Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Southwest USA Herping Heaven

From 1st-10th June 2010 I went to the USA, I didn't have this blog up and running then and put a short report on the European Field Herping forum. However, I omitted a lot of other wildlife so here's a retrospective blog.

I went with my long time non-herping friends Richard Plant and Martin Crookes and we planned a big loop starting in Las Vegas Nevada, driving to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park Arizona (2 nights), 1 night in Page Arizona then across the Navajo Bridge up to Zion National Park Utah (2 nights) and finally back to Las Vegas (1 night) a journey of over 1000 miles. Fieldguides used were Western Reptiles and Amphibians by Stebbins, I can highly recommend Lizards of the American Southwest by Jones and Lovich, this is one of my favourie fieldguides. For mammals and birds, Mammals of North America by Kays and Wilson, Birds of North America by National Geographic.

We flew from Manchester on the 1st of June, a 2 hour stopover in Atlanta and then on to Las Vegas for 2 nights.

Although not a herping trip we were going through areas with the possibility of producing a lot of species of wildlife. I had high expectations and did a lot of research, mainly to try and avoid getting stuck with any identifications of animals seen (something that really bugs me).

2nd June 2010
With Las Vegas mainly being a night time spot we drove out to The Valley of Fire State Park. At 9.30am it was already getting very warm and on the road into the park Tiger Whiptails (sub spp Great Basin) Aspidoscelis tigris were on the edge and sprinting across the tarmac. First photo opportunity cane in the form of 2 Turkey Vultures Cathartes aura feeding on road kill, these aren't true raptors and are an example of convergent evolution.

Above and Below Turkey Vulture... © Carl Corbidge

Another stop for some scenery shots and I heard a Chuckwalla Sauromalus ater scrambling up the rocks and wedge itself in a crevice. There were a few Tiger Whiptails and a single Side Blotched Lizard Uta stansburiana elegans. At the park entrance (10 dollars) a Hummingbird spp was whizzing around. We took a loop road and quickly stopped at the first set of red rock formations that give the park its name. I found another 3 Chuckwallas these are the second largest lizard of the USA with only Gila Monsters bigger, more Tiger Whiptails, Side Blotch Lizard and a very nice Desert Iguana Diposaurus dorsalis feeding on the yellow flowers of the creosote plant, perfectly designed for the desert these lizards can tolerate higher temperatures than any other North American lizard. A White Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel Ammospermophilis leucurus disappeared amongst the rocks.
Above and Below Scenery in the Valley Of Fire © Carl Corbidge
Above and below 2 different Chuckwallas Sauromalus ater  © Carl Corbidge
Tiger Whiptail Aspidoscelis tigris  eating a moth © Carl Corbidge
Above and Below Desert Iguana Diposaurus dorsalis  © Carl Corbidge

In the afternoon we drove to the Hoover Dam described as one of the wonders of the modern world and it certainly is an impressive feat of engineering. By now it was very warm and we went underground on a tour beneath the dam which was a welcome relief from the heat.
Above and Below Hoover Dam © Carl Corbidge

June 3rd
Today we had the longest drive of the trip, about 300miles to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We decided to take the more scenic route along Route 66. On the road there was a DOR Coyote Canus latrans and Possibly some Gunnison's Praire Dogs Cynomys gunnisoni (using a process of elimination). A photo opportunity and an icecream at an old petrol station revealed a few Tiger Whiptails.
Me left, Martin and Richard right at The famous gas station on the Arizona stretch of Route 66 © Carl Corbidge

A quick stop at Kaibab Lake revealed an Abert's Squirrel Sciurus aberti, White Breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinnensis, Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias, Mountain Bluebird Siala currucoides and a Few Plateau Fence Lizards Sceloporus tristichus. I initially thought that they were this species but when I looked at the photos I noticed they had a black collar which would point to one of the spiny lizards (Clark's) so I changed my mind. However after a bit of research, size and other features point to male Plateau Fence with a black collar, plus distribution and altitude are all outside guidebook values for Clark's Spiny. We arrived at the Grand Canyon just in time sunset and what an impressive way to end the day.

Male Plateau Fence Lizard Sceloporus tristichus © Carl Corbidge
White Breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis © Carl Corbidge
Above and Below Grand Canyon at Sunset © C Corbidge

June 4th The Grand Canyon
I was lookimg forward to today as we planned a walk down into the Grand Canyon. With the high temperatures (that increase with the descent in the canyon) an early start was needed. I had a quick scout around outside our cabin. There were several Plateau Fence Lizards warming up, American Robin Turdus migratorius, Great Tailed Grackle Quiscalis mexicanus and quite a few Ravens Corvus corax. A quick breakfast and we were off down the trail, we were aiming to do a 9 mile hike. At the top of the trail there were several Ornate Tree Lizards Urosaurus ornatus and Plateau Fence Lizards. I also saw Tiger Whiptails at regular intervals Subspecies (plateau tiger). A total of 4 Desert Spiny Lizards Sceloporus magister some doing press ups and a couple allowing me to get close. Birds included Cliff Swallows Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, White Throated Swift Aeronautes saxatalis, Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculates, Western Scrub Jay Aphelocoma californica, Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli, Turkey Vultures, Peregrine Falco peregrinus and California Condor Gymnogyps californianus. There were also lots of Rock Squirrels Otospermophilus variegatus trying to get in your rucksack whenever they got the chance. When we got to the 3 mile marker we had already dropped 600m in altitude the temperture was over 100f so we decided to turn around and do 6 miles instead of the 9. I must admit the walk back up was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but worth it and we had a couple of beers to celebrate.

American Robin Turdus migratorius © C Corbidge
Bumble Bee Spp © C Corbidge
Great Tailed Grackle Quiscalis mexicanus © C Corbidge
Above and Below Plateau Fence Lizard Sceloporus tristichus © C Corbidge
Above and Below Ornate Tree Lizard Urosaurus ornatus © C Corbidge
The Trail Ahead Grand Canyon © C Corbidge
Cactus © C Corbidge
Plateau Tiger Whiptail Aspidoscelis tigris septentrionalis © C Corbidge
Above 3 photos Desert Spiny Lizard Sceloporus magister © C Corbidge
Rock Squirrel Otospermophilus variegatus © C Corbidge
Indian Artwork © C Corbidge
The 3 Mile turn around © C Corbidge
California Condor Gymnogyps californianus © C Corbidge

June 5th Drive to Page
This was one of the shorter drives of the trip allowing a few stops enroute. First stop was at the Watchtower overlooking the Colorado River where there were a couple of Plateau Fence Lizards and an Antelope Ground Squirrel. Driving on to Wupatki National Monument it was getting extremely hot already, but I managed to pick out an Eastern Collared Lizard Crotaphylus collaris which was fairly confiding, there wasn't much else here other than another Antelope Ground Squirrel. We ploughed on for a visit to Antelope Slot Canyons near Page, which is on Navajo land. The colours change throughout the day causing amazing patterns on the walls. After this there was just time for a visit Lake Powell where there were a couple of Side Blotched Lizards and then off to our nights stay in Page.
Gravid Plateau Fence Lizard Sceloporus tristichus © C Corbidge
Eastern Collared Lizard Crotaphylus collaris © C Corbidge
Above and Below Scenery at Wupatki © C Corbidge
Above and Below Antelope Slot Canyon © C Corbidge

June 6th The Hottest Day and Drive to Zion
The next 3 days were my favourite of the trip, although temperatures were unbearably hot and peaked at a toasty 46 Celcius down at the Colorado River. I started the morning with 2 Desert Spiny Lizards in the hotel car park. We wanted to get some supplies but beer sales didn't start until 10am so we waited 30 mins in which time I looked around the back of Wahlmart finding a lot of Tiger Whiptails which were noticebly bigger and more orange than the previous ones seen (but apparently the same subspecies as those at the GC). Most were too skittish to photograph but I finally got some decent shots of Side Blotched Lizard.
Plateau Tiger Whiptail Aspidoscelis tigris septentrionalis © C Corbidge
Above and Below Female Side Blotched Lizard © C Corbidge
 Above and Below Male Side Blotched Lizard Uta stansburiana elegans © C Corbidge

We drove on to our next stop which was Navajo Bridge, this spans a narrrow part of the Grand Canyon, there are 2 bridges the original one is now a walkway. On the bridge we spotted 2 California Condors one of the worlds rarest birds and at one point were down to about 25 birds in the wild. A massive conservation program has raised their numbers up to about 400 so still not many.

Colorado River from Navajo Bridge © C Corbidge
 Above and Below California Condor Gymnogyps californianus © C Corbidge

Just up river you can drive down to the water, at Lee's Ferry the original crossing point, trapped between the canyon walls it was baking hot, so a paddle was in order. I was hoping to see a Desert Horned Lizard down here, apparently the best way to find them is to find a train of ants and look around them , but it was even too hot for the ants (but not for 3 Yorkshiremen). The only reptilian out were a few Tiger Whiptails.

Colorado River at Lee's Ferry © C Corbidge

From here we headed off to Zion National Park Utah. It is quite a gain in altitude out of the Canyon to the North Rim gradually getting cooler and greener the higher you get. On the approach to Zion we spotted a heard of North American Bison Bison bison for a photo opportunity. There are apparently a couple of wild heards in Arizona/Utah not sure if these were or not. The scenery as you enter Zion is spectacular (and for me more so than the Grand Canyon). At the first stop I added another lizard species for the trip a Sagebrush Lizard Sceloporus graciosus grasciosus. Very similar to plateau fence but not as spiny, it has a black bar on the shoulder and a wide greyish stripe down the back.

Above and Below North American Bison Bison bison © C Corbidge

Road Into Zion National Park © C Corbidge
Sagebrush Lizard Sceloporus graciosus graciosus  © C Corbidge

On arrival at the hotel just as the sun was going down I spotted some Plateau Fence Lizards and another new species Yellow Backed Spiny Lizard Sceloporus uniformis in the hotel gardens.

June 7th Zion National Park
I was up early in the morning determined to find some reptiles around the hotel before it got too hot. Firstly I wanted to find the spiny lizards seen the previous evening and soon enough I found a Female Plateau Fence Lizard and a small Yellow Backed Spiny basking together. I soon found more around the hotel and then went up the hillside behind the hotel hoping for a snake. There were a few Side Blotched Lizards an Antelope Ground Squirrel, I then heard a rustling noise and was surprised and delighted to discover a large Desert Tortoise Gopherus agassizii munching on some vegetation, I thought with the recent heatwave they would be deep underground. Whilst having breakfast I spotted a snake crossing the road, so I immediately jumped up and made a sprint for it, it turned out to be a lovely Gopher Snake (subspecies Great Basin) Pituophis melanoleucus, unfortunately it looked to have been clipped by a vehicle and later died.
After Breakfast we headed deep into the park on one of the free buses (you aren't allowed to drive which is good). There are lots of trails to choose from so we headed for one with some waterfalls. Along the trail I spotted another species of Whiptail The Plateau Striped Whiptail Aspidoscelis velox, this is a species which are all female and basically produce clones of themselves. Then some children were looking at something which turned out to be an Arizona Toad Bufo microscaphus (cheers kids). A Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo ran in front of us on the path and there were lots of smaller birds and butterflies. We reached a pool where I saw a frog duck under the water, close inspection of the surrounding rocks revealed some Canyon Tree Frogs Hyla arenicolor plus tadpoles in the pool. We headed back down to the visitors centre for some lunch and to top up of water bottles. After a rest, we hopped on another bus to walk a more sedate flat trail next to the river, there seemed to be less wildlife along here, but I managed to photograph a Black Chinned Hummingbird Archilochus alexandri.

Yellow Backed Spiny and Plateau Fence Lizard © C Corbidge
Above and Below Plateau Fence Lizard Sceloporus tristichus © C Corbidge

 Above and Below Yellow Backed Spiny Lizard Sceloporus uniformis © C Corbidge

 Above and Below Gopher Snake (Great Basin) Pituophis melanoleucus © C Corbidge

Above and Below Desert Tortoise Gopherus agassizii © C Corbidge
Above and Below White Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel Ammospermophilis leucurus © C Corbidge

Above and Below Male Side Blotched Lizard Uta stansburiana elegans © C Corbidge
Above and Below Arizona Toad Bufo microscaphus © C Corbidge
Above and Below Canyon Tree Frog Hyla arenicolor © C Corbidge

Canyon Tree Frog Tadpoles © C Corbidge
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo © C Corbidge
Above and Below 2 view of the Virgin River © C Corbidge

Above and Below Plateau Striped Whiptail Aspidoscelis velox © C Corbidge
Black Chinned Hummingbird Archilochus alexandri © C Corbidge

June 8th Zion and Drive back to Las Vegas
Again I got up early for a look around the hotel, my main intention was to try and find snakes and ideally a rattlesnake, as time was running out. It seemed a little quieter than the previous day, however I flushed up 2 Mule Deer Odocoileus hemionus, more Side Blotched, Plateau Fence, and Yellow Backed Spiny lizards. A pair of Black Throated Sparrows Spizella atrogularis added to the bird list. We intended to do one stop on our drive back to Vegas which was at an old Ghost Town. So off we headed, there was an old graveyard, most people seemed to have died of Yellow Fever or of the results of conflicts with Native Indians. There were a few Yellow Backed Spiny and Plateau Fence lizards around the old buildings and that was about it. We got back in the car and I thought to myself thats about it then for herps. We set off and about 3 miles down the road, snake on the road, I was driving but didn't see it until the last minute, but just enough to to get it between the wheels. I jumped out and it had gone off the road, but I spotted it moving through long grass, from the obscured pattern I thought Gopher Snake and grabbed it towards the rear, RATTLE, I quickly let go. There was no way this beast was getting away, I found a stick and managed to get it on the road where it was easier to work. Anyway it was a lovely Great Basin Rattlesnake Crotalus viridis lutosus  part of the Western group. To be honest it was a fairly placid animal and rarely struck out, I'm just glad I managed to avoid running it over. On the way back we stopped at Lake Mead, for a helicopter ride, the thermometer on the booking cabin (in the shade) read 115f.  Another night out in Las Vegas and that was the end of a fantastic trip to a fantastic part of the world.

 Black Throated Sparrow Spizella atrogularis © C Corbidge
 Above and Below Mule Deer Odocoileus hemionus © C Corbidge

 Above and Below Great Basin Rattlesnake Crotalus viridis lutosus © C Corbidge


 Coyote Canus latrans 
Gunnison's Praire Dogs Cynomys gunnisoni
Abert's Squirrel Sciurus aberti
Rock Squirrels Otospermophilus variegatus
White Tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel Ammospermophilis leucurus 
Mule Deer Odocoileus hemionus
North American Bison Bison bison

Canyon Tree Frog Hyla Arenicolor
Arizona Toad Bufo microscaphus

Desert Tortoise Gopherus agassizii
Chuckwalla Sauromalus ater
Desert Iguana Diposaurus dorsalis
Eastern Collared Lizard Croyaphylus collaris
Desert Spiny Lizard Sceloporus magister
Yellow Backed Spiny Lizard Sceloporus uniformis
Plateau Fence Lizard Sceloporus tristichus
Sagebrush Lizard (Northern) Sceloporus graciosus graciosus
Common Side Blotched Lizard Uta stansburiana elegans
Ornate Tree Lizard Urosaurus ornatus
Tiger Whiptail (subspecies Great Basin and Plateau) Aspidoscelis tigris
Plateau Striped Whiptail Aspidoscelis velox
Gopher Snake (Great Basin) Pituophis melanoleucos
Western Rattlesnake (Great Basin) Crotalus viridis lutosus

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Peregrine Falco peregrinus
California Condor Gymnogyps californianus
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo
White Throated Swift Aeronautes saxatalis
Black Chinned Hummingbird Archilochus alexandri
Cliff Swallow Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Western Scrub Jay Aphelocoma californica
Raven Corvus corax
Mountain Chickadee Poecile gambeli
White Breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinnensis
Mountain Bluebird Siala currucoides
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Black Throated Sparrow Spizella atrogularis
Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculates
Great Tailed Grackle Quiscalis mexicanus

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