#104 - November Surprises

Sonoran Gopher Snake, young of the year

Sonoran Gopher Snake, young of the year

For four nights I left the cold water in my Wheelhouse kitchen dripping. Overnight lows, typically at about 4 a.m., were below freezing. The coldest day it got down to 20ºF at my Corral, and was just over 14 a couple of miles up canyon (500’ in elevation) at SWRS.

A few of the days the temperature barely got above 50 in early afternoon and I realized that maybe I wouldn’t see another live snake in 2017.

I was less concerned about tarantulas. I knew that Brent and I are spending the first week of December between Phoenix and Tucson and I know we will scare some up.

Sadly, the last snake I had seen was a young of the year Sonoran Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer affinis) that had just been struck by a vehicle. Nothing is worse in herping than coming across a snake writhing and twisting, disfigured by a wheel. It was eight days ago. Before the big cold spell.

So, yesterday, as I drove north on Highway 80 returning from shopping in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, it was a surprise to see a snake stretched across my lane. The temperature was in the low-60s, with the sun bright in the San Simon Valley. The first snake I saw appeared to be about two-and-a-half feet long. I had the cruise control set at 70 mph and it took a minute to come to a stop off the shoulder in high desert grass. As I ran back south on the highway, the snake vanished, which reinforced my suspicion that it had been a Sonoran Whipsnake (Masticophis bilineatus) . They don’t stick around to play.

Ten minutes later I had just passed Apache, Arizona and the Geronimo Surrenders Monument. Apache sits along the highway where the road runs east towards the pretty much inaccessible Skeleton Canyon in the Peloncillo Mountains and the view on the left is the highest peaks of the Chiricahuas. There along the road is a tiny country school where the few local children are bussed for class.

I did a double-take even at speed at a clump in the middle of the southbound lane. A vehicle had just passed and an early thought was whether it could be something dead-on-road, but I also thought it might be rope or some sort of tie-down strap as it was in a coil, not out-stretched like most snakes are. I reversed my truck along the shoulder until I came even with the ‘clump’ and still wasn’t sure it was organic. But as soon as I stepped out onto the highway a young-of-the-year Sonoran Gopher turned towards me. As I bent over to scoop it up, I was greeted with the typical Pituophis bluff-hissing strike and soon had it entwined in my warm fingers.

IMG_2874.jpg

I have observed countless gopher snakes this season and, unfortunately, close to half were dead-on-road. That has been particularly true of the past couple months as the paved roads in southeastern Arizona and bootheel New Mexico sure take their toll on these amazing snakes. They are beautiful and so beneficial. Fortunately, it also seems like they are fecund.

Then today I had a tarantula surprise. I was doing maintenance around the RV and camp when the guy who runs the VIC stopped by the Corral. I opened my gate and he pulled his ATV in for a chat. Some time during our conversation I looked down beneath the front of the Wheelhouse and saw a very small mature male tarantula walking along, plenty warm in the midday’s sixty degrees. But I still had to wonder where it was before dawn while my sink water was still dripping to prevent freezing.

#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.

#76 - "Back in Rodeo" - Rodeo, New Mexico / Portal, Arizona

Hello friendos. It's been too long. A month, to be exact. After a brief visit to Chicagoland, which primarily was about movies and fine dining, I am back surrounded by the Chiricahua, Animas, and Peloncillo Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern New Mexico's "boot heel".

My drive to Chicago took me through northern New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa before I crossed the Mississippi River and headed east across northwestern Illinois to Joel's home in Hoffman Estates, IL. My return trip to Rusty's RV Ranch I instead headed south through Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri, on to Tulsa, Oklahoma, west across the tip of Texas via Amarillo and then headed south to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

I wanted to go to Las Cruces for two reasons; to visit White Sands National Monument and to do some road cruising for snakes in the Organ Mountains. My short visit to White Sands was spectacular; my intended hunt in the Organs rained out. The monsoon rains have arrived and I am excited to be back in the desert.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Yesterday was a fitting return to my camp at Rusty's as it was "World Snake Day". However, the first reptile I encountered as I left the interstate to head south into the boot heel was a lizard. Jumping out of my truck to photograph the Texas Horned Lizard and record its GPS coordinates for data entry at iNaturalist.org, I felt back in my element.

Phrynosoma cornutum , Texas Horned Lizard, near Granite Gap, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Phrynosoma cornutum, Texas Horned Lizard, near Granite Gap, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

I spent the rest of the day setting up camp and cleaning my "Wheelhouse", but even though lightning filled the skies and storms threatened, I drove east toward Animas and then south toward Cloverdale in search of snakes as I had done so many evenings previous. The first creature I encountered was a mature male tarantula (Aphonopelma gabeli) crossing the road. Surprisingly, I came across no others. Normally, when males mature and begin wandering in search of females you see many.

Aphonopelma gabeli , mature male

Aphonopelma gabeli, mature male

Sadly, my world snake day was mostly road kill. I first found a DOR (dead on road) Western Patch-nosed Snake and then later came across two Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (WDB) that had only recently been struck by car tires and were in their death throes. Watching them dying is much worse than finding them dead, but both suck pretty hard. The two WDB were about one mile apart and the drivers that killed them had just passed me. Another mile on I finally found a live WDB, this one a beautiful little youngster barely a foot long.

Sleeping in my RV was relaxing, especially compared to the cheap motel beds of the past few nights. I drank one Stella Artois and crashed hard. This morning was cool and sunny. I drank my second cup of coffee Rusty called over to me that there was a big Hog-nosed Snake on the dirt track beside the pond about 50 yards from my campsite. The thick snake hissed and spread its hood like a cobra as I lifted it from the ground so Rusty could look closer. Snake musk filled the air, which is a comforting scent to a madman like me. Although the snake huffed and puffed it made no attempt to bite or feign death. I explained the latter phenomenon in detail in a previous blog entry. I didn't have my camera so I carried the snake back to my truck and then began to try photographing it. It was very uncooperative at first. Rather than coil belly up and play possum, it wanted to slither forward at speed with its hood flared like a cobra. My persistence eventually weared it down and I got good images where I relocated it at the other side of the pond.

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake [ Heterodon kennerlyi ]

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake [Heterodon kennerlyi]

#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

#71 - "Playing Possum" from Animas, New Mexico

My left hand suddenly became wet and I noticed a few droplets of blood on my hiking shorts. Dripping from my wrist, the blood fell to coagulate on the dusty red earth beside Highway 81. I had been driving toward the Mexico border and gasping in awe at the spectacular lightning storms over the Animas and Peloncillo Mountains. Now I was standing on the roadside. It was still at least an hour until sunset.

I uncurled the fingers of my left hand to view the source of the warm wet blood. In my palm rested a perfectly healthy Texas Horned Lizard. I had temporarily restrained about a dozen of these spiky broad and flat lizards over the past few weeks to pose them for roadside images, but this is the first that had squirted blood from its eyes.

Ethology is the science of animal behavior. Ethologists use the term tonic immobility or thanatosis to describe what we like to call playing possum. It also is known as apparent death or by slang terms like feigning death or playing dead.

The Virginia Opossum or "possum" is a marsupial that has an involuntary response to perceived threats that results in mimicking both the appearance and smell of a sickly or dead animal. But it is far from the only animal that has evolved apparent death behavior. Even animals you might think of as invincible predators like sharks have highly developed tonic immobility behaviors. I've witnessed similar behavior in spiders, beetles, treefrogs, and iguanas, and in alligators turned onto their backs. 

Horned lizards have suffered being called horny toads or horned frogs. These thorny reptiles can hardly be mistaken for amphibians, but their scientific name Phrynosoma means "toad-bodied". Their rough scales are ornamented with incredible spikes and they have broad and flattened bodies. Their coloration serves as effective camouflage. But they also employ a wide variety of means to avoid predation. When a potential threat approached their first defense is to remain still to avoid detection. If approached more closely they often will run in short bursts, zig-zagging and stopping abruptly to confuse the predator's visual acuity. Should the threat continue they puff up their bodies to erect their spines and appear larger and more difficult to swallow. At least eight species, including the Texas species P. cornutum I have encountered in southwestern New Mexico, also have the ability to squirt an aimed stream of blood from the corners of the eyes. This blood spurt may reach a distance of up to 5 feet. They squirt blood by restricting the blood flow leaving the head, which increases blood pressure and ruptures tiny vessels around their eyelids. This incredible behavior not only confuses predators, but also the blood tastes foul to some predators like canines and felines. Both wild and domestic dogs and cats pose a threat to horned lizards, as do predatory birds that apparently don't find the blood squirting so unappealing. For the record, this "ocular autohemorrhaging" has also been documented in other lizards including the Yarrow's Spiny Lizard that I also encounter regularly here in southwestern New Mexico.

Texas Horned Lizard ( Phrynosoma cornutum ), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Another reptile from this region exhibits interesting behavior when threatened. A hog-nosed snake will roll onto its back to appear to be dead when threatened by a predator, while a foul-smelling, volatile fluid oozes from its body. Its gaping mouth often is bloody. However, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, it can be 'tricked' into erecting its tongue. As I photographed this Mexican Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi), a guy I met on the road was wagging his finger at the snake to get it to flick out its tongue for a better image. 

A Mexican Hog-nosed Snake feigns death

A Mexican Hog-nosed Snake feigns death

Other threat displays do not feign sickness or death. Rattlesnakes have evolved a familiar warning, but in truth many snakes rattle their tails. Rattlesnakes, members of the most highly evolved of all snakes - pitvipers, just have taken it to another level. They have hollow, interlocking segments of keratin [modified scales] at the tips of their tails. The contraction of tail muscles produces an incredible warning sound, but a kingsnake or other snake can produce a nice buzzing by vibrating its tail when in contact with dry leaves. Still, the rattlesnake has perfected the warning. It can vibrate its tail up to 50 times a minute and maintain the pace for three hours. One night two Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes I interacted with backed away from me and both ended up secreted in the grasses and other cover surrounding an agave. I forgot to record GPS coordinates and returned to the spot ten or fifteen minutes later to do so and found them still buzzing away and the sound could be heard thirty or more feet from the bush.

And, of course, many snakes hiss and puff up their bodies to appear larger. Chameleons are just one well-known lizard that, like our horned lizard, inflates its body when threatened. Birds, mammals ... there are probably few animals that don't have representatives that employ the 'look bigger" defense. But let's go back to snakes ... One dramatic example of puffing up the body in threat display is the cobra's hood. Cobra skeletons have special elongated ribs that erect the loose skin and scales of their necks when muscles are contracted and they flatten their necks. This hood may be displayed in the familiar defensive pose, but also as a cobra is moving as it slithers away. Our Mexican Hog-nosed Snake has a very cobra-like hood. Last night's snake never went as far as tonic immobility or apparent death. It huffed and puffed like most snakes, but also flattened and spread its hood to great effect. You can see its flattened neck "hood" in the image below.

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake ( Heterodon kennerlyi ), Grant County, New Mexico

Mexican Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi), Grant County, New Mexico