Monday, February 1, 2016

Counting Triads

A California mountain kingsnake checks out a ranger's duty belt.   
On April 15, I found a California mountain kingsnake that had cleverly positioned itself above the water level in the spring box. It had accordian-wedged itself in a vertical crack in the concrete lining. While leaning into the vault to capture the brightly banded red-black-white kingsnake, I spotted a pointed and dull brown tail sticking out from underneath a ledge at the deep side of the springbox. It was a western yellow-bellied racer and it was out of my reach.

A California mountain kingsnake vertically wedging itself in the crack in the springbox.    
I recovered the kingsnake and carefully counted which of its triads had atypical breaks. Each black-red-black band on the snake is called a triad and these are separated by a single white band. On most kingsnakes, there will be one or more bands that are incomplete, missing, or otherwise irregular. Snakes are born with all their scales and as a snake grows, individual scales gets bigger but generally retain their same underlying color. That means any irregular pattern in the triads probably marks a snake as a distinct individual for its life.

Count the interrupted triads on California mountain kingsnake number 4   
Counting back from the head and designating on which side the irregularity occurred, this California mountain kingsnake had interrupted triads at 4L, 12R, 26R and 27L. Since this was not a pattern I had recorded on the previous California mountain kingsnakes, this became the fourth individual California mountain kingsnake we have found on the Dipper Ranch in five years.

Tail of a western yellow-bellied racer sticking out from a hidey-hole in the springbox.   
I couldn't find the yellow-bellied racer again until April 20th when it was tucked in the back corner of the springbox, but hopefully within reach of my long net if I leaned in from that corner. I closed the front side of the springbox lid and walk around to the uphill side. As I lifted the heavy lid from the back and leaned over the concrete edge, something brown flashed past my head and landed in the springbox with a thud. It was a chunky rattlesnake. Yowser, I've never had a rattlesnake fly past my head before. I quickly snagged the racer and let the rattlesnake cool off in the springbox overnight so there would be no flying rattlesnakes when I moved it the next day. And boy was that snake sluggish the next morning. I had to tickle it into the net with a willow switch before relocating it to a rock -strewn hillside.

No more flying rattlesnakes!   
The continuing drought and constant breakdown of the ranch's water troughs and old pipes had me anxiously checking the water systems all summer. Most mornings, I would grab a cup of coffee and walk down to the water tank and spring box to decide how careful we needed to be with our water consumption that day. On my May 29th inspection, I again found a California mountain kingsnake in the springbox. This one looked longer than the last and indeed it had a unique pattern making it California mountain kingsnake number 5 for the ranch.

At a total length of 71cm, this California mountain kingsnake had interrupted triads at 25L and 33, and triads 43 and 44 were linked.   
I invited this kingsnake to make a special guest appearance the next day at my Grassland Snakes of the Santa Cruz Mountains lecture. Volunteers were helping to pull yellow starthistle in Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, and we often invite lunchtime speakers to give a talk in the field to keep the events interesting. One woman was a little frightened when I pulled the kingsnake out of a pillowcase but soon all the volunteers were admiring its lovely colors. Afterwards, I stopped at the ranger office and gave the calm kingsnake another chance to serve as snake ambassador while I was signing some important papers. Then this ambassador went back to its native grassland country.

A busy field and office day with a little help from a friend.   
On June 12, a visitor spotted another California mountain kingsnake as she was closing the front gate. No photo of that one, so we can't say whether it changes the population count of California mountain kingsnakes on the ranch or not.

Next up are the modest and harmless gopher snakes of 2015.

California Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis zonata

Western Yellow-bellied Racer,  Coluber constrictor mormon

Northern Pacific RattlesnakeCrotalus oreganus oreganus

Pacific Gopher SnakePituophis catenifer catenifer

Snakes in Question, The Smithsonian Answer Book. Carl H. Ernst, George R. Zug. The Smithsonian Institute. 1996, 2004.

1 comment:

  1. Er... 'Flashed. Past. My. Head.' Crivens, I like to think I'm outdoorsy, but I'm so not. Big respect!


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