By Tim E. Hovey

I’ve always been fascinated with snakes.

I will admit that as a youth they absolutely terrified me. While I ran around catching lots of lizards and frogs, whenever I bumped into a snake, I did less catching and more running.

A rattlesnake
A western diamondback rattlesnake shakes its tail. Despite their dubious reputation and potentially fatal venom, most rattlers want no part of interacting with humans. Still, it’s important to be aware of their presence when out in the field. (GARY STOTZ/U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE)

As I got older and learned more about them, I began actually seeking snakes out in the hopes of seeing them up close and capturing them. I’d carefully handle the nonvenomous ones, take a few photos and then release them. I did get bit a handful of times, but for the most part the encounters were interesting and educational.

Every spring, as soon as it starts to warm up, I begin to see many of Southern California’s snake species out and about again. And as temperatures start to rise, usually during late April to early May, I start slowly searching the backroads for snakes.
Southern California has almost 20 different species of snakes, some of which are very comfortable living near suburban areas. Gopher snakes and king snakes are common species in many residential areas, where they find plenty of prey in the form of mice and other rodents. Those living in more rural areas will see coach whips, patch nose and rattlesnakes, all of which find their required habitat and forage near these less-developed areas.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to find almost all the species indigenous to the Southland. It may seem a little odd, but my favorite snakes to encounter are rattlers. Their diamond-shaped heads, thick bodies and telltale rattles seem to signify authority and an animal that means business. Whenever I come
across a rattlesnake, the first thing I grab is my camera. And I never get tired of seeing any of the species of rattlesnake that occur in Southern California.
The southern Pacific rattlesnake can be found close to urban areas anywhere small rodents and ground-dwelling birds exist. This is a very common species and is usually the one encountered by hikers and anyone spending time outdoors. Often referred to as a diamondback for the dark diamond shapes on its back, the southern Pacific comes in a variety of different color schemes. I’ve seen this species from a cinnamon brown to a dark gray in color.

Caution sign detailing the dangers of rattlesnakes
A warning sign in California’s Sierra Nevada reflects that areas where rattlesnakes are present should be taken with extreme caution. (ALAN LEVINE/WIKIMEDIA)

This species occurs in the southern portion of the state, and in my opinion is one of the prettiest snakes out there. The body is a uniform cinnamon color, lacking the darker diamond shapes of the southern Pacific. The tail of this species has several black and white bands located just before the rattles.
Also referred to as the Mojave rattlesnake, this species has several differing color variations, including a green hue. This species has an overlapping range with the southern Pacific rattlesnake and is often mistaken for it. However, the diamond patterns on the Mojave green rattlesnake fade as you move towards the tail. An aggressive species, it feeds on mice and lizards.
Also called the horned snake, the sidewinder is a smaller desert species that moves over its sandy environment in a sideways manner. A relatively passive species, the sidewinder is tan to sandy in coloration, usually speckled with darker patches on its back. Distinct eye bars extend from the back of the eye over the jaw line. Sidewinders feed on pocket mice, lizards and kangaroo rats.
When the days get really warm, my daughters and I like to head out to the desert and drive the powerline roads looking for snakes as the temperatures drop in the evenings. We call these outdoor adventures snake runs.

During the blazing heat of the day, snakes seek out cooler spots or head underground to avoid overheating. As night comes and temperatures become more bearable, the snakes head out to feed and can be encountered warming themselves on desert dirt roads.Directions for how to treat a snakebite

We arrive with about an hour of daylight left and the kids usually hit the ground running. Both my daughters have been on snake runs before and they know how to be safe and what to look for. Using their snake sticks, they head out to search the desert terrain.

On this trip, Jessica was the first to find a snake. The small sidewinder rattled loudly as we gathered around to check him out. It was a beautiful specimen, and we kept our distance so as to not stress out the snake. We took a few nice photographs, took a waypoint on the GPS and left the snake where we found it.

As the sun dropped, we headedback to the truck. We grabbed some snacks and drove to the starting point for the evening run. The spot I chose has almost 20 miles of dirt road that travels through some great snake habitat. It was to be a moonless night and within the hour it was going to be too dark to see without lights.

By the time we started driving the roads, it was dark and the weather had definitely cooled from the 105-degree daytime temperature. In the world of reptiles, this is the time to move.

If you’ve ever driven dirt roads at night, you’ll notice that small mammals regularly use these cleared spaces to prey on invertebrates and to move easily between areas to search for food. In turn, snakes will take advantage of the open areas of the roads to prey on the mammals.

We traveled slowly and searched the road in front of us carefully and began the snake run. For the first hour all we spotted were the occasional kangaroo rat or field mouse. Specifically searching for snakes during a run isn’t easy and you may need to drive several miles before you encounter reptiles. Despite the lack of snakes, the
kids stayed positive.

Another rattlesnake
The southern Pacific is one of the most common rattlers found in Southern California. It feeds on small rodents and mammals. (TIM E. HOVEY)

We turned down a side road and our luck started to change. My friend, Jose, spotted the first snake of the evening. Stretched out across the road was a beautiful Mojave green rattlesnake. I have encountered this species dozens of times in the wild and they all seem to act the same way: very aggressively.

True to form, the 3-footlong rattler began rattling loudly before we were out of the truck. He coiled defensively and never stopped rattling. The coloration on this particular specimen was amazing. He had a uniform green hue and was in perfect condition. I took a few photos, and to keep him safe, we used the snake sticks to move him off the road.

A mile later, we added a second sidewinder to the snakes we encountered on our desert snake run. A relatively passive snake, and smaller than its more aggressive relatives, the sidewinder is unique in behavior and appearance. The sidewinder will bury itself in the sand and ambush prey that passes by. It possesses eye horns, or supraocular scales, that may aid in protecting the eyes in the sandy environment.

The sidewinder posed nicely for photos and remained calm the entire time. It was getting late, so we moved the snake off the road and called it a night. With three snakes encountered and two species recorded, it was definitely a great snake run.

THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS… I do understand the fear that snakes invoke in many. I used to experience the same emotion before I understood the reptiles’ behavior. If you take a few seconds to watch a snake react during your next encounter, you’ll notice that they form themselves into a defensive posture and position themselves to escape. In short, they want no part of interacting with a human.

A sidewinder
This sidewinder rattlesnake blends in nicely with the desert terrain it inhabits. (TIM E. HOVEY)

Fear is natural when it comes to dealing with snakes, but many species help keep prolific mammal populations in check. Even rattlers provide a valuable service in the wild and, in my opinion, are the most unique and beautiful species of snakes out there. Next time you encounter a snake of any species, take a few seconds and watch it react. I guarantee that as you do, any fear you may have will turn to appreciation and respect. CS

A snake hunt
When on the lookout for snakes in the desert shrub areas of Southern California, the best time to find rattlers or other species is in the evening hours when temperatures drop. (TIM E. HOVEY)