#86 - Up or Down? Live from the Swim Spa ...

Herpers look down. We cruise roads in darkness or twilight with our eyes scanning and darting, hypersensitive to serpentine shadows and slinky shapes. We hike trails with our heads on swivels, surveying the landscape and fixing our gaze on likely crevices, protective tree bases and favorable basking spots. Hunting tarantulas is much of the same. Especially when you're a herper. My early years of seeking tarantulas were all in the desert. We have no tree-dwelling American species. Even in the rainforest, with my field trip mates looking for pink-toed tarantulas in Suriname or ornamental 'tiger spiders' in Sri Lanka, I battled my conditioning to look down.

Birders look up. It's much harder on the neck, which is why all of their binocs - or 'bins' as birders like to say - are on elastic harnesses distributing the weight to the back and holding the bins to the chest. My neck is sore. After countless hours of holding my head back as I look for flittering flashes of color in Arizona cypress and sycamore, Alligator juniper, Apache pine and silverleaf oak.  I am a 'budding birder', which is a term applied to me by a Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center [VIC] volunteer colleague not my own words. Yeah, I'm learning trees too. They tend to make you look up as well. The neck strain is real.

And here I am soaking my aches. Blogging from the rejuvenating water of Rusty's swim spa. You can set it to produce current that allows you to swim 'laps' treadmill style. That's too much like work. There also is the jacuzzi setting. With the water set to 93ºF and the outside air currently a couple of degrees above that, it a 'mildly hot tub' and soothes my birding neck and my twisted back. My volunteer work at the VIC has included some landscaping duties and today I tried to compact the path to our restrooms and the center itself by wrestling a ditch tamper to no avail.

But back to the budding, nay ASPIRING, birder ... One of our VIC staff couples, Laura and Steve, who are very avid and accomplished birders mingle with the flocks of bin-clutching aviphiles (or do you say ornithophile?) along South Fork Road and South Fork Trail, which I probably have mentioned is in the top 5 places to bird in America, and engage them in discussions and do anything they can to enhance their Cave Creek Canyon birding experience. It's what we do everyday at the VIC as we talk about what has been seen where and detail hotspots throughout the San Simon Valley and Chiricahua Mountains, but it's more fun when you can say 'hey, did you see that Painted Redstart carrying nesting material to the base of that tree (whether you know what tree it is or not!)?' and 'they're ground nesters, you know'. So I have been meeting Laura and Steve each Saturday morning and learning the species, quickly compiling lists of 30 or 40 or more seen before lunch. Laura is an 'ear birder' and identified each by song while Steve searches for the bird where the sound came from. This past Saturday they were joined by a woman for some time and slowed down a bit so I decided to move up trail alone listening for the song of the Elegant Trogon. This distinctive sound (click here) is like nothing else and reverberates in the canyon. Most birders visiting the trail are seeking this bird above all and many have traveled thousands and thousands of miles just for the chance to see one. I hiked up South Fork Trail, which follows Cave Creek and crosses it back and forth numerous times. At this time of the year, between the melt of winter's mountain snow and the monsoons that will begin at the end of June, the first two creek crossings are dry and the third has shallow water easily transversed by rock-stepping. Just above the third crossing I heard a male Trogon and quickened my pace up canyon. After the fourth creek crossing there is a pool of water known as the 'Bathtub' and here the dramatic barking of his song was just above me.

The Bathtub, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The Bathtub, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The possibility of seeing an Elegant Trogon has undoubtedly drawn more birders to southern Arizona than anything else that flies. Whether it is here in the Chiricahua Mountains or in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson, this gorgeous - some might say gaudy - bird comes north from Mexico to breed in wooded canyons such as along the South Fork Trail of Cave Creek where it favors sycamores that offer nesting sites created by not one, but two, species of woodpecker. The Trogon is dazzling in its metallic brilliance of green, red and copper. It has a large head, stocky build and long square-tipped tail, and is fairly 'sluggish', often perching in one spot for an extended period only to fly in short bursts to neighboring trees where it rests once again. Birders who are fortunate to have an encounter can often sit on a large rock, rehydrate or have a quick picnic and watch a stunning male for quite some time while listening to its distinctive croaking song.

After pausing at the Bathtub and not hearing the male's song for five minutes or so, I heard it just further up canyon. With the massive rhyolite rock faces of the Chiricahuas reflecting sound, the Trogon's loud croak or bark can be misleading. Many birders comment on how it can sound farther away than the bird is, and also how a song heard farther up trail can disappear only to come from behind you. They sing and then they don't and the silence can be due to relocation, especially as they now compete for the arriving females. I headed up creek to the fifth crossing and his call was right upon me. With my head tilted back scanning the trees it took me a moment to notice the tell-tale presence of other birders. There sitting upon large flat boulders in the creek with their bins glued to their eyes and necks strained rearward were three birders and it only takes observing the direction of their optics to locate their prize. I joined them for what was perhaps fifteen minutes and then after they headed back down the trail I stayed for an hour. I pointed the majestic male out to some other passerbys and stayed until a family group with small children ruined the party. They were ignorant of the bird of a lifetime above and when I asked they keep it down and pointed out both the unusual song and the amazingly colorful bird I got only a disinterested 'pretty bird'. This male didn't perch in an optimal location for the reach of my 400 mm lens, but I'll share here the two best images I was able to capture.

Trogon elegans , South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Trogon elegans, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Trogon elegans , South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Trogon elegans, South Fork Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

I returned in the past few days and had encounters with two males and also got to see a Blue-fronted Hummingbird on a nest. I look up. I look down. I'm an equal opportunity naturalist these days, I suppose. This morning I am off to look for Burrowing Owls in a location another VIC colleague shared with me. I'll leave you now with an image of a Scaled Quail taken right here at camp. They run on the ground for the most part so they allow you to look up or down.

Scaled Quail, Rusty's RV Ranch, Rodeo, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Scaled Quail, Rusty's RV Ranch, Rodeo, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

#85 - Cat Drama

I've already begun training at the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center (V.I.C.). I spent yesterday morning and all day today at the V.I.C, and many people - mostly serious birders - stopped by to chat. The Friends of Cave Creek Canyon (F.O.C.C.C.) is a non-profit, volunteer-operated service contracted by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Coronado National Forest, to autonomously operate the gateway to the Chiricahua Mountains.

The Chiricahua Mountains is Arizona's largest sky island range, some 40 x 20 miles in area. Its incredible diversity of flora and fauna occupies six life zones from desert scrub to mixed conifer forest. Influenced by the Rocky Mountains to the north, the Sierra Madre Occidental to the south, and at the confluence of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, the area is also affected by the low elevation of the continental divide between Animas and Deming, New Mexico, which allows connection to the Great Plains. The Chiricahuas host half of all North American bird species and half of its bats. From 4800 feet near the VIC up to Barfoot and Rustler Parks between 8000-9000 feet, the Chiricahuas reach their apex at 9763 ft. Visitors can start at the VIC and spend 1.5-2 hours on a primitive single lane mountain road to crest the Chiris and head down the other side through Pinery Canyon to visit the Chiricahua National Monument, a completely separate park. It is a rugged drive worth taking, and although the prime spot for birders is the easily accessible South Fork Road only 1.5 miles from the VIC, many ascend the mountain road in search of higher elevation species like Mexican Chickadees and Red-faced Warblers.

But this post is about cats. Because as much as those I encountered this weekend had finding 'lifer' species among the more than 250 species of land birds on their minds, the topic of discussion was cats. Two separate incidents had campers buzzing. Saturday morning a mountain lion was seen crossing the road between Idlewild and Stewart campgrounds by a reliable source. This brazen stroll was unusual in the canyon, and campers needed to be warned to keep a closer eye on children and pets. Mountain lions are secretive and seldom seen, and are more a threat to deer and occasionally livestock. Word of the lion didn't cause great concern.

But Friday night a more unusual event took place, and today I was sent up canyon to Herb Martyr campground to post notice about what campers were calling a "bobcat attack". Apparently a bobcat actively was hunting pet dogs and contacted campers in their tent. I spoke to four separate parties and their stories agreed that despite screaming and chasing this bobcat did not want to be deterred from the scent of Fido. It moved about the campground focused on areas where dogs had been present. In fact, it would repeated return to a spot underneath a parked vehicle where scared campers secured their dogs during the fright. All campers reported that the cat was not seen again on Saturday night, but I hung a warning on the camp outhouse nevertheless. We left messages for Arizona Game and Fish and the Forest Service and went about our day. The highlight of my drive up to talk to campers and post warnings was stopping to photograph a Whiskered Screech-Owl that has become known to birders. Now that I know where it is I am hoping to get a better image, but here's a first glimpse.


Tuesday morning I am joining a nature walk focused on birds, plants and trees led by a local expert who gives private guided walks to guests of Cave Creek Ranch. Sadly, few people who stop by the VIC want to know about rattlesnakes and tailless whipscorpions.

Best, MJ

#74 - "The Most Bitten Man" - Rodeo, New Mexico

Bob and Bettina are birders. This is Mecca for their kind. They have been full-time RVers for four years and often have called Rusty's RV Ranch home. They're gone now, but I would see them most days not only here at the ranch, but on South Fork Road, which is the precise location where the many people called "BIRDERS" congregate to worship the avian jewels of the region. I doubt Bob and Bettina mind the label.

When Candace wrote me about coming down from Albuquerque with her fiancée (they ended up not coming and hopefully we will hook up in July), her email had the subject "Tarantula man!!" I don't mind that label. But she knows me because of my work with tarantulas, whereas many more people might call me "snake man". It's all a matter of perspective and recent memory. When I worked at On Target Range & Tactical Training Center I was called "Spider Mike". This was to distinguish me from another Mike who worked there, but then he was usually called "Gunny" as he was a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant. My co-workers associated me with tarantulas because at the time I had just closed a business that was focused on them and had mentioned by Animal Planet book Tarantulas

The odd thing is that I haven't been doing much tarantula hunting. I've done more scorpion hunting, even more birding, and mostly have been searching for the reptiles that have fascinated me since I was at least nine years old. Snakes have been more often part of my life than tarantulas or spiders, and at times I was working with other reptiles and might be known better as "gecko man" than "Spider Mike". But I am comfortable with "Tarantula man!!" as theraphosid spiders will always be a passion and are part my expertise. I may be looking more for snakes, but I am still the Editor of the Journal of the British Tarantula Society.

Candace's email subject amused me mostly because I have taken to using the term "birder" disparagingly. I am sure they are all lovely people, but they come across as some devoted cult, all sixty-ish, quiet, grey-haired and bearded men and tiny women whose often thin bodies seem to be receding into their khaki Columbia hiking wear. They wear matching floppy hats and clutch the Nikon or Swarovski binoculars slung around their wrinkled necks. They drive Subaru wagons or sensible crossover utility vehicles decorated with bumper stickers declaring their liberal politics and nature causes.

Here at Rusty's I am known as "the snake guy". There are few guests at this time of the year, which I've been told is even slower now than it has been for years, but most would either be birders or astronomers. There has to be a "Telescope Tim". Last week a couple of tent campers were known as "the lizard guys". Bob and Bettina told me that they introduced themselves as exactly that. I wouldn't be surprised if their response was to point at my rig and say, "Oh, Mike over there is a snake guy".

The animal-related moniker of my twenties was "the most bitten man". I had met the only guy I ever was roommates with while managing the reptile & small animal department for the twenty-plus store Noah's Ark Pet Center chain in the Chicago suburbs. Todd owned a mobile home and managed the puppy department and I lived in his spare bedroom for a year or so. Snakes bit me every day. I was pinched by powerful hermit crab claws and screamed in intense pain when a prairie dog bloodied my finger. Ferrets, Arctic foxes, lizards, snakes, hamsters and even a Cobalt Blue Tarantula sunk their teeth or fangs into me. Between my work and my personal menagerie of reptiles and arachnids, it seemed like I was bitten every day by some creature or another. I don't know how many puppies or kittens left bite marks on Todd, but I know he was fascinated by all of my bite stories and always introduced me as "the world's most bitten man". The name stuck for quite awhile.

My focus certainly has returned to snakes. I'm hoping next month's monsoon rains will have me enjoying the arachnofauna of the region, but it is certainly the herpetofauna that fascinates most. My attendance at two herpetological conferences next month certainly announce my return to being "the snake guy". Just as long as I never return to being "the most bitten man". I intend to keep myself a safe distance from the rattlesnakes I pursue.

All the best, MJ