Saturday, March 29, 2014

Rise of the Herpetons

Appears the gong for herp season has been banged.

Get it on, bang a gong, get it on...

- T. Rex, 1971

Including the Sierra newts, I've already seen 21 native species/subs this year: 8 snakes, 4 lizards, 8 sallys and a frog.

Here are some of the notables...

So far, a Rubber Boa has stolen the seasonal show. The first I've found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a real charmer. He even gave me an excellent pose in defensive posture, with his naturally stubbed "fake head" held high.

fake head held high
Rubber Boa, Charina bottae, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

Since they spend a lot of time underground and nosing around, rubbers have tiny, tight scales. And their eyes are small and set flat, so they tend to turn and look at you broadside, like a whale.

rubber boa goodness

But they are definitely constrictors, as this one showed by giving my finger a few wraps.

I do, I do!
Does this mean we're engaged?

Another constrictor this week proved just as charming - a California Kingsnake. When I pulled her from the grass and put her down on the trail, she brought out the entire bag of tricks to amuse us - rearing up and striking like a cobra, while vibrating her tail like a rattler.

king snake or king cobra?
California Kingsnake, Lampropeltis californiae, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

But they're all bluster unless you're a rodent, bird, lizard or snake. Especially when they can fit in your hand. Note the distinctive repeating pattern of white 1/2 bands.

cal kingsnake

And, much like the rubber boa, she was also a bit of a finger strangler.

also a finger strangler
"Give up yet?"

Next up are 2 even smaller slithers - a Ring-necked Snake and a Sharp-tailed Snake. Both are typically shorter than 2 drinking straws set end-to-end, and can often slip through one. This ringneck was the largest I've ever seen, in fact, and may be an older snake. The ring on its neck was quite faded, and the belly and back very dark, yet freshly shed.

Ring-necked Snake, Diadophis punctatus amabilis, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

The sharp-tail was obviously a good bit slimmer. Both generally live in grasslands and forest edges in burrows and leaf litter, and under rocks and logs, and hunt mini-prey (and their eggs), including slugs, grubs, slender salamanders, and small lizards and skinks. They pop up in spring after the rains, and then go to ground again once it gets hot and dry.

sharp-tail snake
Sharp-tailed Snake, Contia tenuis, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA

Speaking of hot and dry - here's another small snake I saw that needs little introduction, and is one that I definitely don't recommend holding in the palm of your hand.

break up
Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus oreganus, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

I've also seen 2 Ensatina salamander subspecies this spring - the Yellowed Eyed Ensatina of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Sierra Ensatina of the mid Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Unlike the newts, Ensatinas don't go to water to breed, and instead mate and lay their eggs on land in moist places, under logs and rocks, and in burrows and woodrat nests.

Yellow-eyed Ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

The Yellow-eyed was a bit pissy - giving me the arched back of their defensive posture, while also oozing neurotoxic milk out of her skin.

But the Sierran was much more relaxed and paparazzi-friendly. But with those striking black eyes, purple skin and orange splotches, she's so photogenic that she probably has to be.

sierra nevada ensatina
Sierra Ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA

Last for this early season list - an alligator. Or at least a California wannabe.

gator attack!
California Alligator Lizard, Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

For those curious - "herpeton" is ancient Greek for "crawling thing," and is even in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Romans. And is thus the root of the terms herps and herpetofauna and Herpetology - the study of amphibians and reptiles.