Herping Texas, June '06 - Part 2
As we (Daniel Parker and Bill Love) zoomed west on highway 90 from San Antonio, we each bought out-of-state, 5-day Texas hunting licenses at Wal-Mart in Uvalde. $45 each seemed reasonable 'insurance' against any ornery game officers we'd heard occasionally harass herpers. And, of course, it was the right thing to do now that we might be capturing some of the critters. Alterna Fever was already taking hold of us. We'd both been skunked on them before, but this was the end of June on the dark of the moon --- perfect! We absolutely couldn't miss with the odds so heavily in our favor! Of course, it'd be cool to see all the other herp life out there too, but hopes of finding a graybanded king snake was foremost on our minds. That goal didn't exactly set us apart from the dozens of other herpers prowling the roads and cuts, as we'd soon discover. This is a view of average Chihuahuan Desert terrain taken off hwy. 90 around the Val Verde / Terrell County line.
In the above pic, those rocky outcroppings at center are likely the type of hotspot many of the endemic herps favor, but there's just one problem in hunting them. They're on private property behind barbed wire fence. You can't just waltz on over to them and hunt. Fortunately, a reasonable solution to being denied the option of hunting such spots has become popular over the last few decades -- shining the cuts ! What the heck are 'cuts' you may be wondering ? ? ? Here are two pics that ought to take the place of thousands of words >
"Cuts' (short for 'road cuts', or 'rock cuts') are places where hilly ground was cut away so the road could pass smoothly, sparing drivers from too turbulent a ride. The bed rock is left exposed on one or both sides as fractured walls of craggy limestone. Numerous crevices, especially in the upper levels, are like windows into the subterranean lairs of many herps that utilize those underground highways to shelter by day and move safely hidden from some desert floor predators. OK, one more close-up to burn the point home about those numerous crevices . . . .
Hunting such habitat is done by spotlight (usually) after dark, the plan being to spot a snake crawling along the rock. Many of the most desirable lizard- and rodent-eating snakes of the area have been taken in these situations. When spotlighted, most snakes freeze in place or continue slowly checking out the crevices for prey. But occasionally (the seasoned folks say), snakes get spooked by light and rush down a crack. Fortunately, we did not observe any that flighty. Daniel and I covered countless hundreds of miles roadcruising the easy way, but we also intensively shined at least 100 cuts by night. We were advised to pound them, multiple times per night, and we did! We also walked cuts in the morning (below) in pursuit of mottled rock rattlers Crotalus l. lepidus, unsuccessfully I admit.
By the end of the first two nights of 'can't miss' herping on 277 and the Juno Road, we'd bagged a total of 2 night snakes Hypsiglena torquata . Sorry, I was too bummed to take pics. On the bright side, Daniel spotted one of them -- a juvenile, no less -- on a cut. Wow! There ARE snakes on those cuts! We could have surmised as much anyway based on the 7+ carloads of other guys out cruising or shining cuts those nights. Thanks to all you folks who had time to chat out there and show off your catches to us!
By the 3rd day, we migrated westward on the rumor of rain possibly lubricating some herps out of the crevices around Sanderson. We'd also caught wind of a 'herper hotel' in that town, so I had to see what that was all about. That turned out to be a GREAT decision - see below!
I've got to warn you - if this next part comes off sounding like a commercial plug for the Outback Oasis Motel in Sanderson, Texas, it IS - http://www.outbackoasismotel.com. Roy & Ruth Engeldorf left a little house on the prairie three years ago and bought the motel to live their dream of running a business in their favorite part of the country. They've got 15 cozy, air-conditioned rooms, and (as of our stay) wireless Internet for customers too. Roy maintains a collection of herps, heavy on the West Texas endemics, in a side room by the office. They sure made our stay a pure pleasure through their hospitality and local hunting advice (it was almost like getting an updated fishing report on area herp catches every time we saw him). Roy was especially kind in allowing me to borrow his specimens for photography in natural settings during the daylight 'downtime'. Since we hadn't racked up much so far ourselves, the next ten pics are courtesy of Roy & Ruth's collection.
New Mexican milk snake Lampropeltis triangulum celaenops - from Black Gap, Brewster Co., Texas
Emory's rat snake Elaphe guttata emoryi Terrell County, Texas
Trans-Pecos rat snake, normal phase Bogertophis subocularis Brewster County, Texas
Trans-Pecos rat snake, blonde phase Bogertophis subocularis Brewster County, Texas
Baird's rat snake, sub-adult Elaphe bairdi Val Verde County (Hwy. 277), Texas
Blacktail rattlesnake Crotalus m. molossus Terrell County, Texas
Desert king snake Lampropeltis getula splendida Val Verde County, Texas
Mottled rock rattlesnake Crotalus l. lepidus Terrell Co., Texas
The snake above posed so comfortably in place that I let it continue to sit there while I worked with Roy's fine Blair's phase alterna . . . .
As I was distracted diddling with my camera, I never guessed that the Blair's phase would sneak over to that poor rock rattler and . . . .
What happened next was too messy to photograph. Suffice it to say that I got them disentangled before Roy found out. Whew, that was a close one! PLEASE, don't tell him about this happening!
Just kidding, of course! Does anyone know if L. alterna is known to actually ever tackle larger serpentine prey of this size and type?
Luck continued eluding us the 3rd night with only a few toads and a D.O.R. western d'back Crotalus atrox. We figured it couldn't get any shittier than than, so we opted for the long haul down to the River Road west of Big Bend Nat'l Park to seek greener turf the 4th night. It was raining lightly down there - apparently just enough to scare off the herps. We'd bagged another night snake by the time we were nearing Presidio, and about 2am-ish, decided to hightail it back to our distant lodging in Sanderson. That's when we heard the noise. Thwump - thwump - thwump! Then, CRUNCH & CRASH !
The rear driver's side tire detached. And it didn't just leave! It bolted forward and up the hillside on our left, hit a jutting ledge, ricocheted off and flew past in front of the windshield to the right. The sight of our tire disappearing down the steep slope on our right toward the Rio Grande was not a good omen. The guy who fixed a flat in that tire many days earlier must not have tightened the lugs because we couldn't find any trace of them. The brake drum had fallen off when the wheel hit the pavement. It was a major fubar situation at that hour in the middle of nowhere. It was going to be a long night. . . .
Suddenly, headlights appeared behind us. A vehicle pulled up. The occupants saw that our backs weren't wet, and then one of them recognized me. Max Peterson and Keith Carlson got out of the vehicle. Man, I never thought good luck followed bad luck like that except in the movies! We recovered the errant tire, got it re-attached with the minor persuasion of a tire iron, played musical lug nuts with the other wheels, and limped back to Sanderson by 6:30am. THANKS, Max and Keith -- you really helped us out of a jam!
Ruth Engeldorf brewed up a scrumptious pot of chili for us and a gang of herpers who were awaiting dusk there our final evening. It was a chance to commiserate with others who were having mostly similar herping luck.
Then it was 'Farewell' and time to hit the road for our final shot at our quarry. Our 5th night began only a teeny bit more successfully with the finding of a young bull snake Pituophis melanoleucus (sayi / affinis intergrade) on the short Pumpville road, and a vinegaroon under a rotting log.
I left the choice of where to put in our last alterna time to Daniel. My hopes were waning, and I suppose I'd already halfway conceded another defeat in my Blair's Quest. What the hell, I thought -- let Daniel choose where to blow the last tank of gas. It'd be his fault if we went home skunked! He chose to give a shot to the hotspot that Matt back in San Antonio had mentioned. Since his advice steered us to success in east and south Texas previously, we headed to the north that evening. We figured we couldn't do much worse than the last 4 nights. I knew I could endure one more night of bleary-eyed staring at the spotlight's beam on the cuts.
Then , at exactly midnight , a heavenly vision materialized . . . .
That's Daniel Parker's cherry photo above - one that'll forever stay burned into my memory! Wish I could take credit for taking it, but he's the one who had the camera ready to bag the in-situ shot, despite the compelling urge to rush over and grab the prize first. Although his D50's autofocus nailed the sotol fronds in the foreground instead of the snake behind them, I now think this picture is all the better for it. And the blurry subject is probably a truer representation of what my tired eyes saw when he jarred me out of my drowsiness by yelling " Alterna ! "
Finally! A Blair's king! A NICE one! A 3-foot beauty! And a female! It couldn't get any better than that!
She was at waist level, cruising laterally on a cut we'd already checked at least three times during the previous couple hours. All you folks that said to go back again and again to shine the same cuts, well, my hat's off to you. That advice was right on the mark. Here she is posed >
Our batteries were instantly recharged. Adrenalin was flowing through our bodies. We could've driven all night at that point (and we practically did!) But only 1 & 1/4 hours later, a second vision appeared about 8 feet up a crumbling dirt cut, its head hidden in a crack. I had to hoist Daniel up with a handstep to carefully pluck it off the wall . . . .
This time is was a nearly 2-foot long male, darker but still oh so fine! The cut was exactly 4 miles from where we got the female, so we'll call them a 'locality' pair . BTW, we were in southern Crockett County. Which road? Uh, I seem to have forgotten..... Hell no I didn't forget, but in tribute to our tip source, we promised not to divulge the hotspot any more exactly than that. I doubt it would really matter, though, if I did nail down the place. It's the hunting technique, not so much knowing 'secret' hotspots, that produces pay dirt out there - a fact we learned that fateful night.
We also found an adult bull snake, and this fine blacktail (photo taken in-situ), both on cuts, before heading to San Antonio. Our catch would have consisted of only two small western diamondbacks had we only hunted the road that night.
We arrived at the San Antonio Zoo by late morning and were greeted by curator Alan Kardon and his herpetarium staff. Keepers Bekky and Sal ably facilitated us photographing the superb viper collection, my personal favorites of the snake world. Here are three of their creme de la creme tree vipers. Left to right: Bothriechis rowleyi; Bothriechis nigroviridis nigroviridis; and Bothriechis aurifer, and below, herp keeper Bekky Muscher handling the B. aurifer behind the scenes. Cool forearm tattoo of the aurifer , Bekky!
That about wrapped up the trip - a fantastic 2 weeks! I thank Daniel Parker / Sunshine Serpents - http://www.sunshineserpents.com for being the perfect herping companion. I hope his truck didn't suffer too much permanent damage.
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