United States desert trip

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Side winder
(pic: Sidewinder)

“It’s a rattlesnake…a RATTLESNAKE!” shouts Noam.
“Yes it is Nomi, now get to the side of the road…Raul…Raul… come quick,” says Noam’s older brother Zeev.
I don’t need to be told that. The only reason I’m the last to get out of the car is because I’m still fumbling with changing to the appropriate camera lens in the dark.
I’m just hoping that the snake is fine. Chances are that even if the snake is alive it’s probably injured from a car having run over it.
But the snake is fine. I can’t believe my luck. My first day on a road trip looking for snakes and I’ve already found a snake that I’ve been dreaming to see since I first became interested in snakes.

Actually that’s not entirely true. Zeev is the one who found it. And he will go on to spot 90% of the snakes we find on this trip. The remaining ten percent will be found by Noam. I will only photograph everything that they find! Zeev is eighteen years old. That’s about half my age. That means both he and Noam have to obey my instructions at all times. Never mind that the instructions mostly concern the two of them ensuring the proper positioning of all the critters we find so I can be assured of the best photographs!

Right now Zeev has our juvenile rattler beautifully coiled into a circle on some gravel at the side of the road. The snake is small and coiled up like this it would comfortably fit onto a coaster.
The small pit viper is beautifully marked with a bold black and white zig zag pattern. Zeev confirms it as a South Pacific rattlesnake. The young reptile is not too keen on sitting unmoving for long and it soon tries to move away away from us. Zeev grabs my camera bag and shakes it in front of the snake’s face. The small snake doesn’t like that one bit. It instinctively coils up and vibrates its tail. The proverbial rattle in action!

South Pacific rattlesnake
(pic: a south pacific rattlesnake)

Being a small snake, however, the noise generated by the tiny rattle is faint. Almost like a slight rustle. I certainly would not have heard it had I simply been walking around on my own.
“If you’re done, let’s head off. It’s almost eight and we’re still a long way from the desert, dude.” reminds Zeev. He’s right to be a bit concerned. It’s now already dark, our gas tank is down to less than a quarter and we still have no idea where we need to be or where we’re going to be sleeping the night. But the virtually empty road we’re on and a trunk packed with water jugs, chicken soup cans, bread, cheese, and some very unnecessary but highly desirable cupcakes have me quite comforted.

We’re barely on the road for ten minutes and Zeev shouts “SNAKE” and brings the car to a screeching halt again. This time it’s a Glossy snake. Even as an adult it’s a small snake and it measures not more than a foot in length. A car passes by every ten minutes and every single one of them stops to check on us to make sure we’re alright. People seem extremely friendly and helpful here.
Glossy snake photographed, we’re back on the move. Two dead snakes (flattened by cars), one wrong turn, and two hours later we have finally arrived at our destination: the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Located within the Colorado Desert, this is the biggest state park in California.

Within ten minutes of entering the Park, Zeev has found a leaf nosed snake. Like the Glossy snake, it’s another small species. It gets its name from a large scale covering its snout which actually makes it look positively piggish.

Leaf nosed snake

It’s now eleven in the night and considering it’s pitch dark all around us, we have no idea of the landscape around us. But Zeev is in no mood to stop. It’s the best time to look for snakes. So we drive around slowly for another hour and eventually I convince Zeev that we need to sleep. We pull the car to the side of the road, put our sleeping bags on the soft desert sand and crash. My last thought before falling asleep is that I don’t want to wake up with a rattlesnake curled up next to me. I know that snakes often curl up around people looking for warmth during a cold night. Zeev tells me of a friend of his who spent a night sleeping out in the desert just like us and woke up to three rattlesnakes rattling around him the next morning. Definitely not the kind of adventure I’m looking for!

Leopard Gecko
(pic: Leopard gecko)

The desert sun rises at six in the morning. Within minutes it is so bright and hot that it is impossible to sleep anymore. Zeev is also yawning and seems just as annoyed as me to wake up so early. I stand up, stretch and get a 360 degree view of my surroundings.
Anza Borrego Desert
(pic: the desert)
We are in a vast valley. All around us stretch beautiful white sand plains that end in mountains in the distance. Small dried bushes punctuate the white sands evenly. The bushes are mostly knee high so we can see for miles around. Bathed in the morning sunlight, the landscape looks spectacular. We fold our sleeping bags into the trunk of the car and start driving. Spending the night out in the open was the easy part. Spending the day out is going to be the real challenge! We aren’t planning on looking for snakes in the blistering heat of course but on the other hand I am not willing to split eighty dollars with Zeev on a motel room either. That means that we need to find some shade and water soon.

Our best bet is to drive back to the Visitor Center and scout around the place. But the Center only opens at nine. So we drive around exploring the desert and hoping to find some birds for me to photograph. My first catch for the day is a Red tailed hawk. He’s been spotted by a dove as well who’s mobbing him with a vengeance. The kite takes off and I get my opportunity to snap a shot of it in flight.

Not far from the kite we come upon my first Road Runner. I knew this bird even as a kid: from the time I first watched Wily the coyote unsuccessfully try to make a meal out of it on Cartoon Network. Now I am seeing the real thing and surprisingly it doesn’t look any less comical than it did as an animation! Zeev follows the lanky bird with the car as much as he can. It’s carrying a large insect in its mouth and it’s extremely suspicious of us. A little ahead it’s greeted by another road runner which immediately starts begging and groveling at the feet of the bird holding the insect. The two birds are almost the same size so had I not been privy to one begging and being fed by the other I’d have imagined both to be adults. Now it was obvious that the one doing the begging was a fully grown chick!
Road runner
(pic: a road runner)

It’s now nearing nine so we drive off in the direction of the Visitor Centre. The Visitor Centre is basically a one horse town with a few places to eat, a gas station, one supermarket, and an information center. At nine in the morning, there’s not a soul outside in the street, and with good reason: the sun is already pouring gallons of blinding light and heat into the desert all around us. We enter the information center, pick up the free maps, and inquire about every free opportunity that we can avail ourselves of.

Out in the street again the sun has me a bit worried. Earlier in the morning a ranger we met bicycling had given us a look of shock when we asked her where we could find shade for the day. Seeing twelve year old Noam in the back seat she had looked disapprovingly at me and suggested that we find proper accommodation immediately. But I am still keen on giving it a shot to see if we can survive without an airconditioner. Eighty dollars is a lot of money that I could certainly do without spending on a hotel room for the day!
Besides, Noam wasn’t complaining. Not yet. Not from the heat at least!

“Let’s try out the round-about that we just passed,” I tell Zeev.
The round-about is a massive circle filled with trees and a well-watered lush lawn. It’s obviously built for visitors to use during the day since it accommodates picnic tables, drinking fountains and toilets. Over the next two whole days that we spend here this will become our oasis in the desert. Sitting in the shade of the big trees we are only slightly uncomfortable even during the hottest part of the day. In fact the only thing that threatens to kills us in the end is boredom! I read sometimes and Zeev occasionally plays the guitar. But even so at times I have to admit we’re both experiencing time slowing down to a crawl. Noam–having absolutely nothing to do–is having constant fights with Zeev.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t actually feel that hot, I realize from the way our food and equipment are behaving that it is in fact really quite hot. My camera is almost scalding to the touch and the cupcakes have all but turned into liquid mush! The car sitting in the sun is hot enough to fry an egg on the bonnet. Everything needs to be pulled out of it and kept in the shade if it has any hope of not cooking or liquefying.

I have a new found respect for the human body. Obviously we are thermoregulating by sweating. And the dry desert heat is definitely helping us evaporate sweat much quicker. As long as we continue to drink plenty of water we will remain only “slightly uncomfortable.” By 5:30 in the evening, Zeev and Noam can take doing nothing no longer, and we drive off into the desert. Zeev knows that we don’t have any hope of finding a snake for another two hours at least but just driving around is making all of us feel a lot better.

The desert is still incredibly hot right now. But like all dry places I notice that there’s a noticeable drop in the temperature the moment our car passes through shade or a shadow. And while the snakes are still not out, other animals are already active and moving about. Cotton tailed rabbits and jack rabbits are hopping around all over the place. California quail are out in some number too. They are much more shy than the rabbits though and it’s much more difficult getting a shot of them.

At around 6:15 in the evening, Zeev spots the “bird of the day”: a burrowing owl! The owl is perched on a dry bush just above its burrow. So long as our car is moving it seems unconcerned by us. But the moment Zeev brings the car to a halt it jumps down to the ground and dashes off into its burrow. Thirty minutes later it still hasn’t surfaced despite the fact that I have been sitting quiet and unmoving several meters downwind of its burrow. It’s now too dark to photograph the owl, even if it does show up. So I switch lenses and we move off to hunt for snakes instead. Not long after, Zeev spots our first snake for the day. The snake is crossing the road and is fast. It has almost escaped into the bushes by the time we’re out of the car. But Zeev is quick and resourceful and in a few minutes he’s managed to find and pull it out of the bushes.

I am thrilled. It’s a shovel nosed snake. Like the glossy snake and the leaf nosed snake it’s only about a foot long as a full grown adult. But while the other two species are relatively modest in coloration, this snake is painted with gaudy and gorgeous red-orange, cream, and black bands.

Shovel nosed snake
(Pic: shovel nosed snake)

As Noam handles it, the creature makes no effort to bite. Instead it keeps digging its strong shovel faced head into his palms, obviously trying to find a hole to burrow into.
Done with photographing it, we release it in the same spot and start driving again. About forty five minutes later we are a couple of kilometers away and Zeev finds the “snake of the day”: a Sidewinder! I am bursting with joy! This is a snake I’ve been dying to see in the wild every since I first saw one ‘sidewind’ on National Geographic Channel. I had learnt that the snake sidewinded since it was the most efficient way for it to travel over the soft sands of the desert in which it lived in. The sidewinding also greatly reduces the amount of contact the snake has with the hot sand over which it has to move. This allows the snake to move around at a time of the day when most other snakes would simply cook doing the same!

This adult sidewinder is about one and half feet long so I realize I’ve been overestimating the length of this reptile all along. Sidewinders are a kind of rattlesnake. And since rattlesnakes generally tend to sit coiled and unmoving when threatened, they are excellent subjects for photography. Zeev pulls the sidewinder to the side of the road with a stick and by moving a bag in front of the snake’s face, easily gets the snake to coil up again. The snake rattles its tail for ten seconds and then, content that we’ve been given ample warning, settles down. Soon all it’s doing is simply flicking its tongue out every three seconds. The Sidewinder’s tongue is a beautiful, glistening, jet black. As it exits through a small notch at the front of its mouth it has the look of crude oil spewing out of a barrel.

Very conspicuous also is a prominent horn-like scale just above each eye. These two scales obviously have some evolutionary significance and probably provide some advantage to this desert snake. Perhaps they protect the snake’s eyes when it burrows into the sand or maybe they offer some sort of camouflage. But whatever the reason may be for their existence they give the snake a very devilish and handsome look. Coupled with the black tongue they make for all the ingredients that I need to get some fabulous photographs. While I am photographing the sidewinder, we are joined by two other snake fanatics: Nick and Jeff. Zeev knows Nick from a reptile enthusiasts blog. In fact, Nick has already been herping several times before in this desert park. So on our way over from Los Angeles Zeev had stopped over at his house to get his advice on finding snakes in the desert. Now Nick and his friend are here to show us their favorite spots.

Nick wants to do a big circuit loop around the park. He drives ahead and Zeev and me follow.
“When he said just drive around looking for snakes, I never figured he meant going at seventy kilometers an hour. How in God’s name are we going to see a single snake if we’re speeding around like maniacs?” says Zeev in exasperation as he tries to scan the road and keep up with Nick at the same time. I agree with Zeev who had found all the snakes so far by crawling around in first gear.
But as it turns out there seems to be some method to Nick’s madness. His seemingly senseless approach is absolved when he and some other herpers have found a large Red Diamond rattlesnake crossing the road.

Red diamond rattlesnake
(pic: Red diamond rattlesnake)

Feeling ridiculous driving at such a high speed, Zeev has fallen behind. By the time we arrive on the scene, the big rattlesnake is safely coiled up in between some rocks and dry bushes. Fortunately it is still quite visible and even though I can’t get a full body shot of it I am able to get very satisfactory closeups of its head. Further ahead Nick manages to find a shovel nosed snake. This one has only black and cream bands but is no less beautiful than the one Zeev found the previous day.


Zeev decides that we should now go ahead since Nick might be finding all the snakes simply because he was ahead all the time. We leave Nick to photograph the Shovel nosed snake and drive ahead. Ten minutes later Zeev finds a leaf nosed snake, confirming his suspicion. Nick soon catches up with us and goes ahead again. He’s sped off so fast that there’s not a chance we can be ahead again. So instead of trying to catch up with him Zeev decides to put an even bigger gap between our two cars. It’s now 1:30 in the night and there’s not a soul on the road besides us. So Zeev figures that a ten minute gap might just put the road into darkness long enough for snakes to start crawling all over it again. Twenty minutes later Zeev has found a glossy snake almost twice the length of the one we found on the first day!

When we catch up with Nick eventually he tells us he hasn’t found any snakes. By 2:30 in the night we’ve finished the entire loop and are now back at the center of the Anza Borrego Park. Nick is contemplating doing the circuit again but I tell Zeev that I can’t stay awake anymore. So we part ways with Nick and Jeff and head off to find ourselves a place to sleep for the night. As it turns out the spot we slept the previous night is actually in an area that’s off limits for camping. So we drive to just outside this area and then Zeev pulls off the road. But because we aren’t still sure if we’re in a legal area to spend the night Zeev decides to park the car a little further off the road so we’re out of sight of passing rangers.

In less than a minute we both know why this is a terrible idea. Barely ten meters from the road the treacherous desert sand gives way and Zeev’s car is stuck fast. Zeev doesn’t even try to rev the engine. He’s smart enough to know that will dig us a bigger rut. There’s no point in struggling. Noam in the back seat is now fast asleep. At first Zeev figures that we might as well just go to sleep right next to car and find someone to help us tow it out in the morning. Much as I’m ready to pass out I am uncomfortable with this idea since I know that we’re miles away from the park center. If a car doesn’t come by soon enough in the morning the merciless desert sun will have us feeling more than just a little uncomfortable before long.

Then it strikes me. Maybe Nick can help us pull out our car. But he’s not picking up the phone. At least not at first. He’s still too busy looking for snakes. Eventually he calls back and by 3:30 in the morning he’s finally found us. In a stupor, I help Zeev empty the car of Noam and all our bags and gear. By 4:00 in the morning we’ve finally got the car pulled out onto hard ground. Then after exchanging a few awkward gangster handshakes with Nick and Jeff, Zeev and me collapse into our sleeping bags.

The sky is so full of twinkling stars that it makes me feel like I’m in a giant theater of some sorts. The desert is only cold enough for us to experience a snug and warm inside our sleeping bags.
“You know Zeev,” I pause and then add, “Life will never get better than this for us, man.”
Zeev appreciates me for saying so but I figure he’s still too young to relate to the way I’m feeling right now.

We are so groggy with sleep when the sun wakes us up two hours later that it’s a blessing to spend the better part of the morning dozing at our oasis near the visitors center.
In the evening we set out looking for snakes again. We’ve decided that this is our last night here. After covering our regular spots at the center of the park we head off to do the same circuit we did the previous night. Zeev figures since it found us so many snakes last night it might be worth going over again. An hour later we’re upon the find of the day. And what a find! A Speckled rattlesnake swallowing a small rodent right at the side of the road.

Speckled rattlesnake
(pic: Speckled rattlesnake)

The snake seems aware of us standing barely two feet away from it and at times it gives us the impression that it might suddenly drop the rodent and dash away. But once we stop moving around excessively it settles back into swallowing its meal even though we’ve got a torch light on it and I’m zapping it with a flash every ten seconds! Over the next few minutes I get a series of shots with the snake in different stages of swallowing its meal. Once the rodent is fully swallowed the snake immediately tries to move away. Zeev dexterously corners the snake and soon has it in a tidy coil for me to photograph. The snake has beautiful pepper spots all over its body. It’s also extremely well-camouflaged against the gravel and stone on which it lies and is practically impossible to spot if you don’t already know where it is.

 Speckled rattlesnake
(pic: Speckled rattlesnake)

“Bugger you’ve just seen four species of rattlesnakes in less than three days of being here! In one year of being here I’d only seen one!” exclaims Zeev.
The next morning just before we leave we head over to the burrow of the burrowing owl. It’s about 8:30 in the morning and already quite sunny. I have little hopes of seeing the bird. Even a person who’s not interested in birds at all knows that owls are probably best seen in the night! But as it turns out Anza Boreggo has one final treat to offer us before we leave. The owl is actually there and it’s sitting on its favorite perch right above its burrow.

As is typical of most birds, the owl isn’t concerned by the occasional car speeding along the road. It’s only suspicious of Zeev’s car that’s slowing down! When we are about ten meters away from the bird it finally flies off. I have dared not get out of the car and have taken all my shots poking only my camera lens out of the window. Had I been on foot I know I’d have been lucky to get within twenty meters of the bird!

Burrowing Owl
(pic: Burrowing owl)

Two days later Zeev and I are back at the Los Angeles International Airport from where he had picked me up only about a week ago. I’ve known Zeev since I first gave him maths, science, handwriting and snake handling tuitions when he was only nine years old. He was an unusually nice kid, even at that precocious age. He was also annoyingly intelligent back then and had the knack of finding and pointing out mistakes whenever I took him to any of my snake presentations! It was obvious even back then that he would be someone likable and intelligent when he grew up. But I’d never have guessed that one day he’d be putting himself out there as a most generous friend, caring host, great road trip companion and an extremely resourceful guide to helping me find rattlesnakes in the US!