Some people have wild parties for their birthday or go out for dinner, movie, and maybe see some music. Not my Jeff; it was a quiet night with the snakes for him.

We set out after work to check on our friend Bane (adult male Arizona black rattlesnake), who was last seen headed toward Secret Springs. At a bend in the nature trail we call snake corner, we encountered a western diamond-backed rattlesnake.

atrox close

Jeff actually walked right by him and I stepped right in front of him before I noticed him. The snake didn’t seem to care: he never rattled and of course didn’t strike, as that is their last line of defense.

atrox print

That is my footprint circled in red on the left (snake just off trail on the right).

We encountered another western diamond-backed cruising around Secret Springs, looking freshly shed.
atrox sun

jeff atrox

The birthday boy photographing the gorgeous snake.

And Bane was nearby in a swampy area, in one of those perfect hunting postures, in the mud, against a downed log.


After our snake walk it was time for homemade pizza, garden salad (from our garden at Muleshoe), and raw coconut lime pie. A delicious ending to a delightful birthday.

Especially of late, this blog appears to be mainly about me and my adventures with rattlesnakes. But none of this would be possible without my fantastic partner in crime, who is just as crazy about snakes and nature as I am (maybe even more so).

jeff gps

Jeff taking data, while balancing a GPS on his head


Nature’s trash collectors

Guess I’m just a sucker for unlikeables 🙂 Back in high school and the early part of my college career, I volunteered at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky and fell in love with vultures. We called them nature’s garbage men (and women) because they have the important, but very un-glamourous job, of cleaning up after everyone else (they’re scavengers). Compared to the hawks, owls, eagles, and falcons I worked with, vultures were brilliant and inquisitive.

California condor #126, Vermillion Cliffs, AZ, 1999.

One day I made a comment in an online forum that working with California condors would be the coolest job ever (because condors are GIANT vultures). That led to a job with the Peregrine Fund working on the condor reintroduction project in northern Arizona, and ultimately to the end of my bird career. I met my first rattlesnakes that year and haven’t really looked back at birds since.

California condor, Vermillion Cliffs, AZ, 2011.

I still enjoy seeing vultures and here at Muleshoe we have a huge roost of turkey vultures in Bass Canyon. You can see them flying in around sunset and I’ve been over there a few times to see them settle in for the night.

But the other morning we were over there early enough to see them sunning themselves in preparation for their day of soaring on thermals and looking for (smelling actually) food.

Turkey vultures, Bass Canyon, 2013.

Turkey vultures, Bass Canyon, 2013.

Aren’t they gorgeous?


Bane, a creature of habit

Although Bane (adult male Arizona black rattlesnake) didn’t enter our radio-telemetry study until 5 August 2012, we first met him during last year’s Spring Snake Count. I had led a group of Snake Counters to Secret Springs, a warm-spring-fed pond that was formerly a cattle tank. One of the Snake Counters encountered Bane on the far side of the pond, where he was drinking.

Bane 2012

Bane, 20 May 2012

Since we began tracking Bane with radio-telemetry in August, he has not returned to Secret Springs. He spent most of this spring near the Nature Trail, making him the perfect snake to track with preserve visitors. Anyone who wanted to track a rattlesnake this spring April has met Bane.


Save the Frogs Day attendees checking out Bane, 27 April 2013.

Snake Count weekend was no different. We visited Bane two or three times with Snake Counters, who got to meet Muleshoe’s largest Arizona black rattlesnake. As usual, he was just off the Nature Trail on Friday and Saturday. Sunday afternoon (19 May), Bane’s signal was erratic, as if he was moving. And he was. He had crossed Hot Springs Wash and was cruising alongside the Nature Trail toward Secret Springs!

It’s May in Arizona, which means it’s hot and dry. Guess Bane is thirsty again 🙂

Countdown to Snake Count: 1…

Snake Count is here!

I’ll end this week’s roundup of snakes with the snake that started my obsession with rattlesnakes, black-tailed rattlesnakes (Crotalus molossus, hereafter blacktails).


Many, many years ago, I attended the International Herpetological Symposium just for fun, as the only reptiles I worked with at the time were of the feathered variety. I met (who is now) my oldest and dearest friend at that meeting, who was key in reawakening my lifelong love of snakes. And there was a presentation that blew my mind and changed the course of my life forever. Harry Greene talked about his black-tail project and in particular that they take care of their kids.

Snakes? Take care of their kids? So long birds!

It was five more years before I started my first rattlesnake project and I haven’t looked back since. I still haven’t seen parental care in blacktails, but I have gotten to see them do some other really cool things.

Jaydin (male) in a tree.

persephone in tree solo

Persephone (female) in a tree.

Jaydin (left, male black-tailed rattlesnake) and Persephone (right, female black-tailed rattlesnake), 24 July 2012.

Jaydin (left, male) and Persephone (right, female), 24 July 2012.

Timelapse video of Jaydin courting Persephone (one day of that courtship).

Jaydin in combat with Marty over Persephone.

Maybe this will be the year, 15 years later, that I finally get to see a blacktail family (Persephone, please?).

Who says dreams don’t come true?

🙂 melissa

Countdown to Snake Count: 2…

I’ve already dedicated a post to gophersnakes and how I adore them, but since we’re almost certain to see one this weekend, they deserve another mention.

Juvenile gophersnake from central California coast.

Gophersnakes (Pituophis catenifer), or a close relative (bullsnakes, pine snakes), are found nearly throughout the United States. They can be very large (up to 6 feet in length!), but are perfectly harmless and usually quite docile. They mostly eat mammals, which is probably why they’re called gophersnakes.

Like most colubrids, their behavior can be difficult to observe in the wild. Gophersnakes have many predators, including humans, so they usually stop what they’re doing and flee in our presence. But one day a couple years ago Jeff and I got extremely lucky. We came across a trio of gophersnakes, two males and a female, and got to observe combat, mate searching, and courtship – it was pretty amazing! I won’t retell the entire story, because you can read it here and here, but here are a few highlights:

Olive Oyl maintains a wary eye while Popeye focuses on his potential partner.

The first battle between Bluto and Popeye over Olive Oyl.

People perceive rattlesnakes as mean and violent, but when you compare courtship and combat, rattlesnakes seem gentler and kinder than gophersnakes (or most any other animal).

The first Snake Counters have arrived at the preserve and were immediately welcomed by one of our resident diamondback females, Forrestine. Join us!

Countdown to Snake Count: 3…

By far the most commonly seen snakes at Muleshoe headquarters, and most places where they live, are western diamond-backed rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox, hereafter diamondbacks). They are wide-ranging, found in a variety of habitats, and eat pretty much anything that fits in their mouth. They also don’t seem to mind humans moving into their space; several at Muleshoe spend most of their active season at headquarters and of course there’s that group that over-winters under one of the buildings at headquarters:

Diamondback behavior at dens is quite different than Arizona black behavior we discuss at SocialSnakes. While most rattlesnakes in Arizona breed in the monsoon season only, diamondbacks also breed in the spring. So you can often see courtship and combat right at their dens!

Henry (adult male western diamond-backed rattlesnake) in combat!

We didn’t see anything like that at the headquarters den this year, but next year we’ll be ready with timelapse cameras to catch any action.

Unfortunately for diamondbacks, not all human neighbors are as accommodating as we are at Muleshoe. Often when diamondbacks show up in a human’s yard (or from the snake’s perspective, humans show up in their territory), they are killed or translocated (moved). Translocation may seem like the humane choice, but Snake Count attendees will learn on Saturday why that may not be the case. As always, prevention is the best cure. Check out this brochure from the Tucson Herpetological Society on how to make your yard less snake-friendly (if you don’t want snakes there).

We like our yard snake-friendly 🙂

Sadly diamondbacks are also the rattlesnake most commonly collected for rattlesnake roundups. We have written a little about roundups before and a show that glorifies them. Frankly it’s too upsetting for me to say much, so I’ll refer you to Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups if you wish to learn more about these horrific events and what you can do to stop them.

Now to end on a more positive note, here’s my favorite diamondback of all time, looking stunning. We haven’t seen Henry in a while, maybe he’ll show up for Snake Count – will you?


Countdown to Snake Count: 4…

pink snake

Coachwhip (Coluber flagellum)

The is the snake that kicked off Snake Count for us last year. Jeff and I were driving through the the uplands on Muleshoe Ranch road when we saw a bright pink ‘thing’ on the road. We were both thinking it couldn’t be a snake (snakes aren’t pink?). Thankfully we realized how wrong we were in time to stop.

Coachwhips (Coluber flagellum) are a great example of how colorful snakes are. I think many people consider snakes drab because they rely so heavily on camouflage, but you can be brilliantly colored and perfectly camouflaged.

San Francisco gartersnake (hHamnophis sirtalis)

San Francisco gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis); you’d be surprised how difficult it can be to spot these in their habitat.

Not only do snakes exhibit brilliant coloration, but it often varies within a species. As we discussed yesterday, many snakes change color and pattern as they age (ontogenetic color change). Coachwhips do that, and as adults their coloration is so variable they look like different species. In addition to the pink variety shown above, they also come in black

I know he looks terrible, but he's just playing dead - it's a defensive behavior!

I know he looks terrible, but he’s just playing dead – it’s a defensive behavior!

and an in-between that looks like you mixed the other two varieties together.

tortie face

You might expect these different color variants to be found in different habitats, but it’s possible to find all these colors in a single population of coachwhips. So why the dramatic color variation? Good question and I’d love to hear you thoughts below or on facebook.


Countdown to Snake Count: 5…

Snake Count is almost here! This week we countdown to Snake Count with a post each day featuring a snake we found during last spring’s Snake Count. We hope you’ll join us at Muleshoe for Snake Count, but if you can’t, find a way to participate in your area by clicking on the graphic below.


I’m going to start with Arizona black rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerberus), because even among rattlesnakes they’re extra cool. In case you missed it, our SocialSnakes blog featured a special post for Mother’s Day all about parental care in Arizona blacks.

Sigma (adult female) and TIE fighter

Rattlesnakes take care of their kids? You bet they do and not just Arizona black rattlesnakes. But we have lots of stories, photos, and videos of Arizona black rattlesnake families, so check them out.

Eve and kids (likely not all hers) – aren’t they adorable?

Arizona black rattlesnakes are highly social snakes, which is another topic covered extensively at SocialSnakes. But in brief, they often den in groups and within these groups have friends (snake they preferentially associate with) and enemies (snakes they avoid).

If those behaviors aren’t enough for ya, Arizona black rattlesnakes also change color. While lizards are more famous for their color-changing abilities, a handful of snakes can dramatically shift their color too. It is fairly common for young snakes to look completely different than adults (ontogenetic color change).

Adult male (left) with newborn (right) Arizona black rattlesnake.

But, Arizona black rattlesnakes can also rapidly change their color (physiological color change) from black to light gray within minutes.

Watch carefully and see Boyett change color in this timelapse video:

I’ll end with Cat edhibiting another characteristic Arizona black rattlesnake behavior: looking absolutely gorgeous.



The return of FiveLong

I ran into an old friend yesterday on my way to close the gate 🙂

There’s a large, warm water puddle on the driveway just in front of the visitor center where lowland leopard frogs and Gila topminnow breed. Birds catch insects over the water and prints indicate that coati and raccoon forage there at night. Rattlesnakes, especially western diamond-backeds, hunt along the edges.


FiveLong, June 2012

We’ve heard tales of a large rattlesnake called Henry (that may or may not be our Henry) that hunted here for years and was well known among preserve guests and staff. But mostly Jeff and I have seen FiveLong, a female western diamond-backed rattlesnake, here.

She first appeared last year mid-June, at the start of our foot trail around the puddle. We saw her nearly everyday for a month or so, then she disappeared.

Yesterday (9 May) there was a rattlesnake coiled at the start of our foot trail for the first time in months and sure enough, it was FiveLong.

5long 2013

FiveLong, May 2013

Can you tell how she got her name?

I was a little worried that FiveLong’s favored hunting spot would worry our guests at the preserve. Not a problem! They assured me that “in May in Arizona, you EXPECT to see rattlesnakes!” And late this afternoon FiveLong moved to the opposite side of the puddle, well away from our foot trail. What a good snake 🙂

Snake Count is only a week away! Get the details on our event page.

A bold lizard

UROR close

Ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus), 7 May 2013.

This is an ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus). They are small and usually common, so often overlooked by lizard enthusiasts. However, they are beautiful, curious, and quite entertaining to watch.

And like Bane, they are bold.

uror lula

Neither Lula (our beloved female pit bull mix) nor the lizard would have allowed me to stage this photo if I tried 🙂