In The Interests of Human/Spider Relations

A side view of a young tarantula with its abdomen raised on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 24, 2021. Original: _RAC9976.arw

Last Sunday evening I headed out for a quick hike, while I brought my camera I really just wanted to get out into the desert for a little while. Late in the day as I started the hike back towards where my wife was picking me up, I saw a small black form in the middle of the trail ahead of me. As I approached it looked to my still-learning eyes like a tarantula, only shrunk in size 3 or 4 times. I was aware the adult males might be on the move in the fall but instead of fitting in the palm of my hand this one would have fit on my watch face.

I took a few quick pictures but wanted to encourage it to move to a safer spot, this trail is popular with cyclists and trail runners, so I tapped the ground behind it with my feet. Their eyesight is even worse than mine but they’re very sensitive to vibrations so I expected it to scurry up the side of the trail to more hospitable terrain, but while I could get it to move further out of harm’s way eventually it just stopped in the trail and raised its abdomen. Even as a neophyte I know that’s a sign of an unhappy spider.

I checked where the tread marks were and felt it had moved enough to be safe from the line the cyclists typically took and, tapping my toes having exhausted my ideas about how to get a tarantula to move, I continued on my way. A cyclist passed me several minutes later so I decided to backtrack to the little thing, though I really wasn’t in the mood to see a squished spider I was hoping for the best.

Thankfully when I arrived I saw it had fully moved up to the edge of the trail. In the interests of human/spider relations I avoided saying “I told you so” and was just happy it was in a safer place and pointed away from the trail. I took a few more pictures since it was so relaxed and continued towards the trailhead.

An overhead view of a young tarantula on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 24, 2021. Original: _RAC0051.arw

Snout Slurp

An Americna snout eats from a lantana fruit in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 5, 2021. Original: _RAC8744.arw

An American snout enjoys the remains of lantana fruit in our backyard. After the monsoons this summer and fall when the flowers were in full bloom I’d close my mouth as I walked past this bush to make sure I didn’t accidentally inhale a butterfly from the mob that flittered about. We recently had landscapers dig up the many bougainvillea plants in the backyard and a couple of palms that had died or were struggling, initially I was unsure on whether to keep the lantana but after seeing how the butterflies loved it I decided to keep them.

A Size Comparison

A joking size comparison of a black witch moth to a blue whale with the size of the moth greatly exaggerated

Since it can be difficult to get a sense of how big the black witch is from pictures, I placed it at scale next to a blue whale. So not as big as the biggest animal to have ever lived, but still pretty big.

(Whale drawing is from Kurzon)

Who Am I?

A macro shot of the pattern in the wing of a male black witch moth in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 5, 2021. Originals: _RAC8911.arw to _RAC8913.arw

I cast no spell but charm
and do not mean you any harm,
for I am not to blame
for my often fearsome names.
I’m the biggest in the land,
almost the size of a hand,
who am I?

Answer is in the tags, I had no idea this creature even existed until my wife woke me one weekend to tell me one was sitting outside our door. This is a male, we’ve since had a female and another male come visiting, though they only stay for a few days. One of the biggest surprises I’ve had since arriving in the desert, just an absolute joy to behold.

This is a macro shot of some of the patterns in his wings, I left it a little dark but it didn’t look quite right if I left it as dark as he was in person as my impression of him as he rested in the shadows was of a void, a hole in our reality. A long exposure (this one is 2.5 seconds) revealed the glory in his details.

A Sea of Wings

A Mormon metalmark butterfly perches on the red-winged seedpod of a slender janusia vine at sunrise on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 24, 2021. Original: _RAC7317.arw

I woke up early one morning in August and couldn’t get back to sleep so I went out for a short hike before work, feeling a rush of euphoria as I got a glimpse of what it must be like to be an early bird in a world designed for them. I met a couple of butterflies as the sun crested the mountains, including this Mormon metalmark set in a sea of wings. The plant was so distinctive I thought it would be easy to identify but it took me a while as at first I was looking at plants with red flowers, but thanks to Marianne Skov Jensen’s excellent field guide of the plants of the preserve I realized the red wings are part of the seed pod and the plant is slender janusia.

After returning home for breakfast and heading into work, I knew I’d pay for my early start and indeed left early that afternoon while my energy levels were still good so I could crash on the couch instead of the road. The night owl has been re-asserting himself the past couple of years so early mornings like this have not been as common as our first year here.

Death in the Desert

A dead white-lined sphinx moth with its head bured in the rocks of our backyard on September 5, 2021. Original: _RAC9029.arw

I was working in the yard early this month when I noticed a white-lined sphinx moth flying near one of our plants, I had seen them a few times before but this was my longest look. Sadly it soon landed on the ground, walked around a bit, then stuck its head under the rocks, shivered, and died. Most moths and butterflies have short lives as adults, it wouldn’t have picked up insecticides in our yard though I can’t speak for the neighborhood, but it was still sad to see. I wasn’t going to photograph it but had a change of heart and went out in the dark after sunset and took a picture as a tribute to a beautiful little life.

I hadn’t planned on posting the picture but learned there was a death a week or two ago at my favorite trailhead not far from here, I don’t know the details but given it was one of the last truly hot days of the summer heat stroke would be a possibility. My thoughts go out to her family on what should have been a fun visit to the desert and to the rescue crews who spent hours looking for her. Usually their tireless efforts have happier endings.

The desert is unforgiving in the summer, especially once the air temperature rises above body temperature, please don’t underestimate the heat and low humidity if you’re visiting from out of town. Fitness and hydration are important but only get you so far if you wait to hike in the hotter parts of the day. Especially avoid the trails with elevation changes, there are a number of nice short trails where you won’t get the views of the mountain trails but you can get a good taste of the desert flora, including saguaros you can see up as close you’d like, and you can quickly retreat to safety if one of your party starts to overheat.