Winter reptiles

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.

Two Tailed Lizard!

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!

Cape Giant Whiptails

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.

Western Patch-nosed Snake

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.

Cape Striped Whipsnake

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.

California Lyre Snake

Today’s article is about the California Lyre Snake (Trimorphodon lyrophanes), which unfortunately I have not yet seen in the wild, but I frequently get asked about them. I think it is time to write an article featuring these interesting, harmless rattlesnake mimics.

The California Lyre Snake is a semi-common, harmless and mildly venomous snake. Its venom is used only to subdue prey, and is not considered dangerous to humans. They are often confused with rattlesnakes because, like rattlesnakes, their eyes have vertical pupils and their scales have similar patterns. You may see these snake in trees since they like to climb, and I believe this climbing predilection is the reason they hold the record for the most emails I have received about people finding snakes inside houses, though sand snakes and night snakes are close behind.

Lyre snakes eat mostly lizards, although rodents, birds, bird eggs and small snakes are also sometimes eaten. I have heard these snakes can handle pretty cold temperatures, and will be out in dry and wet conditions. So, even when it’s a cool, wet and windy night, they will sometimes be out, which is more than I can say for myself.

San Lucan Geckos

I write about species that I have found in the wild but, unfortunately, I am starting to run out. However, today, after some scrounging and a quick search through my pictures, I remembered the San Lucan Gecko.

San Lucan Geckos (Phyllodactylus unctus) are very similar to Asian House Geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus), which are the ones all over La Ventana and which I wrote about in a previous column. However, San Lucan Geckos have a much more distinct pattern and they are supposed to be here, unlike Asian House Geckos, which are considered an invasive species.

San Lucan Geckos are sometimes called Leaf-Toed Geckos, as their toes somewhat resemble leaves. I have found San Lucan Geckos north of El Sargento, as well as south of La Ventana, but I have never seen one in town. My theory is that the invasive house geckos outcompete them by eating the same food, liking the same habitats and laying eggs more frequently. The Asian House Geckos are also well-evolved for life in houses, along walls and around other man-made structures.

San Lucan Geckos, although now faced with invasive threats, are still prolific in many areas, and hope is definitely not lost. For example, I have observed San Lucan Geckos all over our friend’s house hiding under lights and eating moths. Although I saw house geckos too, there were probably three San Lucan Geckos to every house gecko. I don’t love online school, and usually try to avoid math in general, but those seem like pretty good stats to me. (No offense to my lovely teacher who I think reads my columns.)

Cape Garder Snake

Today I have decided to write about the Cape Garter Snake (Thamnophis validus celaeno). Although they don’t live in La Ventana, they inspire the most common question that I receive: “There was a black snake swimming; is it dangerous?” 

Around the beautiful town of Santiago (about a two-hour drive south from LV/ES), there are numerous waterways meandering through the arid countryside, including hot springs, waterfalls and swimming holes. These attractions bring people from all over the Cape Region, and this just happens to be the exact habitat of the Cape Garter Snake. Sometimes called the Cape Water Snake, these serpents spend most of their time in the water hunting fish.

Cape Garter Snakes are completely harmless little snakes that are quite common throughout many of the permanent streams in the Sierra de la Laguna Mountain Range. The last time I went to a river near Santiago, I found eight garters in a few hours! Though these snakes typically leave you alone, I have heard some stories of these little guys coming up to people to say hello. However, they aren’t too smart so maybe this is accidental. If you want to pick one up, you should be ready to get bitten about 100 times, but it really doesn’t hurt. When smaller ones bite, sometimes I don’t even notice.

If you are scared of snakes, don’t let your fear of these harmless creatures ruin your waterfall trip. If you’re not looking for them, you very well may not see any. Even if you do see some, they want nothing to do with humans; all they want is to eat fish and stay away from danger.

Cerralvo (Part 3 of 3)

It was almost 11pm and Isla Cerralvo was truly starting to come alive. It seemed that, all of a sudden, praying mantises were everywhere and, around almost every bush, so were swervy sand snake tracks. My dad and I were getting tired, but we decided to push on. This time we would head up into the dense brush above our campsite. We followed a small arroyo until it ended, then headed into the labyrinth of bushes covering much of the dune complex. 

Isla Cerralvo’s interior dune system bears a remarkable resemblance to a maze. You start in open natural pathways, squeeze through a tight spot into another pathway, which then ends and you try to go back, but all the bushes look the same and now you have no idea how you got there. Eventually, you get desperate and bushwhack into a new clearing, which gets you even more hopelessly lost. That was exactly what was happening to me. 

After an hour-long trip deep into the island (though still only about a half mile from camp), I was stuck in a particularly confusing section. At this point, I was just trying to escape the maze when I came across a large snake, about 3-feet long, moving slowly in the middle of a clearing. I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was the 7th Isla Cerralvo Long-Nosed Snake in recorded history!!! I picked it up and it immediately pooped all over me. I wouldn’t have traded that moment for the world. 

I fumbled for my walkie-talkie and excitedly exploded into a shout-laugh-happy cry explanation of what happened, although I don’t think I needed the walkie-talkie. My dad hurled himself through several large spike bushes in an attempt to find me — and the snake — but he just got more stuck, and we spent the next 45 minutes trudging separately in confused circles back to camp.

I still couldn’t believe it. I spent a good hour with the long nose, shooting photos and videos, hanging out with the rarest snake of my life. 

If you want to watch my reptile-filled adventure as it happened, here’s a link to my Herping Isla Cerralvo extravaganza

Cerralvo (Part 2 of 3)

After a few hours of sitting on the beach, sweating in the extreme heat and swimming periodically, night was starting to fall. I had already caught a coachwhip and missed a second. Morale was high, and I was excited to stay up all night if necessary to find my two main targets: the Savages Sand Snake and Isla Cerralvo Long-Nosed Snake.

Savages Sand Snakes are actually quite common on Cerralvo. They inhabit the dunes but can be tricky to find because they only come out at night and remain under the surface most of the time. The Isla Cerralvo Long-Nosed Snake, however, is one of the rarest snakes in BCS. It has only been found about six times in recorded history. This nocturnal snake would be worth a full night of searching, including frequent bushwhacking through large, angry spike bushes. 

As the sun went down, I made my first tremendous discovery. I had already stumbled into the barbed wire fence approximately five times, and was accumulating head bumps. It was about 10 o’clock and I sensed that the night creatures were starting to become active.

My dad and I headed to the northern side of the dune complex. We trudged through the sand for a good hour before deciding to go back to camp to take a break. As I was waiting for him to get to the edge of the dune, I saw sand snake tracks everywhere. I noticed a particularly fresh-looking track and followed it to the end where it stopped randomly. Confused, I ran my fingers through the sand at the end of the track. To my surprise, a bolt of orange scales slithered back into the sand, and I managed to catch my first Savages Sand Snake!

These fascinating creatures slither just under the surface of sandy dunes, leaving a squiggle pattern on the sand. They eat ants, termites and even scorpions. Savages Sand Snakes are very closely related to Variable Sand Snakes, which are found around La Ventana and are quite small, secretive and totally harmless.

It was now past 11pm and the evening was already a success. Could I possibly cross paths with an elusive Isla Cerralvo Long-Nosed Snake, one of the rarest snakes in all of Mexico? Stay tuned for next week’s finale of the Cerralvo expedition story!