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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week I saw my first Gila monster but got my best look at its tail as it slowly walked into the bushes. This morning I saw my first western diamondback rattlesnake but also got my best look at its distinctive tail as it slowly slithered into the bushes. Thankfully I didn’t spook it, as I crested a small hill I saw it far enough away that it wasn’t startled and I kept a respectful distance. I had already put my camera away but had time to take off my backpack and get the camera out and take a picture of that beautiful tail.