Daryl Saves

A Tale of Two Trash Snakes Part 1

Well into our second summer, we didn’t have much hope left that we’d moved to serpent’s paradise. We had traded the city for the Gila National Forest with high hopes of snakes on our doorstep, but with each passing, snakeless day, we questioned whether our forested, northern slope would treat us to more than a couple of fleeting glimpses of patch-nosed snakes. Sure, we had lizards and birds, javelinas and bears, but where were the snakes? Then, in a single day, our old impressions were cast off like last year’s skin.

It started in the garden: from a burgeoning crop of weeds boosted by generous July rain, I startled a black-necked gartersnake. Like a two-legged octopus caught between tidepools, the snake struggled toward cover, encumbered by an enormous food bolus in his gut. I fetched Melissa and a camera and we settled carefully around the chunk of concrete under which he had retreated. I carefully tilted up the concrete, and there in a furrow lay what appeared to be a chipmunk by its shape – head, shoulder and pelvic girdles – completely encompassed by a rather small snake. It was perplexing; neither constrictor nor hardly venomous, this wispy critter had somehow ingested something similar in size to himself… WHOLE!

gartersnake Facebook discussion
Click to see the full discussion on Facebook.
Melissa posted a photo of this accomplished snake on social media, causing a lively speculative discussion. To suggestions to induce vomiting for proper identification and documentation, we demurred. We were disinclined to be anything but gracious for this neighborly visit, and we hoped such a score of a meal would encourage this snake to hang around the house more.

It takes some restraint for ophidiophiles to back away from exciting observations to lessen the disturbance to a snake. We had begun to practice this in places we hoped to see snakes again and again: hibernacula, nests, and now, our home. But we also encourage visits to the property through other means. We promote other wildlife, even when they can be destructive. Squirrels and chipmunks steal birdseed, but if they get the attention of a black-tailed rattlesnake, it will be worth all their plundering and nesting. We also try to bolster the feeling of security of stealthy animals by encouraging, maintaining and providing cover. Thick vegetation and ground cover objects, like plywood and corrugated metal, help snakes feel safe when on the hunt (for people that don’t want snakes in their environs, we recommend the opposite: clean, prune, and don’t feed birds!).

One particular item of cover, left by the previous homeowner at our request, is one of those hideous molded plastic truck-bed liners. It had developed an ample layer of pine needle duff insulating the ground surface below, an indication that it had been there long enough that some forest neighbors might expect it to be there. I lifted it on occasion to peer beneath, and it seemed to be a popular refuge among lizards, spiders and centipedes. But on this particular day, the liner concealed something much bigger and much more exciting, something from a dream, and a reason people like us move out of the city: a lepidus in the yard.

Daryl, as we would come to call him, is a banded rock rattlesnake, Crotalus lepidus, an almost miniature species found in the higher elevations of the US borderlands and Mexico. In a flourish of beauty, evolution shaped this skittish snake, whose appealing form is often just glimpsed to the sound of a high-pitched, insect-like buzz as they retreat under a rock. Daryl, who had lived around here longer than us, was to us a crown jewel in this biome. His smooth belly consecrated the ground beneath us as lepidus habitat. He planted a little flag in our minds: this place nurtures lepidus! And so nurtures us! After a couple of photos, we left him under his chosen place of retreat. Through the day, thoughts of Daryl warmed us and stirred our sense of wonder and reverence for our chosen home.

But the party didn’t end there. On our afternoon stroll, Melissa spotted a big gophersnake stretched out across the driveway. She was quite put off by our presence, so when she headed for pile of junk, we left her in peace, hoping she’d find a squirrel, who like us, had thought snakes were not a thing here.

Gophersnake photographed by Jeff Smith, 2 August 2018.

Read: A Tale of Two Trash Snakes Part 2