Category Archives: Amazing Critters

Reptile Roundup

We always look forward to our close encounters of the reptilian kind when we winter in the southwest. This was a particularly good year, with our first ever encounters with rattlesnakes – both a Prairie Rattler and a Western Diamondback Rattler. We also enjoyed our meet-ups with a variety of lizards. They often move so fast that we question whether we have seen anything at all as they dart across our trails. We count ourselves lucky when they  “freeze in place” on a rock or among vegetation, relying on their considerable lizard ninja camo skills… then at least we can get a picture. Or two. Or twenty.

So as we work our way north and leave the desert behind, here is this year’s “Reptile Roundup” of some of our best reptile pics from New Mexico and Arizona in 2015. Using “herpwiki” we took our best shot at identification, but please understand that we are only amateur naturalists – so feel free to leave a comment to help identify any reptiles if you have a better ID!  (We have posted links to two good photo resource sites at the end of this blog to help you in your own reptile research.)

Prairie Rattlesnake

Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). Photographed at City of Rocks State Park.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake – (Crotalus atrox). Full View – Looks Like She Just Had Lunch!

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Close-up of Pattern). Thank you Jesus for telephoto.

Western Diamonback Rattlesnake (Tail)

Western Diamonback Rattlesnake (Close-up of Tail). Photographed at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Arizona

Great Basin Fence Lizard

Great Basin Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes). Photographed at the Grand Canyon.

Southwestern Earless Lizard

Southwestern Earless Lizard. Photographed at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park in the Riparian zone. We just call you “Rainbow Lizard”

Schott's Tree Lizard

Schott’s Tree Lizard (Urosaurus ornatus schotti). Photographed on the Dragonfly Trail in the Gila National Forest near Silver City.  First prize for camo.

Great Plains Earless Lizard

Great Plains Earless Lizard (Holbrookia maculata maculata). Taken at City of Rocks in Faywood, NM.

HERE ARE THE HERP LINKS:
herpwiki.com
nmherpsociety.org

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Birding and RVing and Citizen Science

Over the years we have met some very avid birders in our RV travels, and while we enjoy watching birds and trying to figure out who’s who among the birds we encounter, we never really made a concerted effort to master the art and science of birding.

Curve-billed Thrasher Perching on Yucca

Curve-billed Thrasher Perching on Yucca

Recently while visiting some friends who are excellent birders (talking to you – Shorty and Hazie!) we decided that the movie The Big Year would make a nice birthday gift for Hazie. So we tracked it down. We had also wanted to watch it ourselves – so it was one of those “everybody wins” kinds of gifts. “The Big Year” stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, a stellar lineup. The supporting cast includes three of our favorite actresses, Angelica Huston, Rashida Jones and Diane Wiest – quite a cast! (The last we heard, our friends had watched the movie three times!)

The movie was based on a book called The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, and it follows three men on their pursuit of a Big Year, a competition to see who can identify the most species of birds in a given year. We are in the process of reading it right now and it is a very entertaining book. (Can’t wait to finish this blog post to get back to it!)

Anyway- back to us. The movie made an impression. Not that we could ever aspire to such lofty heights as a BIG YEAR, but as we are traveling the country we are exposed to many more species than usual. Couldn’t we become better birders with some level of concerted effort?

We weren’t sure. It seemed like birding required a photographic memory or some alien level of recall that neither of us could muster:
–> Birding seemed to require a good memory for connecting bird names to birds. We do not have good memories.
–> Birding seemed to require observing fine details and being able to bring a similar species to mind to contrast and compare details. Again “meh” on the memory.
–> Birding seemed to require that you could remember and differentiate among bird calls and songs. Again – the memory challenge seems to be the issue here. We’re getting low on memory, and battery too, for that matter.

Enter the internet.

Lin had been tooling around various internet resources, trying to ID a rather gregarious robin-sized bird, and a rather dramatically marked sparrow-like bird that could sing up a storm here at our campsite at Oliver Lee State Park. She came upon two very important websites and an App that can run on smartphones.

The first site was AllAboutBirds.org, a Cornell University (School of Ornithology) site that had remarkably easy and effective search features for identifying birds. It made figuring out these birds, (which turned out to be a Canyon Towhee and a Black-throated Sparrow), seem like child’s play.

While exploring this site there were, of course, some interesting “Google Ads” to be seen in the sidebar.
One of them was the Sibley Birds of North America.  Hmmm. An app. Maybe this would help in field identification too.

The Sibley eGuide App

The Sibley eGuide App

$19.95 later, Linda was trying out the app in our campsite. She decided that although it was the MOST money she had ever spent on an app, it was also worth every penny, and it worked amazingly well on her aging Android. When Ric returned from town a little while later, she demonstrated the app by “calling in” the black-throated sparrow:

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow (singing)

The little guy proceeded to serenade us from a nearby perch, allowing us to photograph him.

While the song-playing feature is a useful tool, there is a lot of discussion in the birding world about the use of such “disturbing” techniques in the field. Sibley has an excellent post about this on his blog that fairly presents the pros and cons of the technique. We could see that it had an immediate effect, and I plan to use the feature from time to time, but also understand that moderation is best. I think one way a birder can use the technique is to employ headphones in order to play the birdsongs in juxtaposition with what he or she is hearing in the field. The novice can learn – but nobody else (other birders or the birds themselves) would be disturbed.

It is hard to understate the quality of the illustrations by David Allen Sibley.  He has a skill for creating illustrations that show off the important defining characteristics of the birds. The illustrations are far better than photographs, which often don’t portray color well – or miss an important feature due to the position and the momentary posture of the bird. The Aha! moment came when we realized that this tool could become our “portable” field memory and help us overcome our personal memory shortcomings so that we could become more proficient birders.

So Ric downloaded the app on his phone too.

Later in the day Lin found another website (also by Cornell Lab of Ornithology) that is a citizen science project for birders. The website is eBird.org, and you can learn how to take your birding observations and do them in such a way as to contribute valuable data for scientific research. eBird is amassing one of the largest and fastest growing biodiversity data resources in existence, reporting millions of bird observations each month! Their help pages guide you through the process of how to conduct observations and submit them to the eBird database.

That was the icing on the cake – we love doing “Citizen Science” projects.

So there you have it. We are officially “birding”now. We think we’ll get better at observing with consistent practice and mutual support in our efforts. But more importantly, we are sure that this is one more little thing that will enrich our lives and keep our brains from ossifying any more quickly than necessary.

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Not just a snake-It’s a Prairie Rattler!!

As we often do when we are camping at City of Rocks New Mexico campground – smack dab between Deming and Silver City – we decided to hike the “Hydra” trail to get in a moderate 4 ish mile walk.

Hydra trail sign at City of Rocks

Hydra trail sign at City of Rocks

So we just got through the bulk of the work to getting our new camper – and we’d actually slept in it the last couple of days. I was multitasking – a nod to pre-retirement days – talking on the phone and walking with Linda on the Hydra. I’m trying to work with the bank rep on the line to correct a $1500.00 +/- error that would help our efforts to get some serious hiking done in Canada and Alaska over the next several months. Suddenly Linda just stops walking and is staring into a thick bush beside the trail. I finished my conversation as quickly as I could – maybe a minute or two- then turned and came up behind Linda. She whispered that she’d heard a rattler! She also said she thought she new exactly where it was. We were peering from the trail into the bush, when I noticed movement coming at us, very fast – it was a snake, head up and moving extremely quickly right at us. We both got into reverse (HIGH) immediately and put a few feet between us and this aggressive critter. Once he got us backed off, he dodged toward and into a hole that we had been to close too for his druthers. He wiggled in while we struggled to get our camera phones operational – an exercise doomed to failure as we rarely take pictures with the phones – and when we do it’s in very controlled and sedate circumstances.  This was the first time in literally months, that neither of us had our cameras with us. Needless to say, what adrenalin we have, was pumping full bore and we were pretty excited about the whole occurrence. Linda thought she might have got something on her phone,  and she got a very quick 2-second video – here’s a link:

PRAIRIE RATTLER VIDEO

I had nothing except the excitement of seeing my first rattlesnake after traipsing a few hundred miles of desert in the Southwest over the last several years.  We decided to mark the spot where we had seen him – I estimated that it was 1/3 to 1/2 mile on the main trail from the Pegasus camping area connector trail.

Trail mark to show direction off trail to hole snake crawled into.

Trail mark to show direction off trail to hole snake crawled into.

We then walked the 3/4 mile or so to the visitor’s center and told the Volunteer and Ranger of our sighting and what we had done to mark it. The Volunteer told us, he’d go looking as soon as his shift was up. They shared with us that they  had relocated 25 rattlers in the last year from camping and trail areas in City of Rocks and some 80 slitherers from Rock Hound State Park – a place we also frequent, 30 miles away. Once we got that info and were done sharing what we thought was exciting and what they considered as relatively routine news – we continued our hike with about 2.5 miles left to get back to our new Nash RV.

Our new 23-D Nash RV our our favorite site (#17) at City of Rocks.

Our new 23-D Nash RV our our favorite site (#17) at City of Rocks.

When we got to the cut off for the Pegasus area where we were camped we decided to do the additional bit to assure that our marker was still there and perhaps take a photo of the hole. I kept looking at every hole we saw near the trail looking for “snake tracks” or a smoothing of the hole edges from a snake crawling in – never found a noticeable trace. but when we got back to our marker on the trail, I found it to be exactly .32 mile from the entrance to the Pegasus camping area connector. I was very carefully looking and getting ready to take a picture of his hole, when all of a sudden I saw him (her?) – a mere 3 or 4 feet away.  He was laying very still and not acting aggressive at all so I attempted a photo.

Snake in the grass - close!!

Snake in the grass – close!!

We probably will check out there tomorrow to see if he’s around – warmer weather is coming and if we learned anything with this encounter it was that Rattle Snakes (we believe this is a Prairie Rattler) can move pretty quickly – much more than we thought – in mid 50 degree temperatures. A valuable lesson learned!

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Filed under Alaska Journal, Amazing Critters, Southwest