Saturday, September 26, 2015

Paradise Lost

Our project this weekend was to clean out a pile of mesquite wood we had stacked in the back corner of our yard. The tarp and plastic covering the wood was breaking apart under the desert heat and sun, and long strands of bermuda grass were growing all over the pile and covering it up.

As we started to unstack the wood and move the logs aside, we were expecting an exodus of black widows, centipedes, scorpions and other critters that enjoy living in quiet, dark undisturbed places. Surprisingly, we only saw a few crickets and cockroaches but nothing like we had anticipated. We dug out the bermuda grass as the wood pile got smaller.

We finally cleared the stack and lifted up a pallet that had become partially buried below the pile of wood. Suddenly there was some movement and 2 large geckos bailed out from under the pallet, clinging to the block wall a few feet above the ground.

We v-e-r-y carefully put the pallet back down to figure out how to proceed. The geckos crawled back down to the pallet.

The geckos' home was basically gone. We had unknowingly cleared away their habitat. We had no idea how many more might be living there.

Our plan had been to do this project over a couple of days, but that would leave the geckos with no place to be safe from predatory birds and stray cats.

After thinking of a couple of options, we decided to temporarily recreate the habitat on our lot, directly adjacent to the other side of our wood fence.

We left the pallets in place, and dug an escape route for the geckos under the fence. The plan was to relocate the pallets one at a time, then restack the wood on top.

The new location on the other side of the fence was prepared. We carefully lifted the pallet again and this time 3 geckos appeared. Two immediately raced for cover behind the pool control box mounted a few feet away on the block wall. The third dashed in the opposite direction.

We waited a bit in case any other geckos were going to appear. There was no other movement so we moved the pallet to the new location and restacked the wood.

We finished carefully cleaning out the debris and bermuda grass where the pallet had been, and found one more smaller gecko.

We gently herded the little gecko to the gap under the fence and it zipped through to safety under the new wood pile.

One of the challenges of creating a backyard habitat is the possible consequences when changes are made. Raking leaves removes cover for lizards and beneficial insects. Trimming bushes may destroy butterfly chrysalises or praying mantis egg cases. Clearing away spider webs takes away hummingbird nesting material. Pesticides can kill not only the target "nuisance" insects but beneficials as well.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to evereything else in the Universe."  ~John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Red Racer!

The geckos weren't the only ones to have their habitat disrupted by our clean-up. We found this gorgeous snake - a Red Racer - about a half hour after we thought we had finished in that corner of our yard.

Red Racer had only come out partially from under the storage box, but we could see he was a good size snake. About 2 feet of the body was visible, and it did not show any signs of tapering down to its tail.

He stopped with his head raised and occasionally tasted the air with his tongue, probably trying to figure out what had happened to his home.

Red Racers get their common name from their beautiful coloration, and their ability to move very rapidly. They can grow to be very large - to 6 feet in length or more.

Individual snakes can vary greatly in appearance and their coloring may be shades of pink and red, light brown or tan. They have large eyes and most have darker patterns on the head.

Red Racer is a diurnal snake, which means it is out and about during the day. It is an active hunter, eating whatever it can overcome and crush with its jaws. This may include lizards and other snakes, birds and road kill. It can climb into bushes and trees so nestling birds and bird eggs can also be part of the diet.

Although Red Racer is not poisonous, it will defend itself by striking or biting if threatened or handled.

We didn't want to scare him so we stepped away. He came out a bit further from under the storage box, and moved towards the pool control box on the wall where two of the geckos had hidden themselves earlier. Red Racer started to crawl upwards along the wall, then made a fast lunge towards the box. One of the geckos zipped out from behind, dashed across the block wall, and disappeared behind the bamboo fencing a few feet away.

We figured our Red Racer had had a challenging enough day so far, so we left him in peace while we figured out how to reconstruct his habitat.

This is a new snake species for our yard, and brings our yard list snake species total to 5: Red Racer, Desert Blind Snake, Shovel Nose Snake, Black-headed Snake, and Gopher Snake. It is amazing that our yard can support a snake this size, and even more surprising that it has obviously been living here for a while.

We will be rethinking our plans for this corner of the yard, to make sure he has a safe place to live.