Thursday, December 29, 2011

Suzio Report, Fall 2011

28 December 2011
Howdy Herpers,                                                                                      

Those who are text challenged can feel to skip the ~3 pages of rambling that follows, and go straight for the brief descriptions that compliment the attached images below. Go for the asterisks (*****). This year has taught me from all directions, (read: it isn’t just me!), that inserting images into the text of emails isn’t the best way to fly. Nor are website images the answer. Where this typing boy is concerned, attaching .jpgs to these Suizo Reports is the best way to assure that images of at least minimal quality arrive on the screens of you, the recipients. Anything else is sub-par, and when delivering images that are already sub-par, one must do their best to polish the turds that one offers.

For over 15 years, Thanksgiving has become the official traditional beginning of the winter herping season for the Herp King of Southern Arizona. The art of waiting until that glorious holiday before striking took many years to master. As hard as it must be to imagine, there was a time when there was no Herp King of Southern Arizona. (These were the darkest days of herpetological history in Arizona.) Prior to hoisting the weighty crown to its lofty perch, a mere mortal would foolishly begin scouring the hillsides in early October. He did this with hopes of discovering the winter lairs of various types of herps. As always, when he found something, there was great excitement and jubilation. And a week later, when that find was revisited, it would be long gone.

Nope, the lesson that was eventually learned here is that good things come to those who wait. While most herps commit to their winter homes by early November, it is best to just give them a few weeks to settle in before visiting them. By doing this, one assures that the animal being watched is usually dug in enough to endure flashing mirrors and cameras without being scared clean out of the county.

As some of you may remember, Thanksgiving 2011 recently descended upon us. On Wednesday, 23 November, the Director of NOAO sent us an email that dismissed us for the long holiday weekend at noon. Ever the dedicated company man, I took that to mean it was ok to leave at 1130. Whap! I was out of there­and heading for my first-ever winter playground. Back in 1991, I found my first “repeating herps,” (that is, herps that demonstrate fidelity to winter sheltersites), at Ragged Top.

With but limited time on my hands, I headed straight for a ridge where chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater) have been observed through the years. I first visited a crevice where a lone large adult chuckwalla has been observed, off and on, since 1996. The big guy was home, and looking good! I eventually worked my eastward to a place that I call “The White Rocks.” I have been visiting this particular rock structure since 1992, when I first found a chuckwalla there. It has been hit-or-miss at the white rocks through the years, but there has been a streak of one or more chucks hanging out here since 2009. And today, there was one present. The crevice where the chucks over-winter is extremely difficult to get a camera into. But I was lucky enough to get something to share. I was lathered in sweat from the effort to get this image, and questioned why taking a picture on a cool fall afternoon would cause this. I broke out my thermometer, and took a temperature on the rock face. It was 39 C, or 102 degrees F! Wow! The chucks know how to find a hot spot!

Thus endeth the Ragged Top adventure. Thanksgiving transpired, and it was learned that Jameson whiskey, Captain Hornitos, and the elixir of the world’s most interesting man doesn’t allow one to effectively mix with republicans­or anybody else for that matter. The day after Thanksgiving became “Misgiving,” but there was no way that a whopper of a hangover was going to stop the Herp King of Southern Arizona. Off he went on a visit to Hill 97, leaving a trail of toxic sweats and partially-digested turkey with all the trimmings in his wake. In all, the king saw, or at least hallucinated, eight diamond-backed rattlesnakes, a desert tortoise (Gopherus hardtospellit), and four Gila Monsters (Heloderma suspectum). A hog-nosed skunk was observed lying beside a rattlesnake in one of the dens. Faced with the spastic side-effects of the DTs, the king’s camera grew a mind of its own, and tried to twitch itself out of his grasp every time he tried to use it. The only image worth sharing from this day of Misgiving is of the “Lazy M” Gila Monster­a monster that has overwintered in the same Gila hole for eleven years now.

In a Suizo Report last year, the king made a big deal out of the Lazy M HESU, calling it the monster of the decade. He showed images of it from November of 2000, and again, November, 2010. I think we’ve done this enough without using comparative images again. The short story, for those who missed it, is that this monster was an adult when found in 2000, and is still with us today. One fine day, I expect we will know how long Gila Monsters live in the wild. For now, an estimate of 20 years is not unreasonable, and longer is certainly possible.  

Bringing it all back home, the Suizo Plot has also been well-monitored this fall. We begin with an accounting of the western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) dens. Atrox Den #1 (AD1), has had three atrox viewed inside the crevice this fall. There are likely more. We have been monitoring AD1 since 1999. AD5 holds two atrox, AD6 holds one, and AD7 has had as many as six visible. We have been watching AD5 since 2001, AD6 since 2002, and AD7 since 2003. This fall, female CRAT #121, “Tracy,” surprised us by settling into AD6, which was the former home of the “Barbie Twins.” (The Barbie Twins were two female atrox, CRAT # 44 and 46. They were in our study from 2003-2007. The fact that they shared the same winter den, and dogged each other during the active season, led us to speculate that they are sisters. The time will come when their DNA will yield that information.) Our newer female CRAT #87, “Julie” settled into the upper crevice of AD7. (#87 in AD7 forces us to carefully enunciate our words, lest confusion arise when discussing either.) Female CRAT #133 has crossed the big wash, and has settled into a man-made boulder pile near the top of the southwestern flank of the Suizo Mountains proper. It is quite the climb to track her every week. Each time we make the trek, we gleefully cuss John Slone for finding this wayward snake. 

The tiger rattlesnakes (Crotalus tigris) have been somewhat predictable, but fun to watch. Female CRTI #8 “Zona” ended her yearly migration in the exact boulder that she started from last April. Male CRTI #10 “Jeff” snagged a big meal in Mid-October, and settled under a west-facing boulder jumble on the northwest side of Iron Mine Hill. Male CRTI #11 “Steven” ended exactly where Blake and Gordon predicted­AD5! Commensal overwintering between tigris and atrox is normally not a common situation. But there have been several instances of such behaviors on the upper east side of Iron Mine Hill. 

On 10 December, “Steven” gave us a big surprise by being discovered basking in 100% direct sunlight. The transmitter revealed his body temperature to be 22.3 C. By comparison, the two non-basking tigers had body temps of 13.8 and 8.7 C on this day. We have yet to really do much with all the micro-climate data we’ve collected, and these three points may point to how difficult that data will be to fathom. Getting back to Steven, this is only the second time that I’ve ever seen a tiger rattlesnake out basking in December. The first time was with a non-transmittered tiger on Hill 97 in 1998. Perhaps not-so coincidentally, this Hill 97 tiger was also sharing a den with atrox.  

On 19 November, our scrawny female Gila Monster female HESU #13, “Farrah” moved into a Gila hole that she occupied during the same period last year. She surprised us by making a three meter mini-move downslope between 10 December and 17 December. Her new location is a place where during the winters of 2006 through 2008, I would often see an unknown Gila Monster. As we did not actually catch/process Farrah until May of 2008, it is possible that this “unknown” monster was her. In her current location, she is poised to go downslope to a place she hibernated in 2009 and 2010, or she could head upslope to the communal Gila dens, as she did last year at this time. Time will tell.

I will be doing a blow-by-blow accounting of our female black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) in the next report. For now, it is enough to say that female CRMO#10 “Susan” has entered a currently inactive beecave that resides about four meters directly above CRTI #10’s hibernaculum. (Which is also near an inactive beecave). There are still honeycombs visible in both hives, and it is possible that either hive will rejuvenate soon. (Both hives were explosively active during the winter of 2008. Beecaves tend to wax and wane depending on weather circumstances, and we are heading toward an ideal “waxing” situation this winter). A waxing hive does not fall under the category of “none of our beeswax.” An active hive could be the death of us, as we have to get close to the hives to collect the data. And a vibrant hive is equally scary for the snakes, as we speculate that our local “killer bees” (sons of bees) will not hesitate to merrily sting anything to death that they deem a threat­including snakes.

We will leave our wayward Mojave Rattlesnake "Blake the Snake" out in the middle of the flats, where he belongs. We'll stick to Iron Mine Hill for the remainder of this report. In much the same fashion that Ragged Top and Hill 97 have become hands off monitoring places, so has Iron Mine Hill. To be sure, we're sticking transmitters in some of the animals and following them around. But there are many animals that we are content to admire from a distance. Many times I put the receiver away and just hike our little hill, checking known sweet spots, as well as potential new honey holes. This fall has thus far been a little lean in terms of finding winter herps, but that could change shortly. Thus far, I have two Gila Monsters, a tortoise, and a Lyresnake under observation. 

We have reached the point where the images should do the rest of the talking:

Pic 1: Ragged Top. (Grin) I don't want to give away too many secrets, but the two chuckwallas pictured below were found somewhere within the framework of this image. Can you find them?

Pic 2: The first chuckwalla mentioned in the text above. He's a dandy!

Pic 3: The "White Rocks." Chuckwallas have been under observation in this formation since 1992.

Pic 4: The current occupant of the White Rocks.

Pic 5: "The monster of the decade" reaches year #11
Pic 6: "Farrah" looking out at you!

Pic 7: Good old tortoise #505 basking on 10 December. Although he was processed in March of 2005, he has been under watch since 1998.

Pic 8: #505 has consistently chosen a winter sheltersite that is open at two ends. This permits one the rare photo op of shooting a basking tortoise from behind.

Pic 9: CRTI #11, "Steven" found basking on 10 December 2011. This is only the second time this herper has seen a tiger basking in December.

Pic 10: Iron Mine Hill Lyresnake #7. My first attraction to Iron Mine Hill were the lyresnakes that could be found there. In 1992, I found four different crevices that were producing. Through the years, I have managed to find an even dozen crevices. Considering that this involves a time span of almost 20 years, one can understand how scarce they can be. Crevice #7 was first discovered in February of 2000. The last time a lyresnake has been seen here was 2006.

Pic 11: Iron Mine Hill as viewed from CRAT #133's hibernaculum.

Pic 12: Looking west from Iron Mine Hill. Fog smothering Picacho Peak, 4 December 2011. The rains have been generous thus far this fall. We hope for more this winter. Well, that was probably more than enough for the likes of all of you. Thanks to the two of you who hung in there!

Here's to wishing you all a happy and prosperous new year. roger

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