Saturday, September 1, 2012

Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

One of the entertainments of hiking is the stories that can be read in the path ahead.  If the light is right and soil conditions good, it's surprising h ow much information can be gleaned and how that information tells stories, some of them my own.

Conditions were great this morning as I hiked up the 2-track across BLM land to hitch a ride with a friend into town.  My goal was to rescue the car I'd abandoned there more than a week ago.  That's another story, but suffice it to say that everyone around appreciates the tolerance of J&Y Auto for using their facility as short- and long-term parking.

It was 9-ish, so the sun was at a nice angle for casting shadows in the silty sand of the tracks.  Silty sand is fine enough to be easily blown around so, like an Etch-A-Sketch, the soil of the parallel paths ahead had been cleared by the night's gentle breezes and thus most of the marks I could see there would have been made since dawn.

Walking with my head down so my bifocals could focus on the soil in front of my feet, my baseball cap's brim pulled low to block the sun, my world was narrowed to my breathing, the rhythm of my footfalls, and the silent picture show in the dirt.

I saw the sine-wave of a snake's passage perpendicular to the road.  Could be from a rattler, could be a bull snake or any number of other snakes found here in the southwest.  Without really thinking on it, I knew it wouldn't be a very large snake - maybe half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter and not likely more than a couple feet long.  Whatever the size, it had crossed the road in the past hour or so.  It would have been too cold for any snake to be moving around in the night this time of year, and the sun had to rise up behind a mesa before falling on this stretch of road, delaying the time it would take to warm up a snake's environment enough for it to want to hunt.

Further along I began to see the tracks of many small critters, from beetles to lizards to small rodents and birds, with the occasional gigantic raven's footprint making all the rest seem tiny indeed.  The tracks looked like Frankenstein's stitches in some cases, zippers in others.  I wondered which was what.  I stopped to watch a stink bug beetle walk across my path and studied the trail it left behind.  The zipper tracks appeared to be bugs.  The Frankenstein stitches all had a line down the middle - tails dragged in the silt, I concluded.  Some of the tail drag marks had what looked like bird footprints flanking them - probably lizards.  Some had multiple toe marks - probably rodents.

I was fascinated and my walking slowed down as I studied the tracks and  mused on what might have made them - and why there were so many here in this particular spot in the road.

Suddenly that mystery didn't matter.  The buzz of an angry rattlesnake got my full attention - I leaped to the side and turned to face the danger:  A small - maybe two foot long - greenish snake all coiled and ready to strike, its rattles clearly visible and in use (it's amazing how much detail one can remember when adrenaline is flooding one's system).  I've never been clear on what flavor of rattlesnake we have around here - I've been told that they are Mojave greens (unfortunately one of the most toxic of all rattlesnake species), maybe prairie rattlesnakes - the only two rattlesnakes that are green that might be in my area - but strangely enough, I've never taken the time to grab a photo of one so I could more readily identify the type at my leisure.

Mojave green rattler
By the way - if you click on that photo, you'll go to the website I got it from and please be forewarned:  You'll hear a sample of a snake rattling.  I didn't know that was going to happen the first time I landed on that site and I about had a heart attack.

And yes, "my" snake looked like that - partially coiled and very, very threatening, even as it scooched back away from me.  I scooched, too, slowly moving in a wide diagonal till I got on my way up the road again - all the time keeping a very close eye on the snake.

So I got a story that entertained me for almost the rest of my hike.  I figured the snake track in the silt was my snake, who was attracted by all the potential breakfast critters. For all the details burned into my mind, though, I can't tell you if there was a bulge in the snake's middle indicating a successful hunt.  That didn't become part of my story till just now, as I'm typing this.  

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