travelog 4

First Reptiles Sighted

Unfortunately it was only a Gopher Snake lying down besides our PocoLoco - to die. Someone drove over her head. The next morning she had disappeared probably into the stomach of a hungry coyote (we shall see the Gopher Snake shown on our picture a few weeks later in southern Utah).

The next reptile crawling into our sight was a Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassazii) at the Desert Museum of Tucson - awakened out of its hibernation. The management of the Desert Museum was not interested in "renting" us the animal (certainly with the appropriate guardian) as a photo starlet. We only wanted to take pictures of her because we needed some for an summer exhibition (Tortoises and Succulent Plants) of the Succulents Collection in Zurich.

Shortly after that we saw our first rattlesnake. Although she didn't rattle any more and although she had been injured by car traffic, her reflexes seemed to be intact. The first live rattlesnake we didn't see, we just heard her rattle. It was a cold and windy day - no weather for expecting reptiles to be outside. Julia just wanted to jump over a big rock as she realized some kind of fast movement and then we noticed the well-known rattling noise. At least these beasts are kind enough to warn you in advance - before they intend to bite! Cautious, we bought us a special suction pump to be prepared. If a snake bites one of us by chance, with that tool we have the possibility to suck most of the venom out of the wound.

After that our experiences with reptiles increased rapidly. As we were rockhounding in central Arizona, we really stumbled over a big adult tortoise of exactly the type we wished to encounter. It was a Gopherus agassazii. Murmuring silent excuses we immediately drafted her to service - not to military but to photographic service! Accidentally we sighted just nearby a blooming cactus with impressive deep violet flowers (Echinocereus engelmannii v. acicularis, one of the first we saw blooming this year in that area!), so we placed the "diva" just beside the beautiful plant. While lifting her from the ground and carrying her around she retracted her head and legs into her guarding shell. So we waited - in full heat of the sun - to take photographs of her with head and limbs fully visible. She made life difficult for us. She seemed to realize what we intended to do and so she took her time. At first she only moved her head a little bit (but of course not fully) out of her shell, only to study us thoroughly; then she moved also a leg but that was all. Until we took our measures to pack everything and to leave, she stuck out her limbs fast and wanted to escape silently - but not with us! So we tried it once again...

We constructed a kind of "ramp" and put her mouth just in front of one of the big cactus flowers - she only had to stretch her head out of the shell, open her mouth and would have a great meal. But cactus flowers didn't seem to be the preferred meal, not the choice of the day. She only smelled shortly on the flower, turned her head away and yawned - disinterested. Therefore we dismantled the "buffet" again and tried to convince her of our intentions to make her move for another, a third time. You can certainly imagine the result: No way!

Although we used up a whole roll of film (36 exposures) we didn't take the pictures of our choice. But nevertheless, it was better than nothing and Julia carried the tortoise back to exactly the spot, where we encountered her first. Suddenly she moved and how she moved! She drudged and hissed and at the moment Julia placed her on the ground there was vital life in her. With fast steps she headed for the next tree - to disappear beneath it in the shady undergrowth.

There are also other types of small reptiles to meet: Lizards. They are visually not to miss, although they are painted in a real camouflage colour. On light coloured rocks they are grey to creme and on red sand or red rocks they are coloured in corresponding red. Often they stop and bob up and down - probably they want to show us who the boss is!? We saw lizards coloured like leopards, others with a blue abdominal wall and totally coloured ones with a ruff. It's very funny to watch their family life, in springtime preferably, and their sexual behaviour. A male is chasing the female. If already tired, the female tries to attract the male with "sexy" movements. He tries to catch her with his mouth. Overall, it seems to be a very difficult job. In these moments they are fearless and oblivious to all.

A few additional words concerning the picture of the snake: it was the biggest snake we encountered to date (about 6 feet long). We hiked up a hill, when Martin suddenly saw the reptile (Julia almost stepped on her). We think that it might be a Gopher snake, also called Bullsnake. She was absolutely not impressed by our presence, creeping peacefully on her way. If she hadn't moved at all, we wouldn't have seen her because of her perfect camouflage. Unfortunately she was not in the mood to sit still for a portrait, she didn't want to roll herself photogenically either. We thought that it might be better to leave her alone - although we know that Gopher snakes are not venomous. But they can rattle like rattlesnakes just to frighten their enemies.

March 1998

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen