Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

July 3, 2009

Snake!

Filed under: backyard, behavior, Non Birds — richditch @ 1:32 pm
Backyard Snake #1

Backyard Snake #1

There was some excitement in our yard yesterday, and excitement in the house as well, as we got to watch this snake for about 15 minutes.

Although we get a lot of birds, rabbits, and lizards in our small urban yard this is our first snake. Frankly we’re surprised we haven’t had a rattlesnake yet as we know a few folks who have had them.

My wife called me out to see our visitor with great excitement: she’d noticed movement on the cinder block wall that separates us from our closest neighbor and was surprised when it turned out to be a snake instead of an expected lizard. After grabbing the my binoculars to get a look I also grabbed the camera and 300/2.8 plus 2x converter and got the tripod up in a hurry. Light is always an issue in this area: the houses are close and the large tree on our lot between the houses blocks a lot of the light. I started shooting at ISO 400 but quickly stepped up to ISO 800, and even with the lens wide open at f/5.6 I could only manage a shutter speed of 1/80th to 1/100th of a second. I was also forced to shoot through the dirty non optical quality window glass here, so image quality isn’t the best for this sequence.

Backyard Snake #2

Backyard Snake #2

I estimate the snake was three to four feet in length – we never did get to see it fully in the open or stretched out completely on top of the wall. At first it kept much of the body hidden in the leaves of a shrub that just barely tops the wall. It was very alert and kept checking down both sides of the wall. AS shown in the second image it sometimes lifted its head above the wall for a better view ahead.

Backyard Snake #3

Backyard Snake #3

It reversed direction at one point, giving us a view of the other side of its head, and went back towards the shrub.

Then it was discovered by a Northern Mockingbird who immediately went on the attack. The mockingbird flew towards the snake and it looked like it actually hit it once or twice, all the time flaring its wings and squawking. The snake rapidly retreated, turned around, and dropped off the walltop into the shrub, quickly reached the ground, passed behind the trunk of the tree, and disappeared into the green stuff growing at the base of the wall. Although we watched closely for some time we never saw the snake again.

I dug out my copies of A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona, and A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Maricopa County, both by Thomas C. Brennan and Andrew T. Holycross and available from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. I also checked out the snake section on Thomas Brennan’s web site. But I confess I find snake ID a lot harder than bird ID, and I am at a loss as to the identity of our backyard visitor.

So, if anyone viewing this blog post can tell me exactly what this snake is please leave a comment and let all of us know.

Update 7/4/09:

After alerting the AZ/NM birding listserv to this blog post and asking for input I received replies from a number of people, both in the comments here and as personal or public email messages. The responses were overwhelming for coachwhip, as seen in this summary:

  • Coachwhip (aka Masticophis flagellum, aka Coluber flagellum) 15
  • Red Racer (a form of coachwhip) 1
  • Striped Whipsnake 2
  • Sonoran Whipsnake 4
  • Whipsnake 1
  • Garter Snake 1
  • Long-nosed Snake 1
  • Bull Snake 1

Here’s one of the public messages:

Just to put this issue to rest.  It is a Coachwhip.  I have observed this species from all over the Southwest for 40 years, and have seen many resembling this critter.  This is a very typical-looking Coachwhip in color, pattern and gestalt. Being the herpetology collections manager at the University of Arizona, I have access to over 500 specimens, many of which are dead ringers for the subject snake.

Thanks

George Bradley

I am always impressed by the strong interest in all things natural to be found in the realms of birding, and by the extensive knowledge possessed by so many “birders.”

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10 Comments »

  1. Hi Rich,

    This looks like a whipsnake to me. Probably Striped Whipsnake.

    Rich

    Comment by Rich Hoyer — July 3, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  2. Might be a coachwhip

    Comment by John Hardison — July 3, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  3. Looks like it could be a juvenile Coachwhip, which are more patterned than the adults but are kind of variable across their range. I don’t know what the juveniles might look like in your area.

    Sonoran Whipsnake is another possibility but I don’t think so … that irregular pattern does not occur even in juveniles, to my knowledge. But it is definitely a Masticcphis and I lean towards Coachwhip

    Comment by Jim Stuart — July 3, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  4. Hi Ritch,

    I assume you live in the Phoenix area. This I’m 99% sure is a Sonoran mountain whipsnake (Masticophis/Coluber bilineatus bilineatus). There are 2 whipsnake species in AZ: the striped whipsnake (M. taeniatus; basically north of the Mogollon Rim with a few isolated locations below), and Sonoran whipsnake (in the lowlands wih 2 subspecies: the Ajo Mtn whipsnake in Organ Pipe Cactus NM and that area and Sonoran mtn whipsnake in all other low areas in the sc/se AZ). The individual you saw just barely sows the stripes on the body/sides — usually it’s way more pronounced.

    Here in Las Cruces we have only the Striped whipsnake (I have a great photo from ground level looking toward my truck along the back of a whipsnake with my nephew inside peering out the window at the nearly 5′ whipsnake that was headed his way with its head up). The observation you describe and the photos depict some classic “poses” of this species. They are active “pursuit” predators, much like whiptail lizards, and will cruise around with their heads up (like the photo) looking for birds and lizards mostly. They’re extremely fast, and along with coachwhips, are hard to watch as they quickly move through low brush or grass — you’re always looking for their head, but only seem to be able to catch fleeting glimpses of their tails.

    The individual you took a photo of doesn’t look “exactly” like those in the field guides, but the head and eye shape are pretty distinctive, as is the posture with head craned up.

    If you do a search on the internet, I’m sure you’ll find a few that look more like what you saw. (for starters try: http://www.reptilesofaz.org/Snakes-Subpages/h-c-bilineatus.html)

    They’re a pretty common species where they occur, but are not always seen. Again, along with the coachwhip they’re one of only a small group of snakes that are active in the middle of the day — even when it’s 105+ degrees. Most snakes can’t handle those conditions.

    They’re fabulous creatures to watch, and when that head goes up it’s almost Mezmerizing.

    Gale Monson (as a 92 year old) once recounted to me and my wife an observation he had of a striped whipsnake out on the Cabeza Prieta NWR in the early 1950s nearly 60 years earlier. He could still remember the way it climbed a giant paloverde tree and the sound its body made on the limbs as it climbed higher.

    David

    Comment by David Griffin — July 3, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  5. I’m 100% sure it is a coachwhip (M./C. flagellum)

    Comment by Aaron Ambos — July 3, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  6. Rich

    Whoops! I retract my 99% certainty and would like to switch to coachwhip.

    Here’s a link to a page with one that looks real similar to the one you saw:
    http://www.herpo.com/trans-pecos/snakes/mflagel.html

    David

    Comment by David Griffin — July 3, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  7. Rich,

    Check out http://www.reptilesofaz.com and it has a nice snake section with photos and range maps. Might help

    D. Taylor

    Comment by D. Taylor — July 3, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  8. Hi Rich,

    I think your snake is a Coachwhip. Coachwips are strikingly variable. I have seen versions from red to black. This is also one of the few snake I see out even on really hot days. Sonoran Whipsnake is usually fairly distinctive blue on the head with a strong lateral stripe down the side.

    Best

    Kurt

    Comment by Kurt Radamaker — July 3, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  9. I was going to say “a whip snake of some kind,” but it looks like more knowledgeable folks have long since beaten me to the punch. Gorgeous shots, though. I particularly like the first one — the way it’s facing you is awesome.

    I will definitely have to follow your blog more closely! As someone who frequents both Boyce Thompson Arboretum and the Gilbert Riparian Preserve/Water Ranch, and is keenly interested in backyard critters (we just had several encounters with black widow spiders), I’m surprised we haven’t run into each other before, online or in real life. Wonderful blog here!

    Oh, and David: We had a whip snake in our palo verde tree once too! I have some old pictures of it strung all around the branches. We just looked out the living room window and there it was, eye-level. I love this state.

    Comment by AZ Writer (Kimberly Hosey) — July 4, 2009 @ 12:34 am

  10. Looks like you have it nailed down as Coachwhip. I have to say that, here in NM, I have not seen one patterned like this, except maybe as a young juvenile. And that faint lateral stripe kind of threw me at first … lateral striping is more typical of other Masticophis such as Sonoran and Striped whipsnakes (I prefer not to lump these snakes into Coluber, as some have proposed recently). But there is a lot of interesting variation in this species.

    Comment by Jim Stuart — July 4, 2009 @ 1:47 pm


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