A little Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana, may be the most striking (no pun intended) reptile find of my life thus far. This beautiful serpent was hiding under a slab of bark on a stump at Middle Bear along the Mount Lemmon Highway in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson. I was there with MJ Epps on May 26, 2010, just before her departure for the summer. Thank you, Mary Jane, for holding the snake so gently while I took pictures.
The only other specimen of this snake that I have ever seen is one held in captivity by another friend, Pat Sullivan, in Sierra Vista. His is definitely an adult, whereas this “wild” one was just a youngster.
The bold black, white, and red color pattern on this species is obviously meant to mimic the markings of the venomous Sonoran Coralsnake, Micruroides euryxanthus. There are many mnemonic devices used to differentiate the two, or at least kingnsakes and coralsnakes in general. The one that I remember from childhood is:
Red and yellow kill a fellow,
Red and black, venom lack.
The color reference denotes the sequence of bands. Kingsnakes have red markings adjacent to black bands. Coralsnakes have red markings meeting yellow (or ivory) bands. No, it is not always easy to make the distinction when the serpent is moving at a high rate of speed and making its escape into a burrow or other inaccessible retreat.
Pine forests in middle and high elevations (3,000 to 9,000 feet) of the “sky islands” of southeast Arizona seem to be a good habitat for this species. It is a day-active reptile capable of climbing trees to feast on nestling birds. Its diet also includes lizards, rodents, and occasionally bats. It kills by constricting its prey with ever-tightening coils of its body. At up to 43 inches in length, it is a fairly sizable snake as an adult.
The Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake does hibernate during the cooler months in autumn and winter, and reproduces in late spring and early summer. Females lay clutches of two to nine eggs in June or early July, the hatchlings appearing in late July or August.
Besides Arizona, this snake ranges into Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Mexico.
I grew up in Oregon, and I remember wanting very much to find a California Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis zonata up there. Well, finding this little fella (gal?) might just make up for that childhood wish.