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The following story describes my involvement in this summer's field trip held jointly between the DFW Herpetological Society and the West Texas Herpetological Society. It first appeared in the DFWHS newsletter and has also been reprinted in the WTHS newsletter.

In West Texas, Between the Storms
Michael Smith

"Don't come to Sanderson right now!" Mark's voice said over a very tenuous cell phone connection. "There's this storm ... hail the size of baseballs ... my windsh...." With that, he was gone.

This was not good. I was on the road to Pandale, in the Chihuahuan desert between Interstate 10 and Highway 90 at the Mexican border, pretty close to qualifying as "in the middle of nowhere." Actually, it is definitely "somewhere." It is a hot and dry desert community with many fascinating critters living in limestone draws and ridges in an area where the Pecos River winds southward. The road becomes a little ribbon of graded rock and dirt, sometimes rippled in a washboard fashion so that driving anywhere over about five miles an hour makes you imagine that the car will simply shake to pieces. In other places the road washes down to the underlying rock, so that the going is quite lumpy and bumpy. Either way, it would be a little hard to beat a hasty retreat back to Ozona or push ahead in a fast trip to Langtry.

Looking toward Sanderson, I could see a squall line of cumulonimbus clouds filling the western sky. How many miles was Sanderson from Pandale? How long would it take me to reach the bustling town of Langtry and imagined shelter? At what rate was the storm moving eastward? This began to sound like one of those practical math problems in school, and I never was good at those. So I simply decided to head for Langtry.

Some distance south, I began to wonder if the road would actually reach Langtry. In some of the draws and gullies, recent rains had washed out much of the road so that I was grateful for my high-clearance, four-wheel-drive Forester. The road threaded between limestone ridges dotted with lechuguilla and green sotol and other desert plants. Lechuguilla is a yucca relative that resembles a green bunch of thin bananas pointing upward. Sotol is a larger plant with a rosette of long, stiff, sawtoothed leaves. They grow on the ridges and gullies wherever some soil is exposed.

At 6:20pm, as I climbed out of a draw over ribs and knobs of exposed rock, I saw a familiar form at the left of the road. It was a mottled rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus lepidus) about 18 to 20 inches long. These small rattlesnakes never get very large, but their bite can deliver fairly potent venom. Colored to match the caliche and gray limestone, this snake was a pale gray with crossbands of slightly darker gray and some charcoal-colored crossbars in places. He stopped and looked at me as I got out of the car, tongue-flicking and of course not hearing me as I said, "Dont you go anywhere." By the time I got the snake hook out, he had seen enough and turned back to leave the road. I chased him under a creosote bush and lost him among the rocks. I had hoped to hang onto him for a few minutes to get some photographs. The temperature near the ground was 78 degrees and the relative humidity was 62%, showing that rain was not far off.

The line of storms did not seem to be getting closer, though the cloud cover stretched out for miles and covered my part of the desert. My GPS unit showed that I was steadily approaching highway 90, but the desert hills seemed to go on forever. Finally I did reach Langtry and turned west toward my destination. By that time, the storms had broken up, and the rest of the drive was uneventful.

Sanderson, Texas bills itself as the "cactus capital of Texas." It has a population of 862, but then the entire population of Terrell County does not quite reach one thousand. The town is tucked away in the low canyons a little above the Rio Grande and a little east of the Big Bend. It is high enough (a little over 2800 feet) that the average August temperature is said to be 80 degrees. And in this herping* Mecca, Ruth and Roy Engledorf own the Outback Oasis Motel. I checked in for what was to be a very enjoyable stay. Others were arriving for the joint field trip, and I learned from Roy that they really had just endured a storm with very large hail, and that Mark's windshield now had a series of concentric cracks where the hailstone had hit the glass.

From Sanderson, Highway 90 runs west to Marathon and climbs to an elevation of over 4,000 feet, and I was eager to see what animals were moving after the storm. I set out down the highway and crossed into Brewster County. At 10:54pm I found a gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer ssp.) at the side of the road. Unfortunately, this snake had been run over, probably hours earlier just before the storm. While this was a youngster under three feet, gopher snakes grow to over five feet. This would be especially true here in a region where populations of the larger bullsnakes shade into populations of gopher snakes, and none of these snakes is likely to be genetically pure bullsnake or pure gopher snake. They are handsome, light sandy brown serpents with brown squares running down the back to gradually become dark rings on the tail. When these snakes are frightened or annoyed, vibrating their ringed tails and hissing loudly, it is not surprising that they are sometimes mistaken for rattlesnakes.

Back on the road, I spotted a snake on the other side of the road at 10:56pm. No traffic was in sight (though a truck had just passed in the opposite direction a minute before) and so I did a U-turn and pulled off the road. Running to the spot with my flashlight, I found a beautiful little snake, with glossy bands of deep red and cream and black. It was a New Mexico milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum celaenops). I have been out with Michael Price and others when these snakes have been found southwest of San Angelo, but this was the first that I had found. And it was to be a short encounter, because this snake, though still alive, had also been hit. It was another of those "if only" moments: if only I had not stopped for the gopher snake, perhaps I would have arrived in time to move this one to safety. Timing is everything.

Further down the road I spotted a small Texas night snake (Hypsiglena torquata jani), thankfully alive and healthy. These little spotted snakes with their elliptical cat-eyes are rather common, but when you live in north Texas and only get to see them on trips like this, they are a treat to see. Still further, I stopped to investigate a toad on the road. This little amphibian was a Couch's spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus couchii). Their mottled yellow to yellow-green coloration makes them one of our prettiest toads. They have strange eyes for a toad, with a pupil that is vertically elliptical like a cats instead of horizontally elliptical in the manner of the "true" toads. Their skin secretions are also more toxic than some other toads, and I later got a vivid reminder of this. I would have known better than to rub my eyes before washing them thoroughly, but back at the motel I scratched an itch just inside my nose, and a tiny burning sensation began. I imagine that a swab of pepper spray placed in just that spot would probably feel much the same, and I experienced what would have been described as profuse "tears" if the contact had been with my eyes.

Meanwhile, back on the road about 48 miles west of Sanderson, I spotted another small snake. This was a young Texas longnose snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei tesselatus). These are fascinating and beautiful snakes, with rather pointed snouts used for burrowing and a pattern of red and black and white down the back. They might be described as red (fading on the sides) with black saddles edged in white. The black is speckled with white, and the red is speckled with black. Most longnose snakes have pale bellies, but some have patchy black areas and this one had large mottled areas of black. While they are fairly common in parts of west and south Texas, they are uncommon in areas closer to north Texas, and so this was my first field sighting of a longnose snake. It was soon followed by another, larger longnose with more red in the pattern and a plain belly. I felt very lucky, despite the earlier encounter with the fatally wounded milk snake.

Next morning, the motley band of herpers assembled for breakfast. Roy, from the motel, told us he had arranged for us to have access to some nearby ranchland if we would like to visit it. We had no hesitation in accepting this offer, and followed him to a place with rocky uplifts and many varieties of cactus, yucca, catclaw, and other plants best seen and not touched. A caliche road climbed the hillside, turned, and inclined further up. Once again I was grateful for my choice of vehicle, as we strapped in a little tighter. I followed Roy up a steep grade, wondering what I would do if he started to slip on the gravel, and noticed that the road not only was partially washed away at the edge of the precipice, but was starting to erode on the inner side as well. John Lopez, riding with me, joked that if the road gave way the boulders below would surely stop us. A couple of minutes later and we were safely on the top of the ridge.

What a place! The hills and ridges circled partly around a vale or hollow, and a fairly easy climb down (watch that cactus!) took us past rocks and crevices where any number of creatures took shelter. I was able to get a very close look at a Merriams canyon lizard (Sceloporus merriami merriami) on a rock ledge amid sotol and catclaw acacia and creosote bush. I turned a rock and found a Texas banded gecko (Coleonyx brevis) sheltering there. These little four-inch lizards have such fine granular scales that their skin looks smooth, and they have yellow crossbands that become more and more mottled as they grow to adulthood. Mostly we got glimpses of lizards and were able to observe them at a distance, when they ran far enough away to feel safe in stopping. Collared lizards (Crotaphytus collaris) scampered off the roads, and whiptail lizards scurried nervously among the rocks and vegetation. One of these was the Trans-Pecos striped whiptail (Cnemidophorus inornatus heptagrammus), a striped lizard with a bright turquoise blue tail. A male with beautiful blue color washing up over the face as well as the tail began to forage as we watched. After darting only a few feet away, it seemed perfectly secure in its ability to evade us and moved along in its quick, jerky search for small insects.

It was getting quite hot as the day progressed, and a meeting of the West Texas Herpetological Society was planned for mid-day. We descended the crumbly caliche road carefully, downshifting and moving slowly. The steep slope led to a sharp left turn, and if we lost traction and missed the turn the rest of the descent would be very steep and rapid, and the herping trip would probably be over. We reached the bottom without incident, still safely on the road.

We congregated at the community center in Sanderson for the herp society meeting. Damon Salceies talked with us about the reptiles and amphibians of the Sanderson area, with lots of pictures and stories. Among all the discussion about working rock cuts (getting out of the car and walking at night where a road cuts through a hill, looking for snakes) he described what a pleasure it can be to simply observe an animal without catching it, or to catch and release a snake. I was glad to hear him talk about this, because we sometimes get too involved in collecting, and miss out on we could get from merely watching.

Back at the Outback Oasis, as the afternoon lengthened the herpers began taking photos of each other's specimens and making plans for the evening. Ruth and Roy were very gracious hosts and fed us brisket and burgers with side dishes and iced tea. We sat around the fish pond in the courtyard and enjoyed good food and good company, and considered possible destinations for the night's herping.

We even enjoyed the company of the resident gray-band fanatic, a fellow who had come from California and had already been in west Texas for a number of days, working road cuts at night and sleeping by day. Gray-band fanatics are those folks who become obsessed with the gray-banded kingsnake, a small and secretive snake that pokes around in rock crevices at night for lizard prey. It is a worthy object of adoration, because of its beauty and its variability. Some of them are almost completely gray, with dark bands irregularly spaced across the body. In some, the darker markings serve as borders for bright orange saddles or bands. The base color may be a very light gray, similar to the limestone on which some populations live. It may also be a dark gray, more like the color of the boulders and rock ledges of other localities. During the 1900s, the first specimen found was gray with dark markings and no orange. It was named Ophibolus alternus (and later Lampropeltis alterna). When a gray kingsnake with wide orange bands was later found, it was thought to be a different kind of snake and was named Lampropeltis blairi. Still later, when snakes of both pattern phases were hatched out of the same clutch of eggs from the same mother, it was recognized that these were just two color phases of the same species.

Our gray-band fanatic had worked the hillside earlier in the day, but otherwise was seen only at night. We fancied that he must sleep during the day in a coffin with dust from west Texas rock cuts in it, arising and taking shape when night came, and calling the gray-bands "children of the night." At one point as we talked about him, a different image formed in our brains - that of the Sesame Street Count, working rock cuts and intoning, "One alterna, ho-ho-ho-ho; two alterna, ho-ho-ho-ho," and so on. At the motel he had told us that despite being up all night every night (the image we had was of him creeping down a sheer rock face headfirst like a bat, long cape billowing in the wind) he had not yet found any alterna but had bought a pair from someone he had met out along the roadside further east. We could hardly believe it, and Clint had us laughing as he imagined shadowy figures walking up to herpers at rock cuts and gesturing toward the linings of their coats, saying "Hey you. You with the Q-beam. Look, uh, you don't have to keep doin' this. It's getting late. You could be back at the room havin' a cold one - just tell yer friends you caught these." At that point he would flash open the coat and reveal deli cups with all sorts of gray-banded kingsnakes in them.

As we continued to sit around the pond at the motel letting our imaginations run wild, clouds began to build in the west. It began to get dark, but not because the sun was setting. We spotted lightning to the west, and as it approached, one particularly threatening part of the storm clouds was a distinctly greenish color. Ruth emerged from the office and told us that she heard from the internet that Terrell and the surrounding counties were under tornado warnings, and the stuff was headed straight for us. She said "It's all red on the radar, just one massive red blob." Looked like we were in for it again. I turned on the TV in my room for the first time, but this being Sanderson there was no local TV weather. Several of us sat under a covered porch as the storm came in, with big lightning strikes like cannon shot, and the wind picking up strength. The rain arrived in pounding sheets and the sign for the gas station across the street was wrenched back and forth in the wind. However, no tornado arrived, and after a while the rain and wind subsided. Herpers began to gather outside again, revising plans in light of the storm. It actually began to clear to the west, and several of us made the decision to head for Black Gap.

Black Gap Wildlife Management Area occupies a portion of the Big Bend just to the east of the National Park. After turning south from Marathon and driving for a time, the sun set below the mountains and the enormous line of storms we had left behind glowed pink and orange to the east. Just after dark, at 9:40pm, we found another gopher snake but this one was perfectly intact and healthy. This beautiful three-foot female hardly protested as we picked her up. This species can be very aggressive (though non-venomous) when picked up, but some individuals such as this one are completely inoffensive.

The northwestern area of Black Gap was dry when we entered, but at some point we crossed the boundary where there had been rain, and there were puddles on the road and the shallow ditches by the road cuts were full of water. We began to see toads: the Texas toad (Bufo speciosus), red-spotted toad (Bufo punctatus) and more of the Couch's spadefoot toads I had seen the previous night. We also saw the Rio Grande leopard frog (Rana berlandieri), which stimulated a good deal of conversation about how an animal like the leopard frog can exist in such a desert region. These frogs have dark spots on a light olive to tan ground color, and their skin is smooth and moist, not relatively dry and rough like that of most toads. Amphibians living in the desert tend to burrow in deep enough to preserve moisture and then emerge when it rains, making the most of opportunities to eat and breed before having to again retreat underground.

We saw a couple of western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) on the road. Both were just approaching adulthood, young males at around three feet long. They sat for a photo or two and then we moved them off the road. Often these rattlesnakes respond to human approach by sitting still or by tolerating a certain amount of being moved around with snake hooks. As long as nothing moves their way in a very threatening manner, they may be calm. Of course, it could be a terrible mistake to take this for granted, for a diamondback rattlesnake can strike with a lightning-fast jab if aroused, and can do so without warning. These snakes have evolved venom designed to stop a prey animal within a very short time, and the venom not only kills but begins the process of digestion. When used for defense, the venom acts similarly, breaking down tissue and causing bruising, swelling, and pain. In his book, Poisonous Snakes of Texas, Dr. Andy Price notes that a lethal venom dose from this species may be around 100mg and a bite may deliver around 400mg of venom. Nevertheless he notes that the number of snakebite fatalities in Texas between 1991 and 1996 was only four.

The road through Black Gap runs toward the southeast for about 30 miles to the border. We drove nearly that length before turning around and starting back. We had come back only a very short distance before seeing something on the left - a light colored, slender snake on the pavement where we had just passed a few minutes before. As I got out and went to it, I recognized the pale straw yellowish background color of the Trans-Pecos rat snake (Bogertophis subocularis). The Trans-Pecos rat snake is a slender and graceful reptile with big round eyes. Two black lines start down the neck, and further down the body crossbars appear and the lines are broken so that the pattern becomes a series of "H" markings. They are generally very mild mannered, and I have picked up several without the snake making any attempt to bite.

On the way back, we searched rock cuts for lizards and snakes. Some rock cuts are like gardens, with patterns in the crevices and shapes of stone, and cactus and sotol and other plants growing out of the fissures. You can scan the cuts with flashlights or Q-beams and see invertebrates here and there on the rocks, and perhaps a lizard tucked away in a crevice. I stared at a large sotol growing seemingly out of the rock wall, and I wondered how this plant with a three or four foot spray of narrow leaves found a foothold on the rock face and grew so successfully.

At times we turned off all lights and looked at the night sky. In places like this, when all the lights are turned off and there is no moon, the sky is breathtakingly deep and dark, with millions of brilliant pinpoints of light scattered throughout the heavens. Near the city, there is a dark gray curtain over the sky as city lights bounce back from the atmosphere, and the sky seems two-dimensional. In the Big Bend and other such places, the curtain is drawn back for us to view the depths of infinity. Walking back to the car, we could hear each other's footsteps and hushed voices. Our senses were not assailed by traffic noises and machine humming and airplanes and street lights over the horizon. It was very quiet and peaceful and dark.

Several of us stayed an additional day, and we saw more reptiles. There was the blacktail rattlesnake that had been run over at a major intersection on the edge of town, and the juvenile Great Plains rat snake on the road north of town. Oh, and that one additional find on the road the last night I was there - a gray banded kingsnake that Clint spotted. We ran back to see a beautiful little gray snake with bright orange saddles down the back. Please don't tell Count Alterna; I think he may still be out there, working the road cuts.

Additional Reading:
Bartlett, R.D., & P.P Bartlett. 1999. A field guide to Texas reptiles & amphibians. Houston: Gulf Publishing
Price, A.H. 1998. Poisonous snakes of Texas. Austin: Texas Parks & Wildlife Press
Tennant, A. 1998. A field guide to Texas snakes. Houston: Gulf Publishing
Wauer, R.H., & C.M. Fleming. 2002. Naturalist's Big Bend. College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press

* I use the term "herpers" in just the way we might refer to those interested in birds as "birders." It implies an interest in seeing reptiles and amphibians (herpetofauna) in the field and does not necessarily mean "hunting." Snake hunters are typically searching for snakes to collect; field herpers may be interested in seeing, photographing, or perhaps collecting.

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