April 9th: Rattlesnakes on the Rolling Plains

Jacksboro was an hour behind us now, and the oak trees had been replaced mostly by mesquite as we made our way west on the Great Rattlesnake Highway into the Rolling Plains. Secure in a locking bucket in the back were three small rattlesnakes that Clint had taken in rather than see them killed. Now it was spring, and the time had come to take them to a spot near where they came from and release them. Deciding where to release rescued snakes is tricky. On the one hand, relocated reptiles often don’t settle down in a new place, and many do not survive. On the other hand, when facing certain death in the form of a human with a hoe or a gun, almost anything seems like a better option. And when the reptile in question is a rattlesnake, the idea is to find a place where it will come to no harm and also not inflict any harm if possible.

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The Great Rattlesnake Highway

The smallest of the three little western diamond-backs had already inflicted some harm, biting a finger of Clint’s left hand (as chronicled earlier in this blog). Nevertheless, he wanted this little snake to find a suitable home and live out its life. After all, the little serpent had simply done what it was designed to do, protecting itself against an animal vastly bigger than itself, having no way to know that the big animal was a snake-loving human who meant no harm.

It was a beautiful, warm day out on the plains halfway to Lubbock, and we hoped to see other reptiles and amphibians once we released the rattlesnakes. Our destination was an old railroad right of way, with rails removed and wooden railroad ties scattered along what was now a wide path. The ties were in various stages of decomposition, but provided excellent cover for such things as snakes, lizards, and toads tucked away beneath the thick chunks of wood. And, not surprisingly, the jumbled ties and thickly grown grass provided both basking spots and hiding places for more rattlesnakes. This would be a very careful walk, looking twice before stepping, and thinking at least twice about how to safely turn the ties over to look beneath them.fullsizeoutput_f4c

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Clint and the “princess”

Our first task was to release the trio of little rattlesnakes, and we took a moment to photograph the little princess whose kiss had destroyed the tip of Clint’s ring finger. She was the picture of scaly innocence, neither rattling nor striking while I took a couple of photos. The task accomplished, we moved on to see what else we could see.

As it happened, the first thing we found was another rattlesnake, a bigger one coiled beneath a railroad tie. I stepped over to get a photo, but the snake took off just as I was focusing, and it threaded its way through grass clumps and other objects until coiling at the base of a mesquite. Only then was I able to get a picture, after using the snake hook to gently wipe some spider web off the snake’s snout. The rattler politely allowed me to do this without protest.

A few minutes later, we flushed a male checkered gartersnake from beneath one of the ties. Like many gartersnakes, he was pretty easygoing about being gently captured and examined. I love these snakes and never tire of their bold black checked pattern, yellow dorsal stripe, and the pattern of olive, black, and cream color on their faces.

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Checkered gartersnake

Under a nearby railroad tie, we discovered a drab little snake tucked away, with brown spots separated by light crossbars. It was a Texas nightsnake, one of the relatively few harmless snakes in Texas that has elliptical, or cat-like pupils. A mild venom helps subdue their prey, chewed into small lizards or snakes with enlarged teeth in the back of the nightsnake’s mouth. But Clint demonstrated another aspect of nightsnake behavior that I had not seen. When pestered, this nightsnake curled into a tight spiral with its head at the center of its coils. Presumably, coiling into a compact disc with the head at the center offers less exposed surface that could be attacked by a predator.

A little after 2:30pm, Clint flipped a railroad tie and called out, “Long-nose!” Here was a west Texas treasure that many of us have only seen on the roads at night. Long-nosed snakes tend to prowl at night, poking around in burrows and crevices in search of sleeping lizards or nests of mice. The species has a somewhat long and pointed snout, resulting in its common name. Down this snake’s back is a series of black saddles separated by red, and with speckles along the side that are cream colored in the black saddles but black in the red areas. The belly is a whitish-cream color, occasionally with some scattered blocks of black color. And, underneath the tail the scales are not divided; the “subcaudal” scales beneath the tail are divided in other nonvenomous snakes in North America. However, the pit-vipers such as copperheads also have single subcaudal scales. Long-nosed snakes apparently wanted to be pit-viper wannabes when it comes to tail scales, but they are related to kingsnakes and are perfectly harmless.

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Long-nosed snake

And going somewhere with Clint means a bug-hunt is part of the action. He picked up a series of beetles along the railroad right-of-way, and we saw probably a half-dozen of the big Scolopendra heros centipedes, known as the giant red-headed centipede. The biggest of these was probably eight inches long, and they are all pretty fast. Later, as we walked along a dirt road looking for horned lizards, I snapped a photo of a pretty little blister beetle, Nemognatha piazata bicolor, emerging from a flower.

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Blister beetle

Rattlesnakes, centipedes, blister beetles – if that doesn’t sound like heaven, I don’t know what would! And yet, when you’re out there, all the irony drops away from that statement. It was a beautiful day, and when done carefully, a walk like ours is a real delight. The snakes, and the red-headed centipedes, too, were like works of art, and we were privileged to take a stroll through a west Texas gallery.

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