La Ventana Stories


La Ventana Stories, an ongoing series of write-ups, started in December 2018, about the history and the happenings of La Ventana Bay and the surrounding region. Contributed by seasonally resident authors, look for a new story every few weeks during the windy season.

King Snakes

Kingsnakes are beautiful snakes. They are not easy to find in Baja but, when discovered, these striking snakes can have quite an effect. In Southern Baja, we have one species: the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae). This species has quite a large range, inhabiting many different habitats from Cabo to Oregon. Often they will be black with white bands but they can also be black with white stripes down their bodies. 

Kingsnakes are loved by many people— even by those who dislike snakes — and it’s not because of their personality. Charming though they may be, Kingsnakes are famous rattlesnake eaters. Yet Kingsnakes also eat other snakes, rodents, lizards, amphibians and birds; they are true generalists, willing to eat whatever comes their way. 

Because of their beautiful colors and hardy nature, Kingsnakes are often kept as pets. This is a bit of a problem because they are frequently taken out of the wild for the pet trade. 

Kingsnakes are very secretive. It can be difficult to find them, even in places where they are common, unless you can find a window into their favorite habitat: the subterranean world. By flipping things over (like rocks, wood boards and especially sheet metal), Kingsnakes and many other snakes can be discovered. If you do this, however, make sure to carefully put their roof back just the way you found it to preserve their habitat. 

Some people mistakenly believe Kingsnakes to be venomous, but they are not. Instead, they are very powerful constrictors for their size. In some places, Kingsnakes mimic venomous coral snakes, looking almost identical, but there are no coral snakes in Baja except for a small area near the California border. So don’t worry about any colorful little snakes in La Ventana because they are all harmless.

Some Rattlesnake Facts

Top left, Baja California Rattlesnake. Top right, Baja California Night Snake. Bottom left, California Lyresnake. Bottom right, Red Diamond Rattlesnake.

This time of year many snakes are out, including rattlesnakes. I get a lot of questions about our local rattlesnakes and hear rumors about them, many of which are false, so here are a few facts about these beautiful and important snakes.

In La Ventana/El Sargento, we have three species of rattlers: the Red Diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber), the Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchellii) and the Baja California Rattlesnake (Crotalus enyo). All of these species have rattles and are dangerously venomous and should be given space. As for which are the most venomous, I do not really have an answer. I would treat all rattlesnakes with equal respect.

The rattle-less rattlesnakes that I hear people talking nervously about are only found on Isla Santa Catalina; none of them live on mainland Baja. Occasionally, rattlesnakes will lose their rattles, but this is quite rare.

There are other ways of identifying rattlesnakes besides their rattles. Their heads are quite large and their eyes have vertical pupils, but so do the eyes of many non-venomous snakes. Most rattlesnakes have black and white colored bands on their tails before the rattles, and are quite heavily built, meaning they are relatively short and fat.

One thing I hear often is that baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adults because they don’t know how to control their venom. I believe this to be completely false. Even if baby rattlesnakes used all of their venom in one bite, which is very unlikely, they still have much less venom than adults, because their venom glands are smaller. Baby rattlesnakes are definitely dangerous, I just would not say that they are any more dangerous than adults.

One last thing to note: rattlesnakes are venomous, not poisonous. Venom is injected into the bloodstream, whereas poison is eaten or touched.

If there are any questions about our venomous neighbors, I would love to answer them! Please email me anytime. Here are a few pictures of rattlesnakes next to pictures of harmless snakes. Can you tell the difference? Photo credits thanks to Adam Clause, Jackson Shedd, and Stuart Young. California Herps

Snakes on the Road

In the last few weeks, many reptiles have been out. April is probably the snakiest month of the year, as it is mating season. This time of year, snakes will leave their usual range and wander in search of other snakes, and food. Unfortunately, this means snakes are crossing roads much more than usual, which is very dangerous for them. Especially on the main roads, people drive fast, and many snakes move slowly. This spring I have seen more dead snakes than alive, and this truly breaks my heart.

Some snakes, like Coachwhips, move very fast, and can cross roads relatively safely. But others, like our beautiful and endemic Cape Gopher Snakes, and Rosy Boas, are very vulnerable. What I have noticed is that most of the snakes being hit are harmless species. I hope people do not run snakes over on purpose, but I know that they are often misconstrued as evil or dangerous, so I am afraid it is more common than I would like to know.

Accidental hits are unavoidable, but we can definitely reduce the number. If you see a live snake in the road, just stop the car in front of the snake and wait until the snake has crossed the road. This way you don’t even need to get out of your car, and the snake will make it across the road in one piece. If you help a snake in this way, or just see one, please try to take a picture, and I would love to identify it for you! I am starting a project studying which species of snake are found in La Ventana and El Sargento proper, compared to the surrounding desert, and every photo helps!

Reptile Eggs

Happy Easter! This week, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about reptile eggs! Around here, all lizards lay eggs, which might not come as a surprise. Most lizards lay small clutches of eggs in the ground, bury them, and then go about their day. Believe it or not, with one controversial exception, none of our local reptiles watch their young; as soon as they come into the world, they are on their own. 

House Geckos lay only two eggs at a time, but lay many clutches each year. This strategy seems to work well, judging by the large amount of Asian House Geckos living here in La Ventana. 

All the local sea turtles lay eggs as well. They come up on the beach, dig holes, lay their eggs and leave! The challenge with this strategy is that their young are extremely vulnerable when they hatch on the beach.

All of the next type of reptile lay eggs as well. These reptiles will usually build nests in trees and raise their young until old enough to leave the nest. They are the only flying reptiles. However, I don’t need to talk too much about these flying feathered dinosaurs because they have their own column! According to our local expert, “They come in many pretty colors but they all look just the same.”

Yes, some people classify birds as a type of reptile. Sorry, David. All Things Reptile is coming for the Bird’s Eye View!

The last type of reptile does not always lay eggs, and this frequently surprises people. Most of our local snakes do lay eggs, but not all of them. Locally, rattlesnakes give live birth, and so do Rosy Boas and Cape Garter Snakes. Approximately 30% of all snakes worldwide give live birth.

Our Largest Lizards

Here in La Ventana/El Sargento, we have two species of iguana. I have been getting a lot of questions about them recently, so I decided it is time for another column spotlighting our largest lizards.

The first species is the Cape Spiny-Tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura hemilopha), which is a beautiful, arboreal (lives in trees or, in our case, cactuses) iguana that frequently invites itself into people’s yards. Before they know it, they have a new resident living on one of their Cardon cactuses or on their rooftop. The good news is that these Iguanas are always quite respectful; they just want to eat leaves, flowers and insects, and lie in the sun for hours on end.

Cape Spiny-Tailed Iguanas come in a few colors. Large adults will usually be black with a gray collar, but young adults will range from olive green to gray. In my opinion, the babies are the prettiest, pulling off a striking bright green for their first year or so.

The second species of local iguana is highly seasonal, and almost impossible to spot from December to March. Desert Iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) spend their winters underground, in extensive tunnel systems. These lizards do not climb trees; they prefer life on the ground. They are most often a sandy brown color, although sometimes they will appear much darker depending on the weather. They are a bit smaller than the other local iguana species. If you are here in June, you will see these lizards flash by at regular intervals. I would say they are the most common lizard in our area through the summer months. They are also ridiculously fast and quite skittish, so trying to get a good look at one can be like trying to examine a bolt of lightning. 

Throughout the fall, these iguanas exhibit an interesting behavior: many individuals will disappear, even though it is warm enough for these heat-loving reptiles. The adult iguanas move underground temporarily, which allows the young iguanas a window of opportunity. Since many of the adults are not around, the young ones get to eat more of the flowers, which in turn allows them to grow much bigger then they normally would when competing with adults for food. And being bigger and stronger gives them a much better shot at making it through the winter.

Attracting Birds to Your Yard

In the last two to three years, several studies have been published in scientific journals suggesting that having nature, for example singing birds, in your immediate environment can lead to greater well-being and health and overall life enrichment and even a prolonging of life. Here in Baja, particularly in El Sargento and La Ventana, we not only have plenty of sun, clean salt air, and many opportunities for exercise. So, what about the singing birds, you ask? Well, take it from me…there are plenty of songbirds to listen to right here in our two villages! You just have to know how to enjoy them and bring them in closer to one’s eyes and ears. It is neither difficult nor expensive. 

First and foremost, birds need fresh water in which to bathe and to drink. You do not need to buy a fancy bird bath. Just one of those foot-wide shallow plastic dishes that you place under a planter will do. It can be placed right on the ground or elevated slightly on some rocks or a sand pile. Due to a combination of the drying hot sun and the vigorous splashing by the bathing birds, you will need to refill it every two days. If you want to get fancier, it is really easy to mix some concrete and pour it into a hollowed pit in the ground to make a classy bird bath 2 or 3 feet across. Or you can go one step further and cement your bath onto a pile of large beach rocks to get it off the ground. The water level should not be deep; just two or three inches will do. A word of caution though — try not to locate your bird bath too close to vegetation that might provide ambush cover for the feral cats prowling about in our villages. 

As for bird food, there are a couple of options. You can buy chicken scratch by the pound at either of the local grocery stores. I buy mine in bulk for a good price at Semillas Y Cereales Guadalajar on Calle Aquiles Serdan in downtown La Paz. I keep the bag in a decent plastic bin (a metal garbage can would be ideal) to avoid problems with rodents. Offering the seed to ground-feeding birds can range from throwing out a couple of handfuls on the ground in a spray motion each morning to laying it out on a wooden or plastic tray (like a garbage can lid) sitting on a post of some kind. Yes, you might attract 10 to 30 white-winged doves, but you might also bring in California quail, house finches, lark sparrows, green-tailed towhees, and ground-doves. I have indeed acquired a flock of 30 or more doves, but I look upon those greedy birds as a giant smorgasbord for the fairly common Cooper’s hawks which love to dine upon them. Another seed worth offering is gray striped sunflower, a food preferred by northern cardinals, black-headed grosbeaks, gila woodpeckers, and California scrub-jays. 

And then there are the hummingbirds. We mostly get Costa’s hummingbirds here. Putting out a feeder with red parts or even just a red ribbon tied onto it and filled with a sugar solution will make them quite happy. Just bring to a boil 4 cups of drinking water and one cup of white or cane sugar and then let it sit until cooled. You can store it in the fridge for several days. You will need to put out more than one hummer feeder; otherwise, they will fight to exhaustion over them. Keep in mind that Scott’s and hooded orioles, gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers also love that sweetened water. They will find all sorts of clever ways to hang on your sugar feeder and drain it in an hour or so. 

Speaking of orioles and flickers, there is a more natural way to attract them. Plant plenty of aloe vera plants with either the orange or yellow flowers filled with nectar….the birds absolutely adore them! In fact, if you are building a house here, try to keep as much natural vegetation in place as possible. You will not regret it. My greatest pleasure each day is sitting out on the back patio with a steaming cup of coffee at sunrise with my wife and watching more than 20 species of birds fly in and around my yard feeding their faces and splashing about and drinking in my baths. You just have to offer them a nice safe restaurant with the right foods and beverages! 

American Kestrels

If you would have told me ten years ago that I would own a home in El Sargento and even more unbelievable, that I would have a pair of American kestrels in March flitting in and out of a wooden nest box that I installed in my yard only 80 feet from my back patio, I would have thought you to be “crazy in the head”! But here I am enjoying the chittering of a pair of kestrels as they copulate on the hydro wires and on a bush just outside the entrance hole of my nest box, which was kindly built for me by Greg Julien and Kevin Katzmann. These are all good signs that the birds might raise young, however I have long since learned not to count my chickens, errr falcons, before they hatch. 

But just to back up a bit, you need to know that I had studied the American kestrel for no less than four decades, bred thousands of them in captivity for research purposes, and was at one time the world’s leading authority on the species. What is really incredible is that this tiny falcon used to be known as one of the most common birds of prey to be seen in North America! Today though, we are worried about losing it! 

While the kestrel does have one or two places in North America where its population is doing fairly well (the state of Idaho and the Baja Peninsula being two of them), it is fast disappearing from the landscape elsewhere, particularly in the northeastern part of the continent. Why do we know that it is declining? And what is causing the decline? Read the full story here.

Birding/Snorkelling at Cerralvo Island update: We are looking for one more person to sign up for the Cerralvo Island boat expedition on Wednesday, March 20 (tomorrow!) to make it a go. Six people accompanied me on March 14th and everyone had a great time! The cost is 125US which covers the boat and motor, a pilot, a fish ID guide, snorkelling gear, and a nice lunch. We assemble at 0730 at Palapas Ventana Resort and we are back around 1400. Because time is short, feel free to phone me. David M. Bird 686-338-9135

 Humpback Whales

 Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Winter is a special time of the year. We get the wind that brings joy to many, and we get some special visitors: whales! From the ones in our area, the most common and acrobatic are humpback whales.

Humpbacks are baleen whales, meaning they don’t have teeth, but keratine plates, packed tight together forming a comb-like structure. The baleen works like a giant sieve for filtering small prey.

Found worldwide, in the Northern Hemisphere, they migrate every year between their high-latitude summer feeding grounds to their low-latitude breeding grounds, where they mate and calve during the winter. Adult males measure between 11.5-15m (37.5-49ft) and females are usually a bit bigger, 12-16m (39-52ft). They are easy to distinguish from other whales by their long flippers and their dorsal fin on top of a distinctive hump. They are more active on the surface than any other whale, performing beautiful acrobatics like breaching, and slapping their pectoral fins and tails (lobtailing).

The ones visiting us yearly breed around Cabo area and migrate north for the summer, to Canada or north of the US. They mate between December and March, the pregnant females will return after around 11 months to give birth. Humpbacks usually don´t feed here, so they must feed intensively in the summer. They feed on small fish like anchovies, herring, or sardines, and krill. Sometimes humpbacks can be seen opportunistic feeding in Baja, like on the big sardine balls of the Pacific, who can resist a good snack?

Another special thing about humpback whales is their songs. Females and males produce a wide variety of vocalizations, but only males sing. They create the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom.

Humpback whales can be identified by the unique patterns on the underside of their flukes and the serrations on the edges. Photographing a whale fluke, the individual can be recognized. If you take a good photo of underneath the whale tale, you can send it to, where they will try to find a match to your photo. This way, through citizen science, we can see their movement through different years, which is pretty cool! 

Humpbacks are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, after recovering from the brink of extinction from the whaling times. They are certainly very special creatures and seeing them in our bay every year brings us lots of joy! María Rodriguez-Salinas

Warm, not very windy, and very sunny: Snakes

The last few days have been warm, not very windy, and very sunny. When you put these three things together, you get snakes!

On Sunday I went on three separate snake-searching expeditions: one in the morning, one in the early afternoon, and one in the late afternoon. I could tell serpents would be out by the amount of lizards scampering about the desert.

In the morning, I found very little in the way of snakes, but some whiptail lizards were darting to and fro, and a few Zebra-Tailed Lizards were relaxing in the sun, waving their tails in the air like irritated cats. I even saw an occasional spiny lizard sitting in the sun, never too far from a hiding place.

On the afternoon trip, even more lizards were out, but I still didn’t see any signs of snakes, so I decided to check on some brush piles in which I had seen coachwhips earlier this winter. The first few piles had ground squirrels lounging on top, a sure sign that no snakes would be present. However, as I approached, one smaller pile started rustling and I had found my first snake of the day!

Finding a coachwhip and catching a coachwhip are Very Different Things. Unlike many large snakes, coachwhips are able to move at amazing speeds, though this one didn’t need any amazing speed because it already had a foolproof hideout. I returned a bit later to see if the snake had re-emerged and, although I could tell that it had, it was like trying to catch a lightning-fast, perfectly camouflaged piece of hay in a needle stack. 

The third outing of the day revealed many snake tracks on the roads, at least for February, but they all seemed a bit old. Judging by the tracks, my guess is that snakes are really out from around 2:30 to 4pm this time of year.

As for which kinds of snakes you may see, most of the tracks were smaller and had the typical curves of fast-moving snakes, so I think they are likely young Baja California Coachwhips and Western Patch-Nosed Snakes, though rattlesnakes are out as well. This is still pretty early for springtime snake movement, so my guess is once this little heat wave goes by, the snakes will retreat back underground until the warmer weather of the first real spring days. Chance Stevens

Breeding season is coming!

We have made it into March! You know the old saying: March comes in like a lamb, and goes out like a lion. Well, as far as reptiles are concerned, it is very accurate! We are on the fringe of the reptile breeding season and, as temperatures warm, the snakes really start coming out. Be careful on the bike trails because, yes, there are rattlesnakes, but I mostly watch out for snakes crossing trails, since many get run over by cyclists.

On Saturday, I came across a large snake track crossing a dirt road and followed it towards a large bush. After checking the bush, I continued in the direction the snake had been moving and, to my surprise and delight, there was a large Baja California Coachwhip sprawled out in some old palm husks. Finding coachwhips is the easy part; catching them, however, is an entirely different matter.

I crept up and the snake recoiled under a husk. As I got closer, it seemed the snake had nowhere to go, so I quickly lifted the husk only to see the tail disappearing into an adjacent bush. I raced around to the other side of the bush trying to spot it. A movement caught my eye from across the clearing. It was the coachwhip! Apparently, it had teleported across the clearing. I watched as it smugly slithered into a brush pile and knew that I had been defeated.

Spring Reptile Walks! Our next walk will start at the Las Palmas Trailhead, north of town. At 9am on Friday, March 15th. We will be heading up the Las Palmas Arroyo in search of San Lucan Rock Lizards. Be ready for a longer walk in search of these beautiful endemics.