#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 ...

 

#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

#77 - "Wet Week" - Rodeo, New Mexico

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.

   Mastigoproctus giganteus , Giant Vinegaroon, Cochise County, Arizona

Mastigoproctus giganteus, Giant Vinegaroon, Cochise County, Arizona

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.

   Aphonopelma marxi , near Cherry Creek, Grant County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma marxi, near Cherry Creek, Grant County, New Mexico

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. 

   Crotalus viridis , Prairie Rattlesnake, north of Lordsburg, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Crotalus viridis, Prairie Rattlesnake, north of Lordsburg, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

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.

   Scaphiophus couchi , Couch's Spadefoot Toad, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Scaphiophus couchi, Couch's Spadefoot Toad, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

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. 

   Trimorphodon lambda , Sonoran Lyre Snake, Hidalgo County, New Mexico. Found near the Chiricahua Desert Museum during the 40th International Herpetological Symposium

Trimorphodon lambda, Sonoran Lyre Snake, Hidalgo County, New Mexico. Found near the Chiricahua Desert Museum during the 40th International Herpetological Symposium

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.

Cheers, MJ

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.

#76 - "Back in Rodeo" - Rodeo, New Mexico / Portal, Arizona

Hello friendos. It's been too long. A month, to be exact. After a brief visit to Chicagoland, which primarily was about movies and fine dining, I am back surrounded by the Chiricahua, Animas, and Peloncillo Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern New Mexico's "boot heel".

My drive to Chicago took me through northern New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa before I crossed the Mississippi River and headed east across northwestern Illinois to Joel's home in Hoffman Estates, IL. My return trip to Rusty's RV Ranch I instead headed south through Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri, on to Tulsa, Oklahoma, west across the tip of Texas via Amarillo and then headed south to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

I wanted to go to Las Cruces for two reasons; to visit White Sands National Monument and to do some road cruising for snakes in the Organ Mountains. My short visit to White Sands was spectacular; my intended hunt in the Organs rained out. The monsoon rains have arrived and I am excited to be back in the desert.

  White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Yesterday was a fitting return to my camp at Rusty's as it was "World Snake Day". However, the first reptile I encountered as I left the interstate to head south into the boot heel was a lizard. Jumping out of my truck to photograph the Texas Horned Lizard and record its GPS coordinates for data entry at iNaturalist.org, I felt back in my element.

   Phrynosoma cornutum , Texas Horned Lizard, near Granite Gap, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Phrynosoma cornutum, Texas Horned Lizard, near Granite Gap, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

I spent the rest of the day setting up camp and cleaning my "Wheelhouse", but even though lightning filled the skies and storms threatened, I drove east toward Animas and then south toward Cloverdale in search of snakes as I had done so many evenings previous. The first creature I encountered was a mature male tarantula (Aphonopelma gabeli) crossing the road. Surprisingly, I came across no others. Normally, when males mature and begin wandering in search of females you see many.

   Aphonopelma gabeli , mature male

Aphonopelma gabeli, mature male

Sadly, my world snake day was mostly road kill. I first found a DOR (dead on road) Western Patch-nosed Snake and then later came across two Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (WDB) that had only recently been struck by car tires and were in their death throes. Watching them dying is much worse than finding them dead, but both suck pretty hard. The two WDB were about one mile apart and the drivers that killed them had just passed me. Another mile on I finally found a live WDB, this one a beautiful little youngster barely a foot long.

Sleeping in my RV was relaxing, especially compared to the cheap motel beds of the past few nights. I drank one Stella Artois and crashed hard. This morning was cool and sunny. I drank my second cup of coffee Rusty called over to me that there was a big Hog-nosed Snake on the dirt track beside the pond about 50 yards from my campsite. The thick snake hissed and spread its hood like a cobra as I lifted it from the ground so Rusty could look closer. Snake musk filled the air, which is a comforting scent to a madman like me. Although the snake huffed and puffed it made no attempt to bite or feign death. I explained the latter phenomenon in detail in a previous blog entry. I didn't have my camera so I carried the snake back to my truck and then began to try photographing it. It was very uncooperative at first. Rather than coil belly up and play possum, it wanted to slither forward at speed with its hood flared like a cobra. My persistence eventually weared it down and I got good images where I relocated it at the other side of the pond.

  Mexican Hog-nosed Snake [ Heterodon kennerlyi ]

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake [Heterodon kennerlyi]