Friday, May 12, 2017

#58 - Friday, 12 May 2017 - Picacho Peak State Park, near Eloy, Arizona

Last night was the last of six consecutive nights “black lighting” – searching for scorpions when they are active at night using a UV flashlight to cast a beam that makes the scorpion’s exoskeleton fluoresce and gives their locations away. The first four nights were in the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson. The initial two nights I was alone doing some preliminary collecting for the Millsaps College team that I would meet up with for the third and fourth. On each of the days once Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his students joined me, we also did daytime hiking and hunting, flipping rocks. Initially we were all going to camp in the Catalinas and I had an RV site reserved. However, my rig is too large for Coronado National Forest campsites and I ended up in the seediest little dump I have yet overnighted in. It was a 34 space lot in Tucson about 20 minutes from the entrance to the forest and another 30 minutes up to Palisades Visitor Center, which at about 8000’ was the highest elevation site we worked. Brent, Ashley and Aaron ended up staying in a hotel near the airport because of the cold temperatures and possibility for rain that were forecast. 

"Desert Hairy Scorpion" at night under the beam of a UV flashlight

On Saturday and Sunday I searched the Catalinas alone at three sites between 6500-8000’ where the temperature at dark was 41-44ºF. I was surprised to find scorpions active on rock faces and in scattered pine needles on crushed rock and rubble road embankments at 44ºF. On Monday I picked up Brent & Co. at their hotel and we made our first ascent as a foursome. The following day we had a little diversion down to the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon and found yet another scorpion species, saw many deer and turkey and began a hike that became quickly abandoned due to threatening skies and a minor pelting of hail once we decided turning around was best. That night we headed back up toward Mt. Lemmon (9100’+) and our highest elevation site of Palisades knowing that there were reports of snow. Sure enough, as we climbed up higher I noticed someone driving down with a small snowman of sorts on the hood of his car. Palisades had light snow cover on the rocky slopes I had visited three nights in a row. At a temperature of 37-38ºF we flipped snow blanketed rocks and found scorpions. I certainly had never collected arachnids in the snow and Brent has extensive experience in the field and never had either. I imagine Aaron and Ashley might have thought we were a bit crazy. From Florida and Arkansas and living & studying in Mississippi, they had the added fun of throwing snowballs at each other. In southern Arizona. Who’d have thunk it? 

On Wednesday Brent picked up a third student, Miranda, at the Tucson airport and we all met up at Picacho Peak State Park. I had a campsite reserved for two nights and was all set up when they arrived. Since most of our scorpion hunting is at night with black lights the days are a bit looser, and we all decided to hike through the Sonoran desert up towards the peak in the afternoon. We covered most of the Sunset Ridge Trail, which ironically closes at sunset so it makes it a bit difficult to enjoy its namesake. We stopped just short of where cables are necessary to reach the summit. Once night fell we searched a rocky hill on the other side of the campground and found three species of scorpion. The flats were teeming with one popularly known as the devil stripe-tail and the rocks we searched held a large population of America’s “medically significant” scorpion, Centruroides sculpturatus. It is known as the Arizona bark scorpion, but it really inhabits rocks and, yes, it’s sting packs a punch. It is the only “life-threatening” scorpion in America. But our target species was a small fast lithophile (rock-dweller) and it was much more secretive/uncommon. Only a few were found.

Yesterday (Thursday) morning I cooked us all a breakfast feast. It was the first night of the trip that Brent and his crew were able to camp and the night before the girls occupied one tent, Aaron his own and Brent slept under the stars on his cot. I figured they’d want coffee and grub in the morning and had shopped for groceries before I left Tucson. The Millsaps crew broke camp as they were headed up to Lost Dutchman State Park in the Superstition Mountains/Wilderness east of Phoenix. I had decided I would stay camped at Picacho and just drive the 90 minutes each way to join them in the Superstitions/Tonto National Forest. When we met up at Lost Dutchman at midday we hung about their campsite and then drove west to Tempe to eat an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Los Reyes de la Torta. Once we were all stuffed, and after a quick stop for Starbucks, we headed back to Lost Dutchman and then drove up into the Tonto Forest to Tortilla Flat. There was a target species in this area that eluded us, but Brent was also nice enough to bring me there because there would be a few photographic subjects of interest for me. Sure enough, we found Aphonopelma chalcodes, Arizona’s prettiest and iconic tarantula living in crevices and holes among the rock faces of the roadside embankments. The other subject of interest in this habitat was the amblypigid or whip spider. We found them as well and while Brent and I used regular flashlights to find the tarantulas and amblypigi, the students collected scorpions using their black lights. We stopped where Brent had hoped to find another speedy lithophilic scorpion species, but had no luck, and then finished the night at Tonto Park in northeast Mesa where Brent took me to find the large American "desert hairy scorpion" Hadrurus arizonensis. We only found one and she was an ornery model, but I got my hoped photos and we headed back to their campsite. The young’n’s headed straight into their tents, but Brent and I had a couple of beers before I said my goodbyes. This morning they headed west to Joshua Tree National Park and other sites in California. 

Brent, Ash, Aaron & Miranda

Today I basically recovered from exhaustion. I fell asleep very late last night (actually not long before dawn this morning), and today has been a lazy day of napping and a short evening hike. I had hoped to search this park a bit more for the little rock scorpion Brent sought here, but I haven’t been able to work up the energy. I’ve been doing some computer stuff, watching some TV and just relaxing. Tomorrow I will head back toward Tucson and farther south to a RV park near Madera Canyon where Brent, Ashley, Aaron and I had spent Tuesday afternoon. I saw some amazing birds there and want to return to do some bird photography. There is even a hummingbird feeder station. I’ll be staying in Amado, AZ, which is about 30 miles north of Nogales, Mexico and forty miles south of Tucson for two nights before heading to Rodeo, NM on the AZ border for a week on Monday.

     –  All the best, M

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