Searching for Snakes

Most people don’t go looking for snakes, particularly venomous snakes.  Most people especially don’t want to encounter one.  On the other hand, we seek them out – but not always successfully.

Recently, our friend Bryon Shipley, long-time rattlesnake researcher and Denver Zookeeper, visited us at Imperial National Wildlife Refuge for his annual trek to the desert.  On previous visits, Bryon has proved expert at locating snakes coiled in rock crevices, slithering along the ground, or stretched out absorbing warmth on a road at night.

Bryon Shipley searching for snakes

He has spotted a baby California kingsnake camouflaged on desert pavement.  He captured a gophersnake next to our trailer.  He hooked a coachwhip, a quick, squirmy species. And he has discovered countless sidewinders during after-dark excursions.  He even once located a pair of rattlesnakes copulating between two rocks, oblivious to outside distractions.

Cool Weather

If there are snakes to be found, Bryon knows where to look.  But even the best herpetologist will come up empty-handed when snakes are bedded deep against the cold, rain, and wind.  Even though Bryon visited at a time when temperatures average in the 80s, it felt more like winter during his stay this season.

The only snake we had seen since our arrival in October was roadkill.  Because Bryon’s visit was scheduled for mid-March, we assumed, or at least hoped, that snakes would be emerging to bask in warm sunshine.  But despite 80 degree temperatures in Chicago, Yuma was suffering through highs in the 60s.  However, we all agreed that a bad day searching for snakes is far superior to many other chores and activities.

Bryon and Chuck on snake search
Chuck probing for snakes

One Sighting

Despite the poor conditions and lack of other sightings this season, Bryon came up with the first snake we’d seen in six months.  In a rock outcropping where we’d seen snakes denning in years past but had been unable to find any for the past three years, Bryon located a rattlesnake tucked deep into a rock overhang. “He appears to be opaque,” he said, indicating that the snake was preparing to shed its skin as it grew.

Rattlesnake Den
Rattlesnake in rock crevice

 Mentor and Friend

Even without a multitude of sightings, it’s truly a pleasure watching and learning from Bryon as he explores the desert looking at likely snake hangouts.  Snake hook in hand, he probes fractures in boulders, checks under creosote bushes, and overturns rocks.  “That’s a good place to find night snakes,” he says.

As our mentor and friend, Bryon is always welcome in our home, and we always welcome his wisdom and experience.  Continuing education makes life worthwhile, and Bryon is an excellent teacher!

Bryon Shipley -- Rattlesnake Researcher & Zookeeper



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