#105 - Happy December

5 a.m. Hotel near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. I left Cave Creek Canyon for the winter yesterday at dawn. Rain was falling and the surrounding peaks had a beautiful dusting of snow.

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One week ago was my last day hosting at the VIC. I was happy that I had the most visitors and highest merchandise sales of the month during my final shift. It has been such a pleasure to share my passion for the area and wildlife with birders, hikers, campers and others who are fortunate to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the Chiricahua Mountains. My final day numbers had already eclipsed those of the previous days of the months before 3 p.m. rolled around and a surprise party for me inflated the visitor count. The entire Friends of Cave Creek Canyon [FoCCC] board plus spouses and other friends turned up to give me a wonderful farewell and thank me for my service. It only took the arrival of the first six or seven before it dawned on me that something was up. I was presented with the 2018 Volunteer of the Year award and paid registration for next year’s Biology of Pitvipers 3 Conference, and Vice President and VIC Manager Mike Williams proclaimed me “the best volunteer” they have had. Bob & Sheri Ashley, owners of the Chiricahua Desert Museum and Eco Publishing, who also serve on the board, gave me a signed Tell Hicks print of three Brachypelma tarantulas. Then two dozen people or more, including a few volunteers from the VIC and Forest Service, had cake and milled about as other visitors continued to arrive and I went from celebration to information.

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For over seven months I lived and worked and played in the northeastern Chiricahuas and there will only be a three month break before my return. 2018 was full of amazing experiences, many of which were recounted here. I am grateful to FoCCC for the opportunity, and it was very kind of them to acknowledge my efforts as they did. I look forward to my 2019 adventures in Cave Creek Canyon and continuing to play a role in the FoCCC mission of “inspiring appreciation & understanding of the beauty, biodiversity & legacy of Cave Creek Canyon”. Friends of Cave Creek Canyon is non-profit all-volunteer organization that was chartered in 2011 by passionate residents of the Portal, Arizona and Rodeo, New Mexico community, and has individual, family and business members from all over who contribute to FoCCC efforts in this enchanting canyon.

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As I prepared my Wheelhouse for winter storage over the past week, the U.S. Forest Service brought three horses and six mules to the corral where I was camped for over six months. The mules must have had draft horse dams as they are huge! I enjoyed watching them graze on the hillside before I left. Thursday I brought my parrot Jesse to stay with Carol who is in charge of the FoCCC educational outreach and is introducing students to the wonders of Cave Creek Canyon. Jesse will stay with Carol for eight days or so while I am in the Phoenix and Tucson areas with Brent Hendrixson who arrives at the airport here in Phoenix this morning.

Friday morning I woke in the pre-dawn dark to rain and once the sun rose I saw that the higher peaks surrounding me had been dusted with snow. I had no choice but to put on my rain jacket and load my truck and hitch up the Wheelhouse. It was just after 7 a.m. when I pulled out of the canyon for the year and headed to breakfast at the Rodeo Cafe. Then I dropped the RV off at Rusty’s RV Ranch for 90 days of storage and headed to Phoenix by way of Tucson.

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So here I sit in a Phoenix hotel before sunrise. I will be in hotel rooms for the next ten nights as Brent & I search for late fall-winter breeding tarantulas before I drop him back at PHX on December 8 and make my way back to Chicagoland via a return to Portal to pickup Jesse and then Las Cruces, NM, Elk City, OK and Rolla, MO. December 11 I expect I will be dining at my favorite sushi restaurant in South Barrington, Illinois with Joel and wearing my North Face parka.

All the best, MJ

#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

#92 - Chiri Charm - Portal/Rodeo

Last year I visited many breathtaking places across the U.S. In Florida, in January and again in March after a February Malaysia/Borneo odyssey, from the Keys to Kissimmee Prairie. On to Texas in April, from Sea Rim State Park on the Gulf, clinging to the Mexican border west to Laredo's urban Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, on to wondrous Big Bend National Park and then Seminole Canyon Historical Site. Then April saw me jumping back and forth between New Mexico to Arizona, camped at places like Picacho Peak State Park between Tucson and Phoenix, visiting the Superstition Mountains and the Sky Island complexes of the Santa Catalina and Santa Rita Mountains.

Last weekend, while I was in Paradise banding hummingbirds, the annual Elegant Trogon count took place here in the Chiricahuas. As arriving birders associated with the Tucson Audobon Society arrived, I was struck by the newcomers who had never visited the Chiris before and their love-at-first-sight enthusiasm for Cave Creek Canyon. Their home was Madera Canyon, another American nesting spot of the Mexican bird. Situated in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson, about halfway between that population center and the Mexican border, Madera Canyon is incredible. I visited it first with my arachnologist friend Brent and his students, and then again after they moved on toward California. I look forward to my next visit. But it is a short drive from the Sonoran desert sprawl of America's thirty-third largest city, whose greater metropolitan area is home to more than one million people. It ain't exactly a "well kept secret" as I have heard remarked about Cave Creek Canyon.

Even closer to Tucson city limits, the Santa Catalinas draw daily visitors from Phoenix as well. The Catalina Highway that rises to above 9000 feet near Mt. Lemmon is thirty miles of perfectly paved access to high elevation heat relief. I look forward to my next visit to this Sky Island as well, and have fond memories of a hot and dry day in Tucson becoming an evening flipping snow-covered rocks in successful search of scorpions.

The Trogon count participants that spend a great deal of time in Madera Canyon marveled at the Chiricahuas just as I did when I visited last year for a week that turned into four months. I still marvel every day, and each day I work at the VIC someone remarks on the uniqueness and splendor of Arizona's largest Sky Island. Far off the beaten path, the Chiri charm and cheer takes a little more work to experience.

Some Arizonans who venture toward the Chiris simply visit the Chiricahua National Monument on the west side of the range after leaving the interstate at Willcox. Fort Bowie National Historic Site lies in the valley below and a full day's outing can be had visiting both. Only the few cross Onion Saddle to descend toward Cave Creek Canyon and Portal. Others make Cave Creek Canyon their destination, most staying on the interstate into New Mexico and dropping south on Highway 80 five miles into the state and proceeding thirty miles to Rodeo, NM before heading back west into Arizona to Portal.

Aerial view of Portal, AZ and Cave Creek Canyon. Photo by BAlvarius/Wikimedia Commons

Aerial view of Portal, AZ and Cave Creek Canyon. Photo by BAlvarius/Wikimedia Commons

Straddling two states, the Portal/Rodeo community has a charm that affects arrivers who don't mind being in the middle of nowhere. But first, the confusing time zones takes getting used to. It isn't just that it is one hour earlier in Arizona and you may enter and leave both states multiple times in a day. It's that today we are slaves to smartphones and, when you leave the WiFi offered by the VIC or your lodging or wherever, your cell phone will pick up signal from New Mexico only. You may have remained in Arizona, but now your phone makes you think you've lost an hour. I've changed my setting to disable automatic time zones. The bigger issue with the New Mexico cell signal is in the event of an emergency. Should you need to call 911 you will be contacting services in New Mexico and may have to request transfer to Cochise County ARIZONA emergency dispatch. I have the direct numbers in my phone. Verizon is the only reliable carrier for use in the area, but the signal may be weak or nonexistent in some spots. One of the many services the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon provides at the VIC is public WiFi during open hours (9-4 daily, AZ time) and a Verizon Hotspot.

The VIC - Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center

The VIC - Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center

Nine miles into Arizona, Portal is the hub of the area. Although Rodeo, New Mexico has a post office and a small diner that has an extremely limited selection of groceries, arguably the only two major establishments are Rusty's RV Ranch and the Chiricahua Desert Museum. The latter is the must see attraction in the area. It sits between Rusty's to the north and the Rodeo proper to the south, directly where Highway 533 heads towards Portal and Cave Creek Canyon. After passing State Line Road you are in Arizona and Hwy. 533 is better known as Portal Road. 

Chiricahua Desert Museum & Geronimo Event Center - Image from CDM Facebook

Chiricahua Desert Museum & Geronimo Event Center - Image from CDM Facebook

The Sky Island Grill & Grocery will soon become the third Rodeo establishment of note, but it is only just now sometimes opening its doors after being in development for years. It sits just inside New Mexico a short distance from the Chiricahua Desert Museum just before the bend to the northwest takes you into Arizona.

Consisting really of only one intersection, the crossroads of which is a complex known Portal Peak Lodge and Portal Store & Cafe, the tiny eclectic community of Portal, said to be home to more Ph.Ds per capita (retired) than anywhere else in Arizona, is centered on this venue for lodging, good food and, occasionally, live music. Up the hill to the north is the Portal Rescue & Fire where special events and meetings are also held and south down Rock House Road is the small post office and library. The rest of Portal are the residences that stretch out into the desert or up toward the canyon. I overheard one resident in the library mentioning how she feels like there are two communities - the desert and the canyon. This is where two worlds meet; the Chihuahuan Desert of Rodeo and eastern Portal and the foothills and entrance to Cave Creek Canyon, the Coronado National Forest and the Chiricahua Mountains.

Storefront - Lodge behind left - Image from web search

Storefront - Lodge behind left - Image from web search

You may now be wondering about how many people live in the hamlet of Portal. A web search results in wide-ranging population estimates from 100 to more than 1300. Homes are secluded down dirt roads branching from Portal Road, but I can't imagine where one thousand or more people would reside. There aren't exactly apartment complexes. It is no surprise that the median age is just above my own soon-to-be 54, or that most households consist of just two people, generally a retired couple. It also isn't a surprise that more than 10% hold a graduate degree. What Portal residents have most in common is that many are birders and/or hikers and/or astronomers. And they live in one of the most beautiful places in America. They are also more than a little adventurous and industrious, and choose to live somewhere fairly remote. It is twenty-five miles each way to Animas, NM, where the Valley Mercantile offers hardware, feed, convenience groceries and, thankfully via 24-hour pumps, the closest fuel. About the same distance up a primitive mountain road and almost one hour's drive takes you to the interstate and San Simon, AZ where you can also buy fuel and one gas station offers a pretty good selection of produce, groceries and hardware. Most drive 75 miles northwest, entering New Mexico before returning to Arizona, to the Safeway in Willcox, AZ, or instead travel 60 miles or so southeast to the Wal-Mart in the border town of Douglas, AZ in order to shop. These cities also offer the closest health care services and other needs. Northeast of Portal-Rodeo, Lordsburg, NM is about the same distance as Douglas, but its little grocery store is pretty dismal. Some plan weekend trips 350 miles round-trip to Tucson to take care of many tasks every few months. It's the price you pay to dwell next door to a canyon and mountain range where Elegant Trogons and Blue-throated Hummingbirds fly, without the influx of city folk seen by Madera Canyon and other wonderful places.

Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cave Creek Canyon

Blue-throated Hummingbird, Cave Creek Canyon

Those, like me, who visit the Portal-Rodeo area and the northeast side of the Chiricahuas have a handful of choices for lodging. Here in Cave Creek Canyon, there are three forest service campgrounds and, beyond where the paved road ends and becomes a primitive road climbing the mountain, there are some excellent dispersed campsites. Those seeking cooler climes may wish to camp at Barfoot or Rustler Park, where the 8000 foot-plus elevation provides respite from the heat. However, like the other dispersed sites, there are no toilets. Those with RVs best stay at Rusty's; only one of the three USFS campsites can accommodate small campers and there are no hook-ups. Many birders choose one of several B&Bs along Portal Road or Portal Peak Lodge. The USFS also has two rental cabins on each side of the VIC. Housekeeping cottages at Cave Creek Ranch are one of the more popular places for birders to stay and it is within walking distance of the VIC. In fact, owner Reed Peters is also the president of Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, and it is at his Ranch that I receive mail, packages and do my laundry. Guests at Cave Creek Ranch enjoy coatis, javelinas, a large population of very tame Coues or Desert White-tailed Deer and a spectacular variety of birds.

One of the variety of cottages at Cave Creek Ranch - Image from CCR website

One of the variety of cottages at Cave Creek Ranch - Image from CCR website

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

I have now been back in Rodeo/Portal for a little over week and the rains have been surprising. The monsoons are in full force and not a day has gone by without rainfall. When the desert where I am camped is dry, a look toward the surrounding mountains often reveals low dark, clouds and rains in the distance. At night the roads are full of toads - spadefoots, greens and even a few big river toads.

Here in the San Simon Valley, where the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts converge, the landscape has changed. But the monsoon rains are prevalent throughout the southwest, and my friend Brent and his seven students had encountered wet conditions west in the Tucson area and came east to New Mexico a day a head of schedule. That was good as I had mistakenly thought the 40th International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) started one day later. Due to the Millsaps College (Jackson, MS) crew's arrival on Tuesday, I was able to spend that afternoon and evening with them in the Chiricahuas. They camped in Sunny Flat Campground in the Chiri's Cave Creek Canyon and when I met up with them they were flipping rocks in search of the giant vinegaroon or whipscorpion (Mastigoproctus giganteus). As I said hello to Brent and his students Aaron and Ashley who I had met in May and was introduced to the rest of the Field Arachnology Course students, many of them already had vinegaroons climbing on their arms.

Mastigoproctus giganteus , Giant Vinegaroon, Cochise County, Arizona

Mastigoproctus giganteus, Giant Vinegaroon, Cochise County, Arizona

After the students were done playing with the vinegaroons I followed the group back to their campsite. Not long after the skies opened up and we sought shelter under the ramada of a neighboring campsite. We had coolers of beer and I hung out with them in the beautiful mountains into the night.

Wednesday I decided that I would join them for their trip two hours northeast to the Gila National Forest. They would camp at Cherry Creek, which is at 6800' elevation in the mixed confifer forest about fifteen miles north of Silver City. Wednesday night the IHS would begin with an icebreaker, but I decided to skip that in favor of spending more time with the Millsaps crew who intended to search for the beautiful resident tarantula species, Aphopelma marxi. Brent also had some specimens of scorpion and tarantula from Utah and Arizona that I wanted to photograph. So I invited a few of the students to ride in my truck and Lillian-Lee, Frances, Niki rode with me as our group stopped for breakfast in Lordsburg, groceries and laundromat in Silver City and then arrived at Cherry Creek. As they began to set up camp, Brent and I walked across the road to an embankment where he had found Aphonopelma marxi burrows in previous years and within a short time I found a perfect silk-covered burrow and shined my flashlight beam inside to reveal a pretty female tarantula. The students were called over and Niki used my water jug to simulate flooding and coax the tarantula to emerge.

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

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

I originally thought I might leave early enough to drive back in time for the IHS icebreaker, but I stayed until just before dusk and drove back exhausted. I had hoped to road cruise some of the northern roads, but it was still light as I made it back to Silver City and started down the major highway toward Lordsburg. The four-lane highway was surprisingly deserted, but I was too tired to drive very slowly. Still, when it narrowed to two lanes I encountered a Prairie Rattlesnake on the road. It was a fiesty little bugger and it wasn't until the next day when I saw my photographs that I noticed a bit of blood on it that was likely from a glancing strike of a car tire. 

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

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

I stopped for fuel in Lordsburg and by the time I got on the interstate (I-10) rain had begun to fall. I was unhappy about that as I really hoped to find rattlesnakes on Highway 80 between the interstate and camp. This 25-mile stretch, which passes through the Peloncillo Mountains at Granite Gap, is home to natural intergrades of Prairie and Mohave rattlesnakes as well as pure bloodlines of each. But the torrential rains had made the road a toad wonderland. My slow driving wasn't to look for snakes on the road and beside it, the pace was instead necessary to weave through the spadefoot toads enjoying the shower. I photographed several as they are highly variable, but then was overwhelmed by their abundance and just carefully drove the remaining miles hoping to squish as few as possible.

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

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

Thursday morning I arrived at the Chircicahua Desert Museum's Geronimo Event Center for the continental breakfast that would precede each morning's lectures. The lectures kicked off with a herpetologist associated with the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History, which I have previously mentioned is located here in the Chiricahua Mountains. His presentation was on my favorite group of lizards, the horned lizards of the genus Phrynosoma. Thursday, Friday and Saturday I attended most of the lectures, returning to camp during the two-hour lunch break each day. About 180 people were in attendance and I was surprised at how well the event had held up over the years. A little online research informed me that the last IHS I had attended was 26 years earlier, in Seattle in 1991. My old friend Scott Michaels and I had attended about a half dozen between the mid-80s and that 1991 trip. 

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

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

The 40th IHS concluded Saturday night with a banquet featuring a steak dinner and cheesecake dessert. An old friend of mine from reptile shows in the Pacific Northwest, Giovanni Faglioli of The Bean Farm, walked throughout the crowd pouring tequila shots from a giant bottle. The banquet lecture was delivered by celebrity herpetologist Mark O'Shea and it was educational, entertaining and brilliant. His red hair now long and grey, the diminutive Brit regaled us with his reptile stories from his childhood in England's Midlands to the present. His stories included a number of bites from venomous snakes and chronicled his annual expeditions from his first visit to Florida through his trips around the world on research teams and film projects for Discovery Channel, National Geographic and his O'Shea's Big Adventure.

This Wednesday evening many of the people who attended the IHS including Mark O'Shea and many new arrivals will convene back at the Geronimo Event Center for the icebreaker that kicks off the first Biology of Snakes Conference. Yesterday was a day of rest for me, but I plan to spend the next two days before that conference begins doing some hiking in the mountains. Legendary snake man and photographer Bill Love told me about a spot for Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes and I am eager to trek up to high elevation in pursuit. However, any field hunts whether hiking or road cruising are at the mercy of the monsoon rains that have resulted in a very wet week.

Cheers, MJ

PS: A reminder that I have an eight-minute video slideshow of photos from the first six months of my 2017 adventure on YouTube. --- Also, my recent wildlife images are more numerous on Instagram than on my website or SmugMug at this time. You don't have to use Instagram or have the app to view my photos. Just click the link to open in your web browser.