Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The snake days of spring

OK – I know I already talked a little about snakes in my last blog, but given the frequency of snake observations over the last few weeks I think they deserve further attention. In fact, just yesterday I saw 3 different snakes in the Preserve in less than 3 hours! Snakes are now emerging from their winter hibernation sites and can often be found basking in the sun, stretched out in open areas. They are especially common laying across roads and trails where they can absorb the maximum amount of sun and heat from the asphalt or dirt; so keep your eyes peeled on the trail ahead – the “stick” you think you are seeing might actually be a snake! They are best spotted in the morning when they are trying to warm up for the day, since they usually retreat to vegetation or sheltered areas during the peak heat of the day in the afternoon.

I observed this young Southern Pacific rattlesnake (only about 1.5 feet) in the middle of the asphalt road in the core habitat area. Because I was driving along the road and did not want to crush it, I nudged it with a stick to make it move – it rattled a bit at me, annoyed that I was making it leave the warmth of the road, and then it reluctantly slithered off into the brush. Although this young rattler was old enough to have actual “rattles” at the end of its tail, very young rattlers only have a single “button” and cannot yet make the rattling sound. Notice the stripe or mask along its eyes and the striped skin pattern near the end of its tail, as opposed to the diamond or square patterning on the rest of its body. Rattlesnakes find their prey using heat-sensing pits on the sides of their head. Also, these snakes bear live young in the late summer, as opposed to many other snakes which lay eggs.


I observed this large San Diego gopher snake sunning itself on the road/trail right near the Arroyo Pescadero amphitheater. These snakes are very commonly observed and are not venomous, but they can sometimes inflate their head and shake the end of their tail to imitate a rattlesnake when they are threatened. They kill their prey by constricting them – coiling their body around the animal and squeezing it. The patterning on gopher snakes is highly variable, but they are generally the largest and longest of the snakes you will commonly see on the trail.

This California striped racer was seen near the Colima Road tunnel along the Arroyo San Miguel trail – I saw it chasing a small rodent across the road. This snake often holds its upper body off the ground (as shown in the photo) to help them to see and find prey with their highly acute eyesight. These snakes are also not venomous. Notice the long slender black body with the yellow stripes along its entire length – these stripes are on both sides of the body.

Although it is sometimes frightening to stumble upon a snake while hiking, it is important to respect their place in our ecosystem, as they help to keep rodent populations under control. Their beauty and diversity is one of the many things to appreciate and enjoy in the hills!

1 comment:

Michael said...

Great blog and thanks for the pics. I've seen plenty of Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes this year. I saw one California Striped Racer. Haven't seen the Gopher Snake yet. Thanks for putting names to these snakes. Are you aware of any other species roaming about the Hacienda Hills Preserve?