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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

High Desert Herping

Like a coon dog with its nose to the ground, I’m constantly zigzagging looking for large flat boulders and fallen stumps in search of my quarry.

My first find is a robust Desert Tarantula. It arches its back, raising its fangs and forelegs in defense, not knowing what to make of this disruption.

Most of the time, however, I startle Plateau lizards (Sceloporus tristichus).

They pause for barely a second before they jettison into another sanctifying corner.

There are the ubiquitous (Arizona bark scorpions), Centriroides exilicauda, that become disoriented by the sun’s light. Like robots, they erratically shift from forward to reverse in search of cover. My hopes are high as I approach a large flat stone. As I ease it up a young Common collard lizard (Crotophytus collaris) dashes through my legs and under another similar rock. I swing around to give chase when it suddenly bolts out from under the rock, raises itself up on its hind legs and bipedals out of sight! Now I’m really intrigued! What sent it fleeing for its life?

I knew there had to be something of interest underneath that stone. As I approach an elegant Striped whipsnake (Masticophis taeniatus) emerges. It had to be close to five feet long! It climbs atop a boulder perhaps for a quick look for its frightened quarry before immersing itself into the landscape.

You might have guessed I am somewhere in the southwestern portion of the U.S. More specifically, I’m an hour and half north of Phoenix, AZ bordering the 1.25 million acre, Prescott National Forest. At a mile high, temps can be 15-20 degrees cooler. As you would expect the trail system is quite extensive and maps of the region can be found at the local forestry department or go check the internet: this should be the first step of any intrepid herper exploring new territory - research! Surf the web for necessary contacts/organizations, make some calls, check weather patterns, local sightings, etc. This will save you time and increase your odds for finding your subjects. Most importantly, observe local laws regarding collecting any specimens as many herps in Arizona are federally protected.

Just outside the city of Prescott is Granite Basin Recreation Area. Here, each outing finds me on the trail at the crack of dawn donning a hip-pack, carrying camera gear, water and snacks and a pair of binoculars about my neck. I discovered binoculars are a wonderful aid in scoping over distant rocky outcrops for our sun loving brethren such as the AZ Black Rattlesnake (Crotalus cerebus).

On an earlier trip it enabled me to plan a more indirect route for a close

approach of a Clark Spiny Lizard (Scleporus clarkii).

I first use the trails to access the area since these are well worn and attract more open space lizards such as the Eastern collared and Greater short-horned lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi). Soon you’ll find me zigzagging off the trail turning over rocks and logs, nosing into every crevice or investigating the source of a shuffling noise scrambling through the brush. Eventually the trail is completely abandoned, and I focus on the more appealing rocky outcrops or among the many pools of water trapped down in the arroyos.

At the bottom of the basin the arroyos host the more water-loving cottonwoods and willows. At the base of many trees large wood piles have accumulated due to flash floods. These are good places to find the occasional rattlesnake seeking relief from the rising sun. The omnipresent Plateau and Ornate tree lizards (Urosaurus ornatus) are found on both sides of

the canyon walls while Plateau striped whiptail lizards (Aspidoscelis velox) scamper across the dried debris amid the fine rock-sands of the arroyo in search of food.

The slithering of a Mexican garter snake (Thamnophis eques) through dry brush captures my attention but it quickly disappears within a tangle of willow and prickly pear; it knows I’m not about to follow suit!

The rains have been good this year as evident in a proliferation of blooms. One food source leads to another as grasshoppers leap every which way giving me high hopes of finding something new. The creek bed narrows trapping water in tiny pools.

Water striders chase their reflections across the water’s surface as tadpoles scurry for cover upon my approach. I assume these are the young of either Red-spotted toads (Anaxyrus punctatus) or Canyon tree frogs since I’ve spotted several recently emerged newcomers hopping about.

Rising from my knees I can’t believe what I see! It’s a large Black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) cruising on the opposite side of the creek. Excitedly I leap across and start snapping away. It’s a fine specimen that’s quite cooperative. A short rattle of its tail gives me a quick reminder whenever I get too close. In my excitement I’ve unconsciously driven the snake along the rock face of the canyon wall where it is difficult to traverse. Standing spread eagle in order to take better pictures, the snake suddenly slips and begins to slide down towards me. I think, “Oh no! Not my family jewels!” and I have but no recourse other than to leap backward into the creek bed. The rattler is also in a predicament, so I slowly wade backwards as it investigates its surroundings. A cold dip in the water is not an option and back up the cliff face it goes until it finds a shaded crevice to hole up and wait for this pesky, camera toting human to finish up and be on his way.

This has been quite an eventful day. Still, I have yet to encounter the two more highly prized rattlers: the large and robust Western diamondback and the highly venomous Mojave. I’ve searched endlessly for these critters but have yet to catch one on film. I’m jealous every time a jogger and/or someone who is simply walking their dog, comment how often they see a rattler sunning out on the trail. In the meantime, I will have to settle for a couple of Greater-earless lizards (Cophosaurus texanus). These guys will leave you chugging down the H2O if you try to keep up with them! Every time I approach for a better shot it dashes further down the trail then makes a sudden stop. I swear its taunting me! It wags its banded tail high overhead as if to say, “Care for another go?”

As I switchback into chaparral habitat more and more Plateau striped whiptail lizards predominate. Many species of this genus, Aspidoscelis [formerly Cnemidophorus] are unique for their unisexual reproduction capabilities – all offspring are female clones. I feel with so many prey species running about there must be a serpent somewhere!? My constant gazing is rewarded. Up ahead, on the trail, a small snake is basking. A quick look through my glass reveals a beautiful solid gray, thin bodied specimen. Closer inspection reveals a Ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus regalis).

It lacks any ring which is typical of this desert subspecies. Upon first handling, it curls its tail revealing the brilliant red underside and discharges a foul-smelling liquid. I place it down on the ground and it performs another defense strategy by going belly-up, feigning death. This little guy is quite cooperative by allowing me to capture all its unique behavior before slithering into the bush.

Hey, it may not have been a viper, but it just goes to show that there is always something new to learn and experience while out in the field searching for herps. “Arid-zona!” Arid it may be, but Arizona has over 50 species of snakes and lizards and more than half of that amount in the form of amphibians! Half the thrill is searching through the many arroyos with its boulder strewn terrain and desert flora where these cryptic colored denizens await to be discovered. This is a land of scenic vistas with year-round herping opportunities.

Check out the confines of the Prescott National Forest in search of its unique variety of reptiles and amphibians. If you come out for a visit, the following is a list of websites to help get you started in the right direction.

AZ Partners in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation

The Tucson Herpetological Society

National Wildlife Federation: Frogwatch USA

The Arizona Herpetological Society

A great book to have:

Thomas C. Brennan & Andrew T. Holycross,

A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona

Location: Yavapai County, Arizona

Date: August of 2007

Published: Reptiles Magazine - February 2008, Into the Wild: "Criss-crossing High Desert"

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