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Thursday, February 10, 2011

It's Groundhog Day

Western Diamondback finishing a meal.

At sunrise, the prognosticator, Punsxsutawney Phil, peeked above his burrow and did not see his shadow. Spring is on the way, right? This morning I woke up to a temperature of -17F in Frijoles Canyon. Can you really depend on a groundhog?

It is not typical for the temperature to plunge to negative double digits in Frijoles Canyon but it does happen on occasion. Bandelier National Monument spans an elevation from roughly 5000 feet to just shy of 10,000 feet. Wayward  winter visitors expecting balmy weather and Saguaro cactus immediately realize they took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. And if those same visitors are hoping for a glimpse of an iconic western diamondback rattlesnake they need to stick around for a few more months until things warm up a bit.

Bandelier National Monument offers homes to many species of plants and animals, each adapted to their own way of coping with winter. When the weather turns cold in autumn, resident rattlesnakes den up, hibernate and remain inactive until the spring sun warms the earth.

I will never forget my encounter with just such a snake last spring. It was late May when I came upon a large western diamonback rattlesnake near Juniper Campground. A few visitors were getting uncomfortably close to the snake attempting to cross the road. Park ranger Sally King suggested they give the rattlesnake a wide berth and allow it to move away from the road. They did and it did. But not in the direction it was originally headed. The visitors departed after the snake moved into the brush. Sally shot a few pictures as the rattler slithered back onto the pavement. “Seems like that snake is intent on getting to the other side of the road,” Sally remarked just before she left the area. “Yeah maybe,” I replied thoughtlessly.

I left the area to talk to a few folks looking for a trailhead. Afterwards the campground host approached me to tell me that he had a report of a big rattlesnake near the campground. “Oh yeah, it was near the road, crossed over I think.” The host suggested that it was probably hunting rabbits. Just then I caught sight of movement under a juniper tree. I saw a rabbit and then a snake. The rattlesnake headed straight for the rabbit. The rabbit had already succumbed to snake venom. The rattlesnake was ready for its meal. The visitors who had been observing the snake earlier had inadvertently blocked the snake from its prey. I watched spellbound as the snake released its jaw and slowly began positioning and swallowing the rabbit. It took an hour for the snake to fully ingest its meal. I stood mesmerized until there was nothing but rabbit legs poking out from snake’s mouth, reminiscent of overgrown furry fangs.

If Phil is right, it won’t be long before Spring and the opportunity to witness snakes and other creatures waking from their winter slumber. When visitors ask, “Do you have snakes around here”; I smile remembering those “furry fangs” and say, “oh yes”. If you are patient and observant or maybe just plain old lucky you might just witness something quite amazing. Come see for yourself.

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