The Fell Swoop Loop, Part 2

Crotalus cerastes

It’s a bit of a drive but we made from the ocean to the desert in time to get in some road-cruising after dark. There’s one quiet road that I really like, and as a bonus our friend Dan drove in from L.A. to hang out for a couple days. It’s a great road for sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes) and they did not disappoint.

In fact, the sidewinders were downright amazing. We came upon our second predation event of the trip, an adult sidewinder with a kangaroo rat, right in the road.

We stayed at the scene to make sure no vehicles interrupted (or ran over) the snake as it swallowed its prey. No telling if it had envenomated the roo rat, or if it was simply taking advantage of some road kill.

We slept in the desert that night and in the morning, continued across the Sierra Nevada towards a specific target on the day’s agenda. My first time in this part of California and I thought it was beautiful.

Dropping into a dry basin, we bounced our two cars down a series of dirt ranch roads, as far as we could drive them in a Prius and a Corolla. We would have to cross the rest of the basin on foot, about a three mile hike.

Anaxyrus exsul

Our destination on the far side of the basin was a series of spring-fed pools holding a population of Black Toads (Anaxyrus exsul). The toads were quite active under the afternoon sun and they made for easy shooting with my long lens.

There were quite a few adult toads and a lot of tadpoles in the pool as well. There are a number of populations of A. exsul inhabiting a string of artesian springs across the area.

Toads observed and photographed, it was time to hike back across the basin. Upon arrival, Dan’s car had a flat tire. We put the spare on and kablam! It immediately blew. Nothing for it but to load the flat tire and the four of us in my rental and creep our way back out. We drove to the nearest big town, got a motel, and in the morning, found a place to fix Dan’s tire. We got back to his car, swapped in the good tire, and then proceeded to get my rental stuck in some powder sand. It took a hot and dusty hour to dig it out but at last we were free, and in desperate need of a hosing off.

(Phrynosoma platyrhinos

On the way out we encountered several Desert Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos), a bit of compensation for our troubles.

Lampropeltis californiae

Later that day we worked a canyon stream in search of alligator lizards, but could only come up with a nice subadult California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae).

Bristlecone pines

We also made a detour to see some Bristlecone Pine Trees (Pinus longaeva), the oldest non-clonal species on the planet. It was a great diversion to see these old trees, many of which are thousands of years old.

Sceloporus graciosus graciosus

Our detour also allowed us to observe several Northern Sagebrush Lizards (Sceloporus graciosus graciosus), some of which might be more than a thousand days old.

Bristlecone pine trunk details

After the visiting the elder god trees, Dan bid us adieu and returned to Los Angeles, and John, Tim and I continued east into Nevada. We found a place to stay for the night and headed down to a cattle-trampled stream. We had another toad in our sights for that evening.

Anaxyrus nelsoni

As darkness fell, Amargosa Toads (Anaxyrus nelsoni) came out of hiding to hunt for insects along the stream.

Anaxyrus nelsoni

We saw more than a dozen of the toads and some tadpoles. I suppose they are hanging in there, but I wish folks would fence off a portion of the stream to keep out the goddamned cows.

Pseudacris sierrae

California Treefrogs (Pseudacris sierrae) were also putting in an appearance along the stream.

In the morning, we made a hard right turn and headed south towards Arizona, stopping only for gas and to check out the local tourist trap.

We spent a few days in the Vermilion Cliffs area of NW Arizona, near the Grand Canyon. A gaggle of friends from four different states converged on the area and we hiked during the day and road-cruised at night.

Sceloporus magister cephaloflavus

Hiking near the Paria River we spotted this gorgeous male Orange-headed Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus magister cephaloflavus).

Trimorphodon lambda

Road-cruising was slow the first night – there was no moon but just a few snakes were moving, including night snakes and a beautiful young Sonoran Lyre Snake (Trimorphodon lambda).

Anaxyrus punctatus

This Red-spotted Toad (Anaxyrus punctatus) was escorted off the road. I never get tired of seeing this species and many of them are drop-dead gorgeous.

The next morning a big group of us hiked a small canyon that drained into the Colorado River. We didn’t turn up any serpents but it proved to be a fabulous place for lizard-spotting. We hadn’t gone very far when we witnessed another amazing predation event.

Gambelia wislizenii

A Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) had grabbed a Plateau Tiger Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris septentrionalis) about mid-body. The Gambelia then shook the whiptail in a series of whip-cracking lateral motions, very fast and very violent. I’m not sure if it was dead or just stunned after that, but the whiptail gave no resistance as the leopard lizard began the ingestion process.

We moved on, leaving the leopard lizard in mid-swallow, and some of the gang wondered if it was going to be able to get the big whiptail down. Later, when we came back up the canyon, we spotted the Gambelia with a few inches of lizard tail hanging out of its mouth.

Sauromalus ater

We saw quite a few Chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater), including a few sub-adults, sporting a lovely orange hue.

Sauromalus ater

The colors of adult chucks was more subdued, a kind of salt-and-pepper look.

Phrynosoma platyrhinos

Several nice Desert Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) were also observed, including this youngster.

Crotaphytus bicinctores

A Great Basin Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus bicinctores) provided yet another predation event. While we were photographing the collared lizard, a Western Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana elegans) bolted from a nearby hidey-hole, and the Crotaphytus nabbed it and swallowed it down in just a few seconds (before I could switch my camera from photo to video, it was that quick).

In the afternoon, John and I stopped at the Maze Art Rock Site and spent some time examining the amazing petroglyphs. I’m fascinated by rock art and there was plenty to see and think about.

Crotalus abyssus

Time for another night of road-cruising. As dusk approached, we thought we might do better this night – there was more humidity, and sure enough, snakes were moving, including some Grand Canyon Rattlesnakes (Crotalus abyssus). This young abyssus was photographed right next to the road that night. Sometimes impromptu roadside photo sessions produce nice results.

The pallid pink tones on this adult matched well with the surrounding rocks.

Lampropeltis californiae

John and I also cruised up a very nice California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae). We slept in the desert again that night and after a photo shoot in the morning, it was time for us to move on again. We said goodbye to all of our friends (save for Pat, who came with us) and headed north into Utah. Our goal was to meet our friends Shaun and Jeni, and their sons Brandon and Devin, and to look for some mountain kingsnakes.

Lampropeltis pyromelana infralabialis

A semi truck fire on the highway set us a few hours behind schedule, and by the time we arrived at our meetup spot, Sour friends had already hiked the canyon and had found three Utah Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis pyromelana infralabialis). That’s right, three pyros in one day.

Lampropeltis pyromelana infralabialis

Fortunately for us latecomers, in the late afternoon Pat turned up a fourth pyro as we hiked up what I came to call Cuatro Pyro Canyon.

Crotalus lutosus

I also got to see several Great Basin Rattlesnakes (Crotalus lutosus), a lifer which dropped my U.S. crote wish list down to just two. A beautiful species and I can’t wait to see more of them. It was good to see our Utah friends again and get in a little herping on their home turf.

In the morning, Pat took his leave and headed towards the airport, but our remaining trio tarried a while for one more canyon hike, in search of slower tetrapods.

Gopherus agassizii

We saw a handful of Mohave Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agassizii), out foraging in the morning sunshine. But the clock was ticking and we had to get on the road and head back to Las Vegas and the airport.

Lithobates onca

Well, maybe there was time for one more stop on the way. At a small spring out in the desert we spotted one, and just one, Relict Leopard Frog (Lithobates onca). It held its position just long enough for us to get photos and then it gave a jump into the salad and just like that, the Fell Swoop Loop was complete. Thirteen new species for me, and more photos of some old favorites. Lots and lots of driving in all directions, sleeping in the desert most nights, seeing old friends and making new ones. And whales. Can’t forget the whales.


  1. Joe Cavataio

    Inspiring as always! Never stop these write-ups – not even when the prospect of podcast fame and fortune pulls you away! (I enjoy both blogs and podcasts btw)

    1. Mike Pingleton (Post author)

      Thanks, Joe! Much appreciated.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *