Time to Leave

The long thin body of a western patch-noses snake lies across the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

I was nearing the end of my hike when I saw a colorful stick lying across the path. At first delighted as I knew it was going to be a new snake species for me, my heart sank as I approached and it didn’t slither off into the grass. Afraid it had gotten run over, I was a bit confused when I saw its head, mostly hidden in the grass (not visible in this picture), as its eyes were open and bright. I laughed to myself, wondering if it was like when we adopt a cat and at first they hide under the bed, only their tail is sticking out giving away their position. The rear of its body covered so much of the trail that I felt I had to convince it to move along as this trail is heavily used by cyclists who wouldn’t likely see it in time to avoid it. I saw a dried yucca stalk in the grass and thought to tap it nearby, but just the sound of pulling the stalk from the grass sent the snake on its way. I whispered my apologies for having to startle it but best to find a safer place to warm up in the morning light.

This was my second snake sighting this year and my first ever of this species. I don’t know my snakes well and initially thought it was some type of garter snake based on its long thin body adorned in stripes, but something about the shape of its head seemed off. Upon closer inspection (in pictures, not in person) it has a large triangular scale at the front of its head, perhaps an aid when looking for reptile eggs to eat.

The head and upper body of a western patch-nosed snake it partly hidden in grass on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

Rock Climbing

The rattle and black-tail of a black-tailed rattlesnake are visible as it climbs a rock near Granite Mountain in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

An aptly named black-tailed rattlesnake goes rock climbing near Granite Mountain in May, a new species for me. From what I’ve read they are relatively laid back but deliver a large dose of venom when they strike. This one was a ways off the trail and I only got partial views as it slowly made its way up the rock pile.

TA black-tailed rattlesnake flicks out its tongue as it climbs a rock near Granite Mountain in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

If, However

The tail of a western diamondback rattlesnake is visible showing the rattle, the black-and-white bands, and part of the camouflaged body in heavy brush beside the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2019

If the rest of the diamondback was as vividly marked as the black-and-white bands of the tail there wouldn’t be nearly so many surprise encounters with humans. However as ambush predators they rely on surprise encounters with the small creatures they eat, when the camouflaged coloring of the rest of their body comes in handy.

Objects in This Lens May Be Further Than They Appear

A Mojave rattlesnake sticks out its tongue as it crosses Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

This Mojave rattlesnake appeared large in the viewfinder but was a safe distance away when I began to photograph it. Even so, as it crossed the trail and started moving steadily towards where I was (having given it a wide berth and gone off-trail to let it choose its path), I pulled the camera away from my eye occasionally to get a clear view of how far away it actually was. It was well aware of me and headed over to my right so I sat still until it chose a bush to curl up under, then I continued up the trail.

An Unexpected Dilemma

A Mojave rattlesnake crawls across the desert near Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I haven’t hiked as much the past month as I’ve been too tired to get up before sunrise and drive to the trails, usually only hiking once per weekend. I didn’t go at all last weekend because some chronic health issues flared up but after sleeping in yesterday this morning I was back on the trails and met this lovely Mojave rattlesnake, a new species for me. But it presented me with a dilemma I hadn’t expected.

It was at the edge of a wide trail and we saw each other from a distance so I was able to leave the trail and give it a wide berth, but a couple of mountain bikers came around the bend and I didn’t know if I should try to warn them. I didn’t have much time to decide and my hunch was they would be best to pass at speed, I figured the snake would leave them alone and in any event the trail was so wide they could stay out of striking range. I was afraid if I tried to flag them down they’d slam on the brakes and end up near the snake and possibly make the situation worse.

Neither of them saw the snake and passed close by but thankfully the snake hunkered down each time and they continued down the trail unaware. The rattler relaxed and made its way across the trail towards me. It wasn’t being aggressive so I backed up even further and let it choose its path, taking a few pictures as it slithered over to a dense bush and curled up in its shade. I’ll have to ask some riders what they would have wanted me to do, some people really dislike snakes so perhaps ignorance is bliss if the likelihood of an attack is quite low.

Shields Up! Red Alert!

A coiled western diamondback rattlesnake with its head up underneath a dead tree on the Sidewinder Trail at Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

Today was meant to be a test of my knee and turned into a test of my heart when this western diamondback rattlesnake and I scared the living daylights out of each other.

Yesterday I made my triumphant return to the trails after a self-imposed two week absence to allow a sore left knee to heal, choosing a flat hike I know well at McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Since that went well, as well as a morning and evening swim later in the day, this morning I decided to try some new-to-me trails at Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. I did some research and the Ocotillo Trail looked fairly flat, with an easy return on a paved trail if my knee started acting up but also an option for some elevation changes on the Sidewinder and Ridgeback Trails if my knee felt up to it.

As I neared the point where the Ocotillo met the Sidewinder, my knee felt fine so I put my camera into my camera bag and brought out my trekking poles. My goal was to use the poles both for stability and to shorten my steps on any inclines to avoid stretching my legs more than necessary. As the trail immediately started to climb I knew I could turn around at the first hint of trouble and take an easier route back.

And that’s when I heard a noise right in front of me that nearly stopped my heart. The rattler was right beside the trail, coiled with its head up and mouth open, rattle shaking. I backed off immediately and it relaxed, slowly moving a few feet over and hiding under a dead tree. As you can see from the first picture while not in a full striking position its head was still up and prepared to strike if need be, but quickly lowered its head to its body, then even fully relaxed when it realized I wasn’t going to approach.

I was sorry for startling it so but thankful our encounter ended peacefully. With my new camera bag I was able to get the camera out quickly and take a few pictures. I wasn’t expecting to see a rattler so close to the trail since I had passed many mountain bikers who would have come past, with a couple more passing me a few minutes later, but perhaps it had just crossed the trail or maybe it didn’t mind the quickly passing bikes.

Happy to report that after a 7.5 mile hike on a hot and humid summer morning, both the knee and the heart were doing fine. My eyes could use some work though, to better see beneath my feet.

A coiled western diamondback rattlesnake with its head lowered underneath a dead tree on the Sidewinder Trail at Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

A Rhubarb With Scales

The middle of a coachwhip (red racer)

I arrived early on the Vaquero Trail to look for the antelope squirrels but as I approached from below I could see none were out on the rocks. I took a breakfast break and while drinking some water I noticed what reminded me of rhubarb back in the rocks. I hadn’t seen any plant like that in the desert but then I still have so much to learn. In case it was a discarded rubber gasket I went in for a closer look in case it was trash I should take with me, and that’s when I realized my rhubarb had scales.

The face of a red racer variety of coachwhip

I believe this is a coachwhip (of the red racer variety) and I have to say I was rather stunned to see it, I had no idea such a lovely creature existed! While not venomous it is a threat to many of the small animals of the desert and I hope the bulge I saw in its middle wasn’t one of my squirrels! Since it wasn’t coiled up and resting I took some pictures and then backed off in case it wanted to move, it didn’t while I finished my water and food break but after a mountain bike came whizzing past I looked up and the snake was gone.

The red racer variety of coachwhip between rocks

Diamond in the Rain

A close-up view of a western diamondback rattlesnake in the rain

It was raining in the desert. Even better, I was out in it. So it was already a glorious morning when I found a jewel beside the trail, a diamond if a smaller one. I put my new Sony telephoto lens to good use although I hadn’t expected to expose it to the rain quite so early in its life as it was only my third time hiking with it.

The rattlesnake was comfortable with my presence as the rain poured down and I wasn’t about to let such an opportunity pass me by, new lens or not. My preference when shooting wildlife is for them to be aware of me and to feel in control of the encounter, usually to minimize the stress to them but in this case also to minimize the stress to me. Beautiful as they are western diamondbacks are both our largest and most common rattlesnake and worthy of respect.

As the rain intensified I noticed it calmly started sweeping its head across its coiled body. At first I thought it might be a sign it wanted to move so I backed even further off but the behavior continued, a slow graceful sweep of its head across its body. I resumed looking through the telephoto lens and realized its mouth was moving, like it was swallowing, and I wondered if it was drinking raindrops from its scales? Or cleaning them?

In the close-up shot you can see water drops on its head and even its eyes. Near the front of its head you can see one of its nostrils, and in between and below the nostril and eyes you can see the heat-sensing pit that allows them to hunt at night. After taking a break for water and food I continued on my way. May all our encounters be so peaceful little one, I pray we never meet in anger.

A western diamondback rattlesnake is coiled up in the rain beside the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona