The first time I fell hurt. The second tumble down the steep talus slide left me with a broken ring flash. The third time I was bloodied. Both legs are bruised and sliced open and my left wrist has a mild sprain.
I had driven high into the bear country of the Chiricahuas in pursuit of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei). It primarily inhabits expansive rock slides known as talus slopes in sky island hardwood and conifer forests. They are mostly known from 8000-9000' in elevation and most populations are found on south-facing rock slides where these slender 16-20" rattlers feed on spiny lizards (Sceloporus).
Sadly, these protected snakes are collected by poachers. They are rare and their scarcity, small size, and docile nature makes them prized serpents in the illegal exotic pet trade. I met a man named Dave who has studied them for 19 years and has attempted to have this area closed to protect the rattlesnakes. That has failed, but he visits often and warns snake hunters about collecting them. During my visit three young men that were at the IHS, including one who was a speaker after winning the Junior Herper grant in the 19-22 year-old category, were warned by Dave who sees all snake hunters as potential poachers.
I searched the edges of the rock slide, but couldn't resist climbing the treacherous rocks. When I had arrived I met two young guys from Texas A&M who will be at the Biology of Snakes Conference that starts tonight. They told me they had seen one Twin-spotted Rattlesnake about 2/3 of the way up to where the peaks are surrounded by trees. I continued to climb, often sliding and stumbling on the steep talus slope. It isn't easy going up, but it is much worse going down.
I saw nothing except snails, spiders and the occasional spiny lizard on my ascent, and once I reached the rock faces that still stand I sat and ate my canned tuna lunch. I used my iPhone to capture some scenic video clips for my Instagram and Snapchat stories. I will share my Snapchat story of the day at the end of this blog entry.
After I finished my lunch I continued my search laterally across the sliding chunks of limestone and took what would be my second significant fall onto the rocks. During this tumble my ring flash broke away from the hot shoe of my camera body. I love my Sigma ring flash, but for some reason the part that goes into the hot shoe is plastic and not metal as it is on my Nikon speedlights. This is the second time this piece has broken and I will have to send to factory for repair. I was relieved that the lens and body were fine, as was my own flesh. By this time the skies had darkened and I decided that two falls were enough and I should try to get down to the forest floor before the afternoon monsoon rains began to fall.
I have always found descending trails more difficult than climbing them. This has only increased with age as my knees often remind me. Descending a rock slide is a whole 'nother story. I am tall and heavy and tried to keep my center of gravity back to minimize the slipping and sliding. However, often times I would fall back on my arse to break my speed. There was a little island of grass clumps and rocks that I wanted to investigate and I did my best to maneuver myself in its direction. I fell back on my butt when I reached it and looked to my side and gasped. There were three baby Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes sunning themselves in a rock crevice.
My ring flash was broken and the cloudy skies necessitated flash. As they reacted to my presence and began to slither into the safety of the surrounding rocks I quickly reached for my iPhone. This horrible image is all I could capture.
Words cannot describe how excited I was to see these snakes. They were near the top of my bucket list of snakes to observe in nature. I was disappointed that my DSLR was unusable due to the ring flash breakage, and even more disappointed that I had left my recently acquired point-and-shoot camera in my truck. The entire reason I got the point-and-shoot camera was to be able to capture good images while climbing or hiking when I didn't want to lug along the weight of my DSLR or risk its safety. However, nothing could diminish the joy of seeing these little snakes. Protected and at risk from poaching, this rare little serpent was a dream discovery and I sat and enjoyed them until they retreated into the rocks.
When the newborn rattlers disappeared my heart was pumping and I was re-energized. I decided to descend to my truck to retrieve one of my Nikon speedlight flashes and a soft box in case I found more. However, the adrenaline was pumping and I tried to make my way down the rock slide too quickly. I slipped and before I could drop my rear end on the rocks my tumble turned into a fall. My big body crashed down the rocks and I slid perhaps twenty feet. When I stopped moving I felt pain in both shins and my left wrist. I first looked at the camera that was on a sling around my body, and then looked at my heavily tattooed legs, which were now covered in blood. I had a gash and a large hematoma on my right shin and a cut on my left. I sat for five minutes or so regaining my composure and then bandaged myself with the bandanna in the pocket of my shorts. I was relieved nothing was broken and it looked like stitches wouldn't be required. I stood to double-check and rotated my sprained left wrist. All was reasonably good and I sat back down to rest some more.
As I sat in a heap on the rocks I saw Dave and his little white dog approaching. He had warned the Canadian guys about poaching and eyed me suspiciously. I told him what I had found and also how I had fell. I told him I was likely done for the day, but would like to come down and chat with him about the rattlesnakes and his attempts to close the area for their protection. After chatting with him for awhile, I retrieved the flash and made my way along the edge of the rock slide. Renowned reptile guy Bill Love had told me he had frequently encountered the alpine rattlesnakes where the talus slope meets the forest, and I was a bit injured to consider climbing back up the rock slide. As luck would have it, I found another newborn Twin-spotted Rattlesnake and was able to capture a decent image with my DSLR.
Bloodied and bruised, once this snake disappeared in the rocks I decided it was time to return to camp and clean my wounds. But the rattlesnake adventure was not over...
The road to the top of the Chiricahuas is scenic and rugged and I recounted my first ascent in an earlier blog entry. I drove back down toward Portal slowly taking it all in. I was at 6000' in elevation when the winding road delivered me another bucket list snake. Crawling across the rocky dirt road was a gorgeous adult Black-tailed Rattlesnake as big around as my wrist and perhaps 3 1/2 feet long. Black-tails occur at various elevations and those found at this height are noted for their beautiful yellow ground color that contrasts magnificently with the dark blotches and markings. This snake was stunning. Black-tailed Rattlers are also noted for their placid disposition, and this big beauty barely rattled and never struck as I photographed and filmed it on the road and then moved it to safety for more photos. It coiled in defense, but otherwise tolerated me and posed for the image below.
I am writing this Wednesday morning, two days after the big and bloody snake adventure. Yesterday I did computer work and rested my very sore legs. In addition to the cuts and bruises, my thigh muscles ache from the climbing. I only left camp yesterday to drive east to Animas to pick up some snacks and soda from the Valley Mercantile. I have only driven this road at night since my return and marveled at the flooded roadside desert scrub. The monsoon rains have created temporary ponds and as I rounded one bend I saw a turtle on the road. Yes, a turtle in the desert. Ornate Box Turtles, which are mostly terrestrial, are known from this area, but this was one of the two species of mud turtle found in the Sonora and Chihuahua Desert of the bootheel. The Yellow Mud Turtle (Kinosternon flavescens) is semi-aquatic and escapes the dry and hot periods in burrows it digs.
I'll leave you now with a compilation of video clips I captured on my iPhone Monday and posted to my Snapchat story. If you snap you can add my exoticfauna account. Please note that this video contains secret info - the locality where I found the Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes. I post it here only for my small group of blog readers. The video is unlisted on YouTube and I would appreciate you sharing this with nobody.