Exploring the Desert After Dark
Sonoran Desert – Phoenix, Arizona
You might not think of the scorching hot desert as a place with a lot of diverse and unique wildlife. But these barren landscapes are home to more than meets the eye. Hiding below the scorched soil all day is a plethora of creatures that come out as the sun sets and the sky darkens. Much of the desert wildlife is made up of the creepy crawlies in our nightmares – big hairy tarantulas, stinging scorpions, enormous bugs and deadly snakes.
I headed out into the Sonoran Desert one night with a very experienced herper on the hunt for one of the desert’s most dangerous inhabitants – rattlesnakes! Arizona’s wild outdoors is home to 17 different kinds of rattlesnakes and all of them are venomous. As a kid I always loved snakes and had little fear of them, but it had been years since I’d been around one.. how would I feel when it was time to come face to face with a very dangerous rattlesnake? We didn’t have to drive very far outside the city limits of Phoenix or search very long before it was time to find out!
The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Success.. just after dark I met the first snake of the night! A large and very agitated Diamondback rattler hiding under a shrub. As we approached it immediately coiled up into a defensive position and began rattling. This snake commanded respect and looked ready to strike if I came any closer. Not ready to test my luck this early in the night I kept my distance.
The Horned Sidewinder Rattlesnake
It only took a few minutes before my experienced guide had spotted our next rattler – the sidewinder. I couldn’t believe how easily we’d found this beautiful snake. These snakes are unique and aptly called sidewinders because of the sideways motion they move in. These beautiful snakes are also commonly referred to as horned rattlesnakes because of the horns appearing above their eyes. This one was happy to hold still and pose for photos. If we hadn’t seen anything else the rest of the night I would’ve been satisfied.. but this was only the beginning!
The Long-nosed Snake
Next we found a snake that attempted to flee quickly as soon as we spotted it. Thankfully my guide snatched it up with his hands before it could escape into the night. This brightly colored snake is not a rattler and possesses no venom so we were able to safely hold it. It’s scales were smooth to the touch and shine brightly under the light. Other than being restless he wasn’t aggressive and was quite fun to hold. We released him unharmed and continued on to find more species.
The Baby Diamondbacks
A couple hours into our adventure the weather began shifting quickly from calm to windy and stormy. It’s monsoon season in Arizona and the desert is vulnerable to flash flooding. With lightning strikes inching ever closer we packed up to find safer hunting grounds. Apparently we weren’t the only ones fleeing the storms – we spotted two baby diamondbacks crossing the road. Each less than a foot long and sporting undeveloped rattles.
The Desert Comes Alive
After an hour of driving to flee the stormy weather we were in new habitat near a lake. As we resume our search for snakes on foot we came across some of the desert’s other characters. First came the one that haunts my nightmares.. a very large and very hairy tarantula. Fortunately these things have always been docile and non confrontational when I’ve came across them. Whew.
Next we stumbled across a much less scary and more pleasant creature, the great plains toad.
The Mojave Rattlesnake
Just when we were ready to call it a night my amazing guide spotted one last snake – the Mojave rattler. He wasn’t happy to see us and after attempting a defensive strike he slithered up a shrub. The Mojave has a menacing glare and it means business – it’s venom is considered to be the most dangerous of all rattlesnakes in North America and it isn’t shy about using it if threatened. The venom packs a dual punch to both the nervous system with nuerotoxins and the bloodstream with hemotoxins. Once coiled up in the tree it calmed down enough to get some great shots.
The night was an overwhelming success – we found 3 different species of rattlesnakes and 6 snakes total within 5 hours of the sun setting. We also managed to go unscathed by any sharp fangs! Rattlesnakes are amazing creatures that command our respect and are an important part of the ecosystems they inhabit. They don’t bite unless threatened or provoked. If you come across one take the time to admire rather than run in fear 🙂
If you’re planning a visit to Arizona and want to see snakes for yourself I don’t advise wandering into the desert alone at night – it’s very easy for an inexperienced person to get lost or injured out there. Arizona’s parks hold events throughout each month that include night hikes and wildlife viewing that are free (minus the park entry). I joined one of their scorpion walks using black lights and it was great fun!
If you’re living in an area with rattlesnakes and happen to find one in your home or yard, please call an ethical snake removal company that will capture them unharmed and return them to wild.
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