#98 - Another Visit

I hadn't seen Chad Campbell in far too long. I tend to lose touch with people even in the best of times, and heading out to live on the road at the beginning of 2017 didn't lessen that propensity. Still, more sociable people can always reach out to solitary me, so I am never willing to take all the blame. And Chad did just that with an unexpected text asking whether I'd pick him up in Phoenix if he landed there. I have no clue how long it had been since we'd had any contact other than liking each other's Instagram posts, but it didn't affect my reply. I told him Tucson or El Paso were cool as they are 2.5 and 3 hours away, respectively, but Phoenix (5 hours) was a no.

 Chad and a Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Portal Cafe

Chad and a Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Portal Cafe

There is a very, very short list of people that have an open invitation to visit me and Chad certainly was on it, but after a few casual mentions last year to a few of the honorees of that mental list, I really didn't talk to anyone at all this year. As you read in the previous blog entry, my bonus dad Joel just visited and we had arranged that trip even before I left his house the day after his birthday in mid-April. He was set to spend my birthday here with me the first week of August and, other than visits by my arachnologist friend Brent Hendrixson, I didn't anticipate any other visitors. But Chad was itching to return to Arizona after his previous visits to Tucson for American Tarantula Society conferences that have since fizzled out, and without much hesitation he bought his plane tickets and I scrambled to switch with other volunteers to free up my schedule not one week after I had taken an entire week off from the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center in the northeastern Chiricahua Mountains to spend all my time with Joel.

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Jump ahead to another trip to Tucson the night before picking up a guest. Again I wanted to road cruise for sidewinder rattlesnakes, and this time a guy I met through Instagram had recommended a road west of the one I had cruised the night before I picked up Joel. Heading out past the Old Sasco Ruins through rugged Sonoran Desert into a stormy dusk, I truly felt in the middle of nowhere. Just off the interstate the town of Red Rock, Arizona is new modern suburbia, but quickly the cookie cutter adobe family homes give way to sandy desert grassland scrub. Then, out of nowhere, I came upon a massive feed lot and sights and smells that will turn you off of beef for life. Thousands upon thousands of cattle stood shoulder to shoulder and I looked away and picked up the pace before the strong odor became too much. The pavement then ended and the dirt road soon disappeared into saguaros reaching toward the purplish gloomy sky and I was swallowed by the desert. I was glad there was still light so I could read the warning signs about road closures, flash flooding, federal agents and more, and I drove deep into the desert between the mountains and back out to learn the area before darkness. The road had many steep dips that recent rains had filled with water and rocks and several crossings were of great concern. One held as much water as I'd ever want to drive my truck through (and I did it four times) and another was very wet but also very rough with big rocks that had washed into the crossing. There were many "stream crossings" and quite a bit of rough road. That night I tested my truck more than any other.

  Portrait of that night's Sonoran Desert Sidewinder ( Crotalus cerastes cercobombus )

Portrait of that night's Sonoran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus)

  Sonoran Desert Toad ( Incilius alvarius ), one of several from my Old Sasco Road adventure.

Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius), one of several from my Old Sasco Road adventure.

Flashing forward once more, the next morning I was back at Tucson International Airport early enough for a local beer. As I finished up and started towards Chad's arrival, he texted me that he was already outside having a cigarette, his very short flight from Phoenix arrived early. His first request, even before he had left Minneapolis, was that we head from the airport directly to In 'N Out Burger, the legendary West Coast fast food icon. Then it was off to a giant liquor store I had scouted the day before for a connoisseur's collection of West Coast India Pale Ales for Chad, plus a small selection of lagers for me including not only Grand Canyon pilsner but my beloved Imperial from Costa Rica. Then we headed east to Willcox for groceries and on to an area known to contain two tarantula species, which Chad had explored a couple years prior during one of his Tucson visits. Rain shortened our time - and unsuccessful search - at the tarantula site, and we pushed on back here to Cave Creek Canyon. Chad would be the first visitor to actually bunk in my Wheelhouse and we had groceries and beer to stow and food to grill. But first Chad unpacked some very generous birthday gifts he had hauled all the way from Minneapolis, incurring overweight bag charges in the process in order to bring me some special beverages and a coffee cup. There were two imperial stouts and a giant Ziploc bag containing eight pint cans of one of my personal favorites brewed in Minneapolis - Indeed Brewing Company's Mexican Honey Imperial Lager.

Chad's visit was only from midday Friday to midday Tuesday so we were working with limited time. Chad wanted to see tarantulas and rattlesnakes most and that he did. Saturday we made a trip into New Mexico and down into the Peloncillo Mountains to search for the tarantula I had pursued with Brent and his students only a couple weeks earlier. Successful in finding that special American spider again, I then took him to the scorpion site where I had taken four of Brent's students. 

   Aphonopelma peloncillo , a Peloncillo Mountains endemic

Aphonopelma peloncillo, a Peloncillo Mountains endemic

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Chad had only seen Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes before, and he added quite a few more of those to his life list, plus many more first-time ('lifer') Mohave Rattlesnakes and one special encounter with the third species of our trip, my favorite, the Black-tailed Rattlesnake. And he found it himself! I had taken up South Fork Road and South Fork Trail in search of the Elegant Trogon, the rare bird people come from around the world to see here, and - though we didn't find the trogon - during a search of a cabin for jumping spiders Chad found a young blacktail a few feet off the ground, nestled in the rock exterior rock wall. The snake didn't move as we took in situ photos of how we found it, including the smartphone image to the left, and then Chad returned to my truck which was parked nearby to get the rest of our needed camera gear and one of my snake hooks. Black-tails are usually placid rattlesnakes and this yearling snake certainly was very cooperative as I then moved it onto a nearby group of flat rocks so that we could photograph it further. 

  Chad's "lifer" Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus )

Chad's "lifer" Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus)

Another snake that Chad had repeatedly mentioned that he was hoping to see was a kingsnake. We have two here, the tri-colored Mountain King here in the mountains, and the Desert Kingsnake in the foothills and surrounding desert. Both can be very elusive so it was quite a thrill when one night's road cruising, the night we went down to the Peloncillos, included this beautiful black-hooded king.

  Desert Kingsnake  (Lampropeltis splendida ), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Desert Kingsnake (Lampropeltis splendida), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Chad and I share a love of jumping spiders and he has become quite accomplished at doing true single-exposure macrophotography of jumpers using the same 1:1 100mm Tokina macro lens I use plus a 2.5X magnifier and a special light set-up. We were fortunate to find quite a few special jumping spiders during his visit. One was at almost 8400 ft elevation at Barfoot Park, and we also found cool jumpers right at my camp at the corral and a number of photo sessions took place on my picnic table.

  Chad photographing a jumping spider in the high elevation mixed conifer forest of Barfoot Park

Chad photographing a jumping spider in the high elevation mixed conifer forest of Barfoot Park

  One of Chad's images from the above photo shoot ( Phidippus toro , female) © Chad Campbell

One of Chad's images from the above photo shoot (Phidippus toro, female) © Chad Campbell

On Chad's last night here, we went for another dinner at Portal Cafe and then Chad chose to return to the corral to enjoy some beer, conversation and image processing over another night of road cruising for snakes. But on the way back into the canyon we were destined for one more snake during his visit, which he called his "snake-cap", and it was a special one at that.

  Our "snake-cap", adult Sonoran Lyre Snake ( Trimorphodon lambda )

Our "snake-cap", adult Sonoran Lyre Snake (Trimorphodon lambda)

I don't know where I'll be next year, but if I am in the Chiricahuas I am hoping Chad will return and bring his girlfriend April with. We even talked about getting a small gathering of mutual friends together for more herping and spidering fun and more connoisseur brews and good food. 

  This "spirited" Mohave Rattlesnake ( Crotalus scutulatus ) put on quite the show for Chad as it tried to "kiss" me

This "spirited" Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) put on quite the show for Chad as it tried to "kiss" me

#97 - 54 - Adventures with Yet Another

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2300 miles, 25 or so live rattlesnakes, 54 years. One amazing visit.

Three French hens, two turtle doves. And a trogon in a sycamore tree.

Those are just few of the numbers from my birthday week, which began two days before the 5th when I drove to Tucson to look for sidewinder rattlesnakes that Friday night before picking up my stepdad Joel from the airport midday Saturday.

2.5 hours to Tucson, an oil change, Wing Stop lunch and an afternoon escape-the-heat matinee of Mission Impossible - Fallout later, I was at the Motel 6 North Tucson.

That night I found my lifer Sonoran Desert Sidewinder. The next morning another lifer - this time a Sonoran Desert Tortoise.

  Sonoran Desert Sidewinder ( Crotalus cerastes cercobombus ), Pinal County, Arizona

Sonoran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus), Pinal County, Arizona

  Morafka's or Sonoran Desert Tortoise ( Gopherus morafkai ), Pima County, Arizona

Morafka's or Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai), Pima County, Arizona

Then it was the airport and a scenic drive up the Catalina Mountains, followed by some Tucson shopping, groceries in Willcox and a dusk check-in for Joel at Rusty's RV Ranch. A short time later it was Joel's lifer rattlesnake as I spotted a Western Diamondback on the roadside only five minutes after leaving Rusty's to take him into the Chiricahuas for the first time. In the excitement I shooed it off the highway without capturing an image, but Joel got the thrill of seeing me move it from the road and see it slither into the desertscrub. As we entered Cave Creek Canyon it was rattlesnake number 2, a Western Black-tailed that a couple of guys had discovered. We asked if we could join them so Joel could see my favorite rattlesnake. It wasn't necessary as he'd see a few more during the adventures to come.

My diary will get fuzzy here as we did so much it would be impossible for me to recount it all chronologically without overlooking something. The snakes are a blur. So I'll forge ahead to the next day - Sunday the 5th, my 54th birthday. I had something different planned and our final destination was the wild west town of Tombstone, Arizona. First there was a stop in Douglas to see the wall between that city in extreme southeastern Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico on the other side. Then we headed west along the wall, on to Bisbee for coffee and, finally, were walking the dusty cowboy streets of Tombstone. A beer at Doc Holliday's Saloon, some shopping and then lunch at Big Nose Kate's Saloon and before long we were back in Bisbee to have a beer at Old Bisbee Brewing Company. Back in the Chiricahuas for dinner time we grilled up steaks at my corral.

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Road cruising followed, as it did every night, and Joel saw Diamondbacks and the deadly Mohave Rattlesnake, which would be the most frequently encountered snake over the week and two dozen rattlesnake engagements. In fact, we saw the largest Mohave I've seen one night in a very unexpected location. But of all the snakes the one we both will remember most is a big beauty of a Western Black-tailed that was crossing the primitive mountain road at 7500 feet elevation in the early afternoon. My goal for the week was always to get a photo of Joel with a rattlesnake. I didn't want him to get too close, but I think this image speaks a thousand words.

This beast was a spectacular example of the species that is my favorite rattlesnake both for its beauty, habitat and fairly gentle disposition. When a carload of birders descended the mountain road I had already moved it off the road, but I asked them if they wanted to stop for photos. It was a rare moment of wanting to share the joy of the experience and the majesty of the snake.

  Portrait of a Beauty    Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus ), Chiricahua Mountains

Portrait of a Beauty

Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), Chiricahua Mountains

  Beast Mohave    Mohave Rattlesnake ( Crotalus scutulatus) , San Simon, Arizona

Beast Mohave

Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus), San Simon, Arizona

Other adventures included a trip up the mountain road over the top of the mountain to descend through Pinery Canyon to the northwestern side of the range for a visit to the Chiricahua National Monument. This special place has incredible rock formations - pinnacles, hoodoos, balancing rocks. We took in views like the one below at Massai Point, but then would take perhaps our most arduous hike of the week when we summited Sugarloaf Mountain.

  Joel at Massai Point in the Wonderland of Rocks - Chiricahua National Monument

Joel at Massai Point in the Wonderland of Rocks - Chiricahua National Monument

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While we were at Massai Joel had asked what the structure atop a distant peak was. I had to look at it through binoculars and then I looked at the map and figured it out. He had no idea what was in store for him when I drove to the parking lot trailhead.

The trail was only one mile or so each way, but it climbed about 500 feet to an elevation of 7400 ft and was often steep and slippery.

Another adventure was our first birding trip. I wanted Joel to see the Elegant Trogon, the bird people come here from around the world to see, the Mexican bird that perhaps numbers only 60 in the United States. We parked in a prime area and I got out and only moments later was pointing out the dazzling male above us. I hadn't walked six steps. Good fortune smiled on us.

Each day we hiked, dined, road cruised. We were constantly on the move except one afternoon in Rusty's swim spa relaxing with a cold cerveza.

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Snakes, birds, snakes, snakes. Tarantulas, vinegaroons, scorpions. More hikes. Each day was filled with activity and as the week began to wind down I asked Joel if he was interested in a road trip. I thought perhaps he'd want to see somewhere else in the southwest and we decided to limit it to a three hour drive. I mentioned a few options, but the one that immediately was of interest was Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument north of Silver City, New Mexico. I had visited the Gila National Forest in the region a few times last year, but had never gone to the Cliff Dwellings. It was pretty spectacular. I admittedly am not one for history and historical sites, but at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument you can actually enter the cliff dwellings unguided and see where Mogollons lived for twenty years or so in the late 1200's. It was certainly worth the trip and the winding and climbing scenic mountain drive there and back added to the experience.

  Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

  Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

It was an action packed week that left me exhausted. Saturday morning I picked Joel up one last time at Rusty's and we made the 150 mile trip to Tucson Airport. Then I turned around and headed home with a brief stop in Willcox for a few groceries and some lunch. As I type this Monday afternoon I am preparing to head to Tucson again Thursday. I will once again spend an evening looking for sidewinder rattlesnakes and then Friday morning pick up my buddy Chad at the airport for his five day visit. I'll close now leaving y'all with a short video of me wrangling one of the beautiful black-tailed rattlesnakes Joel got to see during visit. I don't usually have a cameraman so it was nice to be on the other side of the lens and get some memories captured. Below the video I'll post a list of just some of the animals Joel got to see during his week.

MJ wrangling a Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Snakes: Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Mohave Rattlesnake, Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Sonoran Lyre Snake, Sonoran Whipsnake, Mexican Hog-nosed Snake

Lizards: Yarrow's Mountain Spiny Lizard, Striped Plateau Lizard, Sonoran Desert Whiptail, Clark's Spiny Lizard, Crevice Spiny Lizard

Amphibians: Mexican Spadefoot Toad

Invertebrates: Vorhies' Tarantula, Desert Blonde Tarantula, Devil Stripe-tail Scorpion, Vinegaroon, Dung Beetle

Mammals: Black Bear, Coue's Desert White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Coati, Rock Squirrel, Coyote, Mexican Long-tongued Bat

Birds: Elegant Trogon, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Rivoli's (Magnificent) Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Arizona Woodpecker, Mexican Jay

AND SO MUCH MORE ...

 

#95 - Monsoons & Mountain Trails

The trail to Silver Peak is four and a half miles. With its trailhead just up the road from my campsite, and beginning with an ascent of a ridge just behind my corral, the Silver Peak Trail #280 has an elevation gain of three thousand feet. It is a true test of endurance. Many locals hike the "first mile to the first gate" as exercise. Despite the thousands of feet of vertical ascent ahead, this switchback-free stretch is one of the toughest along the trail, states the trail description.

Even though I can shortcut the trailhead and climb the hill behind the corral to access the trail, I waited until this morning to visit it for the first time of the year. I did not heed the forecast. Two days ago monsoon season officially kicked off with localized thunderstorms that brought close to an inch of rain to Portal, Arizona just outside the mountains, but curiously barely registered on the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) weather monitor three miles up canyon from me.

The North American monsoon generally affects the area from the second week of July until as late as mid-September. It is also known by locally biased names like "Arizona Monsoon, New Mexico Monsoon, and Southwest Monsoon", but North American is most appropriate as the pronounced increase in thunderstorms and rainfall is seen over much of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico and is geographically centered over Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental range. Wind patterns reverse in summer as the land that has been intensely heated by the sun (thermal low pressure) causes the prevailing winds to start to flow (high pressure) from moist oceanic areas to the arid landscape. Monsoon season begins as early as late May in Mexico and arrives in Arizona and New Mexico as summer begins and June gives way to July. As temperature cools in September and drier conditions prevail, the monsoons lose their energy.

This year has been particularly dry in southeastern Arizona. Locals tell me how there was "no winter". Snow and rain were scarce. The SWRS reported one day with 0.13" precipitation in January. One significant day of rain in February brought that monthly total to just under two inches. March had one day of rainfall (0.47"), and April and May were completely dry. When a fluke rainstorm fell for two days in mid-June it was a gift from the skies, but it was due to a tropical storm off the Gulf of Mexico and didn't herald the beginning of our rainy season. But when less than a quarter inch fell on June 29 at SWRS, but closer to an inch was seen in Portal, residents rejoiced. The monsoons wouldn't truly begin for another ten days or so, but the ocotillo greened and then bloomed, the grass at the VIC grew a bit greener and baby lizards emerged.

 The Fingers can be partially seen at right

The Fingers can be partially seen at right

As I passed the first 'pedestrian gate' on Silver Peak Trail this morning, I was posting scenic snapshots and videos to my Instagram story. I then looked up at The Fingers, a rocky hand reaching to the sky from the peaks, and saw the storm that was about to envelop me. I posted both my apprehension to continue on and that caution wasn't my style, and then had only moments to find a large boulder formation to protect my camera in before I was soaked and scurrying down trail to find any tree that would offer cover. Torrential rain fell and thunder boomed as lightning cracked. It would be more than an hour before I crawled out from under that pinyon pine and I was saturated. I looked back up at The Fingers and saw a waterfall had formed on an adjacent steep cliff. I had been upset with myself for not carrying my large camera bag, which as a rainfly, or at least not having a trash bag in my small knapsack to protect my camera and lens. I retrieved the lens from beneath the boulder overhang and started down the trail, but the rain started again. Once again, I huddled beneath the mediocre cover of a scraggly desert pine and this time tried to make room in my pack for the camera. It wasn't until I got back to camp that I realized that I am a bonehead and my Lowe camera knapsack actually does have a rainfly. Not that it would have mattered. When the storm's darkness came over the mountain and down the trail I had no choice but to become drenched squatting anywhere I could.


But let's go back almost two weeks to the last day of June and a different, and much drier, mountain trail. It was a day I will always remember. The Trans-mountain Road, or Forest Road 42, climbs Cave Creek Canyon up the mountain to Onion Saddle, where you can crest the northern Chiricahuas and descend Pinery (Pine) Canyon to Chiricahua National Monument or choose to drive south toward Rustler and Barfoot Parks. Onion Saddle is about a dozen miles up the mountain from Cave Creek Canyon, much of it on winding, primitive road with numerous single-lane switchbacks. The pavement ends just three miles up canyon from the Visitor Center, passes SWRS three-quarters of a mile later, and then the primitive road ascends from 5400 feet to 7600 feet at Onion Saddle. There you either drop down the mountain towards the Monument and paved roads north to Willcox, or continue to climb to Rustler Park (8500 ft) and Barfoot Park (8200 ft), where a network of trails centered around the Crest Trail (#270) runs along the peaks (hence, "crest") to the apogee at Chiricahua Peak (9700 ft). During the Horseshoe 2 Fire of 2011, much of this montane area burned and the landscape and associated trails continue to recover. Volunteer trail crews hike with chainsaws to part trees that continue to fall over the many paths that explore this alpine region.

With the monsoons yet to arrive, June is the hottest month of the year. The temperature can be as much as fifteen degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler at Barfoot and Rustler than down in Cave Creek Canyon, which itself is often as much as ten degrees cooler than the desert just outside the mountains. Barfoot and Rustler Parks are set in mixed conifer forest and the landscape is more Rocky Mountains than Sonoran or Chihuahuan Desert. Adding to the allure, they are home to montane wildlife like Steller's Jays, Mexican Chickadees, Cliff Chipmunks and, for me sexiest of all, the small, mountain rattlesnake - the Twin-spotted. Although the Trans-mountain Road is steep and rugged, with amazing vistas mixed with scary, sheer drop-offs along its single vehicle width, I ascend it as often as I can to reach cooler climes and gorgeous surroundings.

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My long-time readers will remember stories about this diminutive rattlesnake from last year's blog entry on searching the expansive high elevation talus slopes that form its habitat. Those with keen memories will also recall that I had quite the tumble on the sharp rock causing blood loss to my legs and body fracture to my ring flash. This year I have confined my exploration to the base of the rock slides and adjacent wooded areas and meadows. But discussing trails with both visitors and locals had me intrigued to explore the high altitude trails of the region.

I had tried to access Barfoot a couple of days earlier, but as I drove from Barfoot Junction where you head left toward Rustler or right for Barfoot I crossed the cattle guard and was stopped by several real-life cowboys ranging cattle. It was a curious sight above 8000 ft. and I couldn't recall seeing any cattle this high before. But, there I sat, perplexed, watching a half dozen dogs circling four head of cattle lined up on the road with three or more people in Stetsons, boots and demin on horseback directing the dance. After I sat there some time, one horseman came my way and I soon realized that it was a boy no more than 14. I swear he even had tobacco in his mouth when he tipped his hat to me. Pulling his horse up beside my truck, he told me that it would be awhile. He said if he let the cattle break free they might not be able to round them up again. No worries, I told him, and I backed down the road and eventually moved on to Rustler to photograph the elusive and nervous Cliff Chipmunk.

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But the trail that continued to interest me was Barfoot Lookout Trail. Although I knew that the fire lookout cabin that was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps no longer exists, after being burned during the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire, the summit of Buena Vista Peak (8800 ft) now has a little stone-walled viewing area and offers a breathtaking panorama of the surrounding mountains overlooking prime rattlesnake habitat. There also is a solar panel station and radio repeater and the foundation of the old cabin and outhouse may be seen.

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Although the Crest Trail itself intersects the Barfoot Lookout Trail, I would be starting at the lower terminus near Barfoot Meadow. It begins to climb adjacent to Barfoot Spring and after passing through a stand of burned timber reaches a thicket of quaking aspen saplings. Eventually the trail bends sharply to the left and the last three or four hundred yards climbs the mountainside without any switchbacks. Once you reach Barfoot Saddle you are at the Crest Trail junction where I chose to make the climb to Buena Vista Peak.

Along the way I would see more Yellow-eyed Juncos, a bird that thrives at the mountain tops, baby Yarrow's Mountain Spiny Lizards and, during my initial descent, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds feeding at the Bearlip Penstemon flowers abundant on the mountain slope.

 The road up to Barfoot (FR 357) looking down east from the "lookout"

The road up to Barfoot (FR 357) looking down east from the "lookout"

 Looking west down on whence I came ...

Looking west down on whence I came ...

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Just enjoying the trail, reaching the summit, and meditating on the spectacular vistas would have made for a wonderful Saturday. But the best was still to come. At some undisclosed point during my descent, I would stumble upon what I consider the jewel of the mountains - The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake. This protected species is a denizen of talus slopes and rock slides, but is known to be found away from much rock in the vicinity of rotting wood and other forest cover beneath the conifers. A streak of silver flashed upon the trail. I leaped forward, almost stumbling over a log or two. I am sure comedy ensued, but not even a bear was present to witness my grace. Disappearing beneath a rock on the other side of the trail, the cooperative snake gave me time to toss off backpack, camera, binoculars, hat and probably even my glasses as I tried to switch from long bird lens to macro setup in seconds. I didn't have an external flash so the lowly built-in speedlight would have to suffice. I think I may have had enough time to chug some water and wipe my brow before I kneeled beside the rock and tried to catch my breath. I had had only a momentary glimpse, but there was no mistaking that this must be a Twin-spotted Rattlesnake. The species only rarely reaches two feet in length, and this snake was every bit of it, maybe more. Nothing else was silver-grey and little else lives at 8500 feet elevation. As a protected species, it is unlawful to pursue, harass, etc. and certainly restrain or collect, so I wanted to disturb as little as possible as technically even flipping the rock would be pursuing. But flip I did, and beneath was an adult Twin-spot as big as they come and suprisingly cooperative. I wished I could pose it on rock for a better photographic setting, but I snapped a few images and then videotaped it with my iPhone as it slithered into the forest.

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The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei) is the smallest American rattlesnake and occurs at the highest altitude. It is a protected species found in the United States only in Arizona’s Chiricahua, Huachuca, Santa Rita and Pinaleno Mountains. Our western subspecies ranges south into Mexico (Sierra Madre Occidental) with an isolated subspecies being found in northeastern Mexico (Sierra Madre Oriental). Diminutive and slender, it is a silver, blue-grey or greyish-brown rattlesnake that only rarely reaches two feet in length. Its head is not as broad as that of most rattlesnakes, and with paired dorsal blotches that give it its name, limited range, specific habitat, and orange color of the newest rattle segments, it cannot be confused with any other snake. The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake is primarily known from Petran Montane Conifer Forest at elevations of 7500-9000 feet where it is generally an inhabitant of expansive talus slopes and rocky outcrops, but this photo depicts an example of a snake found in adjacent alpine forest among rotting logs and rocks. I encountered this very large adult along a trail at 8500’ while descending from one of Chiricahua’s peaks. The Twin-spotted Rattlesnake is active during the daytime and primarily feeds on the Mountain Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii). Its young are born in summer when baby lizards are abundant in its rocky home. July and August is also the time when breeding takes place. Like other montane rattlesnakes, it delays fertilization of its ova and development takes place very slowly, resulting in birth of a handful of small live young the following summer.
— Michael Jacobi, for Friends of Cave Creek Canyon Newsletter

In closing, finally, I'd like to apologize for not posting for three weeks and make you aware of a Chiricahua Mountain Wildlife slideshow video I have published to my YouTube Channel. It is a compilation of many of my wildlife images captured from April through June 2018. Please enjoy. Cheers, MJ

#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

#78 - "Talus Tumble: Snakes & Blood" - Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The first time I fell hurt. The second tumble down the steep talus slide left me with a broken ring flash. The third time I was bloodied. Both legs are bruised and sliced open and my left wrist has a mild sprain.

I had driven high into the bear country of the Chiricahuas in pursuit of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei). It primarily inhabits expansive rock slides known as talus slopes in sky island hardwood and conifer forests. They are mostly known from 8000-9000' in elevation and most populations are found on south-facing rock slides where these slender 16-20" rattlers feed on spiny lizards (Sceloporus).  

Sadly, these protected snakes are collected by poachers. They are rare and their scarcity, small size, and docile nature makes them prized serpents in the illegal exotic pet trade. I met a man named Dave who has studied them for 19 years and has attempted to have this area closed to protect the rattlesnakes. That has failed, but he visits often and warns snake hunters about collecting them. During my visit three young men that were at the IHS, including one who was a speaker after winning the Junior Herper grant in the 19-22 year-old category, were warned by Dave who sees all snake hunters as potential poachers.

 This steep rock slide covers acres. I found a total of three newborn  Crotalus pricei.  I took nothing but photographs and left a bunch of blood. 

This steep rock slide covers acres. I found a total of three newborn Crotalus pricei. I took nothing but photographs and left a bunch of blood. 

 My view of the Chiris as I sat near the top of the talus slope and ate my lunch.

My view of the Chiris as I sat near the top of the talus slope and ate my lunch.

I searched the edges of the rock slide, but couldn't resist climbing the treacherous rocks. When I had arrived I met two young guys from Texas A&M who will be at the Biology of Snakes Conference that starts tonight. They told me they had seen one Twin-spotted Rattlesnake about 2/3 of the way up to where the peaks are surrounded by trees. I continued to climb, often sliding and stumbling on the steep talus slope. It isn't easy going up, but it is much worse going down.

I saw nothing except snails, spiders and the occasional spiny lizard on my ascent, and once I reached the rock faces that still stand I sat and ate my canned tuna lunch. I used my iPhone to capture some scenic video clips for my Instagram and Snapchat stories. I will share my Snapchat story of the day at the end of this blog entry.

After I finished my lunch I continued my search laterally across the sliding chunks of limestone and took what would be my second significant fall onto the rocks. During this tumble my ring flash broke away from the hot shoe of my camera body. I love my Sigma ring flash, but for some reason the part that goes into the hot shoe is plastic and not metal as it is on my Nikon speedlights. This is the second time this piece has broken and I will have to send to factory for repair. I was relieved that the lens and body were fine, as was my own flesh. By this time the skies had darkened and I decided that two falls were enough and I should try to get down to the forest floor before the afternoon monsoon rains began to fall.

I have always found descending trails more difficult than climbing them. This has only increased with age as my knees often remind me. Descending a rock slide is a whole 'nother story. I am tall and heavy and tried to keep my center of gravity back to minimize the slipping and sliding. However, often times I would fall back on my arse to break my speed. There was a little island of grass clumps and rocks that I wanted to investigate and I did my best to maneuver myself in its direction. I fell back on my butt when I reached it and looked to my side and gasped. There were three baby Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes sunning themselves in a rock crevice.

My ring flash was broken and the cloudy skies necessitated flash. As they reacted to my presence and began to slither into the safety of the surrounding rocks I quickly reached for my iPhone. This horrible image is all I could capture.

  Several newborn  Crotalus pricei  (Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes) catch some sun on a talus slope at 8600' elevation in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Several newborn Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes) catch some sun on a talus slope at 8600' elevation in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Words cannot describe how excited I was to see these snakes. They were near the top of my bucket list of snakes to observe in nature. I was disappointed that my DSLR was unusable due to the ring flash breakage, and even more disappointed that I had left my recently acquired point-and-shoot camera in my truck. The entire reason I got the point-and-shoot camera was to be able to capture good images while climbing or hiking when I didn't want to lug along the weight of my DSLR or risk its safety. However, nothing could diminish the joy of seeing these little snakes. Protected and at risk from poaching, this rare little serpent was a dream discovery and I sat and enjoyed them until they retreated into the rocks.

When the newborn rattlers disappeared my heart was pumping and I was re-energized. I decided to descend to my truck to retrieve one of my Nikon speedlight flashes and a soft box in case I found more. However, the adrenaline was pumping and I tried to make my way down the rock slide too quickly. I slipped and before I could drop my rear end on the rocks my tumble turned into a fall. My big body crashed down the rocks and I slid perhaps twenty feet. When I stopped moving I felt pain in both shins and my left wrist. I first looked at the camera that was on a sling around my body, and then looked at my heavily tattooed legs, which were now covered in blood. I had a gash and a large hematoma on my right shin and a cut on my left. I sat for five minutes or so regaining my composure and then bandaged myself with the bandanna in the pocket of my shorts. I was relieved nothing was broken and it looked like stitches wouldn't be required. I stood to double-check and rotated my sprained left wrist. All was reasonably good and I sat back down to rest some more.

As I sat in a heap on the rocks I saw Dave and his little white dog approaching. He had warned the Canadian guys about poaching and eyed me suspiciously. I told him what I had found and also how I had fell. I told him I was likely done for the day, but would like to come down and chat with him about the rattlesnakes and his attempts to close the area for their protection. After chatting with him for awhile, I retrieved the flash and made my way along the edge of the rock slide. Renowned reptile guy Bill Love had told me he had frequently encountered the alpine rattlesnakes where the talus slope meets the forest, and I was a bit injured to consider climbing back up the rock slide. As luck would have it, I found another newborn Twin-spotted Rattlesnake and was able to capture a decent image with my DSLR.

   Crotalus pricei , Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, newborn in shed, 8600', Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona.

Crotalus pricei, Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, newborn in shed, 8600', Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona.

Bloodied and bruised, once this snake disappeared in the rocks I decided it was time to return to camp and clean my wounds. But the rattlesnake adventure was not over...

The road to the top of the Chiricahuas is scenic and rugged and I recounted my first ascent in an earlier blog entry. I drove back down toward Portal slowly taking it all in. I was at 6000' in elevation when the winding road delivered me another bucket list snake. Crawling across the rocky dirt road was a gorgeous adult Black-tailed Rattlesnake as big around as my wrist and perhaps 3 1/2 feet long. Black-tails occur at various elevations and those found at this height are noted for their beautiful yellow ground color that contrasts magnificently with the dark blotches and markings. This snake was stunning. Black-tailed Rattlers are also noted for their placid disposition, and this big beauty barely rattled and never struck as I photographed and filmed it on the road and then moved it to safety for more photos. It coiled in defense, but otherwise tolerated me and posed for the image below.

   Crotalus molossus , Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Crotalus molossus, Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake

I am writing this Wednesday morning, two days after the big and bloody snake adventure. Yesterday I did computer work and rested my very sore legs. In addition to the cuts and bruises, my thigh muscles ache from the climbing. I only left camp yesterday to drive east to Animas to pick up some snacks and soda from the Valley Mercantile. I have only driven this road at night since my return and marveled at the flooded roadside desert scrub. The monsoon rains have created temporary ponds and as I rounded one bend I saw a turtle on the road. Yes, a turtle in the desert. Ornate Box Turtles, which are mostly terrestrial, are known from this area, but this was one of the two species of mud turtle found in the Sonora and Chihuahua Desert of the bootheel. The Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens) is semi-aquatic and escapes the dry and hot periods in burrows it digs.

   Kinosternon flavescens , Yellow Mud Turtle

Kinosternon flavescens, Yellow Mud Turtle

I'll leave you now with a compilation of video clips I captured on my iPhone Monday and posted to my Snapchat story. If you snap you can add my exoticfauna account. Please note that this video contains secret info - the locality where I found the Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes. I post it here only for my small group of blog readers. The video is unlisted on YouTube and I would appreciate you sharing this with nobody.