In early July of 2020 I made my way west to Otero County, Colorado, to participate in the annual COPARC herp survey. Otero is in the eastern portion of the state and part of it encompasses the Comanche National Grasslands. The grasslands are cut by a number of canyons, and the Purgatoire River passes through it.
I had last visited the area in 2007, when I did a little herping and hiked down into Picketwire Canyon to see the dinosaur trackways there. I was going back to help survey the county for amphibians and reptiles, which consisted of hiking canyons and shallow rivers during the day, and road-cruising at night.
Fifty-plus people showed up for the survey, which is the highest total thus far over eight years of surveys. People from all walks of life participated; the youngest was four, and the oldest, well, that may have been me. I was happy to see a lot of kids there and they were having a great time.
I don’t have totals from the survey, but with half a hundred folks participating, quite a few different species were found and documented. I believe the species count from the area is in the low forties.
It was cool to see a number of western black-necked garters (Thamnophis cyrtopsis cyrtopsis) show up, including several that were found some distance away from water. While this species is a noted eater of frogs, it also consumes rodents, toads, and perhaps even an occasional lizard, allowing it to range away from riparian habitat.
Couch’s spadefoots (Scaphiopus couchii) were out on the roads at night in fair numbers. I always enjoy stopping for them – I take their picture and then nudge them off the blacktop for safety’s sake.
One of our daytime pursuits was a hike along a section of the Purgatoire river, in search of softshell turtles. The presence of smooth softshells (Apalone mutica) has been recently documented from the area, and one was found during the survey, although I didn’t get to see it. I was present when a spiny softshell (Apalone spinifera) was discovered along a shallow section of the river.
This turtle caused some confusion for a bit because it had no dorsal spines / tubercules along the forward edge of the carapace, which is one of the diagnostics for this species. I was able to get some nice shots and video of this turtle.
Several prairie rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis viridis) were observed, including one found during the day tucked up in the shade under some junipers. This is the common rattlesnake in this area; the desert massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii) also occurs there but is a much rarer find. One specimen turned up on the survey, but I missed seeing it by ten minutes or so.
One of my target animals was the western green toad (Anaxyrus debilis insidior), and when none appeared on the roads at night, a few of us visited a cattle tank where green toads could be heard calling, and a herd of cows were milling nearby. We did find a number of the little greenies along the bank, but they were very skittish, and I had the difficulty of getting macro shots on the cow-crap-lined edge of some very putrid water, which I very much did not want to fall into. I managed a few shots but there was also an interlude where an indignant young bull decided that I needed to be put in my place. I had to run.
I think the survey was very successful, but it was over far too soon – I should have hung around for a couple more days. At first glance, the grasslands seem bleak and desolate, but there’s a lot of life there, including herps, and the history of the place is also fascinating, from the recent to the archaeological to the paleontological. The next time I visit I’ll block in more time and visit the dinosaur trackway again.