La Ventana Stories

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.

Sea Lions

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.

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.


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.

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.)

Manta Rays

Giant oceanic manta rays (Mobula birostris) are the largest species of rays in the world. Reaching a maximum disc width of 700cm (22ft) with an average of 400-500cm (13-16ft) and a weight of 2000kg (4400pounds), they are graceful and gentle giants.

They are cartilaginous fish, meaning their skeleton is made of cartilage instead of bone, they are related to sharks. Mantas are filter feeders: gliding gracefully through the water column with their mouth wide open, they gulp down large amounts of water, collecting with their gill plates the zooplankton and krill that make their diet.

With the largest brain-to-size ratio of any fish, they are highly intelligent animals. There have been studies showing that mantas may recognize themselves in the mirror, an ability that indicates a high cognitive function. 

A common sight in the past in La Paz and Cerralvo area, they suddenly disappeared for a while, the reason for their disappearance is unknown, though overfishing has been pointed out. In the past years locals and tourist have gladly witnessed their return to La Reina, close to Cerralvo island, with most sightings during the warm summer months.

Classified as endangered in the IUCN Red list, their main threat is overfishing, as bycatch or as a target for their meat, but specially for their gill plates, valuable in the Asian market for traditional medicine.

Seeing these animals effortlessly flying through the water like massive birds is surely magical and looking into a manta ray’s eyes is an unforgettable experience: their eyes are inquisitive and intelligent. Through that alien look we can connect to a different world: the wild and mysterious big blue. 

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!