We were down in the Arizona desert hanging out for a few days before meeting up with friends. Our spot was a few miles outside of Quartzsite at a place we have stayed a few times before. Out of the way, the barest hint of freeway noise, no one around during the week and a good AT&T data cell signal (which is a Unicorn when overlanding). After getting the Tacoma unpacked and camp mostly set-up I decided to unfurl our old but tried and true ARB awning for a bit of protection from both the sun and the sporadic rain showers that were happening in the area. While pulling out the guy rope to stake down one of the lengths ended up being close to a small bush and I bent down to place the stake and pound it in with our little 2 lb Estwing Sledge Hammer. The first attempt to place the stake ended up in a burrow and was insufficiently snug in the ground. I pulled it out, chose a different spot and pounded it in to my satisfaction. For some reason, once the stake was placed I glanced up under the bush all of 2 feet from where I stood and got a bit of a startle.
I quickly (but smoothly and calmly) stepped back to assess the situation and was actually quite proud of myself for not screaming like a little girl. This is how close it was from our camp and the guy rope.
As soon as I stepped back Willow knew something was up and came over to offer her support and check out the situation. Remembering her first, bad, scary and expensive encounter with a rattlesnake a couple of years ago I put a quick stop to her approach and took a quick video of the situation. Here’s a low quality version:
This whole time the snake had not moved…at all. When I took a close look I thought it might even be dead as there was not even the normal signs of breathing until I took that video and saw its eye turn towards me! Now knowing it was in fact a viable danger but showing no outward signs of aggression we decided we didn’t want to pack up camp so soon and instead to leave it in peace and remain vigilant.
It was a mostly cloudy, chilly, 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) day. Since it is winter I had not brought my snake hook or I might have gently moved it to a spot father away but as it turned out this was a small blessing. Since Willow’s scary encounter and being bitten, twice, by a large Southern Pacific Rattlesnake in the San Bernardino Mountains in 2018 I had done a lot of research on rattlesnakes to acquire some Snake Smarts and we had even taken a Rattlesnake Aversion Training course in Palm Springs to get both of us better acquainted with these creatures we come across regularly. Still, wanting to minimize our risk we decided to take a long hike away from our campsite and see if the snake would move on in our absence. Two hours later when we returned it was still right where we left it curled up under that bush. This was a bit unexpected as the sun had now come out, warming the ground and I assumed, as a cold-blooded creature it might have decided to come out from under the cool shade of the bush and warm itself.
One of the things I learned about after Willow’s rattlesnake encounter was the process of Brumation. Think of it somewhat like hibernation in mammals but with not as “deep” of a sleep. In fact reptiles can wake up during brumation, get a drink of water and go right back to “sleep.” Imagining this was what this snake was doing I decided to see if I could give it a drink of water. Now, granted, this was a bit on the foolish side but I had seen several clues that the snake was not in a feisty mood. I do know that shaking the rattle is a common threat display but is not required before striking and its tail was tucked underneath its body. It also was not in the typical coiled and raised threat display and was instead just laying down flat tightly coiled (for warmth?).
Under most circumstances the effective strike range is from one third to one half the snake’s length so I decided to stay more than a full body length away and take the calculated risk. I did though preemptively look up the nearest emergency room in the area just in case (medical clinic in Quartzsite – about 25 minutes away and a hospital in Blythe, CA about an hour away). I carefully filled my little plastic 1/2 cup measuring cup from our Brita water filter, set it near the snake and, with the end of one of our Telescoping Tarp Tent Poles, sloooowly pushed it to within a few inches of the snake’s head to see what it would do. At about 6 inches away I saw its eyes move. At 3-4 inches away it lifted its head just slightly and I decided… That. Was. Close. Enough. I removed the pole and backed a few feet away and then remained still. I waited and was soon rewarded with the snake actually stretching out the few remaining inches, checking out the measuring cup with its tongue flicking about and eventually putting its face actually into the water and taking a good, long drink. There are no measuring lines in the cup but, even from where I stood, I could see that the water level had decreased noticeably. Very cool. When it finished it pulled back and recoiled itself and settled down again. I rrrrreally wish I could have gotten a video of that but, as I was going to be actively and physically interacting with a creature that can hurt me badly, I decided to focus all my attentions on it and not trying to hold the phone still and get good framing etcetera.
I went back to my old, zero gravity chair to relax and read and occasionally glance up to see if the snake was still chilling. It stayed there, unmoving until a little after 4pm when I saw movement in my peripheral vision. It was moving! Stupidly I did not have my phone right at hand and so had to run to the back of the Tacoma and get it. I walked over with enough time to get this movie of the snake slowly making its way into one of the many tunnel openings that surrounded the base of this bush.
Here’s a high-quality frame grab from that video showing its tail and rattle:
From the broad black and white rings, fairly equal in width and the ring adjacent to the
rattle being black I figured out that this is, most likely, a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). So, not just any rattlesnake but, according to various online sources, “the largest rattlesnake in California,” “responsible for the majority of snakebite fatalities in northern Mexico and the greatest number of snakebites in the U.S” and “one of the more aggressive rattlesnake species in the US in the way that they stand their ground when confronted by a foe.” So…Yay!? Lucky me. This snake had three rattles and the “button.” The common perception that each rattle equates to one year of life is incorrect and, in fact, only indicates a time the snake has shed its skin. At birth the snake had a “prebutton” which is replaced by the “button” around 7-14 days later when it sheds its skin for the first time. So the button and three rattles strongly suggest this snake has shed a total of four times. Depending on factors such a weather, temperature, the snake’s diet, how successful a hunter it is and its growth rate a snake can shed its skin several times a year. The tail also gave a clue as to the sex of the snake with this individual’s striped portion of the tail gently tapering down to the rattle as opposed to a quick constriction in size starting at the border of the regular diamondback pattern and the tail stripes. This makes “it” a him. I think.
We kept an eye on his area for the rest of the daylight hours and then went to bed. We hoped (well, I hoped) we might see him again the next day as it was supposed to be warm and sunny…a perfect day for a snake to bask. Alas, it was not to be as either he had vacated that hole/den during the evening or he was back into full-blown brumation and was going to stay down there for another couple of months until springtime.
So, a neat sighting and interaction with a beautiful but potentially deadly creature which ended well for all parties involved. We are better and wiser (both human and canine) for having had that experience and I hope it will happen again someday.
Have fun out there and watch where you step.