#78 - "Talus Tumble: Snakes & Blood" - Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

The first time I fell hurt. The second tumble down the steep talus slide left me with a broken ring flash. The third time I was bloodied. Both legs are bruised and sliced open and my left wrist has a mild sprain.

I had driven high into the bear country of the Chiricahuas in pursuit of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei). It primarily inhabits expansive rock slides known as talus slopes in sky island hardwood and conifer forests. They are mostly known from 8000-9000' in elevation and most populations are found on south-facing rock slides where these slender 16-20" rattlers feed on spiny lizards (Sceloporus).  

Sadly, these protected snakes are collected by poachers. They are rare and their scarcity, small size, and docile nature makes them prized serpents in the illegal exotic pet trade. I met a man named Dave who has studied them for 19 years and has attempted to have this area closed to protect the rattlesnakes. That has failed, but he visits often and warns snake hunters about collecting them. During my visit three young men that were at the IHS, including one who was a speaker after winning the Junior Herper grant in the 19-22 year-old category, were warned by Dave who sees all snake hunters as potential poachers.

This steep rock slide covers acres. I found a total of three newborn  Crotalus pricei.  I took nothing but photographs and left a bunch of blood. 

This steep rock slide covers acres. I found a total of three newborn Crotalus pricei. I took nothing but photographs and left a bunch of blood. 

My view of the Chiris as I sat near the top of the talus slope and ate my lunch.

My view of the Chiris as I sat near the top of the talus slope and ate my lunch.

I searched the edges of the rock slide, but couldn't resist climbing the treacherous rocks. When I had arrived I met two young guys from Texas A&M who will be at the Biology of Snakes Conference that starts tonight. They told me they had seen one Twin-spotted Rattlesnake about 2/3 of the way up to where the peaks are surrounded by trees. I continued to climb, often sliding and stumbling on the steep talus slope. It isn't easy going up, but it is much worse going down.

I saw nothing except snails, spiders and the occasional spiny lizard on my ascent, and once I reached the rock faces that still stand I sat and ate my canned tuna lunch. I used my iPhone to capture some scenic video clips for my Instagram and Snapchat stories. I will share my Snapchat story of the day at the end of this blog entry.

After I finished my lunch I continued my search laterally across the sliding chunks of limestone and took what would be my second significant fall onto the rocks. During this tumble my ring flash broke away from the hot shoe of my camera body. I love my Sigma ring flash, but for some reason the part that goes into the hot shoe is plastic and not metal as it is on my Nikon speedlights. This is the second time this piece has broken and I will have to send to factory for repair. I was relieved that the lens and body were fine, as was my own flesh. By this time the skies had darkened and I decided that two falls were enough and I should try to get down to the forest floor before the afternoon monsoon rains began to fall.

I have always found descending trails more difficult than climbing them. This has only increased with age as my knees often remind me. Descending a rock slide is a whole 'nother story. I am tall and heavy and tried to keep my center of gravity back to minimize the slipping and sliding. However, often times I would fall back on my arse to break my speed. There was a little island of grass clumps and rocks that I wanted to investigate and I did my best to maneuver myself in its direction. I fell back on my butt when I reached it and looked to my side and gasped. There were three baby Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes sunning themselves in a rock crevice.

My ring flash was broken and the cloudy skies necessitated flash. As they reacted to my presence and began to slither into the safety of the surrounding rocks I quickly reached for my iPhone. This horrible image is all I could capture.

Several newborn  Crotalus pricei  (Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes) catch some sun on a talus slope at 8600' elevation in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Several newborn Crotalus pricei (Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes) catch some sun on a talus slope at 8600' elevation in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Words cannot describe how excited I was to see these snakes. They were near the top of my bucket list of snakes to observe in nature. I was disappointed that my DSLR was unusable due to the ring flash breakage, and even more disappointed that I had left my recently acquired point-and-shoot camera in my truck. The entire reason I got the point-and-shoot camera was to be able to capture good images while climbing or hiking when I didn't want to lug along the weight of my DSLR or risk its safety. However, nothing could diminish the joy of seeing these little snakes. Protected and at risk from poaching, this rare little serpent was a dream discovery and I sat and enjoyed them until they retreated into the rocks.

When the newborn rattlers disappeared my heart was pumping and I was re-energized. I decided to descend to my truck to retrieve one of my Nikon speedlight flashes and a soft box in case I found more. However, the adrenaline was pumping and I tried to make my way down the rock slide too quickly. I slipped and before I could drop my rear end on the rocks my tumble turned into a fall. My big body crashed down the rocks and I slid perhaps twenty feet. When I stopped moving I felt pain in both shins and my left wrist. I first looked at the camera that was on a sling around my body, and then looked at my heavily tattooed legs, which were now covered in blood. I had a gash and a large hematoma on my right shin and a cut on my left. I sat for five minutes or so regaining my composure and then bandaged myself with the bandanna in the pocket of my shorts. I was relieved nothing was broken and it looked like stitches wouldn't be required. I stood to double-check and rotated my sprained left wrist. All was reasonably good and I sat back down to rest some more.

As I sat in a heap on the rocks I saw Dave and his little white dog approaching. He had warned the Canadian guys about poaching and eyed me suspiciously. I told him what I had found and also how I had fell. I told him I was likely done for the day, but would like to come down and chat with him about the rattlesnakes and his attempts to close the area for their protection. After chatting with him for awhile, I retrieved the flash and made my way along the edge of the rock slide. Renowned reptile guy Bill Love had told me he had frequently encountered the alpine rattlesnakes where the talus slope meets the forest, and I was a bit injured to consider climbing back up the rock slide. As luck would have it, I found another newborn Twin-spotted Rattlesnake and was able to capture a decent image with my DSLR.

Crotalus pricei , Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, newborn in shed, 8600', Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona.

Crotalus pricei, Twin-spotted Rattlesnake, newborn in shed, 8600', Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise County, Arizona.

Bloodied and bruised, once this snake disappeared in the rocks I decided it was time to return to camp and clean my wounds. But the rattlesnake adventure was not over...

The road to the top of the Chiricahuas is scenic and rugged and I recounted my first ascent in an earlier blog entry. I drove back down toward Portal slowly taking it all in. I was at 6000' in elevation when the winding road delivered me another bucket list snake. Crawling across the rocky dirt road was a gorgeous adult Black-tailed Rattlesnake as big around as my wrist and perhaps 3 1/2 feet long. Black-tails occur at various elevations and those found at this height are noted for their beautiful yellow ground color that contrasts magnificently with the dark blotches and markings. This snake was stunning. Black-tailed Rattlers are also noted for their placid disposition, and this big beauty barely rattled and never struck as I photographed and filmed it on the road and then moved it to safety for more photos. It coiled in defense, but otherwise tolerated me and posed for the image below.

Crotalus molossus , Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Crotalus molossus, Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake

I am writing this Wednesday morning, two days after the big and bloody snake adventure. Yesterday I did computer work and rested my very sore legs. In addition to the cuts and bruises, my thigh muscles ache from the climbing. I only left camp yesterday to drive east to Animas to pick up some snacks and soda from the Valley Mercantile. I have only driven this road at night since my return and marveled at the flooded roadside desert scrub. The monsoon rains have created temporary ponds and as I rounded one bend I saw a turtle on the road. Yes, a turtle in the desert. Ornate Box Turtles, which are mostly terrestrial, are known from this area, but this was one of the two species of mud turtle found in the Sonora and Chihuahua Desert of the bootheel. The Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens) is semi-aquatic and escapes the dry and hot periods in burrows it digs.

Kinosternon flavescens , Yellow Mud Turtle

Kinosternon flavescens, Yellow Mud Turtle

I'll leave you now with a compilation of video clips I captured on my iPhone Monday and posted to my Snapchat story. If you snap you can add my exoticfauna account. Please note that this video contains secret info - the locality where I found the Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes. I post it here only for my small group of blog readers. The video is unlisted on YouTube and I would appreciate you sharing this with nobody.

#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.

#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