#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

#103 - November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, MJ

#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