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.
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus), 0% whale and 100% shark, whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, reaching up to 18m (60 ft). Primarily pelagic, they can be found in both coastal and oceanic habitats. They lack proper teeth having only tiny ones and filter pads in their gills. They are filter feeders, one of only three known filter-feeding shark species (along with the basking shark and the megamouth shark). They feed on plankton and other small animals like baitfish and squid. They swallow water either by opening their mouth and swimming forward or by active suction, opening and closing their mouth. The water is then expelled through the gills, which filter the food. A juvenile whale shark is estimated to eat 21 kg (46 pounds) of plankton per day.
Whale sharks are found in tropical areas around the world, including the warm waters of Mexico from the Sea of Cortez to the eastern Mexican coast in the Caribbean. They are generally solitary animals but sometimes gather in large groups to take advantage of good feeding opportunities.
They are gray or gray-blue with a beautiful pattern of white lines and dots. This pattern is unique to each individual, like a fingerprint, and can be used for identification. In La Paz area they gather from November to April to feed in the plankton-rich waters of the Bay. Despite their enormous size, we still don´t know much about these animals, and their growth, longevity, and reproduction are poorly understood. They are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
As it is now wintertime, most resident reptiles are hibernating here in LV/ES. On warm sunny days, however, you may get a glimpse of a few soaking up the warmth. Today I will go over some of the winter-active reptiles in the area.
In my experience, the most common lizard throughout the year is probably the Orange-throated Whiptail (Aspidoscelis hyperythrus). These beautiful little speed demons are some of my favorite lizards. If you watch them for long enough, you will probably see them stop moving in a sunny patch of dirt, dig for a minute and then splay their little legs. If a lizard has a blue tail, it is probably an Orange-throated Whiptail. As with many lizards, only the young ones will be common this time of year..
Another winter friend is the Zebra-tailed Lizard (Callisaurus draconoides), little brown lizards that live in sandy soils all around La Ventana, including on the beach! They like to wiggle their tails around, displaying the black and white bottoms.
You also may see iguanas, geckos and the occasional spiny lizard, but the only other really prominent winter lizards are the Black-tailed Brush Lizards (Urosaurus nigricauda). These little gray lizards like to hang out on trees, bushes and rocks. They are quite camouflaged, but can be found pretty easily.
As for the snakes, most are hibernating, but I have heard stories of people finding all kinds of snakes in the winter here. The most common seem to include Cape Gopher Snakes, which are large, beautiful and harmless, as well as night snakes and sand snakes.
I hope this new format is enjoyable, as I am running out of new reptiles about which to write.
This column is about a special lizard I call Martha. Usually, I write columns about reptile species, but I believe this lizard deserves her own personal column.
It was a nice morning in early November and I was hanging out on our property in El Sargento. Our cats started batting a tarp on the ground and I quickly realized this was probably a reptile in need. So, I flipped the tarp and saw a Baja California Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus zosteromus) sitting on the ground. It seemed cold, and I was able to catch it quickly. At first, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. But then, as I looked closer, I discovered that this lizard had two tails!
This discovery led to a shocked silence and dropped jaw. After a moment, I rushed to find a camera and started taking tons of pictures. Martha seemed very calm, and she behaved perfectly for the photos. She would look up at me with an intelligent and somewhat bossy manner and then return to her pose; this was probably because she was cold, as spiny lizards are usually hard to photo shoot.
It turns out that this two-tailed phenomenon isn’t actually all that rare. It’s a bit complicated to explain but, basically, this is how it works: if a lizard loses its tail completely, it will regrow a new tail. However, if a lizard’s tail breaks but does not fall off, the original tail may heal and, at the same time, a new tail may grow at the point of breaking. Since I first found Martha, I have seen her a few times hanging around our trailers and, last time we met, she still had two tails!
This video shows the special relationships fish of difference species share with one another. You can look for these next time you snorkel, which are fun to observe and interesting to learn about.
To learn about the fish that live in La Ventana Bay, visit Observing Baja Coral Reef Fish.
This smiley face, pokemon-looking fish is one of the porcupinefishes species we can find in our area. Called sometimes pufferfish, they are related but belong to a different family than the proper puffers. Both families are morphologically similar, but porcupine fish have spines that cover their bodies.
They are found in temperate and tropical seas worldwide, usually close to shore. If you have ever been snorkeling or even just walking on the beach in La Ventana, I am pretty sure you have seen one! They have big round eyes on the sides of their rounded head, with a wide frontal mouth typically left open. Their teeth are fused together, creating a strong, beak-like mouth capable of cracking the shells of snails, sea urchins, and hermit crabs that make their diet.
If they feel threatened, they can inflate their bodies by swallowing water, ballooning up to three times their normal size. The spines that cover their bodies radiate then outwards, giving them another defense mechanism. They only recur to this “puffing” ploy when desperate, as they lose mobility when inflated, they normally rather just hide from predators swimming into a crevice. When approached by snorkelers and divers they usually move slowly away looking for a hideout.
Some porcupinefishes are poisonous, having a substance called tetrodotoxin in their internal organs. This deadly neurotoxin is 1200 times more toxic than cyanide. As a result of all these defense mechanisms, porcupine fish don´t have many predators, but adults can be preyed upon by sharks and orcas. Sea lions and dolphins sometimes have been seen playing with an unfortunate inflated porcupine fish, as if it were a beach ball.
In some places, they are eaten as a delicacy and the South Sea islanders once used the spiked skins of porcupinefishes as helmets.
Cape Giant Whiptails (Aspidoscelis maximus) are beautiful, interesting and appropriately-named lizards inhabiting much of the Baja Cape Region, including parts of La Ventana and El Sargento. In some areas, these lizards are very common, such as San Antonio and other towns in the mountains. They are prolific in habitats such as rocky plains, desert-y shrub forests, and even in developed areas such as towns.
Here in El Sargento, these whiptails seem to be much more secretive and rare. I have seen one north of town on the Punta Gorda trail, and a few in the hills above La Ventana. They are Very Fast and skittish, and can be difficult to see. They eat invertebrates, and can be seen foraging through the leaf litter in search of bugs and spiders.
Cape Giant Whiptails act quite similarly to their cousins, the ever-present Orange-Throated Whiptails. However, including the tail, giant whiptails can achieve lengths of over a foot! Orange-Throated Whiptails are much smaller, growing only to about 6 inches.
Whiptails are extraordinarily beautiful lizards, and can do well in urban areas, so long as there is one thing: ground cover. They spend most of their time foraging in leaf litter and looking for bugs.
If we want to help these adorable little pest controllers, we need to leave parts of our properties un-raked and wild. I have seen many places around here with intermittent bushes and cacti left to grow, but vigorously raked, so there is not a leaf lying on the ground. Although this is better than no plants, for many local reptiles, ground cover is crucial. If you do have ground cover around your house, you will likely get rewarded by being able to watch various lizard species scurrying around and enjoying the morning.
Last Friday I decided to go on a hike around Punta Gorda. Anyone who knows me well realizes that I had ulterior motives. Anyway, I headed out to flip rocks and hopefully find some interesting reptiles.
After an hour or so, I had found tons of scorpions, a centipede and a Western Banded Gecko, which wasn’t too bad, considering it is December. It was quite windy and I was expecting everything reptilian to be under rocks but then I came upon a small bendy stick in the middle of the path.
As I came closer, I realized it was a tiny snake! To my further surprise, it was one of my biggest targets: a Western Patch-nosed Snake. This tiny baby was soaking up the sun and didn’t move at first; it was quite well camouflaged. Gently, I picked it up and started “oh my gosh-ing” with joy.
I spent a few minutes with it, taking pictures and enjoying my first experience with a patch-nosed snake. These funny little snakes are mostly whiptail eaters, although they will also eat other lizards, small mammals, birds and amphibians. They are harmless to humans, although they do have a mild venom. These snakes are diurnal, meaning they come out in the day. They also actively forage for prey. Western Patch-nosed Snakes lay eggs in early summer, and the babies hatch in late summer or early fall.
I am so glad I was able to meet this little guy, and I am quite glad I got there before one of the many bikers did, as I am fairly certain they would not have seen this little fella. Mountain biking is an awesome sport, but I urge everyone using the trails to please watch out for the animals.
California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are found on the West Coast of North America, ranging all the way from southeast Alaska to central Mexico. In Baja California, they can be found in multiple locations along the Sea of Cortez and in the Pacific Coast. These charismatic animals congregate in rocky spots where they form colonies, there are about 13 identified colonies in the Sea of Cortez.
California sea lions are sexually dimorphic: adult males are larger than females and have a thicker neck, they are dark brown and have a pronounced bump on the forehead called sagittal crest. Adult females are golden brown or blonde and way smaller. Juveniles of both sexes are brown as well, so it can be difficult to distinguish their sex.
Feedingmainly offshore in coastal areas, they eat squid and different fish species including anchovies, mackerel, and sardines. They are very social animals, and they use numerous vocalizations to communicate. Getting close to their area, you are always welcomed by an endless barking sound: a sea lion colony can be a very noisy place! Females and pups communicate using vocalizations that are unique to the female and pup. A female can locate her pup among hundreds of others by her pup’s vocalization.
In Espiritu Santo Archipelago, close to La Paz, located in a UNESCO Heritage Area, resides one of the biggest and healthiest colonies in this area. This colony had scientists puzzled for some time: while other nearby colonies were decreasing due to the reduction in local fish stocks, this one was thriving and growing! A scientific investigation discovered that these sea lions had learned to dive deeper and feed on deeper water fish than other sea lions. This means that at some point they adapted their feeding habits and their skills when their usual prey started to be scarce.
Sea lions are intelligent and very charismatic animals, and it’s a privilege to see them wild and free at our doorstep. They can be curious and very playful with humans, interacting with them can be great fun, they are surely the puppies of the sea.
The Cape Striped Whipsnake (Masticophis aurigulus) is one of the rarest snakes in Baja California Sur. This elusive serpent is found mostly in the mountains in the center of the peninsula, as it likes wetter, greener areas. However, I have received a few reports of white-striped black snakes quickly slithering across paths nearby La Ventana, giving me reason to believe that striped whipsnakes may be closer than we think.
A few months ago, I had the good fortune of spending time in the field with Brad Hollingsworth Ph.D., the Curator of Herpetology for the San Diego Natural History Museum. He was on a trip to Baja starting work on a reptile survey at Rancho Ancon. We checked traps, designed to catch reptiles in an unharmed fashion, and found many interesting reptiles and amphibians that included sand snakes, whiptails, toads and more. Everything was released after being weighed and measured.
When we came up to a particular trap situated in an arroyo surrounded by thick greenery, I was extra excited, as it was placed in a location considered ideal for the elusive San Lucan Alligator Lizard, one of my biggest targets in Baja. We came upon the first trap of the set. Each set had two above-ground traps and a bucket trap. One of the traps had a small whiptail inside and we started the measuring process. I decided not to look in the direction of the other traps to keep it a surprise. After the suddenly excruciatingly long process, we moved on to the bucket trap. I believe it had a small toad inside, so we started the process again. Finally, it was time to move on to the best-looking trap.
Another very nice scientist on the expedition, Marco, was the first to exclaim: “There’s a big snake in this one!” I then almost hit the speed of sound. Right there, before my eyes, was a large, beautiful Cape Striped Whipsnake.
The Cape Striped Whipsnake is closely related to the coachwhip, a snake commonly found around La Ventana and which I wrote about in my first column. These snakes share a diet of mostly other reptiles, but birds, bird eggs, rodents and amphibians are also eaten. The Cape Striped Whipsnake likes to climb and, if you are lucky enough to see one, it will likely be in a bush or tree.
A pretty common sight when driving through Baja are the majestic ospreys, always looking out from their nests, usually on top of light poles or in poles especially placed for them. Ospreys are diurnal birds of prey, with a wide distribution: they are found in all continents but Antarctica. They are usually migratory birds, but not in Baja California, where our mild winter is comfortable enough for them to stay all year around.
Ospreys are found close to water bodies, such as estuaries, marshes, rivers, or by the seaside. Fish are their favorite prey, they actually eat barely anything else: fish make up to 99% of their diet! They hunt by diving to the water’s surface from some 30 to 100 feet first. Gripping pads on their feet help them grab fish from the water and carry them for great distances. They are very well adapted to the aquatic environment: an oily waterproof coating on their wings allows them to dive without sinking and they can close their nostrils when submerged in water.
Ospreys are usually monogamous and often mate for life. The male selects a suitable place and together with the female, they collect materials and build a large nest. The females lay 2 to 4 eggs and the pair incubates them.
Watching ospreys fishing, protecting their nests, feeding their young, or just vigilant on top of a cardon is a great pleasure to enjoy all year round in Baja.