Startled by a Night Snake

I was out early watching for birds in a South Mountain wash when suddenly a small snake writhed and coiled right at my feet.  Sliding smoothly into a perfectly circular shape, it wove its head back and forth like a mini cobra, threatening me.

What is it about snakes that scare us to pieces?  The entire coil of this snake was no more than two inches across.   Yet I stepped well back to give him plenty of room, and looked around, making sure I wasn’t in the midst of an entire family of baby snakes.

This was no rattler, as I feared, but a Desert Night Snake, somehow tumbled from its den right into my path in broad daylight.  Did it appreciate having its picture taken?  Surely it was glad when the giant human finally walked away so it could return to its hideout. 

And I walked with even greater care. It is the smooth circular edge of the coil that catches one’s eye.  A snake’s coloring is designed to perfectly match the ground it lies on, and this is a high form of art.  Snakes are beautiful and fascinating even if a bit scary.  Often not much is known about their habits, adding an aura of mystery to any encounter.

We do know the strictly nocturnal Night Snake is widespread in the west, from British Columbia all the way down into Mexico.  They live in many habitats from mountain meadows to deserts.  Mostly people encounter them on quiet rural roads at night, where they soak up the last of the day’s heat.

Youngsters feed on a variety of insects, while adults eat lizards, small rodents and snakes, reptile eggs and even frogs.  The Night Snake subdues its prey with a mild venom injected through teeth at the back of the mouth.  Like all snakes, the Night Snake swallows its prey whole.

Saguaro: A Southwest Character

In late July or August, after the saguaro cactus has fed and housed countless species of insects, birds and mammals, its seeds fall finally to the desert floor where they wait for monsoon rains.  The season’s activity began back in February when Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers excavated holes in saguaros in preparation for nesting season.  Once the wounds in the giant cacti sealed, forming “boots”, many different types of birds moved into the cozy cavities, laying eggs and raising families.

Flower buds formed on the ends of the saguaro stems in May, creating fashionable hats on the stately plants.  Creamy white flowers brimming with nectar nourished bees, flies, beetles, bats, White-winged doves, Gila Woodpeckers, finches, ravens and more. 

Gila Woodpecker

By June the ripe fruits had split open, providing about the only moist food available to desert animals during the hottest, driest time of year.  Birds feasted on the juicy fruits, knocking some to the ground where rodents, coyotes and javelinas profited.  Everyone had nutrient dense food for their babies, thanks to the saguaros.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Nearly every creature in its range is tied in some way to the towering cacti.  When a saguaro falls, due to disease or old age, even more critters gain food, shelter and precious moisture, as the plant slowly decomposes. 

When flesh is gone only the ribs and boots remain

Saguaros can live 200 years or more.  Depending on soils and rainfall, some grow arms when they are between 50-100 years of age.  Waxy skin protects the water they hold in their interior tissues – a fully hydrated stem is 90% water.  Expanding pleats allow the plant to accommodate maximum moisture. This store of water insulates and protects saguaros from extreme temperatures.  In summer the cacti’s moisture absorbs daytime heat and radiates it back out in the relative cool of night. 

Crested saguaro flush with water

With July or August monsoon rains, the saguaro seeds germinate.  Those that have been deposited by birds under trees such as ironwood or Palo Verde have the best chance at survival.  Sheltering nurse plants provide shade and a more humid environment. Very few seedlings will grow to adulthood.  Too small to hold ample water for insulation, they are vulnerable to heat and frost. And, the tiny cactis’ soft spines don’t always deter predators.  Survival requires a nurse plant, some luck, and several consecutive years of milder temperatures and above average rainfall.  If you look across the desert, cohorts of equal sized saguaros illustrate the rare providence of perfect conditions, often many decades apart.  

Old saguaro still in sheltering embrace of nurse Ironwood

This year there have been no monsoon rains, and record high day and night temperatures over many weeks have stressed desert life, including the mighty saguaros.  Scientists believe the cacti are already beginning to migrate to higher elevations and north facing slopes, in a slow march to survive climate change.    

Saguaro Condo

Not Your Average Squirrel

It seems on any walk in the desert, I see a Harris’ Antelope Squirrel.  Usually the creature runs ahead of me, a tiny tattler scampering off to tell, there’s an intruder afoot!  Even in August, when heat lies heavy on the land, the Harris’ Antelope squirrel can be seen skittering toward the shelter of its burrow, tail over its back like a jaunty banner.

Of the three squirrels that live in Arizona, only the Harris’ stays out and about summer and winter.  She forages in the rocky lowlands, running in search of cholla and barrel cactus fruits, seeds, mesquite beans and insects.  Wolfberries and ocotillo flowers add variety to her diet. 

Millions of seeds lie buried in the desert soil, waiting for rain.  The Harris’ Antelope Squirrel sniffs out these seeds and digs them up, leaving tell-tale depressions in the grit. She scrambles easily over the curving spines of the barrel cactus to feast on the fruits up top. 

A ground dweller, the Harris’ Antelope Squirrel digs holes under sheltering cacti and desert shrubs.  Several holes together along with mounds of loose dirt mark underground burrows used for shelter and nesting.   

One of few creatures active in the summer, the squirrel carries her own shade – a fluffy tail, which makes a nice umbrella.  In the hottest part of the day, overheated from foraging, the squirrel retreats to her burrow and sprawls in the relative cool to disperse body heat.  Then its back to work. 

The squirrels are hunted by every desert predator, from raptors to snakes to coyotes.  Although solitary creatures, they are known to rise up on hind legs when danger lurks, and give a shrill trilling call. 

Somehow the wicked spines are not a problem
This squirrel wanted my snack and had to be shooed away. Usually they are very shy.

Hares One For You

Large eyes scan for danger overhead and around

See how comfortably the Black-tailed Jackrabbit sits. This is a hare supremely adapted to desert life.  Enormous ears swivel, keyed for danger. He keeps a keen watch above for hunting owls and hawks. At the slightest breath of danger, the jackrabbit freezes, and his dun colors melt into the desert hues.  If a predator advances, the jackrabbit sprints away, speeding up to 35 miles an hour.  His elegant bounds carry him 15 feet in a single leap, he rockets right over boulders and shrubs.

Two species of jackrabbits, Black-tailed and Antelope, live in the Sonoran Desert.  These mostly nocturnal hares browse at night and rest in the shade of desert trees during summer’s searing heat.  Herbivores, they feed on grasses, forbs, mesquite leaves and beans, and cacti.  Cacti supply needed moisture.     

Despite constant danger from predators such as raptors, coyotes, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and human hunters, jackrabbits gather together to graze at night.  Especially on moonlit nights, up to 25 jacks congregate to feed, finding safety in numbers.  The animals may travel several miles to find forage.   I love the image of a drove of jackrabbits loping along together, leaping and browsing, among plants now crisp and brown, the moon’s shadows alive with mystery.

Courtship between a jack and jill is a vigorous affair. The couple chases, bounds and leaps over each other.  Just one or two babies (leverets) is born to a litter. As with all hares, the tiny newborns are fully furred, with eyes open, and are soon able to run with their parents.  Youngsters stay on with their mothers for several months before becoming independent.  Jackrabbits breed throughout the year.

Oversized ears regulate and reduce body temperature

Spectacular Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake

Speckled Rattlesnakes coloring matches the rocks in their habitat

A morning in June, hiking in a rocky canyon, my wandering thoughts were broken by an insistent buzz. It sounded like seeds shaken in a gourd. The circular edges of the coiled snake caught my eye. So hidden, yet in plain sight. If she hadn’t warned me, I would have stepped within a foot of where she lay cozied up to a granite boulder.

Yet this rattlesnake had already sized me up, literally.  Pit vipers have heat sensing pits located behind each nostril. These allow rattlesnakes to detect differences in temperature from several yards away.  As I approached, the snake perceived my outline and would be able to do so even in pitch dark.  During the day, keen vision contributes to the picture the snake considers to decide if an animal is potential prey.  I am a bit big for even this large snake to swallow whole, so mostly she was just telling me to back off. 

Pinned by the glare of the rattlesnake, I reached slowly for my camera. She rattled some more. I was plenty far away, but it’s not often we encounter critters that have the ability to do us serious harm. A combination of fear and awe put a shake in my hands. But her rattle shakes like you can’t imagine, vibrating up to 60 times per second, causing the segments of keratin at the end of her tail to buzz.

The venom that so scares us hikers is an amazingly complex combination of proteins, including neurotoxins, anticoagulents and hemotoxins. Every species of rattlesnake injects a slightly different venom that helps immobilize their prey and begins the digestion process.  

These remarkable creatures do great work in the environment, keeping a cap on surging populations of rodents, squirrels and rabbits.  Beautifully camouflaged to blend into their habitat, rattlesnakes are graced with incredible adaptations that allow them to hunt even without limbs.  In a few more months the snakes will be underground in hibernation and then I’ll go back to the rocky canyon.

Western Diamondback crosses trail at McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Rattlesnakes add segments to their rattles with every shed – 1 to 4 times per year

Peeking In

Note the spines of the cactus sheared off near the nest

I saw the nest from the trail and wandered over to have a closer look.  It was tucked up inside a wickedly prickly Jumping Cholla.  The nest was only a couple of feet off the ground and when I peeked in I was surprised to see three lovely turquoise eggs, spotted with brown.  Curved-bill Thrasher eggs.  I took one picture and hurried away.  Surely a parent was nearby.

I photographed a Curved-bill Thrasher carrying a twig back in the middle of March.  This pair must be starting a second brood.  Couples mate for life.  When nest building, they work together on an outer nest of thorny twigs. Then the female shapes the soft grass lining.  Both parents work to keep the nestlings fed, and even after they leave the nest, the youngsters will rely on mom and dad. The parents continue to feed their young and teach them to find food for several more weeks. 

Curved-bill Thrashers forage on the ground, probing with their beaks among plant litter and in the soil for insects and seeds.  They also eat cactus fruits, seeds and nectar.

The two note whit whee call of this common bird is familiar to desert dwellers.  Thrashers are songbirds, relatives of mockingbirds.  Their song is a soaring, crystal clear serenade, often sung at daybreak and dusk.

A thorny protective nest site
Curved-billed thrashers obtain moisture from juicy saguaro fruits and flowers
It all starts with a single twig

Warrior Bird

Greater Roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family

No wonder it fell to Roadrunner to face off with Wylie Coyote.  Comic, daring and yes, even brutal, the Greater Roadrunner is not your average bird.  Slender and dramatic he is all speed and flash, as he cocks his long tail and ruffs his shaggy crest of head feathers.  In great bursts of speed (15 mph!) he runs down his prey of lizards, insects and snakes.  Even rodents and small rabbits may fall to a swift blow to the neck from the long powerful beak of Roadrunner.  Reptiles are more like to be beaten to death, but all prey is bashed repeatedly on the hard ground to break up bones for easier swallowing.  Roadrunner will even take on a rattlesnake.  The bird mesmerizes the rattlesnake with the tips of its wings, casting them about to confuse the snake. Two Roadrunners will also work together to bring down a rattler.   

Roadrunners build nest platforms in cactus and lower tree branches.   The good-sized nests are built with thorny sticks and lined with leaves, grass, feathers and sometimes snakeskin. Three to six eggs are laid and both parents care for the young.  If food is scarce the most vulnerable chicks may become food for the rest.

See the hidden bird? Is it a Roadrunner?

Quirky Quails

What’s more charming than a Gambel’s Quail? The male’s ringing call and the constant back and forth clucking of the family group is fabric of the desert.  A somewhat comic and vulnerable image is belied by the bird’s regal attitude.  

A quail family with twelve fledglings has been visiting our back yard to drink from a shallow saucer and to graze in the lawn. Quails eat greens, cacti fruit, seeds and insects.  We watched the parents lead the baby quails to the water source (covered so they can’t fall in) and shepherd them around the lawn. The tiny chicks have one speed, a dead run.  They nibbled grass and nabbed insects.  Dad perched nearby, alert to danger. Occasionally mom ran at one of the chicks, and smothered it to the ground under her breast for a moment before allowing it to run again. 

A female quail lays one egg a day over a period of 10 to 12 days.  Only then does she begin to incubate her nest.  This allows all of the eggs hatch on the same day.  The family is immediately on the move.  The precocial young are born covered with down and are able to run within minutes of hatching.  It will be 10 days before they can fly enough to reach greater safety.

Gambel’s Quail practice population control.  The birds only breed in wet winter years when there will be ample food for the parents and the chicks.

Three of twelve chicks in our yard
Clear photos of these fast moving targets is not easy