We are beautiful forms but for such a short time. I rounded the bend to see a desiccated snake carcass hanging from what used to be my favorite saguaro in the park, perhaps an abandoned catch of a bird of prey. The desert recyclers had already changed the flesh of each into new forms, the scales and skeletons will take longer, the saguaro bones still a favored perch for a Gila woodpecker couple nesting nearby. The light was dying too, the sun dipping below the mountains, handing over the desert to the night watch before its rebirth in the morning.
Speaking of wildlife right outside our door, a couple of weeks after the first black witch appeared my wife was trimming some bushes that had overgrown the water spigot and was startled by this kingsnake. You might not expect it from its adorable little mug but one of the many things these constrictors eat is rattlesnakes. I wish I could keep it on retainer, I’d put up tiny little signs at viper eye level around the yard saying “Beware of Kingsnakes” and I don’t think we’d have to worry about venomous snakes anymore. Not that I don’t love seeing rattlesnakes, just I prefer seeing them in their home rather than mine.
We had a new visitor to the house today, I was working in the backyard when I noticed this lovely western diamondback rattlesnake coiled up by the back fence wall. Since it was in a section far away from the only place it could get out, we called the Phoenix Herpetological Society and soon thereafter someone (our pool person as it turns out) came out to safely relocate it in the desert.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.