Brake for Nature

Nighttime Herping in Big Bend National Park – Snakes!

The days were already hot down in Big Bend National Park, deep in the Chihuahuan Desert, when we visited in April.  The critters that live there have adapted in various ways to survive the heat. As I learned long ago from one of my favorite childhood books, Creatures of the Desert World, many animals endure this harsh environment by taking refuge in the daytime and going about their more active business at night.  Animals that are active at night are called nocturnal.  Particularly on hot days, exploring the desert at night can be far more productive for wildlife watching than sweating it out during the day.  This is true especially if you want to see snakes. On a few of our hottest days in Big Bend National Park, we took a hint from the animals and rested during the midday heat so that we could explore the park in the dark.

Our Favorite Lifelong Herper

My father is a lifelong herper (i.e., one who enjoys searching for and watching reptiles and amphibians, similar to a birder watching birds).  As a child, he roamed the wild areas in his backyard – the C&O Canal and Potomac River in Bethesda, Maryland – searching for all kinds of animals, but mostly snakes.  Reptiles were his favorite, and his bias remains strong to this day.  He searches for herps on every trail.  When we invited him to join us somewhere along our travel path, he suggested western Texas or eastern New Mexico, where he might catch a glimpse of a Trans-Pecos rat snake.  He remembered admiring the markings of the Trans-Pecos rat snake back when he read about it as a young boy, but he had never had the opportunity to see one in person.

My dad, David, when he was a kid, holding a yellow rat snake in his arms

My dad holding a yellow rat snake

My dad, as a young man, holding a timber rattlesnake

My dad showing off a timber rattlesnake

My dad knows snakes, and after experiencing just how hot those April days were in Big Bend, he knew that the best time to see them would be on the warm asphalt at night. Snakes are cold-blooded, which means they have to get heat from an outside source to warm their bodies enough to be active.  They will typically soak up the sun, but overheating can be a problem too.  That’s why in really hot places like the Chihuahuan Desert you are more likely to see snakes sunbathing in the early morning or catching some heat waves from hot surfaces in the evening.  Asphalt is a perfect source of heat at night.  This is fortunate for the herper, who only has to drive carefully down the road searching for snakes in the headlights to be rewarded with a sighting.  On the other hand, it can be unfortunate for the snakes if less observant drivers or those with a fear of snakes run them over.

Our First Night Out

The first night we chose to go exploring was after a short but sweaty afternoon hike in the Chisos Mountains.  We rested back at camp, ate some dinner, and then waited for full dusk.  We carefully headed out into the darkness, and after entering the park, decided to turn right and drive down the bumpy Old Maverick Road. Sadly, we endured a rough and bumpy ride for nothing, not a single animal.  Once we reached asphalt again, we decided to stop at the Santa Elena Canyon overlook.  The moon was fairly close to full, and it lit up the view of the canyon.  The cool air was refreshing, and the quiet night tickled our ears.  A couple of western screech owls broke the silence, and we realized that one was perched in a tree directly beside us!

Moonlight shining through popcorn-like clouds in the night sky at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Moonlight at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

The sounds of the screech owls seemed to be a sign that the animals were waking up for their nighttime activities.  Just a few minutes later, we saw a Chihuahuan night snake on the road.  My dad jumped out of the truck, just as excited as I imagine he was as a kid finding a snake!  He was almost too excited to handle the camera.

Chihuahuan night snake stretched out on the asphalt

Chihuahuan night snake

Further along Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the night really came alive.  Jackrabbits and kangaroo rats were hopping right and left across the road in the headlights.  An owl, and then what appeared to be a poorwill flew in front of us.  Suddenly, a coyote popped out in front of the truck, trotted along, and then paused to turn around and look at us before trotting off the other side of the road.

The night drive ended with another, much larger snake on the road – a Great Plains rat snake.  In all the commotion of excitement, we managed to get at least one decent picture of its head.

Great Plains rat snake on the asphalt in Big Bend National Park

Great Plains rat snake

The Star of the Night Drives

The next day was one of the hottest, and since we were tired from the previous night, we decided to sleep in, take it easy, and go for another night drive.  For some reason, this night was much quieter.  Perhaps the animals were waiting for even cooler weather to venture out.  Even more disappointing, we found a dead snake on the side of the road – a coachwhip. That’s the downside to getting your heat fix from the road.

We reluctantly gave up and started heading down the main park road back to camp when a snake appeared in the headlights.  My dad jumped out and discovered that it was a Trans-Pecos rat snake, the snake he had journeyed all the way out to Texas to see for the first time!!  How lucky!  It was a beautiful specimen, a full-sized adult with perfect markings, a work of art on its back.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad so excited.  What a treat to see my father as a giddy as a kid!

Trans-Pecos rat snake in my dad's hands in Big Bend National Park

Trans-Pecos rat snake in my dad’s hands

Trans-Pecos rat snake stretching up out of my dad's hands in Big Bend National Park

Another view of that Trans-Pecos rat snake

A Couple of Rattlers on Our Last Night

On our last night in the park, we had dinner at the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant after a long hike in the mountains, and we enjoyed an incredible sunset followed by a lightning show from the windows of the restaurant.  Since we were out past sunset, we had one last opportunity for a night drive in the park.  The storm had passed, and we made our way down the mountain and back out to the main park road.  Bam! Two more snakes in the headlights!

The first one was a large black-tailed rattlesnake with black on the top of its head between the eyes and black on the tip of its tail just before the rattles.

Black-tailed rattlesnake on the road in Big Bend National Park

Black-tailed rattlesnake

The second snake was much smaller, a young western diamondback rattlesnake.  We attempted to scare it off the road, concerned that it would be run over by the next motorist.  However, he was feisty and stubborn and refused to leave the road. When we saw an SUV approaching, we stood by him, lit up by our headlights and attempted to wave the vehicle around us.  The SUV came straight at us, moving fast.  I don’t know what the driver thought we were doing, but he didn’t seem to get the message.  At the last minute, I jumped aside, and the driver unknowingly, but luckily straddled the snake.  I was really surprised that this national park visitor didn’t slow down and go around us, or even stop to check out our find.

Western diamondback rattlesnake on the edge of the road in Big Bend National Park

Western diamondback rattlesnake

Three night drives produced six snakes, numerous jackrabbits and kangaroo rats, several owls, and even a coyote!  Not bad at all.  The next time you find yourself exploring a desert, don’t forget to make some time for a nighttime excursion.  Stay on slow-speed back roads and park roads, and drive carefully.  You want to see the animals, not run over them.  Enjoy the cool night air and the sounds of desert life, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have your own wildlife encounter!

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