Occasionally I’m asked questions like “what is your favorite herp / herping place / herp adventure?”. Answers for the first two change constantly, but to date I have a pretty steady answer for the third one.
I’m a card-carrying thamnophile. My love affair with the genus Thamnophis carries across four decades now, and shows no sign of stopping. After a trip to Oregon in 2007, where I had a great day in the field with handfuls of Oregon Red-spotted Garter Snakes, I wanted to return to the west coast and see every species of Thamnophis out that way. I expressed my desire to anyone who would listen – “hey, we could start south, maybe San Diego, and work our way north, and fly home from Frisco or maybe Portland or even Seattle”. And folks would politely nod and say “wouldn’t that be fun!” and that would be the end of my pipe-dream pitch. But a few people listened, and one of them texted me.
Tim: that west coast garter trip
Tim: let’s do it
And so ThamnoPalooza was hatched and executed the first week of May 2014. My grandiose, all-inclusive coastal run was out – with only ten days available, we would concentrate on all of the species around San Francisco. The herper syndicate team assembled – Tim and I flew in, Mack, Andy and Josh drove down from Washington, and Marisa and Alex were already in the Bay Area. Over the course of the trip we met with some kind people who got in the field with us, and helped us on our way. Despite their protective anonymity here, we were (and remain) very grateful for their assistance. This blog post, for brevity’s sake, only features the Thamnophis portion of that expedition, but I promise you won’t feel short-changed. See the photo slideshow at the bottom for a taste of the rest.
Our first stop on our first day – coastal marshes. As we walked through coastal scrub on a lightly overcast day, I turned up Target #1: Thamnophis elegans terrestris, the Coast Garter Snake. Like many adult snakes, she was scarred and a bit chewed up in places, but otherwise intact, and very pretty. I saw another as we walked along, but it managed to duck under some thick brush and disappear. There was just a bit of radiation passing through the cloud cover, and temperatures were in the low 60s – perfect weather for Thamnophis.
We made our way to a small freshwater pond, protected from the ocean by some large sand dunes, and close by Tim spotted a sub-adult Aquatic Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus). There are three subspecies of atratus, and exactly which one we had was a bit of a muddle – it was possible that our pretty specimen was hydrophilus, the Oregon Aquatic Garter Snake. Regardless, it was Target #2.
While we were shooting the little atratus, Alex, who had wandered off a bit, found yet another species under a bit of plywood – a stunning adult Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis, the California Red-sided Garter Snake. There are few snakes that compare to this one in terms of color and pattern – I think they give the San Francisco Garter a run in a beauty contest. Target #3.
I had but one complaint: there was no sand-free place to shoot, and the wind was blowing sand around, and so most of my photos from this spot had bits of grit on snakes. A birder came up during our photo session, and was watching from the sidelines as we shot the infernalis. “Hey, there’s another one, right behind you guys!” he said. A second infernalis, on the crawl right under our noses, and just as beautiful as the first.
In the middle of this photo session, one of the infernalis made a break for it, and crawled underneath a shrub. Tim reached in after it, felt a snake, and pulled out a different garter, another atratus! Clearly this one one of those days when things were breaking our way. Someone came up with another T. e. terrestris as well, a nicely marked adult with no fugly scars and chomp-marks. Thus endeth the first day.
The next morning we assembled in the foothills to assist some local folks with a herp survey of a state forest. Along with some other cool lifers (see slideshow), we found Target #4 – the Santa Cruz Garter Snake, Thamnophis atratus atratus. There is some contention over the validity of these subspecies (and of course, over subspecies in general). My data set being very small, I could only note that the dorsal stripe on our T. a. atratus was wider and a bit more irregular than our two specimens from day one, while the latter had more distinct dorsolateral stripes.
Day Three found us back in coastal marshlands, looking for the Big Kahuna in the world of Thamnophis. The first spot we visited gave me a bit of deja vu – I had been there once before, more than twenty years ago. On both occasions, I missed my target, although we did find a very nice Coast Garter. Moving to a second spot, our luck changed, and in a very big way. Along a dusty path, with the Pacific Ocean perhaps a hundred feet away, we found a trio of San Francisco Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia), out and about on a sunny morning.
The first was an adult with its head marred by unshed skin and perhaps some other problems; the second was a beautiful adult, observed basking along the path. The third was a young adult male, and we had the privilege of watching it for more than thirty minutes as it foraged along the edge of a thick wall of brush. Target #5 was an awesome set of experiences, one I’ve already documented in a blog post here, and in much greater detail.
On the fourth day we headed back into the foothills. During the course of the day we found some outstanding herps that were not garters, (see slide show below) and another atratus subspecies, the Diablo Range Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus zaxanthus). We found several of the zaxanthus around the edges of a small pond at the tail-end of the day. Target #6.
We headed inland to the Central Valley the next morning – our target for the day was Thamnophis gigas, the Giant Garter Snake. This snake made its home in marshes and along streams in the Valley, but the overwhelming amount of agriculture and water diversion has reduced the available habitat for this snake. T .gigas has adopted somewhat to life in irrigation ditches, and we spent most of the day checking likely spots. The Giant Garter is a wary snake, and we may have seen several that were basking, but they launched themselves into the water at our approach. While waiting for one particular gigas to surface, we scared up a Valley Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi), a big handsome female. We had missed our target garter, but the fitchi (Target #7) saved the day and kept us from being completely skunked. We had another day or two to come back and track down the Giant.
On the sixth day, we headed up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. To get California garters of any kind you have to go where the water is, and one point we stopped to check out a small stream trickling down out of the hills. Along the water’s edge we turned up a Mountain Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans elegans), along with some frogs, lizards, and other snakes. This water source may have been temporary, drying up during the summer and fall, but while it was wet it attracted all sorts of animals, including Target #8.
We moved on. Working along the stony banks of the Yuba River we found several Western Aquatic Garter Snakes (Thamnophis couchii). Lacking dorsal stripes, to me they looked a lot like Dice Snakes (Natrix tesselata), a semi-aquatic species found across Europe and the Middle East. Target #9 very handsome serpent, and undoubtedly small fish made up the bulk of its diet.
The next day we were back in the Central Valley, looking once again for Thamnophis gigas. On this day our luck changed -a yard-long Giant Garter was spotted crawling out of a pile of rip-rap. The snake was battered and bruised, with numerous scars, an unhealed wound on the neck, and lumps near the tail. To complete the package, it was also in shed and covered with mud. In other words, it was a beautiful thing to see – a tough survivor, and Target #10.
All of our targets achieved with a couple days to spare, and the rest was gravy. A lot of gravy too, more than I have time or room to write about here. It was a trip where a lot of things went right, and very little went wrong. Top-tier garter snakes were found, new friends made, great food appeared and then disappeared, and a good time was had by all. On top of everything else, the Bay Area meant that for once, field herping happened in a comfortable climate. Small wonder this adventure ranks up at the top of my best-trip-ever list.