Sometimes when hiking familiar trails, it’s easy to get lost in thought. Just being outdoors is very meditative, don’t you think? My mind wanders and it seems my head is high in the clouds, or at the very least I find myself looking up to marvel at that seemingly endless New Mexico blue sky. After all, my boots know where all the foot-tripping rocks are, and autopilot kicks in until ……
Out of the corner of my eye, a slight movement. A small stone gets pushed aside by the wary approach of a snake! Now’s not the time for daydreaming. It’s time to pay close attention to each footfall, because Spring in New Mexico has woken up all the slithering, crawling and buzzing wildlife and they are back at work.
A Splash of Yellow! The still mostly brown landscape has a few modest dashes of yellow emerging from whorls of fresh green leaves. The lovely Western Wallflower doesn’t seem quite certain winter is behind us though, because the handful of plants I found are staying tucked low to the ground. But in a few weeks these single stemmed plants will grow 15 to 40 inches tall, and become encircled by numerous lemon yellow to orange to red, 4-petaled flowers typical of the mustard family. I wondered why this plant is called “wallflower.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the more than 180 species of Erysimum have a habit of growing in chinks of walls (or rocky cliffs). hmmmmm …… will have to look for Western Wallflower making a home in one or more boulders common to the area.
What is that Smell? One day there was one beetle. Not a fast mover, he seemed a bit dazed after crawling out of his hibernation den. But the first beetle signaled the awakening of many more, and within a week there were lots. The ubiquitous Darkling Beetle, more than 20,000 of this species found all over the world, is instantly recognizable. I’ll bet you’ve seen them too. Our most common local species (Eleodes sp.) is jet black, about an inch long, and they seem to wander about aimlessly in search of food. Approach one too quickly and they go into defensive posture, standing on their head with butt in the air, ready to emit a ”poof” of foul smelling stink. You may know these guys as ”stink beetles.” Take care not to squish Darkling Beetles; they are one of nature’s detritus destroyers, and fun to have around too.
Gopher Snake or Bull Snake? Our hike ended on a good note with the surprise encounter of a 3 foot gopher snake! Despite finding a large garter snake a week before, coming on to this gopher snake this day was unexpected because of the cold weather just the day before. We were also glad it was a harmless ”good snake” (not venomous), since Luna walked right up to him for a scratch and sniff! (This snake served as a reminder training opportunity for her tho, because rattlesnakes are out there ……. waiting.)
As this snake seemed unconcerned about us, he laid in the trail sunning for a while, long enough to get some good photos. Then before we headed on, we nudged him into hiding. Most people assume every snake they see out on the trails is a rattlesnake. That can be good or often proves to be bad, since we’ve seen gopher snakes killed based on that assumption. As with all wildlife, learning about snakes is important, as they are all critical components to the ecosystem.
With photos in hand, I confirmed this guy’s identity, and learned that the common name of ”gopher” snake refers to a number of subspecies that are different from the “bull” snake subspecies of the same genus Pituophis. I’ve always called this kind of snake a bull snake. Even though they are closely related, and there are integrades between the species, the snake most commonly found in most of New Mexico is the Sonoran gopher snake.