Suizo Report — CM16, Magellan

Howdy Herpers,                                               04/24/14

On the evening of 4 September, 2013, Typing Boy here was being led around the plot by Dr. Wolfgang Wuster’s students, who were visiting us from the UK. In what was one of many unwise decisions on my part, I handed the receiver off to them without full and proper personal preparation beforehand. Per a hastily-conceived battle plan, KIDS were allowed to do the tracking, whilst the pro followed, gutturally and mindlessly uttering the frequency of each animal to the would-be semi pros.  Each semi pro was to track his or her snake, and at the completion of each tracking cycle, the receiver was to be handed to the next person for their turn at it all. My biggest mistake that night was that I did not take the high ground for mass signaling, in order to establish an orderly route.

Hence, we plunged from the top of Little Hill–a good parking spot well to the east of Iron Mine Hill, to the valley below.  Thanks to the ineptness of the pro, we walked right past an easy target. We then proceeded to zoom (these youngsters move fast) to the top of Iron Mine Hill, where we eventually came upon a large boulder that hid our male tiger CT11. The receiver was then switched, and the easy target that we had earlier almost stepped on, female CM15, was dialed in. We plunged back down from Iron Mine Hill, all the way into the valley below, and found her up basking. The receiver, antenna, and various other accessories were then switched, and we dialed in female tiger CT13. Once again, we zoomed to the top of Iron Mine Hill, and wound up in front of the exact same boulder that CT11 resided under. This indicated that we had a pairing, which is good, but the discovery was made the hard way.

Now it was a young woman named Alex who got the receiver. On impulse, I instructed her to dial in 921 on the receiver.  She did so, and I was delighted to hear a sharp series of blips coming from the box. The snake that belonged to signal was a young male Black-tailed Rattlesnake, CM16. He was noticed missing in action on 1 September. This author blundered about the entire Suizo Range on this day, and could not get his signal from anywhere. On the UK night, he seemed like he was directly below us. Down the hill we plunged again.

As mentioned earlier, these kids moved fast, and worked well together. In no time flat, I could see from a great distance that the group had stopped, and were huddled around the receiver. Eventually, their elderly guide was able to huff and puff his way down to them. When I arrived, Alex gave me the news that the signal had died out on her. Sure enough, even though we twisted that dial all around 921, the signal was not to be found.

Hence, back to the top of Iron Mine Hill we went, back to the boulder that contained CT11 and CT13. The signal was extinct. Poof–gone! In desperation, the guide instructed Alex to dial in female tiger CT12. She came loud and clear, and the compliant group then plunged back down the hill, and walked to the edge of the planet to eventually find her up and basking.

I halfheartedly suggested that we next track female CM17, but thankfully, there was mutiny in the ranks. Fortunately, their Captain was also quite ready to throw up the white flag, and the coup was bloodless. We spent the rest of the evening barreling around the plot with seven students cramped into the bed of my pickup truck. This they seemed to embrace with much more relish than any thrill that radio tracking rattlesnakes might bring them. (These students loved the back of the pickup truck so much that they remained there for hours after we stopped cruising. They ignored the discomfort of being jammed together in favor of their beloved perch in the back of Great White).

On 7 September, Marty Feldner and John Slone teamed up to work the side of the hill that I had led the students 3 days previous. They were instructed that if they picked up the signal for CM16, to hone in on the general direction of said blips and stay with it–all the way to the big road if necessary. They got the signal, and like three nights previous, it died as soon as they got to the bottom of the hill. Per instructions, they walked in the direction of the big road, and never picked it up again. No doubt knowing that a severe tongue-lashing would meet them were they to fail in their endeavors, they even drove to the other side of the big road and continued the effort. It was all for naught. This was indicative of one of two things. It was either a quirky transmitter, or that snake had crawled well beyond the big road.

Finally, on 15 September, Marty Feldner found the lost sheep. He continued to head south of the big road, continuing the course that had been set eight days previous. CM16 was now 3,922 meters, or 2.44 miles, away from his previous tracking of 25 August. In 3 weeks time, he had boogied all the way to the base of Owl Head Buttes! But he wasn’t done yet……….

CM16, now also known as “Magellan,” came into our study on the evening of 28 September, 2012. He was a young snake, 663mm in length, (26 inches), 155 grams in mass, his rattle consisted of a basal, three segments, and a button. As he came into the study late in the year, we were only able to track him to three sites before he entered site 4, his hibernaculum. He entered this site on 4 November, 2012, and did not pop back out until 30 March, 2013. Site 4 was on the lower west side of Iron Mine Hill.

On 29 May, we captured him on the lower south side of Iron Mine Hill. He was now 707mm in length, (27.83 inches), his mass was 195 grams, and his rattle was basal plus four segments and a button. In short, he was a growing boy. We changed out his 5 gram transmitter in favor of a 9 gram transmitter (which gives us longer transmitter life), and set him loose at his second capture spot. At first, he seemed like he was going to establish his home range around the perimeter of Iron Mine Hill. And then he took off! By 20 September, he had moved an astounding 5,238 meters, or 3.25 miles, from his overwintering site. He then doubled back ever-so-slightly, but gained considerable elevation in the process.

Magellan never actually settled into one place for the winter. It is interesting to note that from 5 October to 18 April, he used 12 different sites. This was not nearly the case with the other five molossus under watch. Magellan seemed intent on seeking new hangouts. On several occasions, he utilized some rather cavernous openings in the sheer cliff face on the east flank of the Main Butte to go vertical on us. He would have been impossible to pinpoint exactly without rock climbing gear. Typing Boy here does not relish the notion of driving stakes and hanging ropes while carrying an antenna! Nothing but birdshit and fools fall from the sky, and I am neither. Meow…

At the point of this narrative, he has wrapped around the base of the massive cliff that Main Butte is composed of, and appears to be traveling southward, or away from, his previous home on Iron Mine Hill. His last tracking was on 18 April, and he was 4,928 meters, or 3.06 miles from home. The questions now are: How far will he go? Will he ever settle in to a normal home range? And of even more significance, how many animals make moves like this, and for what reason? And the final questions appear after the last image.

The dates of each attached image appear on the file extension. For our friends from other parts of the world, this hacker uses the standard USA designation of month/day/year. If that confuses you, no worries. You foreigners often do the day/month/year when writing me–and I figure it out.

Image 01: (By Marty Feldner) CM16 in situ, just prior to capture.

Image 02: Post capture. Note the tapered and complete rattle. CM16 is just about to enter his prime.
Image 03: (By Marty Feldner) Just out of his overwintering site.

Image 04: Going arboreal. At this point, he is midway up the south side of Iron Mine Hill.

Image 05: Looking south from the Southwest corner of the Suizo Mountains. Iron Mine Hill is in the foreground, the Owl Head Buttes are in the distance. Magellan is currently on the north-most, or closest, butte.

Image 06: This image is of “The Main Butte.”It was previously named by the DeNardo lab, who worked this miserably steep, treacherous and God-forsaken patch of ground for over ten years. Magellan overwintered on the east side of this scree-infested vertical hell hole, which is not visible in this image. He was last tracked on the west side, closest to the photographer.
Image 07: 26 October 2013. This is one of several places that Magellan occupied while bopping around on the east side of The Main Butte.upper north slope of North Butte.

Image 08: Zeroing in on the snake in image 07. This is the last image we have of him prior to the winter of 2013-2014. He’s a growing boy!

Image 09: Magellan coiled high and tight in an “I’m cold” posture. He was on the Image 08: Zeroing in on the snake in image 07. This is the last image we have of him prior to the winter of 2013-2014. He’s a growing boy!

Image 10: Looking across the expanse that Magellan has crossed. Note the absence of human habitation across the entire span of his travels. Imagine covering that distance, over three miles, on your belly!

Far too often, the most exciting events to occur with any given radio telemetry project seldom see the light of publication. When publishing or presenting data, we tend to focus on the bigger picture, the almighty “N,” while the truly incredible feats of individuals under our watch  wind up buried in charts, text, or other forms of overwhelming and indigestible gluts of information. We might recall some of these events while telling golly-gee stories to our peers, be that while sitting around a campfire or perched on a bar stool, but that is far as the best of the best of these observations ever get. And these observations are usually forgotten as soon as they are relayed.

Much is lost in our efforts to ignore highlighting the outlier animals in favor of the bulky body of information gathered on those that behave in what we perceive as “normal.” This is tragic, as the conservation-related aspects of telemetry studies might hinge on what is not normal. If 30 different studies each have one animal that travels great distances beyond what is perceived as normal, that would indicate that 30 different animals have clearly demonstrated the importance of wildlife corridors. But there is no way that any participants of such studies will ever know that others are seeing something similar–because we simply don’t know about them!

The author invites the reader to look at that last image again. In order to survive his travels, Magellan has had to elude hawks, badgers, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions. Visualize an urban center between the Suizo Mountains and the Owl Head Buttes. Add dogs, cats, people and traffic as possible hindrances to his incredible journey. Would such a move be possible against these increased odds?

We can thank the housing crash of 2008 for putting an abrupt halt to the otherwise inevitable urban growth that the area surrounding the Suizo Mountains was about to experience. Sadly, said housing crash is behind us now. As these words are written, “Land for Sale” signs have popped up more prolifically than flies on a mangy skunk around the vicinity.  The juncture of Park Link Drive and Route 79 is about to fall to a stoplight, and the locals fear a shopping mall or worse will follow shortly after. Even Typing Boy here is thinking of investing his retirement funds in the vicinity, so that he too can reap the pecuniary benefits of a landscape being raped by progress. With Phoenix moving southward, and Tucson moving northward, such an investment is a sure bet.

Right here, right now, one can stand atop Iron Mine Hill and see nothing but reasonably pure (there is still cattle grazing, hunting, ATV traffic and wildcat shooting going on here) Sonoran Desert for over five miles in any direction. There is no unprotected place else like it left in Southern Arizona. It is all about to fall, and I don’t know what to do about it. While it’s not too late to stop the madness, the madness will triumph nonetheless.

A wise friend told me just today, “Don’t worry about it, Roger. Just enjoy what is there while you can. You’ll be dead by the time it’s over.” While truer words were never spoken, they still sting a bit.

This here is Roger Repp, signing off from Southern Arizona, where the turtles are still strong, the snakes are still handsome, and the lizards are still all above average. We should all enjoy that notion for as long as it lasts.

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