Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In and Out of Harm's Way

How I prefer to see western yellow-bellied racers in the Dipper farmyard - out of harm's way.
June 2, 2009   
On May 25, I was mowing the orchard with a big walk-behind mower. The coyote brush was starting to take over and this mower is powerful enough to cut down young shrubs as tall as 3 feet. On a return path of my back-and-forth mowing pattern, I found an injured western yellow-bellied racer on the edge of the tall grass. Sadly, I realized I had probably hit it with the mower despite looking ahead and mowing in a way that gives wildlife the best chance to flee from the noisy machine. I set the injured snake in an area that was far away from my mowing duties. It was probably going to be dinner for a coyote or fox that night.
Then, just as I was about to mow over a small bush, I saw a different racer climbing up its branches. I turned off the mower, shook the racer loose and chased it to the other side of the fence.

Once when I was showing a new co-worker around the preserves, we walked into a brush stand and spotted a racer in a coyote brush at about eye level. I reached for the snake to show my partner how to identify yellow-bellied racers by their subtle colors and large eyes, but instead, the racer demonstrated its unique ability to swim through the dense foliage. It zipped quickly in one direction and then another around the layered branches so that we were running madcap circles past each other and still couldn't catch it. We must have looked like the three stooges to any nearby hikers. I've admired these swift and agile snakes every since.

The Dipper farmyard is at the intersection of wildlands and people-lands. We get to see a lot of wildlife up close when we are working in the farmyard and peering out of the ranch house. Occasionally, this intersection of lives leads to conflict, either we put ourselves at risk or we accidentally harm wildlife. We have to mow around the buildings to keep down the fuel so property and people are not harmed in the event of a wildfire and that activity is probably the one that has the greatest potential for conflict with wildlife. We try to stay alert and modify many of our work practices to minimize surprises, but it is inevitable that small animals will sometimes get hurt in the farmyard.

I wrote Protecting Wildlife While Mowing to share the methods we've learned so far. Events like this make me think even deeper, particularly about behavior that is species unique. Now I know when cutting down brush with the big mower, I need to go slowly and watch the tops of the brush too where racers may climb away from the loud disturbance. Or cut the brush down by hand.

No photos of these two yellow-bellied racers - too sad, too fast. In June, I saw a racer cross the driveway and hide in the flower bed, and a quick glance of another one at the Mallard Pond. The top photo shows two racers we moved out of harm's way in the farmyard in 2009. They could be grandparents of the yellow-bellied racers we saw in the farmyard in 2015. Racers often pose comically for photos.

Next up is a prickly situation.


Western Yellow-bellied Racer,  Coluber constrictor mormon

The Curiosity of Racers

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