#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?

#94 - An Endemic Tarantula

For the ten years prior to beginning my road odyssey last year, most of my travel had been to exotic locales in search of tarantulas. Costa Rica, Suriname, Sri Lanka. These were destinations chosen for tarantula field work. Even Malaysian holidays had a primary focus on tarantula hunting. Even going back over thirty years, my road trips to Texas had an arachnological mission.

True, snakes and other reptiles were my primary distraction and deviation, and more than once on that first Costa Rican adventure in 2006, my mate and field trip leader Andrew Smith tried to rein in my desire to chase things that slither with commands of "Tarantulas, Michael, tarantulas!". Now an avid birder and wildlife photographer who often has mammals or other charismatic megafauna in the lens, I'd like to think that I was always a generalist naturalist. I love nature in all its forms. As enthralled as I was by the gorgeous red-legged tarantula (Megaphobema mesomelas) in Costa Rica, the world's largest spider in Suriname (Theraphosa blondi) or my beloved tiger spiders (Poecilotheria sp., ornamental tarantulas) in Sri Lanka, along those journeys Costa Rican hummingbirds enchanted, Surinamese labaria vipers thrilled and a fortunate sighting of a leopard in Sri Lanka amazed. Do I even need to mention orangutans and tree vipers in Borneo, or dusky leaf monkeys and hornbills in Malaysia?

Still, my tarantula-obsessed friends have wondered why my Instagram feed and blog entries have neglected the tarantula. Andrew has emailed me inquiring as to whether I do any tarantula hunting. In truth, last year I paid more attention to scorpions than tarantulas, and much more time was spent in pursuit of rattlesnakes. This year I am all over the place, chasing microfauna like robber and owl flies one moment and bears, bobcats and even the mountain lion the next. For the past two years, with only a few exceptions like the Rio Grande Gold Tarantula (Aphonopelma moderatum) in Texas or the beautiful Aphonopelma marxi tarantula from north of Silver City, New Mexico, both of which were female spiders I observed in burrows, the only tarantulas I have encountered have been wandering mature males found here in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico while out road-cruising for snakes.

It isn't that I have forgotten tarantulas. It is just that, firstly, this rugged area frustrates tarantula hunters and, secondly, I have many interests. Searching grasslands and desert scrub for burrows for the more abundant species in this region is hard work, so I guess an argument could be made for a third factor: laziness. Admittedly, a fourth reason could be collector bias for sexy spiders. When you've seen stunning tarantulas like Megaphobema mesomelas in Costa Rica and Poecilotheria subfusca in Sri Lanka, the local "brown jobs" like the local Aphonopelma gabeli and A. vorhiesi honestly don't have the same allure.

But let's get back to the first reason. My experience tarantula hunting in this region is limited, but my friend, arachnologist Dr. Brent Hendrixson, knows the tarantulas of the American Southwest better than anyone and has spent years and years searching for them. He has told me repeatedly that they can be very difficult to find. Many make their burrows beneath rocks or in scrapes where flipping rock after rock becomes the search method. Did I mention my laziness? At night I'd rather road cruise for snakes or black light for scorpions (the former enhanced by air conditioning and music; the latter makes finding scorpions rather effortless), and during the blazing heat of the day I can't bring myself to walk alone through the desert turning rocks.

However, there is one tarantula in the region that began to intrigue me. By now every reader should know of my deep love for the Chiricahua Mountains and that this year I am actually living right in the mountain range's Cave Creek Canyon. I have spent little time out in the surrounding flatlands. Most of my time is spent at 5000' or above, from the pine-oak woodlands of the rocky canyons and adjacent riparian zones up to the coniferous forests at 7500' and higher. And there is a newly described species of tarantula that lives in the Chiricahuas from 5000-8000'.

Aphonopelma chiricahua was described in 2016 by Brent and his two co-authors in a complete revision of the American species in the genus (all U.S. tarantulas belong to the genus Aphonopelma, but the genus reaches Central America). Their paper created many synonymies drastically reducing the number of species in the United States (currently 29), but it also established a number of new species endemic to specific localities (primarily Sky Islands) including Aphonopelma chiricahua, which occurs only in pine-oak woodland and mixed conifer forests here in the Chiricahuas.

Last week I encountered my first wandering males of the season while driving Portal Road at night. I was returning to Cave Creek Canyon from road-cruising out in the desert and found two males - the first just west of Portal and the second a little over a mile later closer to the entrance to the canyon. They looked freshly molted and I sent images to Brent for identification help. Mature male A. gabeli and A. vorhiesi look very similar, but it was the time of year that made him think it was probable they were the former species, which matures and breeds earlier than the late summer breeding A. vorhiesi. I had found plenty of both last year, and seeing my first males of the year stirred a desire to find something else. Yes, to tarantula hunt once more! Brent was on the road doing his own tarantula hunting in New Mexico and Texas during our conversations, and while I waited for replies I spent a good deal of time re-reading pertinent sections of the 340 page generic revision he co-authored. It reminded me that the "Arizona blonde" tarantula A. chalcodes is even found in this region (Brent found a male on the road to nearby Paradise that I drive frequently), which made me further bemoan how unlikely it was for me to find a female of any species in its burrow. But what really enticed me was the section on A. chiricahua.

The endemic species in the Chiris was described from only a handful of specimens. The male holotype (a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based) was actually caught by a retired biologist who is now an area realtor and is well-known to me. That was surprise number one. This male was found at 5083 ft. elevation on the road only a mile up canyon from the corral where my Wheelhouse is camped. Surprise 2. I then learned that the female paratype (additional specimens in the type series, other than holotype, used to describe a species) was from the area surrounding the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History (SWRS). It was collected at 5436 ft. and had been preserved for years at Auburn University in Alabama. The species description of Aphonopelma chiricahua in Hamilton, Hendrixson & Bond, 2016 was accompanied by no photo of a live female. An additional male was designated as paratype and, in total, eight specimens were examined for the species description within the Aphonopelma revision/monograph. The paratype female was the only female. The highest elevation male came from 8432 ft. near Rustler Park. 

Surprise #3 was that this species breeds in autumn. That meant that I wasn't going to come across wandering males this summer. My personal correspondence with Brent made me aware that he knows of females being seen on the roads during summer, presumably flushed out of their burrows during the summer monsoon rains. I began to hope I would be lucky enough to find one.

Jump ahead to this past Thursday, better known as the first day of summer. My previous blog entry recounted my experience that morning observing a behemoth of a black bear on the road just up canyon from the corral. What happened after the bear sighting is what concerns us here. As I have mentioned many times in many blog entries, I often don't know where I am going until I get there. I don't really plan my free days in advance. My truck is guided by whimsy. I could have easily gone hiking up on the Basin Trail in search of snakes or just walked my well-worn path on South Fork looking for Elegant Trogons and other birds. But I passed South Fork Road and then didn't turn off the forest road at the research station as I would have for the Basin Trail, Ash Spring or other popular destinations where I often hike. I decided to, for the countless time, to hunt an area above the research station for Rock Rattlesnakes. I have spent many hours in this prime location without success, but that doesn't prevent me from climbing the steep rocky hillside and shining my flashlight into likely crevices among boulder piles yet again. And this time it was in the back of my head that the location center for Aphonopelma chiricahua was also here. As the description reads, "Most specimens in natural history collections have been collected near the AMNH's Southwest(ern) Research Station".

The rock rattlesnake site is based on information from a friend who was part of a group that observed three within 30 yards of each other there during last year's SWRS field herpetology course. It is up a hillside adjacent to the SWRS, but accessed from about a mile up the road. That's about as specific as I choose to be. The steep slope has rock slides and boulder piles and is pine-oak woodland with pinyon pine, scrub oak, alligator juniper, Palmer's agave, prickly pear cactus, mountain yucca and numerous grasses, etc. After ascending to the area that looks like prime rock rattlesnake habitat and scouring the rocky terrain, I decided to continue to crest the hill and entered a grassy area at the top. I continued to hike down canyon from the highest elevation, which means towards the SWRS. I was wondering if I would find a vista where I could see the research station below. Most of my snake searching had been concentrated to a very rocky area about half the size of a football field and I have made a handful of visits this year to combine with dozens and dozens last year. This was, however, the first time I had gone all the way to the top, which reaches almost 5800 ft. above sea level and has extensive grassy flat areas. I found a large area cleared by ants and stopped to enjoy the breathtaking views of the canyon and the valley below. My mind turned to spiders and I began criss-crossing the top of the hill looking for any small creature to photograph. My camera had my macro lens and ring flash on it and I flipped some rocks looking for a subject. Always hoping for a snake or lizard, any beetle, bug or spider would do.

I hadn't hiked with my attnetion focused on the ground for more than a few minutes when I stopped in astonishment. There in my path on what seemed like a well-worn animal trail was a perfect tarantula burrow covered in silk. The species description of A. chiricahua is based on limited natural history information. It states, "Very little is known about the natural history of this elusive species. No burrows or shelters have been observed but these spiders probably seek refuge under rocks and rarely place silk around their burrow entrances". Elusive. Little known. I was very excited as I realized that this must be the spider and here I had found a perfect burrow near the type locality. The morning sun was rising fast and with a high temperature of 100F predicted I was hot, sweaty and tired from my climb. But I forgot all as I dropped to my knees and photographed the "textbook" silk-covered burrow. Perhaps the "rarely place silk" was presumptuous.

Only a tarantula burrow looks like this. There was no question what lived inside.

Only a tarantula burrow looks like this. There was no question what lived inside.

There are several ways to coax a tarantula from its burrow: flushing, tickling and digging. The latter is to be avoided as the tarantula can be injured or trapped, and it is destructive to the habitat. Furthermore, if you just want to photograph and release you are left to rebuild the retreat and it will always yield a very unsatisfactory result for the spider and alters the habitat. Arachnologists simply cannot dig perfectly round tunnels into the earth terminating in a chamber. Flushing is an easy and non-destructive means that works remarkably well in arid habitat. In essence you are simulating a flash flood and the tarantula will instinctively flee its tunnel and chamber rather than risk drowning inside. When tarantula hunting in the desert one normally carries jugs of water for this purpose. Hiking up the hillside I only had one 20 oz. water bottle and I had already drank half of it. We'll come back to "tickling" in a moment. First, we have to use a twig to brush away the silk layer the tarantula created to shade its retreat and deter pests like ants from house-crashing.

Tarantulas dig their own burrows and many are so perfectly round it is as if they were drilled by a coring machine.

Tarantulas dig their own burrows and many are so perfectly round it is as if they were drilled by a coring machine.

With the silk removed and the hole once again photographed (yes, we tarantula hunters have far too many images of seemingly empty holes in the ground), I didn't give a moment's thought to my hydration despite my thirst and the heat. I began to pour the last ten ounces of berry flavored electrolyte-enhanced water in my possession down the hole. The orangish-brown furry legs that came forward put a big dorky smile on my face.

Aphonopelma chiricahua  at the entrance to its lair

Aphonopelma chiricahua at the entrance to its lair

Alas, ten ounces hardly simulates monsoon rain flash flooding. The handsome rusty-brown tarantula came to see the light of day and its trespasser, but then just as swiftly retreated to darkness. I was out of flushing water and also now had nothing to quench my thirst. Two more full water bottles and backup gallon jugs were in my truck way down the hillside. So it was time to practice the art of tickling. But first, let's look at the habitat where the spider and I were spending the morning of the first day of summer.

In the center foreground you will see my walking stick inserted in the burrow when I returned later that evening to take additional photographs and record GPS coordinates lost during the excitement.

In the center foreground you will see my walking stick inserted in the burrow when I returned later that evening to take additional photographs and record GPS coordinates lost during the excitement.

Tickling involves using anything from a blade of grass to a twig to entice the tarantula to the mouth of its burrow. There are various techniques used that range from dexterous finesse to a slightly more aggressive approach. Each of the gents I have pursued tarantulas with in the field has a personal touch. I admittedly lean toward the aggressive. Tickling can simulate a prey item and, in fact, tarantulas will often grab the twig with their jaws/fangs and can almost be tugged out of the hole. Tickling is usually accompanied by using the free hand to shade the hole so sunlight (or flashlight at night) is less likely to spook the spider. The finesse method employs brushing the forelegs and/or gently tapping the tunnel to elicit a feeding response. This brings the tarantula close to the opening, and typically requires many tries. My impatience usually gets the best of me and I tend to let the length of grass or twig go over or beside the tarantula when the opportunity arises so I can smack its little behind and encourage it to come out post haste. Overheated and without water, with the sun and temperature climbing, I relied more on the aggressive approach. I couldn't shade the hole with my free hand because I was trying to film video of the tickling with my iPhone, nine second of which can be seen below. With the glare of the sun and salty sweat running into my eyes preventing me from really seeing what was on the screen, and my heart racing with the excitement of finding this species in its burrow, the result wasn't great. 

I set down my phone for my final "tickle" and the spider came out. It was missing a leg and I couldn't help but wonder if I caused that during my sun-blinded, overly excited, aggressive tickle. Tarantulas readily autonomize their legs, which will regenerate during next molt. Within two molts the replacement leg will look like the original. With the spider out I then had to quickly decide what to do. I flattened my hand over the burrow opening to prevent reentry while I collected my thoughts. Normally I collect nothing. I might "temporarily restrain" for a later photo shoot in better conditions and later release in exact location, but I quickly realized that this specimen would be important to Brent as a research specimen. He will be visiting the Chiricahuas next month so he can take it for his own photo session. I know full well that it is likely he will pickle it for science, but I try not to dwell on that. I collected scorpions for him last year, and I resigned myself that this tarantula would be a gift to him. I would keep it alive until he and his summer field arachnology students arrive in the Chiricahuas. But, like I said, I don't collect and therefore I had no container. I had my camera, my iPhone, one - now very empty - water bottle, and my walking stick. Thankfully, my water bottle has a wide mouth lid and I put the tarantula inside. It was getting hot quickly so I hurriedly used my Gaia GPS app to find the waypoint and scrambled down the hill before the stainless steel bottle became too hot for the spider within. It wasn't until later that I discovered that in all the excitement I hadn't actually saved the waypoint. I had descended the hillside with a spider without exact location and elevation. I also descended rapidly through an unfamiliar area and wasn't sure where exactly I had been. Still, I'd have to hope I could find the burrow at a later date.

Back at my truck I grabbed a small box waiting for the trash and filled it with dirt and leaf litter from the area. I had one vacant custom tarantula home back at the Wheelhouse that was currently storing millet spray for my parrot that I would use to create a terrarium for the spider. Then I drove straight back to the corral to take some photos and build its new home. Back to WiFi, I posted the above video to my Instagram story and texted Brent. I was one happy tarantula hunter. Later that same evening, after the 100F had dropped to 90F, I returned to the hillside and tried to retrace my steps after climbing back up the rocky slope (again seeing no freaking rock rattlesnakes). I wandered a bit aimlessly for about thirty minutes once I reached the summit until I remembered the small dead tree near the burrow. It can be seen just to the left of my walking stick in the above habitat photo. Once I found that landmark, the burrow was easy to find and I was able to record the precise location. The burrow was at 5645 ft. elevation. As the crow flies it was just under three miles up canyon from my camp, almost directly north of the west side of the complex that is the AMNH Southwestern Research Station. And now I am on a quest for more. And a cricket or two to feed my new roommate ...

Aphonopelma chiricahua , 5645 ft., Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise Co., Arizona

Aphonopelma chiricahua, 5645 ft., Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise Co., Arizona