The Fell Swoop Loop, Part 1

Carrizo Plain

It started in Las Vegas, as many stories do, and really, there were several significant loops made during this journey. I went through the PITA hoops to secure a rental car at the airport, and then picked up Tim and John at a casino and we left Vegas in our rear-view mirror, heading west into California. We crashed that night near Bakersfield, and the next morning, headed further west to the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Gambelia sila

We met up with a group doing research on Bluntnose Leopard Lizards (Gambelia sila), and I was thrilled that we got the opportunity to walk the research area and help search for these lizards (which blend in very well with their surroundings).

Lassoed Gambelia

I was even more thrilled to capture a Gambelia, using a lizard lasso. It proved to be a new lizard for the study, and the researches took data, gave it a PIT tag, and then I turned it back loose at the point of capture (of course, all of this is done with the proper permits). And John and Tim assisted with their own captures as well.

Radio Ga-Ga

A number of the leopard lizards had small radio transmitters attached around the neck with a little harness, and I saw several of them. The research group is tracking the movements of these subjects, and recording other types of data as well.

The lizard processing lab

I was so grateful for the opportunity to participate and to learn more about the lizards and the research project. That night at the campfire I recorded a podcast interview with some of the biologists involved – see “Episode 40: Carrizo Campfire Tales” for more on this experience.

In the morning, we did a little more lizard chasing, and Tim and John came across a predation event in a shallow wash – a Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) ingesting a Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens), a state and federally endangered rodent indigenous to the Carrizo Plain and a few other places.

The snake and its meal were out in the open on the rocky substrate of the wash – more than likely, the kangaroo rat had been envenomated during the night, and the snake had followed the rodent’s scent trail to the place where it finally came to rest. We hung back and shot photos from the bushes with our long lenses so as to not disturb the snake.

Nearly there

It occurred to me that the rattlesnake was quite exposed and vulnerable for the time it took to swallow it prey (which, by checking the timestamps on my photos, was at least 40 minutes). But the payoff for the risk was huge – a big bundle of calories and moisture that would carry the snake a long way.

Kit foxes, Carrizo Plain

I’d love to spend more time at Carrizo someday and see more of the place, but now it was time for us to move on. We said our goodbyes to the group of hard-working and dedicated scientists, and turned the car south – our next stop was southern California.

Dipsosaurus dorsalis

Lizards featured heavy on this leg of the trip as well, including this nice bit of by-catch – a Desert Iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis).

Crotalus cerastes

We were joined by Cali friends Jeff, Mike, Dan, and Chad, and that night we got in some road-cruising and night-hiking around the Borrego Springs area. Traffic was a bit heavy in places and unfortunately there were some DOR snakes, but we also found some live ones, including a handful of cute little neonate sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes), for which we would stop the car and usher them off the blacktop to safety.

Xantusia gracilis

After full dark had set in we hiked down into a little canyon in search of Sandstone Night Lizards (Xantusia gracilis). We managed to observe several of these lizards as they emerged from cracks and crevices to hunt for invertebrate prey.

Xantusia gracilis

They were extremely wary, and it took a while to figure out the right approach to get a photo without sending them scurrying back into their hiding place. And this was one of those species that looks pallid in the light of a headlamp, but hit them with a camera flash and all of their beauty and colors are revealed.

Crotaphytus vestigium

The next morning our group did some canyon hiking in the Borrego Springs area. Conditions were just right for some lizard spotting, and we found some real beauties, including this Baja California Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus vestigium).

Sceloporus uniformis

Stick a 100-300 long lens with good glass on a micro-four-thirds mirrorless camera and you get a hellacious lizard shooter. Using my hiking pole as a monopod, I’m able to get some nice closeups of unapproachable lizard subjects like this Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus uniformis).

Gambelia wislizenii

We also scared up a Longnose Leopard Lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) but could not get the critter to come out of the thick brush for a clear skyline shot.

Petrosaurus mearnsi

Coming back out of the canyon we spotted this Banded Rock Lizard (Petrosaurus mearnsi) on a high outcrop. It was a fun outing and some of the lizards we spotted were lifers for various members of the group.

Dune habitat

I should mention that we also made several forays into dune areas in search of Coachella Valley Fringe-toed Lizards (Uma inornata). We were largely unsuccessful, but on our very last attempt we all got a look at one Uma as it streaked across the sand, a high-velocity lizard bullet.

Uma inornata (photo courtesy of John Burris)

John was the only one who managed to get a photo of one before it blazed away. The three of us said goodbye to our Cali friends and headed back north by northwest, to Ventura and the California coast.

The morning was cool and the sky overcast as we headed down to the harbor and the ferry that would take us out to the Channel Islands.

Land ho

It took a while for the ferry to chug out to Santa Cruz Island, but there were plenty of birds and dolphins along the way to amuse us.

Sceloporus becki

One of our main targets was an endemic Sceloporus, and I worried about seeing one, given our gray and foggy boat ride, but as we docked on the island, the sun came out and so did the Island Fence Lizards (Sceloporus becki).

Basking Sceloporus becki

My worries were needless. We saw dozens of the Sceloporus becki that day, basking on rocks and logs along the trails, and many of them were quite striking in appearance.

Batrachoseps nigriventris

I saw a plank in some brush off the trail and said “that looks like a Batrachoseps board.” Sure enough, there was a Black-bellied Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps nigriventris) underneath and I got to be an unbearably smug bastard for a few minutes. This species is found on the mainland but as with all island herps, I half-expect them to end up a unique endemic when someone digs into the DNA. There is another sally on the island (Batrachoseps pacificus) but we did not find any.

Uta stansburiana elegans

We also saw some utas on the island, the Western Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana elegans). Like the Batrachoseps, they may be split off some day from the wide-spread mainland species, but who can tell. Nice-looking utas, that’s for sure – definitely living up to their subspecific epithet.

We saw some young Channel Islands foxes, and they came quite close to us at times. But they would not stop bouncing around long enough for me to get a good photo, which was a shame as they were quite beautiful.

Elgaria multicarinata webbii

Another target for us was the island’s endemic gopher snake, which we did not find unfortunately. But we scared up a couple nice Woodland Alligator Lizards (Elgaria multicarinata webbii).

Humpback whale

All too soon, we had to return to the ferry and head back to the mainland. But the pelicans were there for the trip back, and some dolphins, and holy crap, there were humpback whales, my first! I got terrible photos of course, but very good looks at a mother and calf, so that was a pretty amazing way to end our island adventure.

Fish Birds

Back on dry land, we wasted no time in leaving the coast behind and heading back east towards the Mojave Desert.



  1. Thom

    Wonderful writing, nice pacing, and humble! Reminds me of your book! Thanks.

    1. Mike Pingleton (Post author)

      Thanks Thom!


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