One Tough Customer
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In the popular imagination rattlesnakes are among the most aggressive, nastiest creatures in the desert. It’s really untrue. Rattlesnakes are hardly aggressive. They spend nearly all of their lives coiled up under a cactus or a bush, passively waiting for some rodent to come strolling within reach. A rattlesnake is motionless about 99% of its life.
There are other snakes that are far more active and even aggressive. Perhaps the most hyperactive snake in the desert, and a true tough customer, is the Coachwhip Snake. These snakes are nonvenomous so lying in ambush isn’t very productive for them. They must hunt for their food and that requires them to be extremely active. They are fast — a coachwhip can crawl at speeds of up to three miles an hour, warp speed for a snake — agile — they can climb trees with ease — and hyper-alert. Coachwhips will raid birds’ nests for eggs. They will invade rodent burrows in search of prey. They will eat other snakes. A friend, Cyndy Wicker, e-mailed me last week with a photo of a Coachwhip devouring a rattlesnake. How’s that for tough?
Coachwhips get their name from the braided appearance of their scales, which in the minds of some, resemble horse whips. They are long and lean. An adult Coachwhip can exceed six feet in length. These snakes have narrow, streamlined bodies that are perfectly designed for exploring crevices and burrows. They have enormous eyes, all the better to see with in dim light. They have a reputation for defending themselves when threatened. A Coachwhip will bite! And, even though the bite is not venomous, a Coachwhip can easily draw blood.
These snakes come in a large variety of colors. Local populations tend to be of a particular color. But, drive a couple of miles and the Coachwhips may be colored differently. There is a resident population of Coachwhips living on the grounds of the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. Many of these snakes tend to be colored a deep red. However, over at Sabino Canyon, the Coachwhips are usually jet black in color, with a few red accents and sometimes, with red tails.
I photographed this handsome individual the other day.
When I found it it was mostly hidden under a shrub, with only the first two feet of the snake exposed. It was somewhat lethargic at first. It was early in the morning and I had a sense that the snake, a cold-blooded reptile, needed to warm up a bit before it became active.
It offered me the opportunity to take a closeup.
In this image one can clearly see the braided or “basketweave” pattern of the snake’s scales.
After a minute or so, the snake moved, and when I saw it extended to its full length I was surprised to discover that it was well over six feet long. A big snake, indeed.
Images taken with a Canon 5Diii, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens. The first image was assisted with a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, ISO 125, M setting, f16 @ 1/160. The second image was made in available light, ISO 400, f9 @ 1/200.