Monday, April 30, 2007

Herping the Caha del Rio

On Sunday, April 29, I took the dogs and went looking for snakes. My first target was between Rio en Medio and Chupadero Creek on the west slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. I was hoping I'd find some milk snakes, but it got cloudy before I had a chance to get there.

So, I decided to go out to the Caha del Rio, a large swath of the Santa Fe National Forest on the east bank of the Rio Grande. This includes the east side of White Rock Canyon. My first destination was near Buckman's well, just a bit past Diablo Canyon. I found a place to park my truck and went on a cross-country bushwack toward the river across numerous barrancas and arroyos. About a quarter of the way to the river we came upon this western coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), which was about 4.5 feet long.

04/29/2007 @ 2:04:42 PM MDT
My dog Cisco walked right over it without seeing it. When I caught my first glimpse, I thought it was a bit of discarded hose. It didn't seem to mind being looked at, probably because it was confident in its camouflage.

04/29/2007 @ 2:05:11 PM MDT

04/29/2007 @ 2:05:11 PM MDT
When I picked it up with my hook, it decided that was enough and moved quickly to its hole.

04/29/2007 @ 2:06:06 PM MDT
Down it went.

Meanwhile, all kinds of drunk crazies with firearms where out and about, so I decided to head to a different part of the Caha. I drove south until I got to some power lines that cross the river, and then drove west under the power lines. I ended up at the east wall of White Rock Canyon, which is about 500 feet high at that point. I got out of the truck to take some pictures of the river. I took my snake hook, but wasn't really in snake-seeking mode. That must have been why I didn't notice the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis viridis) right next to my foot as I was taking pictures. It did not rattle at all as I stood there snapping away. I must have stood next to the snake for a good five minutes without knowing it was there.

When I finally decided to move, it immediately went into defensive mode. The rattling was so close behind me that I jumped forward without having time to decide what to do. It's a good thing that I did, as the snake made an attempt to strike, moving its center of gravity forward and causing it to tumble out from its hiding place under a sage bush.

04/29/2007 @ 5:17:30 PM MDT
It was probably my closest call ever with a venomous snake. While it wasn't very big at 2.25 feet, it would have been a very dicey drive back to civilization with a rattlesnake bite on my gas pedal leg on treacherous and challenging 4WD tracks.

04/29/2007 @ 5:20:07 PM MDT
I thanked Mother Nature for keeping me safe and placed the snake for this shot of the river.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Birds Vs. Bull

My dad found this good-sized bull snake (Pituophis catenifer) on a tee box at a golf course in Sun City, Arizona, today. It was under attack by the local songbird population. It looks like it's just had a nice meal, maybe a few baby songbirds or a pocket gopher or wood rat.

Dad chased the birds away to allow the snake to find cover.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Training Day

Today was training day for the snake rescue volunteers at the Wildlife Center of New Mexico. As usual, head-of-the-reptile-rescue-program Tom Wyant brought a few of his critters along for the show.

Here's Tom Wyant (front) and C.J. Carmen, our instructors for the clinic. They're my herping gurus. Both have many years experience with reptiles in New Mexico. Tom particularly enjoys finding caves full of rattlesnakes. He also gets employed as a snake wrangler for movie productions in the state.

C.J. is a veritable encyclopedia of snake information. I often find myself corrected by him, which is always a welcome thing as it only sharpens my knowledge on the subject.

Tom's terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans), named Stinky. All of these snakes have names, but I only remembered this one's.

A western hog nose snake (Heterodon nasicus). These things are adorable. They are venomous and rear-fanged, but also cute and cuddly and quite friendly. But if you find one in the wild, get ready for one of the greatest bluff shows on Earth.

This is a pueblo milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli), native to Mexico and central America, but not New Mexico.

Another non-native species, a common corn snake (Elaphe guttata guttata).

A great plains rat snake (Elaphe guttata emoryi). This is our native corn snake. It has doubled in size since I saw him last year.

Tom's coachwhip snake (Masticophis flagellum) is the tamest and reddest I've ever seen. Corner one of these in the wild and they'll be all up in your face... literally. I've been jumped by three at once while lifting the board they were under, missing taking a direct strike in the face by millimeters.

The very common gopher, or bull snake (Pituophis catenifer). Often mistaken for a rattlesnake and killed, they are very valuable as rodent controllers in a state where we can contract two very deadly rodent-borne diseases, Hanta virus and Bubonic plague.

Our most common local rattlesnake, the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis viridis).

Not quite so common locally, but very common in other parts of the state, the western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox).

Tom whips out the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum). His permit to keep it requires him to show it at demonstration events 12 times a year. It's on the endangered species list and will land you in jail if you are caught with one sans permit. By the way, it's very poisonous, but usually not deadly.

C.J. shows us how to identify snake sheds. The key is in the caudal scales, posterior to the cloaca (anal vent). Split caudals indicate a nonvenomous species in New Mexico. Solid caudals, especially on a big shed, mean rattlesnake. There is one exception to this rule here. Garter snakes have solid caudal scales as well.

Volunteer Christian inspects his new snake hook, built and provided by Tom.

A volunteer works with a good-sized western diamondback.

A prairie rattlesnake about to get the hook from a volunteer practicing snake rescue skills.

The prairie rattlesnake cooperating in his "capture."

But not always...

Volunteer Pilar shows us how it's done.

This is what you've got to worry about when handling rattlesnakes. Just ask C.J. He's been bitten four times.