#102 - Another Adventure with Brent

Happy November!

Autumnal change has shifted my activity patterns. Early October brought unusual rains and frigid temperatures to Cave Creek Canyon and I resigned myself that this year’s nightly road cruising was over. Nocturnal snakes became diurnal as the Arizona Sycamore leaves yellowed and the fading sun quickly brought chill. I began to spend my days hiking mountain trails not to look for reptiles and arachnids but rather reaching destination goals and exercising while taking in the fall colors in the Chiricahuas. But I also wanted to search for the autumn-breeding tarantulas of the region.

Brent Hendrixson was on yet another extended field research excursion as part of his sabbatical, and had been transversing the southwest in pursuit of tarantulas. With earlier trips focused on scorpions, he was now visiting localities of many of our American Aphonopelma tarantulas and photographing not only our theraphosid spider diversity, but also the breathtaking vistas throughout their range. I followed his progress knowing that he would make his way to my camp, and we would seek the elusive Chiricahua Mountain tarantula, and maybe sneak in some landscape photography.

Readers may recall that in late June I stumbled upon a tarantula burrow up canyon above the Southwestern Research Station and was fortunate enough to extract a very elusive spider (see blog entry #94 “An Endemic Tarantula”). This Aphonopelma chiricahua was a surprising reward on a very hot and dry June 21. You also might remember my #96, which told tales from Brent’s August visit with his summer Millsaps College course students and our trip to find another tarantula native to a Sky Island range, Aphonopelma peloncillo in the foothills of the Peloncillo Mountains. I would write up both experiences in an article for the British Tarantula Society entitled “American Mountain Endemics” (JACOBI, M. 2018. American Mountain Endemics. Journal of the British Tarantula Society 33(2): 10-16). You may download the article by clicking here.

Hopefully many of you have watched my video on Aphonopelma marxi, the namesake of the Sky Island diversity or Marxi group of U.S. tarantulas. If not, click here. This group of spiders is of particular interest to me as my passion is for the fauna and flora of our Madrean Sky Island ranges, many of which are part of the Coronado National Forest. However, the closest population of A. marxi to Cave Creek Canyon is in the Gila National Forest, north of Silver City, New Mexico. This is about a two hour drive northeast of my camp at the corral. There lies the Pinos Altos Range of the Mogollon Mountains near the Continental Divide.

During the drive up to the A. marxi site I had encountered a wandering mature male Aphonopelma hentzi just outside of Lordsburg, New Mexico. This is the United States’ most abundant and widespread tarantula and a native of the Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert.

Aphonopelma hentzi , male, October 21, 2018

Aphonopelma hentzi, male, October 21, 2018

During a very recent run to Lordsburg for supplies I encountered three male A. hentzi, and the first one was very unusual. It was in great condition, which on October 21 is certainly not what you’d expect from a summer breeder that has wandered for months. Perhaps even more surprising was this spider’s location. I had never found one so far west. The two I would find on my return from Lordsburg were in the Animas Valley, east of the Peloncillo Mountains. This is where I would have expected to be the species’ westernmost limit in this area. But this guy was about one half mile from the Arizona border, west of Highway 80, between Portal, AZ and Rodeo, NM in the San Simon Valley. The other “desert” species of this area, including A. vorhiesi, A. gabeli and A. chalcodes, are also late spring through summer breeders, and those males have disappeared. Finding a “Texas Brown” tarantula so late in the year and so close to Arizona was very unexpected. In fact, the only Arizona records that Brent and his colleagues noted in their 2016 Aphonopelma revision were two females that Brent had found in Greenlee County, Arizona three miles west of the New Mexico border, about sixty miles north of my state line New Mexico male.

The mature males that interested me though, as the leaves of cottonwoods, sycamores and maples changed with the season, were a dwarf species from the desert grassland and a mountain endemic named for the Chiricahua Mountains. Aphonopelma parvum is a diminutive newly described species from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico that is typically active in November and December. From my home in Cave Creek Canyon the population of interest would be one along State Line Road between Portal and Rodeo. And, of course, Aphonopelma chiricahua was what I would expect to be active at a similar time in the mountains, and what would be my primary target.

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As Brent spent October traveling from locality to locality - and species to species - west of me, I texted him images of males I found here. The first of interest was found on October 9 just after midday crossing the road 1.6 miles from my camp, just west of Portal. Air temperature was 62ºF and the elevation 4790 ft. I considered it Aphonopelma parvum due to its small size. After all, the specific epithet of that species means “very little”. However, it was somewhat in an odd area between where I have now found A. parvum and A. chiricahua. As it was missing a leg and was thereby less ‘photogenic’, I took the above image for size reference and released him rather than saving him for Brent’s eventual arrival back in the Chiricahuas.

Aphonopelma chiricahua , mature male

Aphonopelma chiricahua, mature male

On the morning of October 11 I found an even smaller male near the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, at 4912 ft elevation, just one third of a mile down canyon from my camp. Freshly matured, this beautiful little boy was very black and had long fiery orange-red hairs on his abdomen. I didn’t record the air temperature just before 8:00 a.m. when I encountered him crossing the road, but reviewing weather data collected at the Southwestern Research Station shows that it was in the low 50s there five hundred feet higher so I expect it was in the high 50s at the entrance to the northeastern Chiricahuas. This male was collected for Brent Hendrixson’s research.

The next tarantula of note was discovered in the outdoor restroom building behind the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center (VIC). As I unlocked the men’s toilet on the morning of October 17, I found a small deceased tarantula that appeared to be an immature female. It also was collected for Brent. It was following yet another period of autumn rainfall here in the canyon and the temperature was quite chilly that morning.

On Monday morning (October 29) I drove up the mountain to hike the high elevation Crest Trail near 9000 ft. Brent had spent a few days in Phoenix and while I climbed the trail out of Rustler Park he began his five-hour drive toward Portal. The Chiricahuas had experienced several days of beautiful mild weather, with temperatures in the canyon below reaching 80ºF after fifty degree mornings, and it was reasonably warm and very sunny up among the peaks. Along my hike I saw at least fifty baby Slevin’s Bunch Grass Lizards (Sceloporus slevini) sunning themselves, a pair of Mountain Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus jarrovii) and, sadly, on the drive back down a dead-on-road (DOR) Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei). Also spotted were several Red-tailed Hawks, numerous Western Bluebirds and Yellow-eyed Juncos and many other montane birds.

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I was back in the canyon by about 1pm and not too long after Brent pulled into the corral, already 8000 miles into this research road trip. On his drive south from the interstate (I-10) he had found a male Aphonopelma parvum near Granite Gap where Highway 80 passes through the Peloncillo Mountains into the San Simon Valley. After he settled in and we got caught up we decided our first adventure would be to drive out to State Line Road to a site where he had previously found A. parvum. This tiny species lives in burrows the size of a pea and they typically have excavated soil scattered to the side of the entrance.

In the video below you will see one of the females we extracted. Believe it or not, this was actually what Brent considered a “HUGE” female. We were able to find several of these tiny females in a short span, but were somewhat surprised that we didn’t find any males moving about or hiding in clumps of grass. We did, however, find a Desert Box Turtle as we were leaving. We then decided to drive back north toward Granite Gap to perhaps find a male where Brent had found one earlier. Only a handful of miles north, when we were near Rusty’s RV Ranch where I lived four months last year and the first month of this season, we found a male. The images following the video clip show the female and male of this little tarantula.

Aphonopelma parvum , adult female, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum, adult female, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum , adult male, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Aphonopelma parvum, adult male, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Tuesday October 30 Brent and I explored Rucker Canyon at the south end of the Chiricahua Mountains. I had never visited the area and was looking forward to seeing the “flatter” southern Chiris. After a pit stop farther south in Douglas, Arizona, we drove back up to Tex Canyon Road and west into Rucker Canyon. Brent wanted to search for a “small black tarantula” that a friend of his had reported finding in numbers while flipping rocks looking for reptiles. We flipped a lot of rocks over a couple of hours, but never saw a tarantula. However, we did find quite a number of black and red Phidippus jumping spiders (probably P. carneus), scorpions (Paravaejovis spinigerus) and centipedes. While I was sitting at a picnic table at Camp Rucker (Walnut Grove Campground) photographing two jumpers, Brent went to flip more rocks and returned with an absolutely huge jumping spider feeding on a grasshopper. The spider’s abdomen was already huge, but its gluttony apparently had no bounds. Brent was able to carry it to me on the stick where it was perched devouring the insect.

GLUTTONY:  Phidippus  vs. grasshopper

GLUTTONY: Phidippus vs. grasshopper

We left Rucker Canyon and found our way west and then north up the west side of the Chiricahuas and headed toward Chiricahua National Monument (CNM). Several days earlier CNM’s Facebook page had a video of their Visitor Center staff releasing a male tarantula that would be Aphonopelma chiricahua. We figured that a drive through the CNM would be worthwhile and then we would drive up Pinery Canyon to Onion Saddle and back down the other side (“my side”) of the range back into Cave Creek Canyon. Not long after we passed the entrance gate we saw a male on the road, which was fortuitous as he was the only spider we would see there. We continued to drive through CNM to Massai Point where I took some photographs and then, satisfied with finding a male of our target species, we began the climb up the northwest side of the Chiricahuas. As we ascended the rugged mountain road we came upon a rafter of about a dozen Gould’s Wild Turkey. I have seen many of them over the past few days, from canyon to peaks, on both sides of the mountains. Back at camp we went out to Vista Point for some twilight landscape photography.

Cathedral Vista, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

Cathedral Vista, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

Yesterday was Halloween and the last day of Brent’s visit. I had anticipated that we would search for A. chiricahua burrows, probably near where I had found that female in a burrow back on June 21. However, it is an extremely elusive species and Brent was discouraged by the dozen or so attempts he had made to find this species over the past decade. After being on the road staying in tent or hotel for a long stretch, he was also looking forward to getting home to Jackson, Mississippi. He decided not to spend the night and asked me what hike I would recommend. He wanted to hit the road by mid-afternoon and take a break from spider hunting by exploring one of the trails that I frequent. I suggested that we drive up to the top of the mountain back to Onion Saddle and then hike the Barfoot Lookout Trail. Brent had been up to the top before and we drove up and over Onion Saddle the previous day, but he had never seen Barfoot or Rustler Park. After four or five days of very mild “Indian Summer” weather, it was colder Halloween morning and when we got up over 7000 ft it was cloudy and I worried that the amazing views we would have from the montane trails would be obscured by the fog. However, after driving into Rustler Park and showing him the area where our hiking club had encountered a tarantula at over 8500 ft. ten days earlier, and then driving to Barfoot Park and giving him a tour there, the cloud cover was parting a bit. Although it was a crisp 40ºF there at 8400 ft. and we were both wearing shorts, we at least had vests or flannel shirts and decided to stick to hiking the Lookout Trail. After our hike we drove down the mountain and before we descended to Onion Saddle Brent shouted for me to stop. Even though it was pretty cold I had been scanning the road for snakes, as I had seen that dead-on-road Twin-spotted Rattlesnake two days earlier. But before he jumped out of my truck Brent said, “I think I saw a tarantula”. Sure enough, there in the road was an adult male Aphonopelma chiricahua. It was not even half the size of the one we found in CNM the day before!

It is not uncommon for high elevation populations of animals to be considerably smaller, and we discussed the miniaturization of species with altitude. I suggested we pull off the road and walk around a bit and see if we found any other spiders. Brent began flipping roadside rocks and I walked back up the road looking in the ground litter on each side of the road for burrows. After a short period of time I called out to Brent that I had found another male! This one was curled up on top of a grass tussock and was in even better condition than the male Brent fortunately saw on the road. He also was very small - perhaps an inch and a half in diagonal legspan. As I showed Brent where I found him I began to closely examine a variety of wispy grass that covered much of the road shoulder. Before long I had found two small holes that weren’t much larger in diameter than the Aphonopelma parvum holes we had extracted females from two days earlier. They weren’t covered with silk and I wasn’t initially certain they would be tarantula burrows, but they were perfectly round and very clean and I soon became hopeful. Both holes were partially obscured in the middle of a patch of this fine grass. Brent began to flood the burrow and we were greeted by the forelegs of a tarantula! He poured a little more water and as it rose again and protruded from the burrow mouth a bit more, Brent used his other hand to scoop beneath the spider with a small trowel and our gorgeous prize, a surprisingly small adult female A. chiricahua, was out in the open. Below she is in all her glory, photographed later on my camp’s picnic table. After the image is another short video clip of Brent handling the spider in the field.

Aphonopelma chiricahua , adult female, 7765 ft., Chiricahua Mountains

Aphonopelma chiricahua, adult female, 7765 ft., Chiricahua Mountains

The second burrow I discovered was also occupied by A. chiricahua. It was a smaller immature spider. So Brent’s ‘day off’ from searching for tarantulas suddenly had - so far - resulted in four specimens of the one species to elude him for some time. To quote his social media post when he posted his own photograph of this beautiful female: “Long story short: this was the find of a lifetime! I have spent more than a decade looking for this incredible spider and TODAY was the day! I present to you an adult female Aphonopelma chiricahua from Cochise County, Arizona. Many thanks to @jacobipix for finding the burrow and giving me a place to crash for a few days!”

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Brent now had three males (two little guys from our high elevation ‘hotspot’ and the much larger male from CNM), one mature ‘high altitude’ female and a bonus immature. But we weren’t done. After returning down to my camp (after passing a troop of eight White-nosed Coati), I needed to drop something off at the post office so we drove into Portal and very close to where I had found the little male back on October 11 we found yet another male!

Today November begins and after training a new VIC host the next two days I will only have a few Saturdays remain as a VIC host. I’ll be staying until the end of the month, but have plenty of free time and also time to do some other non-hosting projects at the VIC. My tentative plan is to put winterize the Wheelhouse on November 30 and move it to storage at Rusty’s RV Ranch. Brent intends to fly back to Arizona for the first week of December to look for a couple of other late fall-winter active Aphonopelma (A. paloma, A. superstitionense) and we discussed me joining him. Then I will return to Chicagoland for a few weeks prior to my January Malaysia trip. And then perhaps back to Cave Creek Canyon in March?

#96 - Adventures with Others - Another Endemic Tarantula and More ...

I spend most of time alone by choice. It fits my personality. It is my preference. And it allows for maximum flexibility. I am guided by whimsy and most adventures are unplanned. I may in one moment alter my course or choose not only a new destination, but a different activity. Many of my hikes or drives, if not most, unfold naturally and often surprise me. My experiences are treasured alone in glorious solitude and then later shared here or via Instagram.

However, as I get ready to go to Tucson this weekend to pick up Joel and share this wonderful wilderness for a week, I am still savoring memories from a two day adventure with Dr. Brent Hendrixson and seven of his students from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Brent has visited the American Southwest for a couple of decades and usually leads a summer field course that visits many amazing places. This year's course was Biogeography of the American Southwest and before they visited me his group had explored Arizona's Superstition and Catalina Mountains, Catalina State Park and the Grand Canyon. After they left here they headed to White Sands, National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns for the bat flight and Texas' Davis Mountains before driving home.

Cathedral Vista, Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by B.E. Hendrixson (second from left) with me looming behind a great group of students.

Cathedral Vista, Chiricahua Mountains. Photo by B.E. Hendrixson (second from left) with me looming behind a great group of students.

Last year Brent brought a different group here to the Chiricahuas for a single night and I had spent time with him and a few other students the month previous in both the Tucson and Phoenix areas. This year he had three nights planned for Cave Creek Canyon, but sadly they only stayed two. Still we made the most of the two days with adventures to the Peloncillo Mountains, Chiricahua Desert Museum and here within the Chiris.

While his crew set up camp at Sunny Flat Campground I joined them and met the seven students. Our plan was to head to the Peloncillos an hour and a half away to look for the endemic tarantula Aphonopelma peloncillo at its type locality. After spending over a week with eight people crammed in a van full of gear, the three girls were happy to be able to stretch out in my truck for the drive east into New Mexico and then south and southwest to the bootheel along the borders with Arizona and Mexico. Brent and the four guys piled back into their 12-passenger van that, as in years previous, was decorated with large tarantula magnets. The ladies were lovely and it was refreshing for this old loner to be surrounded by the vibrance and beauty of youth. Temperatures reached 109F in Animas where we turned south, but I had the A/C cranked and we listened to music from one of their iPhones.

Ninety minutes or so later, about thirty minutes after the paved road gave way to dirt and then rocky trail, we assembled in the chaparral-like oak woodland of the Peloncillo foothills. Last year I had searched the site we were visiting for the burrows of female tarantulas without success. I had found mature male Aphonopelma peloncillo while road-cruising for snakes, but had struck out when it came to locating burrows. That would change as the seven Millsaps students, their arachnologist leader and I dispersed and prowled the grassy area of the type locality (the precise location a species is described from). Having located the endemic A. chiricahua by pure chance (see #94), I was looking forward to finally finding a female A. peloncillo after last year's failures. It did not take long.

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Above is the silk-covered burrow of the first tarantula we located. This grassy field is grazed by open range cattle and among the cow piles and animal bones and ant mounds the students first found turreted holes belonging to wolf spiders or irregular openings belonging rodents. But within five minutes this distinctive silky entrance was discovered and Brent said to me, "You want the honors?" before explaining to his students that I had found and extracted tarantulas around the world. I used both flooding and tickling techniques and soon saw the gorgeous hairy legs of our prize.

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The beginning of her tunnel angled sharply another direction rather than descending directly into the earth so when she would retreat even a short distance she would be lost from sight. I alternated between pouring water down the tunnel to move her towards me and then tickling for several series before I was able to get my tickling twig behind her and tap her forward and out into the light. 

Aphonopelma peloncillo , Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Aphonopelma peloncillo, Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Some rain drops began to fall, but our group continued to search the meadow. I returned to my truck to get a container for the tarantula as Brent wanted to take a couple specimens back to Mississippi. While I was away they located another burrow and I brought more water so that Brent could take his turn at extracting one of these beauties. The image below is the second female, photographed at my campsite the next morning on a flat piece of rock.

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As long as we were in the Peloncillos I also wanted to visit the type locality of the endemic scorpion, Diplocentrus peloncillensis. It is perhaps my favorite U.S. scorpion species and I had luck finding it each time I had tried last year. Rather than black-lighting at night as I usually do for scorpions (super effective, very easy work), I had always just flipped rocks at the site, which is on a north-facing slope that holds more moisture. The three mile or so drive up the mountain road (Geronimo Trail) between the tarantula and scorpion sites is a bit rough, and Brent didn't want to do it in the rental van. So I invited four of his students to climb into my truck and we headed up to a scorpion area atop a hill that is surrounded by a spectacular vista. I gave the team quick instructions and within minutes they had found a handful of scorpions.

Diplocentrus peloncillensis , Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo County, New Mexico near the Arizona state line and not far from the Mexico border.

Diplocentrus peloncillensis, Peloncillo Mountains, Hidalgo County, New Mexico near the Arizona state line and not far from the Mexico border.

My group walked down the road a bit to photograph the vista and then, as the dusk skies began to darken and a few more rain drops fell, we went to rejoin Brent and the other three. I hadn't driven far back down hill when I slammed on the brakes. Although small, the unmistakable shape of snakes leaps off of the roads for me, and I looked out my window at an eighteen-inch gorgeous olive serpent with a brightly colored belly. Everyone got out of the truck to hold our prize Ring-necked Snake.

Abby with our colorful friend

Abby with our colorful friend

Regal Ring-necked Snake ( Diadophis punctatus )

Regal Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

When we got back to the tarantula site Brent told me that they had located and marked two more burrows and would leave them be if I wanted to record GPS coordinates. My friend Chad is visiting in three weeks and maybe I'll even take Joel down there to see one. Our plan was to wait for darkness a bit longer and then road-cruise our way back. Brent wanted to find at least one male and I was looking forward to showing his group a rattlesnake. Ten minutes or so after we began our drive back we came across our first - and only - male tarantula of the night on the road. The image below was captured the next morning at my corral.

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I was quite surprised that we didn't encounter more males, and for some time all I saw on the road was toads. We were driving faster than I normally road-cruise as the group didn't want to be up all night and I realized that I probably would miss any very small snakes. However, there was no way I would overlook a three-foot rattlesnake stretched out in the road, and I was soon excited to be able to show the students an adult Prairie Rattlesnake.

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The rest of the ride was uneventful; the roads oddly deserted by the live and dead snakes I usually observe. Even the jackrabbits and cottontails were scare, with mostly banner-tailed kangaroo rats and other rodents darting between pavement and shoulder grass. Back in the canyon I enjoyed a nightcap with the Millsaps crew, but they quickly disappeared into their tents leaving Brent and I to one last beer.

The next morning I spent a few hours doing my usual routine and then joined them at their campground at 9. One of the scheduled activities was to visit an area in Cave Creek Canyon past the Research Station where flipping rocks usually yields vinegaroons. Each student was required to give the rest of the group a presentation at various sites during their trip, and this day Abby, who is holding the Ring-necked Snake above, shared information about vinegaroons, not the least of which is their defense response releasing a chemical cocktail that includes a powerful concentration of acetic acid that gives these harmless “whipscorpions” their popular name. When Brent picked up the first one he purposely elicited a defense response so the students could smell the strong vinegar scent on his hands.

Brent shows a young vinegaroon ( Mastigoproctus tohono ) to the group while Richard takes profuse notes and O.C. ponders

Brent shows a young vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus tohono) to the group while Richard takes profuse notes and O.C. ponders

After a quick lunch back at their campsite, our next destination was the Chiricahua Desert Museum. I had spoke to owner Sheri Ashley in advance of the Millsaps visit and suggested that Brent contact her to arrange a tour. The amazing museum is equal parts reptile exhibit, snake breeding facility, desert garden, historical exhibit and gift shop/bookstore, and I knew the group would enjoy. But my expectations were exceeded when Rachel, one of the reptile keepers, took us to the off-exhibit buildings to view their behind-the-scenes reptile breeding operation. Some students had never held a snake and were apprehensive at first, but it was wonderful to see Marlee hold snakes as below.

Marlee with a Mexican Pine Snake

Marlee with a Mexican Pine Snake

When we eventually made it back to Sunny Flat Campground everyone was looking forward to relaxing in their hammocks. Brent and I sat sipping a beer and before long were quizzing the students about the biogeography of the Sky Islands including the Chiricahuas. Arachnologist became mixologist as Brent made me a couple of refreshing mint juleps to go with my Dos Equis ambers. We had a relaxing rest of the afternoon, but another thrill was about to come. 

We wanted to visit Cathedral Vista closer to dusk for group photos including the one that kicked off this blog, and walked down the road, made the short hike out to the viewpoint and then returned. Walking back a family with a young boy on a training wheels equipped bicycle headed towards us and said a snake had just crossed in front of them. Sunny Flat is a popular place for my favorite rattlesnake, the Western Black-tailed, and they seemed to know that was exactly what it was. We searched the bushes and grass where it was said to have gone to no avail, and Brent and I returned to the campsite. But one of his students, Liam, had continued to poke around the area and I heard him calling. I shouted back and forth and learned that the rattlesnake was right there in front of him so I grabbed one of my snake hooks and my camera and rushed back over to him. Sure enough, a gorgeous black-tail a bit over three feet long was at the grassy edge and I grabbed it. 

Brent hadn’t joined us yet and as he started our direction I had already told the family, who was now watching and Liam had told that I do this all the time so don’t worry, that I would relocate the snake so it wasn’t by their campsite. Two days earlier someone had reported a black-tail at the same exact campsite so I decided it might be time for me to move the beauty somewhere less frequented by kids on bicycles. I shouted to Brent to return to my truck and grab my big storage tub so I could contain it. He brought it over and then I had Liam hand him my camera so he could take the image below.

Me and a Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus )

Me and a Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus)

The following portrait of the snake was taken when I released it, coincidentally near the vinegaroon site from earlier that day. I excused myself from the group long enough to drive up canyon, release and photograph the snake, and then make a quick pit-stop to my Wheelhouse for some dinner. When I rejoined them later the group had set up a sheet and lamp to attract moths (and jewel scarab beetles that sadly didn’t come) and the students got to see sphinx moths and hawk moths and a myriad multitude of smaller moths and beetles. We hung out for a couple more hours before I bid them goodnight. The next day I had to man the Visitor Center and, after stopping to say goodbye, they pushed on to the final five days of their adventure.

Crotalus molossus

Crotalus molossus

#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