Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake

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.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Aravaipa Canyon

I am terribly behind in documenting places I have been this year. Way back on May 16, 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting Aravaipa Canyon in Pinal County, Arizona with my good friend Margarethe Brummermann and three visitors from elsewhere. Yen Saw was visiting from Texas, and Christian Ludwig came over from Germany. Mike McNichols came from next door: New Mexico. The heat was a bit too much for Yen and Mike, so they elected to depart in the early afternoon, but a good time was had by all before and after our party split.

A good portion of Aravaipa Canyon is a wilderness area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the United States Department of the Interior. It is closed to motor vehicles, with hikers forced to wade in the creek through the narrower portions of the canyon. The remainder of the canyon is mostly privately-held land and one trespasses at their own risk.

Our party had barely entered the lower reaches of the canyon when our caravan came to a screeching halt in front of a large Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer stretched across the road. It was a truly magnificent reptile, and we were able to get multiple images before and after it attempted its retreat.

Actually, it retreated a bit too far for my tastes, looping a coil up my pant leg. Having encountered a rattlesnake the week before, I was a little bit edgy; and a whole lot embarrassed by the serpent’s affection.

Yen and Mike were looking mostly for mantids, and at this time of the year in Arizona most of those predatory insects are in immature stages, quite small and difficult to detect. Ground mantids in the genus Litaneutria can be found as adults, however. Mike also knows ants quite well, and he helped Christian find several colonies of different species. Margarethe was literally beating the bushes for beetles, and I was seeking photo ops for anything I could find in the quickly withering landscape.

Mike and Yen headed back to their hotel in Tucson after finding a dead cow. Their discovery and departure had nothing to do with one another.

Margarethe, Christian and I then continued up the canyon, finally coming to shadier and cooler places by the creek. As we pulled into our final stop along the road, a Common Black-Hawk took off from a low perch in a tree, the black and white bands of its tail both startling and exciting us.

By now, in late afternoon, the wind had picked up and the gusty conditions made photography more difficult. So did the dim sunlight under the tall cottonwoods. Still, we enjoyed seeing creatures like bombardier beetles (Brachinus) and Rubyspot damselflies.

We turned around in the parking area at the entrance to the wilderness area, and were treated to spectacular rimrock views. I look forward to visiting again, and hopefully walking the wilderness area. Aravaipa Canyon is certainly a gem in a state full of truly magnificent landscapes and natural attractions.

Many thanks to Margarethe for the transportation, and to Yen, Christian, and Mike for sharing their own knowledge of insects. I’m already counting the days until they visit again.

NOTE: Special thanks to Yen Saw for letting me use the image of Margarethe, and the one of the group. We are, from left to right: Yen Saw, myself, Margarethe Brummermann, Mike McNichols, and Christian Ludwig.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blow to Hell

Last July I was complaining about the towns in western Massachusetts being overly zealous in their tendency to mow down all vegetation in vacant areas (“Mow to Hell”). Well, here in Arizona there is an equal disdain for “weeds” and other plants, but folks mostly take weed-whackers to them rather than running mowers over them. They clean up the debris with a truly evil machine, however: The leaf blower

It appears that leaf blowers are standard equipment for landscape companies here (along with electric hedge trimmers and chainsaws for the palm trees). When I was working I dreaded the day the landscaping crew came to do the annual clean-up. It was noisy, dusty, and left the little “garden” a wreck until it grew back. So much for the butterflies and bees for awhile.

Oh, I understand the use of forced air to herd leaves and errant pebbles and such. Using a hose to do that here is a much greater sin than assaulting our eardrums. Wasting water probably is an actual crime in Tucson. Nevertheless, those leaf blowers run on gasoline, so you could argue that they are at the least a waste of energy. Add the air pollution from their emissions, and the noise pollution they generate, and you really have to question whether this is the best way to do the job.

Now, let it not be said that Eric Eaton ever complains about such things without offering a solution, and I do have one in this case. You see, there is this very handy, portable, and efficient device called a BROOM! You’d think nobody here had ever heard of such a thing! I can personally attest to the wonders that a broom can do on sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots.

Oh, and for tougher surfaces, like lawns and flowerbeds, there is this other invention called (are you ready for this?) a RAKE. No kidding! A series of tines that deftly separate dead leaves from tender green grass. Imagine that! Wonders never cease.

The history of the invention of leaf blowers is a bit sketchy, with dates ranging from the late 1950s (Wikipedia) to the 1970s ( However, there is widespread agreement that shortly after they were made available to consumers, people wanted them banned. Carmel, California became the first city to ban leaf blowers, in 1975. Since then several other California municipalities have also banned the noisemakers.

I am not quite as amped-up in my plea for an end to leaf blowers as the gentleman who wrote the online essay ”Leaf Blowers Must Die, but I am quickly approaching that threshold. I think it comes down to that overarching category of Things We Can Do Without, especially given the alternatives available.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bloom Night

Tohono Chul Park in northwest Tucson held its nineteenth (19th!) annual “Bloom Night” this past Friday, July 16, 2010. The event is done on short notice as park personnel evaluate the potential for Night-blooming Cereus flowers to be at their peak. I subscribed to the park’s Facebook status, so was alerted on Friday that the stage was set for that night.

Night-blooming Cereus, also known as “Queen-of-the-Night,” “reina-de-la-noche,” and “deer-horn cactus is known scientifically as Peniocereus greggii (formerly Cereus greggii). The plant is easily overlooked entirely in the daytime, as the slender stems, with four or five ribs, appear to be lifeless, propped against a tree or shrub under which the cactus grew. The Night-blooming Cereus can reach to eight feet in height, with the help of its “nurse” tree, but is usually substantially shorter. The majority of those I saw Friday night were roughly two to three feet tall.

Once each year in June or July the plant puts forth shockingly beautiful blooms under the cover of darkness. Each flower is a “one night only” affair, hoping that a sphinx moth will find it and pollinate it. The flower enhances its chances of this by emitting a fragrance that carries for up to one hundred feet. Moth olfactory senses must be vastly more acute than our human noses. Unless I literally stick my schnoz into the flower I get nothing.

Tohono Chul is a private park, so while they do stay open late (6:30 PM – midnight) for this one night, they also charge you for your visit. At only five dollars it is a bargain in many ways (for one thing, the usual daytime admission is $7). The park is a combination of natural desert and planted examples of plants from Arizona, Mexico, and elsewhere. There is a “tea house,” gift shop, and more on its 49 acres.

It is a pity that there are not more after dark programs here and at other parks around the Tucson area. It is at night that one encounters many of the more interesting flora and fauna. Ironically, I found Tohono Chul’s example of Giant Sprawling Morning Glory, Ipomoea longifolia, to be even more spectacular than the star of the show. Judge for yourself (below).

The park obviously waters their plants considerably more than occurs naturally, as you won’t see an enormous Sacred Datura (Western Jimsonweed), Datura wrightii, like this anywhere in the desert, at least in my experience.

The animals in the desert night can be equally spectacular. Field crickets (genus Gryllus) add an auditory accompaniment to any evening stroll.

They have to be careful they don’t blunder anywhere near a tarantula burrow, though, or get run down by one of the agile wolf spiders (family Lycosidae) that are on the prowl.

Most of the trails in the park are marked on Bloom Night with luminaries (candles inside paper bags), but since I had both a headlamp and a flashlight, I took the liberty of exploring some of the paths that remained in the dark. I was rewarded with arguably my most exciting find of the night: a small Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, coiled along the edge of the path. It remained perfectly still the entire time I snapped images and introduced it to other curious visitors.

That is perhaps what I enjoy most about events like this: the opportunity to share my own discoveries with others, and give them a little knowledge, too, providing I know something about the animal or plant at hand. I must have spent fifteen minutes showing a steady parade of other visitors this female funnel-web weaving wolf spider (Sosippus californicus) toting her egg case across her silken sheet. Some folks were disappointed that it was not a Night-blooming Cereus flower I was taking pictures of, but most were quite curious and took their own images with phones or point-and-shoots. I love that.

One final note, you never know who you are going to meet at these shindigs. I saw Karen Wright for the first time in years. She’s the wonderful photographer who took the portraits of me that adorn my blogs and the back of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. I also met a wonderful young couple who graciously offered me a ride home after the show. Thank you, Kerrah and Tim, for your company and generosity.

Monday, July 5, 2010


I consider it a privilege any time I encounter reptiles of any sort, but especially venomous ones. Maybe it is because I have been a “city kid” most of my life, and grew up in Portland, Oregon where rattlesnakes are rare, if not extirpated entirely, but I consider rattlers, copperheads, and cottonmouths to be beautiful serpents.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a very healthy respect for any creature that can kill me. Even in snakebite cases that do not end in fatalities, the experience changes the victim forever (or it should). The venom of most pit vipers (family Viperidae, subfamily Crotalinae) is “cytotoxic,” meaning that it destroys living tissue. This helps the snake in killing prey and beginning the digestion process before the serpent even eats its meal.

My most recent encounter was with a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, courtesy of my friend Margarethe Brummermann. We were walking her dogs (or vice versa) across her property and adjacent state land on the evening of May 22, 2010. The instant Margarethe exclaimed “Rattler!” I saw the snake, stretched out on the other side of a small shrub.

It was not an impressively large specimen, only about three feet long as I estimate it, but it certainly stood its ground at my approach. I was impressed that Margarethe’s dogs (the three that had stayed with us and not taken off on their own) sat patiently while I took images of the increasingly agitated reptile.

Rattlesnakes look plenty calm and placid when you come upon them, but can instantly slither into a striking coil. The sheer speed at which rattlers operate, and their maneuverability, is amazing. I once witnessed a Black-tailed Rattlesnake crawl backwards while maintaining a striking pose. This Western Diamondback gave an equally awe-inspiring display, rising from the ground in the classic S-curve of movie Westerns. I think even my camera was intimidated. That is the theory I have for why most of my images did not have the entire snake in focus.

I felt no need to further antagonize the snake, so left it in peace after about five minutes. I do wish more people did the same. Residents of Tucson suburbs and more rural areas frequently dispatch rattlesnakes on their property. Those with slightly more humane intentions call Rural Metro Fire to have the snakes removed and relocated. Budget cuts have rendered snake removal services almost non-existent this year, and research has shown that snakes relocated a substantial distance from their home range will often die anyway as they fail to compete with other rattlers, or are unable to find their way back to their winter den site.

One can argue convincingly that rattlesnakes are valuable animals to have around. They are very efficient predators of rodents like wood rats (aka “pack rats”) that otherwise wreak havoc by chewing the electrical cables inside vehicles, steal shiny objects, and harbor other pests like kissing bugs (assassin bugs in the genus Triatoma). Personally, I’d rather tolerate rattlesnakes than have to expend the time, energy, and cost to eliminate a rodent problem myself.

There is, of course, the flip side of the coin. The physical and financial anguish in the aftermath of a snake bite cannot be overlooked. Rattlers often deliver “dry bites” in self-defense, saving their venom for predatory activities. This is by no means the norm, however, and envenomation is nothing to trifle with.

It takes little time for the venom to have a catastrophic effect on a human victim. A bitten extremity swells to grotesque proportions as blood seeps from perforated veins and arteries into surrounding tissue. This damage cannot always be mitigated, and it is not unusual for medical personnel to amputate a digit or more in the interest of saving the person’s life. Antivenin, mostly derived from horse serum, usually prevents a lethal outcome, but if you happen to be allergic to horses like I am, things can get complicated. Then there is the cost: Evacuation to the hospital (often by air), administration of antivenin, and a hospital stay of several days or weeks. I hear that an average snakebite ordeal costs over $100,000. I’m certainly not going to confront a snake with that potential pricetag.

Unfortunately, our collective society seems bent on ridding the world of these marvelous animals. I urge my followers to show support for organizations like Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups, and educate their friends and neighbors on rattlesnake avoidance for people and pets. Want to read more? Consider The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators by Gordon Grice (New York: Delacorte Press, 1998) and Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life After a Snakebite by Erec Toso (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007). Thank you.