#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.

A_peloncillo_burrow_1366px_072318.jpg

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.

A_peloncillo_burrow_legs_1366px_072318.jpg

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.

Aphonopelma_peloncillo_1366px_072318.jpg

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.

Aphonopelma_peloncillo_male_1366px_072318.jpg

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.

Crotalus_viridis_1366px_072318.jpg

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

#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.