by Joseph DeSisto
During my trip to Arizona, I saw tarantulas, scorpions, black widows, giant centipedes, lizards, and way too many insects to name here. What I didn’t see a lot of were snakes — in fact I only saw two, but those two snakes were the most beautiful I had ever seen.
The first was in Sierra Vista where, after a long day of beating bushes for caterpillars, we pulled into a driveway to find one of the most stunning animals on earth: the Arizona mountain kingsnake.
The Arizona mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis pyromelana) and its cousin, the California mountain kingsnake (L. zonata), are some of the most sought-after snakes by North American reptile-lovers. Both are incredibly beautiful, but not especially common, and they prefer high-elevation habitats that aren’t always very accessible to naturalists. Mountain kingsnakes are secretive, spending most of their time underground. They seldom bask in the sun like garter snakes or rattlesnakes, instead emerging only to track hunt their lizard and rodent prey, which they kill by constriction.
The bright red and yellow bands are warning to predators. Snake-eating birds and mammals might easily confuse the kingsnake with the extremely venomous Sonoran coralsnake, which is also found in Arizona but prefers the lower-elevation desert scrub habitats, rather than the upland pine forests favored by the mountain kingsnake.
I am on a lucky streak when it comes to snakes. I don’t see very many, but the ones I do see are special enough to make my friends jealous. During a May trip to the Appalachians, I saw only five snakes, but two of those were corn snakes and two more were eastern worm snakes. Despite both of these being great finds, I left the South feeling a bit slighted, since what I really wanted to see was a venomous snake, a timber rattlesnake or copperhead. I had never seen a venomous snake in the wild before, so when I decided to go to Arizona, known for being rattlesnake country, I was ready.
We spent a few days in Sierra Vista collecting caterpillars and setting up lights at night to attract moths and other insect curiosities. Pat Sullivan, a beetle expert who lives in the area, had several pet rattlesnakes and was eager to show me a rock pile he had set up on his property as snake habitat.
The night he took me to the rock pile, just a few yellow scales caught the beam from my flashlight. I could see perhaps an inch of snake that looped out from under a rock, and I wanted to flip the rock to see more. I also, however, didn’t want to put my hands right next to a rattlesnake who might not be as sociable as I was. So I left the snake be, and returned to the light where moths and beetles kept me busy for the rest of the evening.
The last morning before we left Sierra Vista, I returned to the rock pile. After a few minutes of leaning over for a good angle, I realized the snake was in exactly the same position as before, only a few scales visible. In daylight those few scales were truly beautiful — they yellow and tan color revealed this was a black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), one of the prettiest rattlesnakes around. Pat got a long stick and, very carefully, flipped the rock over:
The snake made no attempt to strike or even rattle. It simply slid beneath the rock pile with the grace of an animal that knows it can hurt you, and knows that you know it can hurt you. In the end I only had a few seconds to see less than half of a rattlesnake, but I’ll take it. I saw my first and, to date, only venomous snake in the wild, and it was one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.