Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus

Just under a hundred miles hiked so far this year, and I don’t want to think about how far behind 2006 that puts me. I started late and decided to take it easy: I’d make the summit if I felt like it at Juniper Campground, which I would get to if I felt like it. I decided not to take my camera, despite knowing the wildflowers would still be out in abundance (and they are, so go). I was betting on Murphy’s Law: if I had no camera, I would see a lot of photographable wildlife.

It worked. There were butterflies, variable and Leanira checkerspots and swallowtails and sisters. There were fence lizards in abundance. Heading toward Juniper Campground, which as it turned out I felt like reaching, two crows had a dogfight with a raven about thirty feet above my head. With each pass by the crows — they missed her by mere centimeters each time, and I am choosing a gender at random from the broad range of possibilities — the raven would break wing and tumble out of the way with an annoyed croak. She finally headed over Moses Rock Ridge and the crows went back to their campground garbage cans.

I sat in the campground and decided whether to make for the summit. It took a while. Some hikers went past telling each other what time it was. I decided it was too late to reach the peak and then get back home in time for dinner. I headed in the direction of the truck, and stopped. An eight-inch garter snake lay on the pavement, still enough that I looked closely to see whether its head was still attached. It was, and I sat down three feet from it and kept it company for a while. It was hunting, if desultorily, the pavement fauna, sizing up each passing ant and skittering leaf. We sat together for five minutes or so, and then I chanced to look a ways over to my right and saw one of these, also on the pavement. I left the garter and approached it, and it zipped enthusiastically into the tall grass. It was an Alameda whipsnake, also known as the Alameda striped racer, Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus, listed as Threatened on the federal Endangered Species list and a villain to strike fear in the hearts of sleazy East Bay developers, which phrase is multiply redundant.

Whipsnakes eat lots of things smaller than their heads but they mainly subsist on western fence lizards, and this one could have held a dozen nose-to-tail in its gut. I want to say it was four and a half or five feet in length, but the field guides say they reach four feet so we’ll write my estimate off as Inevitable Snake Length Inflation and call it four feet long. I’d seen whipsnakes before in the East Bay Hills, but none I’d seen were even half as long as this guy. (See note on raven gender, above.) He was gorgeous, and he was patient with my watching him, and with the two respectful little boys who came over from the adjacent campsite with their parents to say hello to him as well. He looped into the tall grass and then back out toward us, held for a few long minutes plainly visible, his head a few inches from my toes, and finally the boys lost interest and the snake headed into a stand of coyote mint.

I took this all as confirmation of my having made the right choice vis a vis the summit, and headed downhill. About halfway through the six miles to the truck, in the moist forest just below Deer Flat and above the calf-destroying switchbacks down into Mitchell Canyon, a handsome individual of the species Urocyon cinereoargenteus came out of the poison oak onto the trail a hundred feet in front of me, regarded the other side of the trail for a long moment prettily sun-backlit, and was gone as silently as it arrived.

“This is getting ridiculous,” I told myself.

Another mile on, distracting myself from the throbbing toes jammed into the front of my shoes by moping about Zeke, I saw what appeared to be a very dark stranded earthworm on the trail a few feet ahead. It turned out to be a Diadophis punctatus amabilis, a.k.a. a “ringneck” for obvious reasons, and yes they do coil their tails prettily as a defensive response when they feel their personal space has been broached. D. punctatus amabilis is a venomous snake, but it delivers that venom through teeth in the back part of the upper jaw. “Rear-fangers,” as the herpetologists call them, pose little threat to people unless those people pick up the snake in question and stick a finger down its throat. I haven’t had fingers small enough to fit in the ringneck’s mouth since the Eisenhower Administration: it was less than a quarter-inch thick. Cute little thing.

And there was an alligator lizard along that same stretch, somwehere between the fox and the ringneck. That critter did pose a potential threat to my fingers, so I kept a respectful distance: a couple feet or so.

I’d have missed all this if I’d decided to go for the summit, from which fact I derive a lesson: there was probably a flock of stray condors sunning themselves up there on the observation deck today.

5 thoughts on “Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus

  1. Rana

    Envy.  Sheer, rank envy.

    (I’m tired of living in a state that is so biologically exhausted, vertebrate-wise.)

  2. Carl Buell

    Envy here too.  I don’t know where Rana lives, but I live in an area where you can’t find a decent “wild” hike (involving miles) unless you drive an hour.  The park system in the Bay Area is wonderful and I remember it well.

  3. MBW

    I too am jealous of your day, though we had one of those “this is getting ridiculous” days as well recently.  A gopher snake crossed the road in front of our car (Eric got out and chased it away), two Chukar partridge, a mojave rattlersnake, great horned owl, and a desert tortoise, all within a few hours. 

    Now that I have my computer back, I can put up some of the desert tortoise pics.  She’s really beauty.

    Our eldest Grace adopted (ahem) an alligator lizard a couple months back, to add to her collection of western fence lizzards (2).  All three of them have grown on me -I actually worried about them when we were in LA last week (they were in Nevada with the trailer.)

  4. Fred Levitan

    Cool.  The snakes are definitely out in these waning days of Spring.  I saw my first ever Diadophis punctatus pulchellus  the other day, on my normal evening walk down by the Feather River.  I understand they are supposed to be shy and retiring critters, but this one was out on the paved road, which I scared it away from.  It did not do the inverted orange-belly tail display, but did accordion up in a knot of tight snakey S-curves.  It was, as you describe, a tiny delicate-appearing snake.  And, http://www.californiaherps.com/ has this to say: “Many herpetologists no longer recognize the traditional morphologically-based subspecies of Diadophis punctatus, pending a thorough molecular study of the whole species.”