#103 - November

I didn’t think I’d be blogging from Cave Creek Canyon in November. When I signed on to be a host at the Visitor Information Center my end date wasn’t clear, but I hoped they’d let me stay through August. Here I am; until November 30.

New hosts have come and gone and there are two ‘host units’ here now besides me. They will be staffing the VIC six days a week. After training one of them this past weekend, I now only am scheduled for Saturdays in November. Three more shifts. The last on November 24.

Yesterday I spent some time ‘weed whacking’ around the other host RV sites. It was clear and sunny. The temperature reached 77ºF. Sunset is around 5:20 pm right now and the temperature starts to drop quickly around 4 pm, but we are treated to warm days. Mornings are crisp, even close to freezing, but this past week has been absolutely lovely. Bluebird skies, wonderful afternoons.


Last night I did my laundry at Cave Creek Ranch. It’s been so nice having big commercial machines at my disposal, and at no charge too. CCR is owned by the president of Friends of Cave Creek Canyon and he graciously gives VIC hosts a place for mail, package delivery and laundry. They ask that we wait until 4 pm when their housekeeping staff has gone for the day to launder our clothes. That is also the time that Laura (who also volunteers at the VIC) or one of the other ladies that runs their office feeds alfalfa pellets to the resident Coue’s White-tailed Deer. Last night I counted 21 in the pen where they pour the pellets onto the ground. I got there just before feeding time and a few of the incredibly tame deer tried to follow me into the laundry room as it is next door to the room where they know their food is stored. Almost always at the same time there is a coati and a skunk or two milling around the feeders. As my clothes soak and spin I sit and watch all the amazing wildlife that has become accustomed to life at the Ranch. The laundry room is also where my mail and packages are placed after arriving at the Ranch and I sort through it with camera in hand. The silly White-nosed Coati seen here put on quite the show for the two couples sitting on the porch watching the critters with me. Laura was working in the office and she came out just as a flock of White-winged Doves fled the scene. It got quiet and no birds were around. That means predator and she had noticed a hawk fly into the large trees that shade the primary feeding area where this coati was. It flew off to a tree beyond the pen where the deer were feeding and I trained my long lens on it. To be honest, I am not certain whether it is a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk, although Cooper’s are more common in Cave Creek Canyon. Both are smallish with long tails that allow them to soar and maneuver through the trees in pursuit of their (primarily) bird prey. They are very similar in appearance and this one appears to be a juvenile male. The Cooper’s Hawk is larger, but that is subjective and there is size overlap, but it also has a more ‘blockish’ head and longer, somewhat rounded tail. In flight, this raptor’s tail looked squared off, but very long so I have posted these images to iNaturalist hoping someone will have a strong opinion. I’ll update this section if there is a consensus on iNat one way or the other. I called it a Cooper’s to Laura and the guests, but I am actually leaning more toward Sharp-shinned.

[EDIT: The consensus among the ‘experts’ on iNat was Cooper’s]


I have a room booked in Phoenix for November 30 so I have three weeks left of this year’s Chiricahua Mountain odyssey. After picking up Brent Hendrixson at the airport the first day of December, he and I will search for a few tarantulas between Phoenix and Tucson, returning to Phoenix the night before he departs on December 8. Then I will take a scenic route back to Chicago, hoping to find fall color, waterfalls or other landscape subjects. By mid-December I will be watching Chicago Blackhawks games with Joel and seeing how the new head coach they announced yesterday fares with the roster and the past few year’s disappointment after winning three Stanley Cups in the previous handful of seasons.

My Days Until app tells me that there are now 63 days until I depart for Malaysia via Hong Kong. I FaceTimed with Mark a couple days ago and both of us will be counting down the winter days until we share a cold Tiger lager at Hotel Equatorial in Penang. But first I must brave the Chicago chill for what will be about three weeks. I’ll keep busy with doctor, new eyeglasses, and the sorts of things you can’t do when you spend seven months in the wilderness. I am also busy writing. I have been typing my experiences from a life of snakes and spiders and considering releasing a memoir. I think I may even have a novel in me. At the very least, I can come up with another article for the British Tarantula Society. Aphonopelma chiricahua revisited?

On the subject of writing, during my overseas travels in January I intend to blog at least once a day. I will do my trip journal here for any interested readers to follow.

Until next time, MJ

#101 - Winter? Photography and More.

This image taken in the 1930s in Portal shows the banner I wish still was here. “Welcome to Cave Creek, the Yosemite of Arizona”.

This image taken in the 1930s in Portal shows the banner I wish still was here. “Welcome to Cave Creek, the Yosemite of Arizona”.

This past week the weather was odd.. Less than three weeks ago summery 90 degree days followed crisp mornings, but then summer gave way to … winter? Very warm days and cool nights ushered in autumn, but then a cold front due to tropical storms enveloped the Chiricahuas. The spectacular rhyolite rock faces that have given Cave Creek Canyon the nickname “Yosemite of Arizona” disappeared into the clouds. In fact, I had driven northeast into the Peloncillo Mountains and the clouds were lying on the road.

Wintery precipitation on my truck the morning of October 16.

Wintery precipitation on my truck the morning of October 16.

I chase snakes and, thereby, chase warmth. But the truth is that my half dozen years living in Seattle were perfect for me: rarely hot, rarely cold, almost always hoodie and shorts weather. I enjoy cooler, more temperate, weather. Here, however, I never quite expected to be lamenting the fact that I left the jeans I had bought for my Chicagoland winter job at Cabela’s back at Joel’s house.

In my two years living in my Wheelhouse I had never encountered freezing temperatures. As November approaches I had wondered how well my RV, which is technically not a four-season camper, would fare. The greatest concern I experienced was my propane supply. My parrot Jesse requires that I keep the Wheelhouse warm even during the day when I am out exploring or hosting the VIC. Even with the thermostat set to maintain 67F I was burning through propane at an alarming rate. I have three tanks and two are online at a time. Refilling or exchanging them necessitates a one-hour drive each way. I have a friend who is going to give me a fourth tank, but a two-hour-plus trip may still become a weekly routine when the cold weather stays. I’d really like to stay here until perhaps mid-December, so I think I’ll have to get a little electrical space heater to supplement my RV’s propane-fueled furnace.

iPhone image of the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon in the cloudy gloom

iPhone image of the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon in the cloudy gloom

Thankfully, autumn has returned and after a week where the mercury barely rose above 45F and it often was quite chillier, yesterday when I closed the visitor center my truck thermometer read 68F. The previous day when I left the VIC and returned to camp I found a tiny yellow spider on my truck’s tailgate. I was so happy that my favored fauna was still active.

Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

Misumenoides formosipes, White-banded Crab or Flower Spider

This little spider had a body length of perhaps one-quarter inch. When I post macrophotography images to social media (and this is technically, supermacrophotography) I often am asked how large the subject was. Close-up images of spiders are novel to many people and now that I have reluctantly returned to Facebook I have an increasing number of Portal and Cave Creek Canyon locals seeing my photos. Macro images make tiny subjects seem huge, especially since in post-processing they are typically cropped to frame the subject even further.

The above spider was photographed using a life-size macro lens (Tokina 100mm). That means it at its full extension it is at a 1:1 ratio; the subject is viewed and captured at its actual size. For subjects that are very small I attach a 2.5x magnifier lens (Raynox DCR250). This set-up takes some getting used to. The working distance is very small. The front of the lens is within two inches of the subject and manual focus is required. However, I do not focus the lens and keep it at full extension (1:1). I move the subject or the lens to focus, increasing or decreasing the distance.. This can be quite a trick, especially if the subject is moving! However, this little Crab Spider was fairly cooperative and the cool autumn air worked in my favor. The spider was content to rest in place for some time so I captured these images using a tripod and moving the subject to focus. That allowed me to use Live View (camera LCD display rather than viewfinder) to zoom way in and digitally magnify my subject. I then moved the rock or leaf the spider was perched on until the focus was perfect, turned off Live View and then released the shutter.


As the season advances I will have fewer and fewer opportunities to photograph spiders and snakes. One question I have been fielding at the VIC is whether snakes are still active, usually asked by someone who is hoping NOT to see one rather than someone who pursues them like me. I was pleased that yesterday when temperatures finally returned to the 60s that one couple who stopped by informed me they had encountered a diamondback rattlesnake sunning itself on Portal-Paradise road. In my last blog entry I shared an image of a young-of-the-year Sonoran Gopher Snake that I discovered on October 7 while walking my 100-yard path between my camp at the corral and the VIC. A more recent snake was also a “young-of-the year”. The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake seen here I found on Portal Rd. on October 13 when the cold front first began. It had been raining for a day and a half and was drizzling at the time. My truck’s thermometer read only 52F as it sluggishly slithered on the slick, wet pavement. I escorted it to safety in the roadside grass and the image is a screenshot from an iPhone video as it slowly moved on.

I hope these aren’t the last two snakes I see in 2018. I now have four days free and will be hiking and am hopeful to find more and perhaps some other arachnid macrophotography subjects. But with fall colors coming I am excited to start doing some landscape photography. It is time I shared more of the grandeur of this area, and not just the majestic animals that inhabit it. I’ve spent a great deal of down time at the VIC viewing YouTube landscape photography and long exposure photography tutorials and even want to try my hand at some “fine art” landscape photography. Whereas pure landscape images are descriptive, revealing only what the eyes can see, “fine art” landscape photography is an artistic interpretation of the scene and finished images are more surreal, with long exposure techniques giving photos a very serene quality by smoothing out light and sky and water. I also want to try some long exposure astrophotography at night to capture the Milky Way above the Chiricahuas. As snakes and spiders enter their winter slumber, this is how I will be spending my days and nights in Cave Creek Canyon before I plan a scenic route back to Chicago that will include some other landscape photography locations.

As for the other wildlife of Cave Creek Canyon, there are still plenty of my favorite birds, the hummingbirds or colibris, to enjoy. America’s two largest species, the Blue-throated and Rivolis, are massive enough to overwinter. Many of the others have left, but yesterday I still marveled at Broad-tails and Anna’s coming to the VIC feeders. I still will have a chance to photograph them. Woodpeckers are prominent in fall and they and raptors make up my other two favorite birds and I will pursue them with camera in hand. Mammals like bobcats and bears may appear before my lens.


My mate Mark has just made yet another trip to Borneo and I am now counting down the days until I travel to that part of the world again. I was so disappointed when I woke this morning and realized that I keep thinking and saying that I fly out of Chicago on January 7 when in fact it isn’t until January 9. Two more days, o m g. But I have much to look forward to here yet, and I am also looking forward to spending some down time in Chicago and seeing family and finally meeting the newest member, Joel’s little dachshund puppy Buddy.