#69 - "Road Cruising" from Rodeo, New Mexico

R O A D   C R U I S I N G 

The night before last I turned south out of the gates at Rusty’s RV Ranch and headed south on Highway 80. One half mile later I turned to the east and followed Highway 9 toward Animas. The posted speed limit was 55 and would be 65, but my dusty white-gold F150 creeped along at about 22 mph. It was 6:40 p.m. and the temperature was about 92ºF. 33ºC. Sunset would be at about 8:15. 

I’ve mentioned “road cruising” and thought it time to elucidate on the practice of traveling mostly deserted paved desert roads at dusk and into the night in search of serpents and other crepuscular wildlife. This effective method allows snake hunters to cover ground and encounter animals drawn to the pavement. At dusk ectothermic (poikilothermic) animals like reptiles take advantage of heat energy trapped in the asphalt. They have no furnace of their own, and have evolved wondrous ways of attaining optimal body temperature. The blazing sun might have cooked them and they might have escaped the heat of day in burrows or beneath rocks or other cover, but as the sun falls into the horizon some reptiles thermoregulate and digest meals by using nature’s hot water bottle. This behavior varies throughout the year as the contrast between daytime highs and surface temperature beneath the sun and that of evening roads differs. The roads may hold heat into the dark, but other reptiles are just on the move. Roads are the arteries of man, and these thoroughfares cut through wildlife habitat. Natural movements by snakes, whether hunting or mating or dispersing or whatever, cannot help but cross the roads. By road cruising the snake enthusiast can search much territory in a night and chance upon wildlife just moving from point A to B. 

The night before last I crept east and my first sighting was a dead-on-road (DOR) Sonoran Gopher Snake that was perhaps three feet in length before its vehicular slaughter rearranged its anatomy. People are oblivious. That sad truth becomes more so every year as we become more device-oriented/obsessed and have so many LED lights and techno-gadetry inside our vehicles. Other drivers are focused on the sunset or birds or that next mile. Few notice anything on the pavement. Others are just pondscum. They see a snake on the road and intentionally aim their wheels at it. To them the only snake is a good snake and I can only fantasize about them being eaten alive by diseased and plague-carrying rats and other rodents in a snake-less world. They are far too ignorant to understand how beneficial snakes are or how every single organism is integral to its ecosystem. 

After passing the grotesque remains of that first Sonoran Gopher Snake, I came upon another. It was very much alive. Big and beautiful, its golden scales shimmered in the light of dusk as it headed off the road towards the rocky red desert. I pressed the button for my truck’s hazard lights and moved slightly off the road. I don’t like to move too far off the pavement if I can avoid it as you never know what animals are in the scrub at the roadside. Vehicles are few and far between and I typically have them to myself except for the ubiquitous Border Patrol trucks. I already knew what the snake was so there was no need for my snake hook. I only use this to move venomous snakes off the road and position them for photographs. I now wear a pouch on my belt holding a point-and-shoot camera and always snatch my iPhone as I use it to record GPS coordinates (waypoints; Gaia GPS app) and dictate field notes (Voice Memos app). Of course, it also has a mediocre camera. I jumped out of the truck and grabbed the four-foot-plus snake about eighteen inches from the tip of its tail. Sonoran Gopher Snakes hiss and puff and strike and will bite, but this isn’t my first rodeo. I moved it farther off the road without any blood loss. The scent of snake musk filled the air. The gorgeous snake only struck at me once, but it huffed and puffed and when I set it down for photos it continued to hiss loudly. I decided to head back to the truck for my other cameras and snake hook, and then continued to capture images of it. Snakes usually are calmer when you manipulate them on a hook (metal tree branch) rather than clutching them like straws. I used the hook to lift the snake onto a rock for some better images one of which you will see below. After recording my data and noting time and temperature it was time to bid farewell to Mr. Huff and Puff and push on. The time was now 7:01 and the desert was long from cooling. 

In Animas I headed south on Highway 338. At this junction there were a few other vehicles, but I continued my slow crawl with my eyes fixed on the pavement. Just outside of town I saw a minivan with a canoe strapped to the roof pulled off the side of the road. As I approached, I noticed a guy about my age with a long ponytail taking a picture of something using his smartphone. His cell phone was held only about a foot off the roadside shoulder so I knew he was photographing something that would be of interest to me. I slowly creeped up and rolled down my passenger window. I became excited when he told me that it was a Mexican Hog-nosed Snake and put my truck into reverse and aimed it off the road a bit far enough behind him. He and I both continued to capture images of the snake, which was in full-on possum mode. Hog-nosed snakes are masters of feigning death. They roll onto their backs with mouth agape and even secrete blood in their mouths. The mistake they make wouldn’t be noticed by a predator. They will move their tongues and hold them out erect like only a live snake could do. Me and my fellow road-cruiser (I would later learn that his name is Clay) got to chatting. I noticed he had Washington State license plates as I once did. I told him I was out looking for snakes and he showed me a bunch of great finds of his own using his smartphone. Since we were both headed the same direction and doing the same thing, and I was duly impressed by his ability to notice a diminutive juvenile hog-nosed snake, we agreed that I would follow him about 1/4 mile back and would join him when he found something and stopped. I stayed back far enough that I might see something he didn’t or that came onto the road after he passed, but so that I could usually see his tail lights. It was getting darker. Clay and I continued down the road until the pavement ends and then turned around and continued our road-cruising as we headed back north. We found another Sonoran Gopher Snake. He stopped for a Groundsnake, but it raced off the road before he could catch it. We stopped for a Texas Horned Lizard. We stopped for a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (WDB). And so on. 

It was about 10 pm when I fell farther behind him and encountered another WDB. It was a pretty juvenile. Stopping to photograph it and record data increased the separation between my truck and Clay’s van and I later continued back to Animas alone. When I turned west on Highway 9 and passed Valley Mercantile I noticed his van parked near its fuel pumps. I decided to pull in and top off my tank and have one last chat with him. A group of young “good ole boys” in a big customized truck seemed to be eyeing him with ill intention. When I pulled in and got out they eyed me and then squealed their tires and kicked up a dust storm as they headed the way Clay and I had come. I walked over to his vehicle and he said that the young locals definitely looked like they wanted to hassle him or were otherwise up to no good. We chatted and said our goodbyes after discussing some trails in the Chiricahuas. I went back to the fuel pump and filled my truck. As drove to the exit he stopped and tapped his horn twice. I thought he was just sounding a final goodbye. But he jumped out of his van and exclaimed “there’s an atrox right here”. That’s the species name of the Western Diamondback (WDB) and, sure enough, our last snake of the night was a gorgeous four foot WDB slowly crawling across the pavement right at Valley Mercantile. 

Yesterday I finally visited the Chiricahua Desert Museum (CDM). Earlier I drove into the Chiris to visit the Chiricahua Nature Shop at the Southwestern Research Station of the American Museum of Natural History. I had intended to hike the Basin Trail again after Clay had told me about finding some bucket list snakes along the mountain trails that include Basin. However, I did not sleep well and was exhausted. So I decided it would be tourism gift shop day. As I pulled into CDM, I saw Bob Ashley out front. Owner/director of the museum and co-owner of NARBC, the national reptile show where I used to exhibit during its Tinley Park (Chicago) stop, Bob and I don’t know each other well but I thought he’d recognize me. I used to deal more with his partner Brian Potter and also longtime colleague-friend Russ Gurley who helps with their shows. But Bob at least acted like he knew me, shook my hand and welcomed me to CDM. I told him I was registered for the Biology of Snakes conference he was hosting/organizing at the end of July and he got back to work on his big Baja Blue Rock Lizard enclosure while I spent some money on books, hats and cards in his amazing gift shop and then toured his incredible, mostly-reptile oriented museum and its live exhibits showcasing over thirty species of rattlesnakes and many other denizens of the desert. Next door to the gift shop and museum is his Apache Museum and Geronimo Event Center where the conference will be held. The Apache Museum features Geronimo and other Native American history. I spent all of two minutes in there as history/culture is not my thing and it seemed the air conditioning wasn’t on and it was hotter than hell. I then toured the beautiful gardens and outdoor displays where Bob worked on the lizard enclosure. He invited me to return on the weekend when he would have more time to give me a little behind-the-scenes personal tour of his impressive complex. 

But this is a story about road cruising … Last night I decided to travel exactly the same roads and perhaps run into Clay again. This area is “closer to home” than the roads I have cruised that lead to Hachita and south to the border at Antelope Wells. I didn’t see Clay or anyone else other than Border Patrol. I actually had two nice conversations with Border Patrol officers that offset the story I told here of the officer I had encountered a couple weeks earlier when I went all the way down to Antelope Wells. The first pair stopped when I moved off the road so I wouldn’t have to speed up and chatted with me for awhile. They were young and friendly and so much more officer material than the fat country bumpkin I had met near Antelope Wells. They asked me what part of Illinois I was from and let me know if I had any troubles to flag them down. We wished each other a safe night and I was left with a better impression of Border Patrol. Later, long after dark, I stopped to photograph a rattlesnake just after turning around to head back north and a solo officer pulled over to make sure I was OK. I just said I’m a snake photographer and there is a rattlesnake right next to your truck and he wished me a safe evening. 

I’ll close with a brief report of last night’s “cruise”. I don’t have time now to process my photographs and insert them into the blog so please check my Instagram tonight. There already are plenty of pix from the previous night.

I road cruised 75 miles over the course of 4 hours (6:45-10:45).

  1. 7:15 pm. 85ºF - Sonoran Gopher Snake (live, ~24”) - Had just started south on Highway 338. 
  2. 7:29 pm, 82ºF - Patch-nosed Snake (DOR. ~28”) 
  3. 8:02 pm, 77ºF - Texas Horned Lizard (live) - Just north of Mile Marker 13. 
  4. 8:43 pm, 76ºF - Green Prairie Rattlesnake (live, ~16”) - Just north of Mile Marker 23
  5. 9:05 pm, 76ºF - Western Diamondback Rattlesnake [WDB] (live, ~30”) - Just after turning around and heading back north
  6. 10:20 pm, 70ºF - WDB (live, ~18”) - Just west of Animas on Highway 9
  7. 10:28 pm, 70ºF - WDB (live, ~28”) - About four miles west of Animas 

Other wildlife seen: jackrabbits, more jackrabbits, cottontails, mule deer, Ferruginous Hawk, open range cattle, etc. 

The Green Prairie Rattlesnake juvenile was the jewel of the night! Such a pretty little youngster. This species is much less commonly seen road cruising than WDB. This snake is known for its dangerous mix of haemotoxic and neurotoxic venom components and envenomation causes severe respiratory distress and is extremely threatening to life.

     —   All the best, M