Desert Night Snake Discovered at Saddle Rock

Torsten Watkins at Saddle Rock, searching for reptiles

Torsten Watkins at Saddle Rock, searching for reptiles

Budding herpetologist*, Torsten Watkins, is a 6th grader at Orchard Middle School and he likes to spend his free time seeking out native reptiles and amphibians.

Torsten Watkins studying in the field

Torsten Watkins studying in the field

He and his Dad often can be found “herping” in the Wenatchee foothills. Recently, they stopped by the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust office to tell us the story of his June 2017 discovery of a species not previously known to live in the Wenatchee foothills – a Northern desert night snake (Hypsiglena tchlorophaea deserticola).  Earlier this summer, Torsten had called and spoken to wildlife biologist, Neal Hedges, CDLT’s Stewardship director, to report his find.  To confirm Torsten’s field identification, Neal asked him to describe the key characteristics that separate this species from similar gopher, rattlesnake, and juvenile racer snakes.  Torsten accurately reported the snake’s vertical pupils, its smooth scales, and the dark blotch on the back of the head.  He shared photos with Neal that confirmed his exciting discovery, previously not known to be in our area.

Desert Night Snake at Saddle Rock City Park. photo: Torsten Watkins

Desert Night Snake at Saddle Rock City Park. photo: Torsten Watkins

Within Washington state, the desert night snake is classified as a monitored species and more field research is needed to learn where it occurs.  Desert night snakes live in shrub-steppe habitat, often in rocky areas.  During long periods of hot weather, they move deep into rock fissures or rodent burrows during the day and emerge to hunt at night.  They eat small lizards, smaller snakes, and lizard eggs.  Dr. Robert Weaver is a Central Washington University biology professor, and his PhD research focused on Washington’s desert night snake populations. Dr. Weaver’s on-going research on this species will help us learn more about the behavior and ecology of this little-known species.  It is exciting to know that Torsten has contributed new knowledge about the desert night snake’s range and habitat in Washington state.

Desert night snake, one of Dr. Robert Weaver's research animals.

Desert night snake, one of Dr. Robert Weaver’s research animals.

 

Torsten Watkins at the Saddle Rock donor plaza

Torsten Watkins at the Saddle Rock donor plaza

Here is Torsten’s telling of his discovery:

It was June 5th 2017. It was about 4 o’clock and about 80 degrees. My dad and I were going “herping” up at Saddle Rock.  It was a pretty good “herp” day:   we had found a bunch of northwestern fence lizards (sceloporus occidentalis occidentalis), and we even observed some courting behavior!  As we hiked up the trail, we noticed some workmen finishing up the new donor monument plaza. One of the men asked what I was doing as he saw my pack and net.   I told him we were looking for reptiles and continued on. An hour had passed and we were heading back down but as we were walking past the construction workers one of them yelled, “Hey kid! Ya like snakes? I think it’s a baby rattlesnake.”

I walked over to the site and saw what was a desert night snake (Hypsiglena torquata deserticola). I could tell it was a night snake and not a rattlesnake, gopher snake, or baby racer because it had a vertical pupil, a band around its neck, it had no pits near its nostrils, it had a checkerboard pattern with a surrounded by a tan color, and It had pearly white ventral scales. I cautiously picked up the snake to move it out of the way and examined it. I took a few photos and studied it for a while.  I did noticed that once on the ground the night snake would flee to the nearest hiding spot, so I think what may have happen was one of the workers set down his backpack earlier in the morning and the night snake sheltered underneath it, being that they are nocturnal it would have probably happened quite early. We eventually had to call it a day though so we left Saddle Rock with a great discovery, a desert night snake!! 

*A herpetologist is a scientist who specialized in studying reptiles and amphibians

Check out my photo field guide to the native reptiles and amphibians in Chelan County on this website here.

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