By midnight this time of year, the Milky Way has risen to the ceiling of the sky. The desert has cooled to short-sleeve temperatures without the uncomfortable humidity that accompanies the thunderstorm months of July and August. We traversed about 100 miles of Anza-Borrego highway looking for a few good snakes and geckos, but this year found observations lean. 2014 has so far produced little rain. Not surprising, then, the spring saw far fewer wildlife births, plant blooms and insect populations. As a result, local desert ecosystems have fallen into Mother Nature’s strict conservation mode–essentially, it boils down to all systems expending less energy and making fewer appearances. And if you’re a snake, you deal with it.
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Shovel-nosed snakes are apt to cross the road at all hours of the night looking for food, but unlike the fox, bobcat and coyote that sprinted across our headlight beams at various wee hours, these tiny 5–10 inch long snakes depend on luck to be missed by a set of tires.
Some shovel-noses display color with the same banding sequence as the feared Coral Snake, but fortunately corals are not found in the Anza-Borrego area (and their red band is much wider and more pronounced around the full body). The similar color associations are probably more than coincidental; for example, they could be advantages based on one snake mimicking another species. The shovel-noses are nocturnal hunters, literally diving underground if prey is sensed, finding much of their food source like a creature out of Dune.
Red Diamondback Rattlesnakes don’t exactly paint the town with that color–like all snakes, they have limited energy supplies and prefer to move slowly away from activity. Their principal strategy is not to be moving about. You’ve passed many who were coiled at the edge of the hiking trail, as you and your friends (or scout troop!) sauntered by without anyone realizing they were there. Their color is a tint of mauve or a shade of brown–but you can call it however you see it, or invent an entirely new color just for Red Diamondbacks. One thing is for sure, they blend in…and you don’t. With their grayish checker pattern on the sunnyside alternating with white borders, they share similar markings with other diamondbacks, but the others aren’t nearly as shy and their poison is more virulent.
Camouflage is essential for this snake’s survival. Not being seen is practically the only defense against birds large enough to pick the snake off the ground and climb with it to a height necessary to kill it by concussion when dropped. A paved road is as handy as sheet bedrock for this purpose, when one is nearby. The snake’s camouflage also works the other way around. It is one of its stealth tools, particularly when hunting wary mice and rats, the most popular prey for rattlesnakes. Mice and rats are not defenseless by any means, their intelligence and effective subterranean architecture usually thwarts the snakes. The ground squirrels have figured it out their own way. They are particularly adapted to the rattlers, and will boldly face off against them to defend their territory and young–after all, they are immune to rattlesnake poison. In the end, if food is to be obtained using a rattlesnake’s stealth, the best tool to have is patience–and that every wild rattlesnake must have.
Photos by Barbara Swanson except where noted