good fortune yet.

So it was the Burrowing Owl that I sought a few days ago. Not exclusively diurnal like the Pygmy, it is however active at daylight and Steve Wolfe had given me a general location. But before I made it to Rucker Canyon Road I saw another 'lifer'. Huge, magnificent and glorious, there on the side of the highway just south of Price Canyon Road and feasting on a deer carcass was the Golden Eagle. It is a bit larger than the Bald Eagle and suddenly seeing its three foot height on the ground roadside was startling to say the least. I may have been a half mile down the highway before my brain had processed the whole experience. But soon my road was upon me and I turned west toward the mountains and parked in the pull-out just a hundred yards or so from the highway. Steve's instructions had been pretty general, but he had mentioned an old railroad bed and repeatedly said 'they're right there'. As I scanned the area with my binoculars I was at first clueless as to where I should look, but then noticed the shape of the railroad bed running parallel to the highway heading north. Then there was an unmistakable form perched atop a clump of dead yucca. It's long legs are unmistakable. At only nine inches in height, the Burrowing Owl is diminutive, but it's larger than both the aforementioned Northern Pygmy Owl (7") and our smallest owl the Elf Owl (6"), the latter of which is also native to the Chiricahuas and on my bucket list to still see. One is often reported from Sunny Flat Campground so it now moves to the top of my list of owls yet to see. The Burrowing Owl I was watching was well within range of my 'bins', but far out of the reach of my 400mm lens. I scanned the area for another, but I saw only the one active outside of a burrow. I slowly approached and thus began a game of I get closer and it flies the other way. I enjoyed watching it fly about and rest farther away from me, and resigned myself that there was no way I was going to be the winner of our little sport. I took many pictures but knew I'd be disappointed with the result. The Burrowing Owl had no intention of letting me get close enough. I spent perhaps 30 minutes with it and then admitted defeat.

Steve W. had mentioned that this was also a good area to see the Horned Lark, a bird that has tufts of feathers that make its head look like Batman's mask. Sure enough, as I began to drive away from my parking area a pair appeared on the road at the junction with the highway. I watched them with my 'bins' and added another species to the list. Then as I got back on the highway and looked left toward the railroad bed I noticed the owl had returned to the yucca stump where I had first seen it. I pulled onto the shoulder of the oncoming lane and was able to get a bit closer while the owl was less disturbed by my presence. It was still at the limits of my lens range, but here I share the best I could do with what I have to work with.

  Western Burrowing Owl ( Athene cunicularia ), Cochise County, Arizona

Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Cochise County, Arizona

Heading back north toward New Mexico I again saw the Golden Eagle, which was now on my side of the road. Words cannot describe how amazing this beast was. I drove past for some distance and then decided to turn around and try to get within camera range. However, just like countless hawks I have tried to photograph along roads that were oblivious to cars humming by at 70 mph, but as soon as one slowed or stopped would spook and fly away, this Golden Eagle flapped its seven-foot wingspan and was soon in the distance. I positioned myself to where I would be able to get a good shot if it returned and waited fifteen minutes before giving up and continuing back.

But let's talk SNAKE! 

I have been very busy with my volunteering at the VIC even though I have yet to move into Cave Creek Canyon. Still staying at Rusty's RV Ranch, I have a 20 mile, 25 minute commute to get to the VIC. Furthermore, I have been doing a great deal of birding both for my own pleasure and to make me a better volunteer who mostly will be talking to birders. But Friday night it was time to pursue my favorite fauna and I decided to head up to Granite Gap in the Peloncillo Mountains about 15 miles north of Rusty's. This a good place to road cruise after dark, but also is one of the better places to see Gila Monsters in the area. I wanted to still have plenty of evening daylight so I could scramble up the rocky hills and hike the cactus-filled canyon and washes. This area is unlike the San Simon Valley with its desertscrub to the south or adjacent desert grasslands. It is scenic and rugged Chihuahuan Desert with mesquite, cholla, prickly pear cactus, agave, ocotillo as well as the soaptree yucca of the valley. It is public land where free-roam cattle graze. I opened the gate along the highway a mile north of the gap and entered the cactus garden paradise. My scrambling up the mountain foothills didn't yield a Gila, nor did the washes and flat desert, but as the sun set and I hiked to make the most of the remaining light I came upon a beautiful adult Western Diamondback Rattlesnake crawling ahead of me. After it became aware of my presence it rattled and coiled at the base of a yucca and I sat six feet away from it and prepared my camera, which had been stowed inside my backpack during my climbs.

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This actually was the first live wild rattlesnake of 2018 for me. I have been helping as a caretaker for the seven rattlesnakes, one kingsnake and Gila Monster at the VIC, but have gotten a slow start to my usual nightly rattlesnake encounters of last year. I only have been out road cruising two previous evenings and saw little live or dead. But now the heat of the day is continuing farther into the night and, after photographing this gorgeous buzztail, I pulled onto the highway as dusk was giving way to dark.

I headed north of Granite Gap on State Highway 80 and turned right toward Cotton City. I wasn't sure if I would do a big loop, heading south through Cotton City on Hwy 338 to Animas and then taking Hwy 9 back toward rodeo as I have often done, or if whimsy would take me elsewhere as it often does. I have mentioned before how I often don't know where I am going until I get there. Many nights I head out of Rusty's gate and don't decide whether to turn left or right until my wheels are on the highway pavement. But this time I decided to turn around when I hit 338 and then head back south on 80 through the gap back to Rodeo, as this is prime Mojave rattlesnake habitat and I already had a Western Diamondback (WDB) on my camera's memory card. North of Granite Gap, with my truck headed south with windows rolled down and Gov't Mule emanating from my truck's sound system I spied a small snake in the other lane. This two-lane road is quiet for most of the night, but a vehicle headed north had just passed me so I worried that whatever I would find would be DOR (dead on road). I turned around once there was sufficient flat shoulder to do so and creeped forward back to the north. The snake was still and I couldn't identify much less determine whether it was live or flattened. I already had my head lamp on and I pulled off the road and lept out to solve the mystery. I was actually hoping it was something unusual and harmless, but to my greater delight I saw that it was a LIVE yearling rattlesnake and definitely was not a Western Diamondback. I quickly looked for traffic in each direction to gauge how much time I'd have to move it to safety. I returned to my truck for my camera and a snake hook. My camera was already prepared with settings and flash thanks to the WDB and my only concern was moving the snake off the road. Now illuminated by my flashlight and headlamp I first thought 'Mojave' and then questioned myself. It was a young snake perhaps sixteen inches long with only a few small rattle segments, which meant it was born last year and its color and pattern now made me think 'Prairie'. Highway 80 scrubland is pretty much the domain of WDBs and Mojaves, with Prairie Rattlesnakes found in grasslands east along 338 and farther north and south. Then I remembered the words of herpetologist Dr. Wolfgang Wüster, who had told me via iNaturalist direct message that the natural intergrades ('hybrids') of Mojave and Prairie being found along Hwy 80 from Granite Gap north to Road Forks. I had found pure Mojaves right where I was standing, but I realized that I had finally found a perfect example of the intergrade that has features of both species. Later that night I would post my image to iNaturalist and Wolfgang would confirm that it showed half the traits of Mojave and half that of the Prairie, both in color and pattern and in head scales. There is a paper I intend to read that talks about these natural hybrids and how the much more virulent venom of the Mojave (the most dangerous snake in the U.S., particularly in this region where its geographically variable venom composition and toxicity is 'most potent') is a benefit to the hybrid offspring. I moved the young rattler off to road and posed it on a rock for many photographs including my favorite below.

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So Happy Mother's Day to all reproductive females including my reptile friends, some of whom evidently find suitors from the other side of the tracks whose bite packs a greater wallop so that their offspring have the greatest chance to survive.