Friday, May 11, 2018

Mojave Desert Field Herping

Kicking Off a New Season of Field Herping

Over the past couple of years I've cultivated a growing interest in field herping, searching for and studying reptiles and amphibians in their natural habitats. This interest developed from incidental encounters with lizards and snakes while searching for birds. I've occasionally joked with friends about not knowing whether I'm "birping" or "herding" during my outings.  "Birping" would be primarily birding with a few herps mixed in while "herding" would be primarily herping with incidental bird observations.

A couple of weeks ago I had an awesome start to the herping season when I joined two friends, Rye and Pat, for four days and nights of herping in the Mojave Desert. We hiked, flipped, cruised, and shined for a wide range of reptiles and amphibians in and around the Beaver Dam Wash Conservation Area in Utah's Washington County, northern Arizona, and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

We left Utah County for a 3 1/2 hour drive to southern Utah on a Wednesday afternoon. Our first stop in Washington County allowed me to learn and practice how to properly and effectively "flip" for herps. I uncovered some interesting bugs, but no herps. I was careful to replace the rocks and debris I flipped to their original position so I could preserve the micro habitat beneath them. I also restored the earthen seal around rocks if there was one. Doing so helped to maintain the insulation needed by a herp or the bugs inhabiting that space.

We observed Common Side-blotched and Plateau-striped Whiptail lizards as we worked our way up a hillside.  Our first exciting discovery came courtesy of Pat's flipping skills. He uncovered a Night Snake. These first two images were captured with my phone with the snake in hand to show relative size.

Night Snakes are nocturnal prowlers that are typically between 12 and 26 inches long. They have vertical pupils that look like a thin black line. Vertical pupils are often associated with venomous snakes, snakes you don't want to handle.  The venom of a Night Snake, however, is injected from enlarged teeth in the back of their jaws, after prey is subdued and while being consumed. They are harmless to humans. The image below was captured with my Nikon 105mm macro lens to attempt to get detail of the eye.

We returned the Night Snake to its original rock after we finished studying its markings and capturing some images. After a brief discussion about where to go next we decided to try a few more rocks in the same general area. That turned out to be a good idea because Rye uncovered a completely unexpected Tiger Salamander, Utah's only species of salamander and a new species of salamander for me to observe.

Tiger Salamander Washington County, Utah

Pat had found a snake and Rye had found a salamander so I began to feel some pressure to make my own discovery. I wanted to contribute to the observations so I snapped a few images of the salamander and then proceeded to flip more rocks as Pat and Rye continued to photograph the salamander. I produced a sweat and got a good workout flipping rocks, but I did not produce any herps with those efforts.

Our ultimate destination for our first evening was near Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada so we decided to hit the road after placing the salamander back in its original location with a little added moisture from a water bottle.

We arrived at a camp site just before 6 PM. It was a little too cool for reptiles, but I decided to wander around a bit with hopes of seeing my first Desert Iguana. About 100 yards from our campsite I happened upon a Cottontail that did not flee its hiding place when I approached. I invited Rye and Pat over to observe the rabbit. It turned out that she(?) was actually sitting on top of a burrow that likely contained baby rabbits and she was behaving with her motherly instincts to protect them.

Phone capture of Cottontail guarding a burrow near Valley of Fire State Park

Cottontail Guarding Burrow Valley of Fire State Park
Twenty minutes later I stumbled upon a subspecies of Desert Horned Lizard I had never seen before, a Southern Desert Horned. I found it when I heard the sound of something scurrying across the surface of tiny loose rocks. I looked down to the ground just in time to see the camouflaged lizard move again. It's a good thing they blend in with their environments because they are slow-moving critters. Rye actually commented that he felt sorry for horned lizards because they can't run away from things very well.

Southern Desert Horned Lizard Near Valley of Fire State Park Nevada

Southern Desert Horned Lizard Near Valley of Fire State Park Nevada
Rye and I captured a few images and then called to Pat who had hiked his way up a rocky hillside to search for Speckled Rattlesnakes. I captured the image below as Pat was making his way down the hillside to get a quick look at the horned lizard before heading out for our first night of "cruising".  I thought, "Where is Waldo?" just before I captured this image with my telephoto lens zoomed out to 500mm.

I was getting excited for my first night of cruising for herps in southern Nevada as I captured this phone panorama of the setting sun as seen from our campsite.

The temperature readings we took of the air and road surface were lower than hoped, but we still managed to come across a few reptiles crossing the road as we cruised that evening. We found numerous Banded Geckos, including this one that had unique facial markings that formed the shape of a question mark on the nose. It appeared to have a question on its mind, but it never asked if I wanted to save on auto insurance with Geico.

Utah Banded Gecko Clark County, Nevada
The only snake we encountered during our first night of cruising was a nice looking Long-nosed Snake. The first image below was captured with my phone in my right hand and the snake on my left.

I used the Nikon gear with a speed light and a diffuser to attempt to capture a higher quality image.

Long-nosed Snake Clark County, Nevada
We returned to camp around 1 AM or so and hunkered down for the night. The sky was clear so I decided to sleep in the open bed of my truck. We had plans to move to another site for the last three nights so I spared myself the time of setting up and taking down my tent.

Day 2

It was quite windy through the night. The wind continued in the morning, but I decided to do a little birding while Rye and Pat were sleeping in.  I found a Wind Scorpion (aka Camel Spider) and a few fun birds such as Black-throated Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Brewer's Sparrow, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Ash-throated Flycatcher Clark County, Nevada
Singing Black-throated Sparrow Clark County, Nevada
Green-tailed Towhee Clark County, Nevada
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Clark County, Nevada
The cool temperature and blowing winds were not conducive to finding reptiles so we decided to give up on the idea of searching for Desert Iguanas. We drove to what would be our three-night campsite in the Beaver Dam Wash Conservation Area and parked my truck so we could all three be in the same vehicle for the rest of the day.

I found some common lizard species as I was flipping rocks in our first area of the day. Pat flipped a pair of Night Snakes under a single rock.

Night Snake Washington County, Utah
We found some Plateau Fence Lizards and Common Side-blotched Lizards and spent a little time comparing their differentiating field marks.

Plateau Fence Lizard Washington County, Utah

Fence Lizard on Left and Side-blotched Lizard on Right

Side-blotched Lizard Below and Fence Lizard Above
I had never observed a skink before so we decided to look for some in leaf litter along a small stream. We didn't locate any skinks in that location, but we did discover some Woodhouse's and Arizona Toads.

Arizona Toad Washington County, Utah

We eventually located Western Skinks when we moved to another location after making some sandwiches for lunch, thanks to Pat. The skink pictured below had lost its tail and showed the beginning of a replacement tail.

Pat continued his luck with flipping rocks when he uncovered a Desert Hairy Scorpion. Scorpions aren't herps, but they are a fun bi-product of the efforts that produce herps. I took advantage of the opportunity to do a little macro photography to capture some of the fine details of these small armored tanks. At about 5.5 inches long, Desert Hairy Scorpions are among the largest scorpions of North America.

Desert Hairy Scorpion Washington County, Utah

Desert Hairy Scorpion Washington County, Utah
We continued down the edge of a stream trying to find some snakes where Rye found a male Western Skink.

Male Western Skink Washington County, Utah

Male Western Skink Washington County, Utah
Later in the evening we made our way to some other streams where we "shined" for amphibians. Light from our headlamps reflected from the eyes of Woodhouse's and Arizona Toads. I was told that these two species hybridize in the area where we were searching. The smallest toad in hand below seems to have the markings of an Arizona Toad. It lacks the pale dorsal stripe and cranial crest associated with Woodhouse's Toads as displayed by the largest toad in the image.

A Mix of Woodhouse's and Arizona Toads Washington County, Utah

Arizona Toad Washington County, Utah
Arizona Toad Washington County, Utah

Arizona Toad Washington County, Utah

Arizona/Woodhouse's Toad Tadpoles Washington County, Utah
I went to bed feeling like I'd had a fun and productive day. Rain began to fall and I was glad I had decided to put the rain fly on the tent.

Day 3

I woke up the next morning to the cooing of a Greater Roadrunner so I decided to take a little walk around the surrounding desert as Rye and Pat continued to sleep in their tents. This was the view from our campsite.

After a short walk and hearing that Rye and Pat were stirring about I went back to the truck and prepared a simple Mountain House breakfast. The Jetboil had water boiling within minutes. I enjoyed scrambled eggs and sausage with no hassle nor mess. 

After breakfast and before heading to a rocky hillside to look for Speckled Rattlesnakes we checked for herps near our campsite. I found the Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard below trying to hide between the bark and core of a Joshua Tree.

Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard Washington County, Utah
I was able to slide my hand in and get a grasp on the handsome lizard.

Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard Washington County, Utah

We didn't find the Speckled Rattlesnakes we had hope for during our morning hike, but we did enjoy some nice views along the way.

I noticed some wash and a few pellets below a cliff and realized we were below an owl roost. It was most likely a Great Horned Owl roost based on the size of the pellets and the location.

We enjoyed a simple lunch at the truck after descending from our rocky hillside hike. I pointed out a few of the desert birds that were near us and played a call or two on my phone app so a couple of species came close enough for Rye to capture some images. Black-throated Sparrow, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and Brewer's Sparrows were cooperative for us.

We went to search for Gila Monsters and Desert Tortoises in some nice red-rock territory after finishing lunch. As we were looking for some tortoises I noticed my first Costa's Hummingbird of the year. I didn't have my long lens with me so I simply captured the image in my mind.

At one point I noticed a Tiger Whiptail and observed it for a moment. Just as I turned to say something to Rye I realized I was standing about four feet from a large Desert Tortoise.

Desert Tortoise Washington County, Utah

Desert Tortoise Washington County, Utah
The image below is a smaller tortoise that Pat relocated after getting a tip from some trail runners.

Desert Tortoise Washington County, Utah
I have no images to show of Gila Monsters, but here are phone captures of some of the habitat we explored during the afternoon.

I thought this little cactus was cool so I did a quick phone capture

As the sun set on our third day we decided to go to an area of extreme northwest Arizona to look for Pacific Tree Frogs. We heard them calling soon after exiting our truck at the planned location. A few of them allowed me to capture images as they were calling.

Pacific Tree Frog Mohave County, Arizona

The image below was captured to show the relative size of the Pacific Tree Frogs we observed.

Pacific Tree Frog Mohave County, Arizona
I decided to wander a little farther down the stream until I saw the light from my headlamp reflecting from the eyes of a Bullfrog. Rye was able to retrieve the frog with his net for some observation.

Bullfrog Mohave County, Arizona

Bullfrog Eye and Eardrum Mohave County, Arizona
After getting our fill of both species of frog we headed back to the truck and discussed various views of the current political situation we find ourselves in here in the United States. Before long we were back to our tents for the night, resting up for another day of herping in the Mojave.

The Final Day and Night

I felt like I performed a magic trick during my morning walk of the last day. I saw a cow patty and decided to flip it with my snake hook. Imagine my surprise when I observed a cute little gecko below that patty. Instead of pulling a rabbit from a hat I pulled a gecko from a cow patty.

Utah Banded Gecko Washington County, Utah
As we were heading out of camp a roadrunner ran across the dirt road ahead of us. We stopped to observe it. It looked back at us for a moment then turned away, lowered its head, and continued to run along in its original direction.  We too resumed our progress toward our intended destination. We headed to red rock territory to try to turn up my first ever Gila Monster.

While looking for gilas in perfect habitat I had a serendipitous encounter with a new amphibian.  I found a shallow pool of water situated between some large red rocks. I looked into the pool and saw no obvious signs of life. I turned away from the pool and then noticed a tiny toad hopping on the ground ahead of me. It turned out that there were a number of those tiny toads in the area. I picked one up and realized it was a Red-spotted Toad, another lifer amphibian for me for the trip. It's always fun to have that first encounter with a new species. It's like the images I've studied in field guides suddenly morphed into a real creature.

Red-spotted Toad Washington County, Utah


I did my best to find gila tracks, but the most interesting tracks we discovered were from a Desert Tortoise.

We had a rendezvous scheduled with a local herper so Pat could search for a Mountain Kingsnake. I wanted to do some birding so I separated from the group and went solo for a few hours. One of the birds I wanted to check on was a Black-chinned Sparrow. I decided to drive up to Utah Hill where I had seen them a few years earlier. I had much better luck turning up this uncommon sparrow than I had with my search for a Gila Monster.
Black-chinned Sparrow Washington County, Utah
From Utah Hill I drove to Lytle Ranch Preserve. It was the hottest part of the day so birds were not very active. I saw some typical birds such as Latter-backed Woodpecker, Anna's Hummingbirds, Verdins, and Bewick's Wrens. A lone Eared Grebe was on the pond at the ranch. Gambel's Quails and Phainopepla were vocalizing near the ranch house.

Male Phainopepla Washing County, Utah
My favorite bird encounter at the ranch was a young Cooper's Hawk that was finishing up an afternoon meal when I encountered it.

Cooper's Hawk With Prey Washington County, Utah
I stopped and captured an image of the Lytle Ranch Preserve after I drove up the hill and looked back toward the desert oasis I had just birded.

I reconnected with Rye and Pat for our final night of cruising around 8 PM. It wasn't a very productive night, but we did find another lifer snake for me, a small Glossy Snake.

Glossy Snake Washington County, Utah

Glossy Snake Washington County, Utah

The last snake we cruised that night was a young Mojave Rattlesnake. This snake represents a significant danger to humans for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is young enough that it has only one button on the tip of its tail. Consequently, it is unable to produce a rattle as a warning if it feels threatened. Second of all, the Mojave Rattlesnake produces some of the most potent venom in North America because it contains both hemotoxic and neurotoxic properties that cause tissue and neurological damage, respectively, when injected into flesh and the blood stream.

Mojave Rattlesnake Washington County, Utah

Mojave Rattlesnake Washington County, Utah
Rattlesnakes are pit vipers with heat-sensing organs between the nostrils and the eyes. The nostril and the pit can be easily seen in the image below. The heat-sensing organs allow the snake to detect infrared heat emanating from potential prey. This is helpful to a snake that is primarily nocturnal and preys on small warm-blooded mammals.

Mojave Rattlesnake Washington County, Utah
It was tempting to continue cruising for snakes to make the most of the last night of the trip, but 5 AM was only a few hours away and I needed to get some sleep before making about a four-hour drive back to Utah County.

I slept in my truck for a few hours and then headed out before sunrise. A Kit Fox ran across the road in front of me so I pulled over and put it in my spotlight for a moment. It was curious and looked back at me. I said goodbye, made my way from the dirt road onto the highway, and completed a safe drive back to northern Utah to finish a trip I will always remember.


  1. Jeff, I enjoy your extensive travel log and photos. Always beautifully composed and researched. I have to question why you touch the animals. This is upsetting to me to consider the stress the catching and manipulation the poor critter experienced.

    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for viewing and sharing your feedback. I appreciate your genuine concern for the critters. I share that concern in my own way. I sometimes feel the same way when I view images and see how others interact with nature. I've learned that we all have our unique ways of admiring and respecting nature. My aim is to educate myself and then share what I learn with others hoping that more of us will take an active interest in preserving the habitat and environmental conditions necessary to perpetuate existing species. I also want to be as technically accurate as possible as I enter data into citizen science databases. Reptiles and amphibians often need to be studied in hand to properly identify species, subspecies, and sex. That information can then be reported to citizen science databases. I personally am submitting my bird observations to and my herp observations to H.E.R.P ( That data is used to update range maps, monitor populations, etc. In short, I love nature and strive to preserve it. I have no desire to harm the critters nor be harmed by them. Your feedback helps me calibrate my actions to be more sensitive to how others feel about what I do and share. Thanks again. Jeff

  2. Really great post Jeff. Thanks!