#115 - Malaysia III Recap with Favorite Images

It’s been awhile, again. As promised, I wanted to do a little recap of my third trip to Malaysia, an adventure that was initially chronicled daily but quickly became less reliably documented. As bemoaned previously, typing the blog on my iPad and never figuring out the issue with Squarespace on iPad that prevented me from being able to add images to my text made me less motivated to blog. I’m not going to revisit the whole trip here, but instead will add some of my favorite wildlife images with some information on the animals depicted.

After visiting Malaysia in 2015 (Langkawi Island only) and 2017 (Sarawak, Borneo before Langkawi), my 2019 trip began on Penang Island. My primary photographic interest is macrophotography - taking photos of very small things like arachnids and insects at life-size (1:1) and sometimes employing a 2.5X magnifier (Raynox DCR-250) to enter the world of supermacrophotography. Although not truly macrophotography, I also broaden the scope of my primary imaging to include things as large as snakes. In other words, any images captured using my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 1:1 macro lens I lump into my world of macrophotography. This basically includes tiny jumping spiders to adult rattlesnakes.

31349736_195635831162346_4551011359034179584_n.jpg

The item I needed most to take my macrophotography to the next level was a good flash diffuser. Harsh light is the bane of photography and photographers of all types are constantly looking to have the softest most even light in their images. Portrait photographers employ huge softboxes, etc. and macrophotographers and look for something that will surround their subjects with soft light. I have a number of units appropriate for my snake photos including a knock-off of the F-stoppers Flash Disc and other softbox diffusers that mount to my Nikon SB900 speedlight, but I needed something designed for close-up photography for smaller subjects. Every macrophotographer that I admire has some sort of DIY diffuser that is constantly evolving and I looked at what was being used by my favorite photographers. I contacted a few that had built amazing diffusers and then discovered that one of them actually was marketing his design and selling it through a local camera store. As luck would have it, he was from Penang, Malaysia and the camera store was in George Town, Penang just a taxi ride from the hotel where I spent the first four nights of this trip. So my Malaysia III images would benefit from an amazing diffuser I picked up for 180RM (about $43), saving me the frustration of buying the polypropylene plastic sheets and other stuff and trying to rebuild the wheel. Alex Goh’s design includes sturdy snaps so the diffuser can be quickly assembled/disassembled and stored flat for travel. And it is exactly what I needed.

Odontomantis  sp., Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Odontomantis sp., Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

The one-inch long little flower mantis seen above was photographed within the first hour of using my new Alex Goh Macro Diffuser. I spent the morning at Hotel Equatorial experimenting with subjects found on their little nature trail and found that I could reduce my flash output to 1/4-1/16 power for great results. Insects and leaves are both reflective and here you can see great detail without any bright flash hot spots that I would have had if I was using my old ring flash or some lesser diffuser.

The next two images were captured just after the flower mantis. All of these images were sent via Bluetooth directly from my camera body (Nikon D500) to the Nikon Snapbridge app on my iPhone and have no post-processing other than compositional cropping.

Goldback Spiny Ant ( Polyrhachis  sp.),   Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Goldback Spiny Ant (Polyrhachis sp.), Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Orange Sharpshooter (Leafhopper) ( Bothrogonia addita ),   Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Orange Sharpshooter (Leafhopper) (Bothrogonia addita), Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

After shooting these small insects for some time I came across a much larger subject. African Giant Land Snails are invasive species in other parts of the world and they were among the landscaping of the hotel. As I didn’t need to get so close and the diffuser therefore wouldn’t surround my subject, it was the first time I unsnapped the bottom piece that hangs and circles below the lens and used just the primary diffuser area to ensure my flash didn’t bounce back too much off of the hard shiny shell of the four-inch long snail.

African Giant Land Snail ( Lissachatina fulica ),   Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/2 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

African Giant Land Snail (Lissachatina fulica), Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/2 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Hotel Equatorial Penang was a great hotel and it was a treat to have both the nature trail there where I took the above photos and great vistas overlooking the golf club with the sea in the background. The breakfast buffet was amazing and we spent a lot of time in full-on holiday mode, sipping cocktails poolside. Even when drinking and relaxing I like to have a camera nearby and thankfully I was able to capture an image of a Clouded Monitor Lizard that was foraging for earthworms in the grass beside the pool area.

Clouded Monitor ( Varanus nebulosus ), Hotel Equatorial Penang, Malaysia •  Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 120mm, ISO100, f/8, 1/160s

Clouded Monitor (Varanus nebulosus), Hotel Equatorial Penang, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 120mm, ISO100, f/8, 1/160s

Our first group outing on Penang was to have some fabulous street food and that is when I visited HIKE Enterprise to pick up the macro diffuser. Our driver then took us on some scenic tour of George Town, the population center of Penang, but I am one, a terrible passenger, and two, not much on history or urban areas. But the next day we all (14) had a different driver with a very large van to take us to Entopia, the butterfly park at the northwest end of the island. There I was able to put my new macrophotography set-up to more use.

Malayan Oakleaf Butterfly ( Kallima limborgii ),   Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Malayan Oakleaf Butterfly (Kallima limborgii), Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Dark Blue Tiger Butterfly ( Tirumala septentrionis ),   Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Dark Blue Tiger Butterfly (Tirumala septentrionis), Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Paper Kite or Large Tree Nymph Butterfly ( Idea leuconoe ),   Penang Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Paper Kite or Large Tree Nymph Butterfly (Idea leuconoe), Penang Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Southeast Asian Treefrog ( Polypedates leucomystax ), Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

Southeast Asian Treefrog (Polypedates leucomystax), Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

The following day the same driver took us back through George Town and on to the north for a trip to Penang Botanical Gardens followed by a trip up Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera).

At the Botanical Gardens I wandered off alone in hopes of finding snakes off the path, but instead found dragonflies and a land planarian to photograph. Land planarians are terrestrial flatworms often called “hammerhead or arrowhead worms”. They are hunters that attack their invertebrate prey using both brute force and a combination of the adhesive and digestive properties of their mucus.

From the entrance gate to the gardens we took “jeep” rides up Penang Hill. It’s about three miles of extremely steep and winding paved road and a fleet of small off-road pickup trucks ferry people to the top. There Mark Pennell and his brother-in-law Alan and I broke away from our group after an arrival beer and lunch to look for critters. The goal was to find tarantulas and we succeeded in locating the terrestrial species of Penang Hill, Coremiocnemis cunicularia, in embankment burrows.

Broadhead Planarian ( Bipalium  sp.),   Penang Botanical Gardens, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Broadhead Planarian (Bipalium sp.), Penang Botanical Gardens, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/200s

Black Stream Skimmer ( Trithemis festiva ),   Penang Botanical Gardens, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Black Stream Skimmer (Trithemis festiva), Penang Botanical Gardens, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/160s

Singapore (aka Malaysian Brown) Tarantula ( Coremiocnemis cunicularia ),   Penang Hill, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/2 power with F-Stoppers Flash Disc, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Singapore (aka Malaysian Brown) Tarantula (Coremiocnemis cunicularia), Penang Hill, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/2 power with F-Stoppers Flash Disc, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

After four days on Penang our group of fourteen, thirteen Bristolians from England’s west country and this intrepid American, boarded a very short flight north to Langkawi Island. We were later joined there by two more Bristolians to bring our party’s size to sixteen for two weeks at the amazing Berjaya Langkawi Beach Resort. It was my third visit, but Mark had been visiting Berjaya for more than 15 years and most of his family and friends had been there perhaps eight or ten times. We get treated very well, to say the least. Mark’s sister Chris celebrated her 60th birthday during our stay and we had an amazing sunset buffet dinner on the beach where the Tiger beer never stopped flowing and the catering staff outdid themselves and a three-piece band serenaded us.

But I’m not much on pool and beach and lobby cocktails. I’m after wildlife, I’m into hiking, I am looking for photographic subjects. Fortunately, you don’t have to go far as the lush tropical forest grounds of Berjaya are teaming with nature. The three most obvious mammals are the two monkey species - the gentle Dusky Leaf Monkey aka Spectacled Langur and the much less placid Long-tailed or Crab-eating Macaque - and the unique Sunda Colugo or Flying Lemur.

Sunda Colugo ( Galeopterus variegatus ),   Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 240mm, tripod, ISO400, f/9, 1/160s

Sunda Colugo (Galeopterus variegatus), Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 240mm, tripod, ISO400, f/9, 1/160s

Despite often being called a flying lemur, the Colugo (aka Cobego) is not a lemur and cannot fly. It is a very strong glider that leaps and glides from tree to tree at night to feed on tender leaves, shoots, flowers, tree sap and fruits. Walking after dark and seeing these 1-2 kg mammals glide down and bank onto a tree trunk is an amazing experience. Their wingspan is more than two feet and they can glide for over 200 feet without losing much altitude. During the day it clings to the tree bark using the camouflage of its fur to remain undetected by predators. The two species - Sunda and Philippine - belong to two different genera, and combined the two extant colugos are the only members of their family (Cynocephalidae) and even their order (Dermoptera).

It is fascinating just how many gliding animals there are in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia there are of course true flying mammals - bats including the colugo-sized flying foxes, but those that have evolved methods of gliding from tree to tree include squirrels, snakes, lizards and frogs. We were fortunate to see a Paradise Flying Snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) at Berjaya plus a number of Draco sp. “flying” lizards, as well as the Red Flying Squirrel.

When it comes to monkeys on Langkawi there are two: one which is an evil shit and the other beautiful and lovely. Macaques live in matriarchal societies and males are shunned from their groups after reaching puberty. This results in lone males living in isolation and often becoming very territorial and aggressive. Macaques will eat just about anything and scavenge through trash making an enormous mess and will confront and attack humans to grab their food or drink. I have been charged my big male macaques. I may be ten times their weight, probably more like 15, but they don’t care. With teeth bared they will charge and unfortunately one of our party got hurt when he fell a good distance while running from them. I mentioned in another blog entry that one male that had been harassing people by the pool got in a confrontation with another monkey and left it with a bloody pulp of a foot. I love all animals, but - yeah - macaques are evil shits.

Long-tailed Macaque ( Macaca fascicularis ),   Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 95mm, tripod, ISO400, f/7.1, 1/25s

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis), Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 95mm, tripod, ISO400, f/7.1, 1/25s

The beautiful and lovely monkey is the Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus), which is also known as the Spectacled Langur. Technically, it is not a true langur but rather a lutung so I prefer referring to them as leaf monkeys, which is a reference to their preferred diet. They are peaceful monkeys that are usually found higher in the trees than the macaques, but around the resort they come to ground and accept fruit and nuts handed to them by tourists. Feeding wildlife is wrong and always a bad idea. In the case of the resort monkeys, it is too likely that someone will have a leaf monkey gently take an orange slice one day and think that is the coolest experience ever and then have disastrous results when it tries to hand something to an aggressive macaque.

Dusky Leaf Monkey ( Trachypithecus obscurus carbo ),   Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 92mm, handheld, ISO200, f/5, 1/250s

Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus carbo), Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 92mm, handheld, ISO200, f/5, 1/250s

Before the trip Mark told me of seeing a white Dusky Leaf Monkey during his June 2018 visit. We inquired about this monkey when we arrived but nobody had seen it in at least four months. Then one day while Mark, Alan and I were walking the grounds photographing the “flying” lizards or dragons (Draco sp.), one of the shuttle drivers stopped to tell us that the white “langur” had been seen near the guard gate at the resort’s entrance. We asked to jump in his shuttle and get a ride down there and were lucky to find the troop that included the female white monkey seeking midday shade and some tender leaves to snack on in a large tree near the large parking lot. I call this monkey “hypomelanistic”, meaning that it has reduced melanin or black pigment. It isn’t an albino or its feet, etc. would be pink, as would its eyes. Many people would call it leucistic, but that condition usually results in bluish eyes and this monkey definitely had normal dark eyes. Regardless of what obscure term you want to apply, it was a stunning monkey. Interestingly, it was noticeably the largest of the dozen or more in the group, and it didn’t like when other monkeys would come to close to it. It kept moving to where it could sit alone.

“Hypomelanistic” Dusky Leaf Monkey ( Trachypithecus obscurus carbo ),   Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 300mm, handheld, ISO400, f/9, 1/60s

“Hypomelanistic” Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus carbo), Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 300mm, handheld, ISO400, f/9, 1/60s

One of the outings I was looking most forward to on Langkawi Island was a return to the mangroves of Tanjung Rhu along the north coast of the island. Langkawi sits on the Andaman Sea (Strait of Malacca) off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia as close to Thailand as it is to Malaysia. When I visited two years ago we took a boat into these mangroves and were lucky enough to find a Mangrove Pitviper. This year we hoped to see one again. We were not disappointed - we observed three!

Mangrove Pitviper ( Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus ), Tanjung Rhu ,  Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 120mm, Nikon SB900 with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Mangrove Pitviper (Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus), Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 120mm, Nikon SB900 with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Mangrove Pitviper ( Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus ), Tanjung Rhu ,  Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8, Nikon SB900 with softbox, ISO100, f/13, 1/60s

Mangrove Pitviper (Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus), Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8, Nikon SB900 with softbox, ISO100, f/13, 1/60s

Mangrove Pitviper ( Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus ), Tanjung Rhu ,  Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 85mm, Nikon SB900 with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Mangrove Pitviper (Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus), Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 @ 85mm, Nikon SB900 with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

We also saw Common Water Monitors, White-bellied Sea Eagles, Brahminy Kites and drove out across the sea to a small island to see some roosting Flying Foxes, but besides the Mangrove Pitvipers the highlight of our boat adventure in Tanjung Rhu was Mark’s niece Emily spotting a female Hyllus diardi, one of the largest jumping spider species. It occurs in a variety of habitats but is most common in mangroves. I didn’t have my new macro diffuser with me and shooting from a rocking longboat isn’t easy, so the one-inch salticid was captured in a small jar and I photographed it back at Berjaya. Jumping Spiders are my favorite photographic subjects and these images are my trip favorites.

Heavy Jumping Spider ( Hyllus diardi ),   Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/16 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/250s

Heavy Jumping Spider (Hyllus diardi), Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/16 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/250s

Heavy Jumping Spider ( Hyllus diardi ),   Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro with Raynox DCR-250, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/22, 1/60s

Heavy Jumping Spider (Hyllus diardi), Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro with Raynox DCR-250, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/22, 1/60s

While staying at Berjaya I also took three evening hikes up through the nearby Oriental Village, into the forest and then up to Telaga Tujuh or Seven Wells Waterfall. The first two trips were with Mark and Alan and the last was alone on my last night in Malaysia. We observed a great deal of wildlife including Oriental Pied and Great Hornbills, monkeys, various bats, Tokay Geckos, etc., but for me the most interesting were the spiders and the scorpions. In addition to the local terrestrial tarantula (Chilobrachys sp.) we saw several times of huntsman spiders (Sparassidae) including two prize species - the Lichen Huntsman (Pandercetes sp.) and one of my favorite true spiders, Heteropoda lunula. Also photographed were a couple of Tokay Geckos. These huge geckos are often seen around the resort and I’d take voucher photos for iNaturalist with my iPhone, but I don’t really like photographing lizards on buildings, even if they are foot-long grey and rust-orange beasts with giant heads. So, it was also great to find Tokay Geckos on tree trunks during our night hikes and get some natural in situ photos.

Spotted Bark Scorpion ( Lychas scutilis , Buthidae),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with softbox ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Spotted Bark Scorpion (Lychas scutilis, Buthidae), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with softbox ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Lichen Huntsman Spider ( Pandercetes  sp.),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Lichen Huntsman Spider (Pandercetes sp.), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Langkawi Brown Tarantula ( Chilobrachys  sp.),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Langkawi Brown Tarantula (Chilobrachys sp.), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Lichen Huntsman Spider ( Pandercetes  sp.),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Lichen Huntsman Spider (Pandercetes sp.), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/4 power with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Tokay Gecko ( Gekko gecko ),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/2 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/2 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

In situ  Purple-brown Huntsman Spider ( Heteropoda lunula ),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

In situ Purple-brown Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda lunula), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with softbox, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Purple-brown Huntsman Spider ( Heteropoda lunula ),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro with Raynox DCR-250, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/22, 1/60s

Purple-brown Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda lunula), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro with Raynox DCR-250, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/22, 1/60s

Purple-brown Huntsman Spider ( Heteropoda lunula ),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Purple-brown Huntsman Spider (Heteropoda lunula), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

This certainly has become a photo blog. I just want to leave you with a couple more images from Langkawi. One is from the incredible sighting of a Reticulated Python killing an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Our group was meeting for dinner and as one couple was walking from chalet to lobby Julie was snapping photos of the resort with her iPhone. Just then a hornbill landed on the ground and she aimed her phone at the huge bird while continuing to snap pictures. To her surprise/shock/horror about an eight-foot long python came out of the rocks and attacked the bird. I was still in my room so Mark texted me while Kim ran up to my chalet. By the time I arrived on the scene all the human commotion had caused the snake to release the dead hornbill and disappear back into the rocks. But before those images (captured by Mark and his niece Emily), how about a giant cockroach, cicada, tree crab and a young tarantula in its burrow mouth?

Epilamprinae roach ( Pseudophoraspis  sp.),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with softbox, ISO100, f/18, 1/120s

Epilamprinae roach (Pseudophoraspis sp.), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with softbox, ISO100, f/18, 1/120s

Cicada (unidentified species),   Berjaya Langkawi Resort, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Cicada (unidentified species), Berjaya Langkawi Resort, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

Tree Crab (Sesarmidae sp.),   Berjaya mangrove, Burau Bay, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

Tree Crab (Sesarmidae sp.), Berjaya mangrove, Burau Bay, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2,8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with Alex Goh Macro Diffuser, ISO100, f/16, 1/60s

In situ  Langkawi Brown Tarantula ( Chilobrachys  sp.),   Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia  • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with softbox, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s

In situ Langkawi Brown Tarantula (Chilobrachys sp.), Telaga Tujuh, Langkawi Island, Malaysia • Nikon D500, Tokina 100mm f/2.8 macro, Nikon SB900 @ 1/8 power with softbox, ISO100, f/18, 1/60s


IMG_3919.JPG
IMG_3920.JPG

#110 - Penang, Malaysia - Tuesday, 15 January 2019

This morning we are off to Langkawi. Our group of fourteen, which will later be joined on Langkawi Island by two more, will board a 78-seater prop plane (ATR 72-500) for a thirty minute puddle jump north to the Thailand/Malaysia border. I type this from my final pre-dawn breakfast feast at the Hotel Equatorial Penang.

Yesteday our entire herd visited Penang Botanical Garden and then Penang Hill. We had the same driver with his large van and his service over two days was excellent. Today at 10 a.m. he’ll pick us up along with a smaller van that will transport our luggage. Our flight leaves Penang at 12:25. One of the advantages of a larger group is splitting costs. We paid 80RM per hour to have a private driver take us where we chose and wait as we explored our destinations. Yesterday’s 6.5 hours was 520 ringgits or $127, which split among 14 becomes a very reasonable 9 bucks for a day’s chauffeur service.

A thirty minute Monday morning traffic ride from Hotel Equatorial ended at the gates for Penang Botanical Garden, a free park that appeared popular with both locals and tourists. It was our first encounter with monkeys of the trip as long-tailed macaques were seen immediately. On Langkawi you see macaques everywhere and they are even along the road from the airport to our resort. The resort itself has both macaques and dusky leaf monkeys or langurs in abundance. Here on Penang they aren’t seen in the heavily populated area we are staying or in the even more urban George Town.

The Penang Botanic Gardens, also known as the "Waterfall Gardens" because of the cascading waterfall nearby, is a public park situated on Jalan Air Terjun in George Town, Penang, Malaysia. Unfortunately, it’s fenced greenhouses are closed on Monday. I mostly wandered the grounds alone looking for macro photography subjects and was able to photograph a land planarian (“hammerhead worm”), dragonfly, etc. See Instagram/Facebook feed. The park was a bit less interesting than I had hoped and about an hour after arrival we paid for the “Jeep” ride up to Penang Hill. There is a funicular that also climbs the mountain, but the extremely steep private road (“Jeep track”) starts right at the botanic garden gate. 160RM per vehicle of 4 gets you a round trip to the highest peaks on the island. The three mile or so road was one of the steeper I’ve ever been up and among the most windy. The drivers don’t really have jeeps, but rather small pickup trucks that most have tricked out with some off-road gear even though the road is paved. They drive up as quickly as possible, whipping around the hairpin turns while blaring their horns to warn oncoming traffic.

As soon as we arrived at the touristy Upper Station we sought cold beers and I ordered a dozen chicken satay to share with Mark and Kim. We were surprised that even though it is a tourist complex the food choices were inexpensive. The stalls were much nicer looking than those at the hawkers centers we had visited the previous two days, but you could still get laksa or Char kway teow for about two bucks. A dozen skewers of satay was $4.

Mark and his brother-in-law Alan and I left our group after our refreshments. Our goal was to look for the two species of tarantula - the terrestrial Coremiocnemis cunicularia and the arboreal Omothymus schioedtei. We walked up a steep perimeter road looking for one of the three trail routes you can take on top the hill. There are “by paths” that are paved trails that lead into the tropical forest. We stopped at a scenic overlook and continued away from the crowd until we found a path. Not long after our walk away from the road began Mark spied the first tarantula burrow on the hill embankment. Rather than having its tunnel entrance covered with silk, he immediately saw the spider visible at the opening. We quickly found other burrows, all also open and with their resident spiders in partial view. Mark moved up the path a short distance and found a larger spider while I tried to extract the first. It ended up deep within the trail side almost vertical embankment and I dug at the very wet clay/dirt. I exposed about two feet of silk lined tunnel, but lost track of the burrow while Mark worked at extracting the other spider and Alan found a few others. We ended up getting the largest spider out for photographs, tickling smaller spiders into view and, later, walked back up the path to try digging the one I had been working on out of its lair to no avail. We were unsuccessful in locating the arboreal tarantula, but saw at least six of the terrestrial species. The path ended up at another road below the Upper Station and we faced a brutally steep walk up the hillside in oppressive heat and humidity. I had expected the temperature to be cooler on Penang Hill but it’s only an elevation of 2500 feet. The Botanic Garden below is 200 feet above sea level and after descending the crazy road and seeing one driver coming up have a tire blowout, our driver took us back through George Town to the hotel. Ten minutes after our return the Pennels and I were in the cool water of the hotel pool and were soon joined by the rest of the party.

i enjoyed a couple of Singapore Slings with Mark and ordered a steak sandwich for an early dinner. Many of our group planned to go into George Town again for dinner, but the rest of us stayed behind and my poolside dinner ended with a vodka and tonic at the pool bar with Mark before I retired to my room to pack and kick back and watch a movie in the air conditioned comfort. Now with breakfast complete I am waiting for the sun to rise a bit before taking a swim.

#98 - Another Visit

I hadn't seen Chad Campbell in far too long. I tend to lose touch with people even in the best of times, and heading out to live on the road at the beginning of 2017 didn't lessen that propensity. Still, more sociable people can always reach out to solitary me, so I am never willing to take all the blame. And Chad did just that with an unexpected text asking whether I'd pick him up in Phoenix if he landed there. I have no clue how long it had been since we'd had any contact other than liking each other's Instagram posts, but it didn't affect my reply. I told him Tucson or El Paso were cool as they are 2.5 and 3 hours away, respectively, but Phoenix (5 hours) was a no.

Chad and a Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Portal Cafe

Chad and a Green Chile Cheeseburger at the Portal Cafe

There is a very, very short list of people that have an open invitation to visit me and Chad certainly was on it, but after a few casual mentions last year to a few of the honorees of that mental list, I really didn't talk to anyone at all this year. As you read in the previous blog entry, my bonus dad Joel just visited and we had arranged that trip even before I left his house the day after his birthday in mid-April. He was set to spend my birthday here with me the first week of August and, other than visits by my arachnologist friend Brent Hendrixson, I didn't anticipate any other visitors. But Chad was itching to return to Arizona after his previous visits to Tucson for American Tarantula Society conferences that have since fizzled out, and without much hesitation he bought his plane tickets and I scrambled to switch with other volunteers to free up my schedule not one week after I had taken an entire week off from the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center in the northeastern Chiricahua Mountains to spend all my time with Joel.

IMG_2317.jpg

Jump ahead to another trip to Tucson the night before picking up a guest. Again I wanted to road cruise for sidewinder rattlesnakes, and this time a guy I met through Instagram had recommended a road west of the one I had cruised the night before I picked up Joel. Heading out past the Old Sasco Ruins through rugged Sonoran Desert into a stormy dusk, I truly felt in the middle of nowhere. Just off the interstate the town of Red Rock, Arizona is new modern suburbia, but quickly the cookie cutter adobe family homes give way to sandy desert grassland scrub. Then, out of nowhere, I came upon a massive feed lot and sights and smells that will turn you off of beef for life. Thousands upon thousands of cattle stood shoulder to shoulder and I looked away and picked up the pace before the strong odor became too much. The pavement then ended and the dirt road soon disappeared into saguaros reaching toward the purplish gloomy sky and I was swallowed by the desert. I was glad there was still light so I could read the warning signs about road closures, flash flooding, federal agents and more, and I drove deep into the desert between the mountains and back out to learn the area before darkness. The road had many steep dips that recent rains had filled with water and rocks and several crossings were of great concern. One held as much water as I'd ever want to drive my truck through (and I did it four times) and another was very wet but also very rough with big rocks that had washed into the crossing. There were many "stream crossings" and quite a bit of rough road. That night I tested my truck more than any other.

Portrait of that night's Sonoran Desert Sidewinder ( Crotalus cerastes cercobombus )

Portrait of that night's Sonoran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus)

Sonoran Desert Toad ( Incilius alvarius ), one of several from my Old Sasco Road adventure.

Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius), one of several from my Old Sasco Road adventure.

Flashing forward once more, the next morning I was back at Tucson International Airport early enough for a local beer. As I finished up and started towards Chad's arrival, he texted me that he was already outside having a cigarette, his very short flight from Phoenix arrived early. His first request, even before he had left Minneapolis, was that we head from the airport directly to In 'N Out Burger, the legendary West Coast fast food icon. Then it was off to a giant liquor store I had scouted the day before for a connoisseur's collection of West Coast India Pale Ales for Chad, plus a small selection of lagers for me including not only Grand Canyon pilsner but my beloved Imperial from Costa Rica. Then we headed east to Willcox for groceries and on to an area known to contain two tarantula species, which Chad had explored a couple years prior during one of his Tucson visits. Rain shortened our time - and unsuccessful search - at the tarantula site, and we pushed on back here to Cave Creek Canyon. Chad would be the first visitor to actually bunk in my Wheelhouse and we had groceries and beer to stow and food to grill. But first Chad unpacked some very generous birthday gifts he had hauled all the way from Minneapolis, incurring overweight bag charges in the process in order to bring me some special beverages and a coffee cup. There were two imperial stouts and a giant Ziploc bag containing eight pint cans of one of my personal favorites brewed in Minneapolis - Indeed Brewing Company's Mexican Honey Imperial Lager.

Chad's visit was only from midday Friday to midday Tuesday so we were working with limited time. Chad wanted to see tarantulas and rattlesnakes most and that he did. Saturday we made a trip into New Mexico and down into the Peloncillo Mountains to search for the tarantula I had pursued with Brent and his students only a couple weeks earlier. Successful in finding that special American spider again, I then took him to the scorpion site where I had taken four of Brent's students. 

Aphonopelma peloncillo , a Peloncillo Mountains endemic

Aphonopelma peloncillo, a Peloncillo Mountains endemic

IMG_2350.jpg

Chad had only seen Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes before, and he added quite a few more of those to his life list, plus many more first-time ('lifer') Mohave Rattlesnakes and one special encounter with the third species of our trip, my favorite, the Black-tailed Rattlesnake. And he found it himself! I had taken up South Fork Road and South Fork Trail in search of the Elegant Trogon, the rare bird people come from around the world to see here, and - though we didn't find the trogon - during a search of a cabin for jumping spiders Chad found a young blacktail a few feet off the ground, nestled in the rock exterior rock wall. The snake didn't move as we took in situ photos of how we found it, including the smartphone image to the left, and then Chad returned to my truck which was parked nearby to get the rest of our needed camera gear and one of my snake hooks. Black-tails are usually placid rattlesnakes and this yearling snake certainly was very cooperative as I then moved it onto a nearby group of flat rocks so that we could photograph it further. 

Chad's "lifer" Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake ( Crotalus molossus )

Chad's "lifer" Western Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus)

Another snake that Chad had repeatedly mentioned that he was hoping to see was a kingsnake. We have two here, the tri-colored Mountain King here in the mountains, and the Desert Kingsnake in the foothills and surrounding desert. Both can be very elusive so it was quite a thrill when one night's road cruising, the night we went down to the Peloncillos, included this beautiful black-hooded king.

Desert Kingsnake  (Lampropeltis splendida ), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Desert Kingsnake (Lampropeltis splendida), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

Chad and I share a love of jumping spiders and he has become quite accomplished at doing true single-exposure macrophotography of jumpers using the same 1:1 100mm Tokina macro lens I use plus a 2.5X magnifier and a special light set-up. We were fortunate to find quite a few special jumping spiders during his visit. One was at almost 8400 ft elevation at Barfoot Park, and we also found cool jumpers right at my camp at the corral and a number of photo sessions took place on my picnic table.

Chad photographing a jumping spider in the high elevation mixed conifer forest of Barfoot Park

Chad photographing a jumping spider in the high elevation mixed conifer forest of Barfoot Park

One of Chad's images from the above photo shoot ( Phidippus toro , female) © Chad Campbell

One of Chad's images from the above photo shoot (Phidippus toro, female) © Chad Campbell

On Chad's last night here, we went for another dinner at Portal Cafe and then Chad chose to return to the corral to enjoy some beer, conversation and image processing over another night of road cruising for snakes. But on the way back into the canyon we were destined for one more snake during his visit, which he called his "snake-cap", and it was a special one at that.

Our "snake-cap", adult Sonoran Lyre Snake ( Trimorphodon lambda )

Our "snake-cap", adult Sonoran Lyre Snake (Trimorphodon lambda)

I don't know where I'll be next year, but if I am in the Chiricahuas I am hoping Chad will return and bring his girlfriend April with. We even talked about getting a small gathering of mutual friends together for more herping and spidering fun and more connoisseur brews and good food. 

This "spirited" Mohave Rattlesnake ( Crotalus scutulatus ) put on quite the show for Chad as it tried to "kiss" me

This "spirited" Mohave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) put on quite the show for Chad as it tried to "kiss" me

#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

#94 - An Endemic Tarantula

For the ten years prior to beginning my road odyssey last year, most of my travel had been to exotic locales in search of tarantulas. Costa Rica, Suriname, Sri Lanka. These were destinations chosen for tarantula field work. Even Malaysian holidays had a primary focus on tarantula hunting. Even going back over thirty years, my road trips to Texas had an arachnological mission.

True, snakes and other reptiles were my primary distraction and deviation, and more than once on that first Costa Rican adventure in 2006, my mate and field trip leader Andrew Smith tried to rein in my desire to chase things that slither with commands of "Tarantulas, Michael, tarantulas!". Now an avid birder and wildlife photographer who often has mammals or other charismatic megafauna in the lens, I'd like to think that I was always a generalist naturalist. I love nature in all its forms. As enthralled as I was by the gorgeous red-legged tarantula (Megaphobema mesomelas) in Costa Rica, the world's largest spider in Suriname (Theraphosa blondi) or my beloved tiger spiders (Poecilotheria sp., ornamental tarantulas) in Sri Lanka, along those journeys Costa Rican hummingbirds enchanted, Surinamese labaria vipers thrilled and a fortunate sighting of a leopard in Sri Lanka amazed. Do I even need to mention orangutans and tree vipers in Borneo, or dusky leaf monkeys and hornbills in Malaysia?

Still, my tarantula-obsessed friends have wondered why my Instagram feed and blog entries have neglected the tarantula. Andrew has emailed me inquiring as to whether I do any tarantula hunting. In truth, last year I paid more attention to scorpions than tarantulas, and much more time was spent in pursuit of rattlesnakes. This year I am all over the place, chasing microfauna like robber and owl flies one moment and bears, bobcats and even the mountain lion the next. For the past two years, with only a few exceptions like the Rio Grande Gold Tarantula (Aphonopelma moderatum) in Texas or the beautiful Aphonopelma marxi tarantula from north of Silver City, New Mexico, both of which were female spiders I observed in burrows, the only tarantulas I have encountered have been wandering mature males found here in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico while out road-cruising for snakes.

It isn't that I have forgotten tarantulas. It is just that, firstly, this rugged area frustrates tarantula hunters and, secondly, I have many interests. Searching grasslands and desert scrub for burrows for the more abundant species in this region is hard work, so I guess an argument could be made for a third factor: laziness. Admittedly, a fourth reason could be collector bias for sexy spiders. When you've seen stunning tarantulas like Megaphobema mesomelas in Costa Rica and Poecilotheria subfusca in Sri Lanka, the local "brown jobs" like the local Aphonopelma gabeli and A. vorhiesi honestly don't have the same allure.

But let's get back to the first reason. My experience tarantula hunting in this region is limited, but my friend, arachnologist Dr. Brent Hendrixson, knows the tarantulas of the American Southwest better than anyone and has spent years and years searching for them. He has told me repeatedly that they can be very difficult to find. Many make their burrows beneath rocks or in scrapes where flipping rock after rock becomes the search method. Did I mention my laziness? At night I'd rather road cruise for snakes or black light for scorpions (the former enhanced by air conditioning and music; the latter makes finding scorpions rather effortless), and during the blazing heat of the day I can't bring myself to walk alone through the desert turning rocks.

However, there is one tarantula in the region that began to intrigue me. By now every reader should know of my deep love for the Chiricahua Mountains and that this year I am actually living right in the mountain range's Cave Creek Canyon. I have spent little time out in the surrounding flatlands. Most of my time is spent at 5000' or above, from the pine-oak woodlands of the rocky canyons and adjacent riparian zones up to the coniferous forests at 7500' and higher. And there is a newly described species of tarantula that lives in the Chiricahuas from 5000-8000'.

Aphonopelma chiricahua was described in 2016 by Brent and his two co-authors in a complete revision of the American species in the genus (all U.S. tarantulas belong to the genus Aphonopelma, but the genus reaches Central America). Their paper created many synonymies drastically reducing the number of species in the United States (currently 29), but it also established a number of new species endemic to specific localities (primarily Sky Islands) including Aphonopelma chiricahua, which occurs only in pine-oak woodland and mixed conifer forests here in the Chiricahuas.

Last week I encountered my first wandering males of the season while driving Portal Road at night. I was returning to Cave Creek Canyon from road-cruising out in the desert and found two males - the first just west of Portal and the second a little over a mile later closer to the entrance to the canyon. They looked freshly molted and I sent images to Brent for identification help. Mature male A. gabeli and A. vorhiesi look very similar, but it was the time of year that made him think it was probable they were the former species, which matures and breeds earlier than the late summer breeding A. vorhiesi. I had found plenty of both last year, and seeing my first males of the year stirred a desire to find something else. Yes, to tarantula hunt once more! Brent was on the road doing his own tarantula hunting in New Mexico and Texas during our conversations, and while I waited for replies I spent a good deal of time re-reading pertinent sections of the 340 page generic revision he co-authored. It reminded me that the "Arizona blonde" tarantula A. chalcodes is even found in this region (Brent found a male on the road to nearby Paradise that I drive frequently), which made me further bemoan how unlikely it was for me to find a female of any species in its burrow. But what really enticed me was the section on A. chiricahua.

The endemic species in the Chiris was described from only a handful of specimens. The male holotype (a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based) was actually caught by a retired biologist who is now an area realtor and is well-known to me. That was surprise number one. This male was found at 5083 ft. elevation on the road only a mile up canyon from the corral where my Wheelhouse is camped. Surprise 2. I then learned that the female paratype (additional specimens in the type series, other than holotype, used to describe a species) was from the area surrounding the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History (SWRS). It was collected at 5436 ft. and had been preserved for years at Auburn University in Alabama. The species description of Aphonopelma chiricahua in Hamilton, Hendrixson & Bond, 2016 was accompanied by no photo of a live female. An additional male was designated as paratype and, in total, eight specimens were examined for the species description within the Aphonopelma revision/monograph. The paratype female was the only female. The highest elevation male came from 8432 ft. near Rustler Park. 

Surprise #3 was that this species breeds in autumn. That meant that I wasn't going to come across wandering males this summer. My personal correspondence with Brent made me aware that he knows of females being seen on the roads during summer, presumably flushed out of their burrows during the summer monsoon rains. I began to hope I would be lucky enough to find one.

Jump ahead to this past Thursday, better known as the first day of summer. My previous blog entry recounted my experience that morning observing a behemoth of a black bear on the road just up canyon from the corral. What happened after the bear sighting is what concerns us here. As I have mentioned many times in many blog entries, I often don't know where I am going until I get there. I don't really plan my free days in advance. My truck is guided by whimsy. I could have easily gone hiking up on the Basin Trail in search of snakes or just walked my well-worn path on South Fork looking for Elegant Trogons and other birds. But I passed South Fork Road and then didn't turn off the forest road at the research station as I would have for the Basin Trail, Ash Spring or other popular destinations where I often hike. I decided to, for the countless time, to hunt an area above the research station for Rock Rattlesnakes. I have spent many hours in this prime location without success, but that doesn't prevent me from climbing the steep rocky hillside and shining my flashlight into likely crevices among boulder piles yet again. And this time it was in the back of my head that the location center for Aphonopelma chiricahua was also here. As the description reads, "Most specimens in natural history collections have been collected near the AMNH's Southwest(ern) Research Station".

The rock rattlesnake site is based on information from a friend who was part of a group that observed three within 30 yards of each other there during last year's SWRS field herpetology course. It is up a hillside adjacent to the SWRS, but accessed from about a mile up the road. That's about as specific as I choose to be. The steep slope has rock slides and boulder piles and is pine-oak woodland with pinyon pine, scrub oak, alligator juniper, Palmer's agave, prickly pear cactus, mountain yucca and numerous grasses, etc. After ascending to the area that looks like prime rock rattlesnake habitat and scouring the rocky terrain, I decided to continue to crest the hill and entered a grassy area at the top. I continued to hike down canyon from the highest elevation, which means towards the SWRS. I was wondering if I would find a vista where I could see the research station below. Most of my snake searching had been concentrated to a very rocky area about half the size of a football field and I have made a handful of visits this year to combine with dozens and dozens last year. This was, however, the first time I had gone all the way to the top, which reaches almost 5800 ft. above sea level and has extensive grassy flat areas. I found a large area cleared by ants and stopped to enjoy the breathtaking views of the canyon and the valley below. My mind turned to spiders and I began criss-crossing the top of the hill looking for any small creature to photograph. My camera had my macro lens and ring flash on it and I flipped some rocks looking for a subject. Always hoping for a snake or lizard, any beetle, bug or spider would do.

I hadn't hiked with my attnetion focused on the ground for more than a few minutes when I stopped in astonishment. There in my path on what seemed like a well-worn animal trail was a perfect tarantula burrow covered in silk. The species description of A. chiricahua is based on limited natural history information. It states, "Very little is known about the natural history of this elusive species. No burrows or shelters have been observed but these spiders probably seek refuge under rocks and rarely place silk around their burrow entrances". Elusive. Little known. I was very excited as I realized that this must be the spider and here I had found a perfect burrow near the type locality. The morning sun was rising fast and with a high temperature of 100F predicted I was hot, sweaty and tired from my climb. But I forgot all as I dropped to my knees and photographed the "textbook" silk-covered burrow. Perhaps the "rarely place silk" was presumptuous.

Only a tarantula burrow looks like this. There was no question what lived inside.

Only a tarantula burrow looks like this. There was no question what lived inside.

There are several ways to coax a tarantula from its burrow: flushing, tickling and digging. The latter is to be avoided as the tarantula can be injured or trapped, and it is destructive to the habitat. Furthermore, if you just want to photograph and release you are left to rebuild the retreat and it will always yield a very unsatisfactory result for the spider and alters the habitat. Arachnologists simply cannot dig perfectly round tunnels into the earth terminating in a chamber. Flushing is an easy and non-destructive means that works remarkably well in arid habitat. In essence you are simulating a flash flood and the tarantula will instinctively flee its tunnel and chamber rather than risk drowning inside. When tarantula hunting in the desert one normally carries jugs of water for this purpose. Hiking up the hillside I only had one 20 oz. water bottle and I had already drank half of it. We'll come back to "tickling" in a moment. First, we have to use a twig to brush away the silk layer the tarantula created to shade its retreat and deter pests like ants from house-crashing.

Tarantulas dig their own burrows and many are so perfectly round it is as if they were drilled by a coring machine.

Tarantulas dig their own burrows and many are so perfectly round it is as if they were drilled by a coring machine.

With the silk removed and the hole once again photographed (yes, we tarantula hunters have far too many images of seemingly empty holes in the ground), I didn't give a moment's thought to my hydration despite my thirst and the heat. I began to pour the last ten ounces of berry flavored electrolyte-enhanced water in my possession down the hole. The orangish-brown furry legs that came forward put a big dorky smile on my face.

Aphonopelma chiricahua  at the entrance to its lair

Aphonopelma chiricahua at the entrance to its lair

Alas, ten ounces hardly simulates monsoon rain flash flooding. The handsome rusty-brown tarantula came to see the light of day and its trespasser, but then just as swiftly retreated to darkness. I was out of flushing water and also now had nothing to quench my thirst. Two more full water bottles and backup gallon jugs were in my truck way down the hillside. So it was time to practice the art of tickling. But first, let's look at the habitat where the spider and I were spending the morning of the first day of summer.

In the center foreground you will see my walking stick inserted in the burrow when I returned later that evening to take additional photographs and record GPS coordinates lost during the excitement.

In the center foreground you will see my walking stick inserted in the burrow when I returned later that evening to take additional photographs and record GPS coordinates lost during the excitement.

Tickling involves using anything from a blade of grass to a twig to entice the tarantula to the mouth of its burrow. There are various techniques used that range from dexterous finesse to a slightly more aggressive approach. Each of the gents I have pursued tarantulas with in the field has a personal touch. I admittedly lean toward the aggressive. Tickling can simulate a prey item and, in fact, tarantulas will often grab the twig with their jaws/fangs and can almost be tugged out of the hole. Tickling is usually accompanied by using the free hand to shade the hole so sunlight (or flashlight at night) is less likely to spook the spider. The finesse method employs brushing the forelegs and/or gently tapping the tunnel to elicit a feeding response. This brings the tarantula close to the opening, and typically requires many tries. My impatience usually gets the best of me and I tend to let the length of grass or twig go over or beside the tarantula when the opportunity arises so I can smack its little behind and encourage it to come out post haste. Overheated and without water, with the sun and temperature climbing, I relied more on the aggressive approach. I couldn't shade the hole with my free hand because I was trying to film video of the tickling with my iPhone, nine second of which can be seen below. With the glare of the sun and salty sweat running into my eyes preventing me from really seeing what was on the screen, and my heart racing with the excitement of finding this species in its burrow, the result wasn't great. 

I set down my phone for my final "tickle" and the spider came out. It was missing a leg and I couldn't help but wonder if I caused that during my sun-blinded, overly excited, aggressive tickle. Tarantulas readily autonomize their legs, which will regenerate during next molt. Within two molts the replacement leg will look like the original. With the spider out I then had to quickly decide what to do. I flattened my hand over the burrow opening to prevent reentry while I collected my thoughts. Normally I collect nothing. I might "temporarily restrain" for a later photo shoot in better conditions and later release in exact location, but I quickly realized that this specimen would be important to Brent as a research specimen. He will be visiting the Chiricahuas next month so he can take it for his own photo session. I know full well that it is likely he will pickle it for science, but I try not to dwell on that. I collected scorpions for him last year, and I resigned myself that this tarantula would be a gift to him. I would keep it alive until he and his summer field arachnology students arrive in the Chiricahuas. But, like I said, I don't collect and therefore I had no container. I had my camera, my iPhone, one - now very empty - water bottle, and my walking stick. Thankfully, my water bottle has a wide mouth lid and I put the tarantula inside. It was getting hot quickly so I hurriedly used my Gaia GPS app to find the waypoint and scrambled down the hill before the stainless steel bottle became too hot for the spider within. It wasn't until later that I discovered that in all the excitement I hadn't actually saved the waypoint. I had descended the hillside with a spider without exact location and elevation. I also descended rapidly through an unfamiliar area and wasn't sure where exactly I had been. Still, I'd have to hope I could find the burrow at a later date.

Back at my truck I grabbed a small box waiting for the trash and filled it with dirt and leaf litter from the area. I had one vacant custom tarantula home back at the Wheelhouse that was currently storing millet spray for my parrot that I would use to create a terrarium for the spider. Then I drove straight back to the corral to take some photos and build its new home. Back to WiFi, I posted the above video to my Instagram story and texted Brent. I was one happy tarantula hunter. Later that same evening, after the 100F had dropped to 90F, I returned to the hillside and tried to retrace my steps after climbing back up the rocky slope (again seeing no freaking rock rattlesnakes). I wandered a bit aimlessly for about thirty minutes once I reached the summit until I remembered the small dead tree near the burrow. It can be seen just to the left of my walking stick in the above habitat photo. Once I found that landmark, the burrow was easy to find and I was able to record the precise location. The burrow was at 5645 ft. elevation. As the crow flies it was just under three miles up canyon from my camp, almost directly north of the west side of the complex that is the AMNH Southwestern Research Station. And now I am on a quest for more. And a cricket or two to feed my new roommate ...

Aphonopelma chiricahua , 5645 ft., Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise Co., Arizona

Aphonopelma chiricahua, 5645 ft., Chiricahua Mountains, Cochise Co., Arizona