Mojave Green Rattlesnake Adventures in Cochise County, Arizona: The Pump Shed Coil

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I rounded the pump shed –and immediately took note of the little Mojave green rattlesnake coiled right up next to the structure. Our Cochise County, Arizona, acreage has this species, Crotalus scutulatus, in abundance. We average three kills per year, not daring to leave a snake as venomous as the Mojave alive near the Border Fort. This one would be the third for 2013.

We’ve got nothing against them…except that they rate as the deadliest pit viper in North America, with a neurotoxic venom much like that of the cobra, and my wife is at terrible risk of being bitten if I let them live in too close. She is disabled on multiple fronts, a few of which include impaired lung capacity (COPD), seizures, numerous falls for no apparent reason other than a failing body, and unreliable vision.

That is, sometimes she can see fairly well, but sometimes it’s hard for her to tell a stick from a snake.

It would have been a simple enough process to grab the shovel leaning against the water tower and go to snake-whacking, but the little guy (or gal, who knows) was in a resting coil and not overly disturbed by my presence. The odds were good that I could retrieve the .410 shotgun from the house, return, and find the rattler still holding position.

The idea was to snap a few photos of a live snake before making it a dead snake by giving it a clean exit from this vale of tears, blowing its spade shaped head off with a single blast of #6 shot.

In the end, the shovel would have been more merciful than the way it worked out, but I couldn’t have known that in advance. (I will for the next similar event, but got a bit fooled this time.)

This young Mojave green rattlesnake was in a resting coil behind our pump shed at approximately 3:00 p.m. on November 2, 2013.

This young Mojave green rattlesnake was in a resting coil behind our pump shed at approximately 3:00 p.m. on November 2, 2013.

Before continuing with the narrative, let’s take a close look at the head of the snake in the picture (above).

The easiest way to identify a Mojave rattlesnake (or Mojave green rattlesnake, same thing, some show green, some don’t) is usually to look at the tail–if you can see the tail. Both western diamondback and Mojave rattlers have “coontails” showing alternating black and white stripes, but the Mojaves have white stripes wider than the black stripes, while the western diamondbacks have stripes that are more or less even in width. (And some of the Mojave greens we’ve seen have stripes so muted in color as to be next thing to invisible.)

However, rattlers in resting coils often rest on their tails, so that ID trick won’t work unless you disturb the reptile enough to make it move. Plus, today’s are by far the best head photos I’ve taken to date.

Mojave rattlesnakes have enlarged scales on top of the head. In this picture, you can see that area looks a little “different” than the rest of the snake. I could not tell that while I was standing ten feet away, but the enlarged photo is very helpful.

Ditto for the light stripe just above the eye. See how it passes down to the rear of the mouth? In the western diamondback, that stripe does exist, but it intersects the mouth.

Again, I’m not getting close enough to figure out where that stripe goes while I’m watching a live pit viper, but the photo makes it clear: This is definitely a Mojave green rattler.

Okay, back to the narrative. Backing off a bit with the zoom lens, we can see the small size of this rattler against the pump shed. However, it wasn’t quite as small as I’d thought. The vertical grooves on that siding are eight inches apart. The coil is not more than 3 1/2 inches across, which faked me out rather well. Using an enlarged photo plus a calculator and a bit of plane geometry (diameter x pi = circumference) along with an estimate that the total critter added up to 1.8 coils…produced an estimate of the snake’s length in the 18 inch range.

Still a small rattler, but not inconsequential. We have another post on this site about a seven inch Mojave that had swallowed an entire mouse.

The tiny, tight resting coil of this Mojave rattlesnake is deceptive.  Coiled, it's only about  3 1/2 inches across.  Uncoiled, it's around 18 inches in length.

The tiny, tight resting coil of this Mojave rattlesnake is deceptive. Coiled, it’s only about 3 1/2 inches across. Uncoiled, it’s around 18 inches in length.

The first part of my plan worked out just fine. It took me a couple of minutes to stride to the house, grab the shotgun and a set of protective earmuffs, and get back out to snake country. Sure enough, the critter hadn’t moved. In fact, it continued to hold position as I snapped photos from several different angles, coming as close as four feet (because that was the only passageway between the pump shed and the water tower), quarter-circling, clicking the shutter.

Eventually, though, the snake decided the big two legged animal was too obviously interested in perhaps doing it harm. It began to uncoil.

For a second or two, this seemed like a good thing. I began moving back toward the water tower, where I’d left the shotgun, still thinking a photo or two of the moving snake was in the works. At its normal, not-really-too-worried travel speed, I could snatch up the shooter and get off a shot before it could disappear in the dead autumn grass–

–and then it dived down its hole.

Had I known it was hanging out right in front of its escape hatch, I’d have taken no photos and no chances. We had one get away on me like that two years ago, just a few yards north of the house. For months we worried about that one, hanging out in the dirt pile we’d left as a sanctuary for countless burrowing kangaroo rats and spotted ground squirrels. The rattler had gotten away in June and didn’t turn up again until the middle of the night in late autumn, in a resting coil just like today’s specimen, mere feet away from the Border Fort’s south wall.

I had no intention of letting this one get away, but now it was a race against time. The snake was rapidly disappearing into the hole as I was rapidly shouldering the shotgun, earing the hammer back, lining up the front bead, squeezing the trigger….

Basically, I shot the snake in the ass.

No, that’s not recommended snake hunting procedure.

It was a hard hit, though, enough to count as a sure kill…eventually. The thing is, you can blow a rattler clean in half without stopping it in the short term. I once shovel-whacked a 4 1/2 foot diamondback pretty much clean in two, right in the middle, and it kept moving (after striking the shovel that had nailed it), the front half dragging the nearly severed back half another 20 feet before the #2 shovel nailed it behind the head.

However, today’s shot had been placed precisely where I meant it to go. Several inches of snake were still showing when the pellets hit, ripping at a downward and forward angle through the lower edge of the 2″ x 4″ joist supporting the pump shed, launching probably 50 or so splinters of treated wood shrapnel into the snake’s body along with the BB’s themselves. From the angle and the damage done to the wood, I’d say Jake the snake was pretty well riddled throughout the rear half of its body if not more.

If nothing else, the poisonous (treated) wood splinters ought to finish the job.

Ugly? Yes. I’m not proud of that mistake. But letting the Mojave rattlesnake get clean away was simply not an option.

Of course, it then became necessary to grab the shovel and start digging. If I could locate the wounded snake under the shed and put it out of its misery, I would do that. Pam thought it seemed like “a good place for a nest” of snakes. I did not…and after digging under from three sides, finding nothing, it became obvious the rattler had a back door escape route.

Which they usually do. Pit vipers are not diggers; they simply use the holes made by little burrowing mammals. Eat the occupant, relax and digest in protected underground comfort, hi ho. And, as we know, those little diggers definitely believe in having back door escape routes.

Still, the digging wasn’t entirely wasted. It allowed me to determine that the shotgun blast had not terminated a PVC water pipe right along with the back end of the snake. Which it hadn’t; the piping had been missed by a good two inches.

The shotgun blast tore through a portion of the treated 2" x 4" joist, launching slivers of poisoned wood into the fleeing snake's body to go along with the BB's themselves.

The shotgun blast tore through a portion of the treated 2″ x 4″ joist, launching slivers of poisoned wood into the fleeing snake’s body to go along with the BB’s themselves.

Oh, good.  Missed the water pipe by at least two inches....

Oh, good. Missed the water pipe by at least two inches….

Pam says, “I wouldn’t have seen that one. I’d have stepped right on him.”

Well…probably not. She doesn’t go traipsing around behind the pump shed. But I know what she means, that the smaller the Mojave green rattlesnake, the greater the danger for her. A few years ago, she was walking toward the laundry shed when she encountered a traveling Mojave moving on an interception course. They were both startled–but only after they’d come to within four feet of each other.

Pam froze; the snake veered off and took up temporary residence under the camp trailer. We didn’t know exactly where it had gone, but I got the shotgun when she started hollering, and we went snake hunting. She finally spotted it for me, and that was that.

Point being, if she can manage not to notice a three foot rattler in motion over open ground until it’s within four feet of her unprotected ankle, she’s certainly capable of failing to recognize a three inch coil until it’s too late.

There was another reason for me to take special notice of this particular Mojave, though. The first thing I had to do this afternoon was cut through the high side (pressurized) pipe leading from the booster pump to the house. Bending over to saw through that pipe in the trench would have put my right arm and shoulder within a few inches of the snake’s resting coil.

The next photo will show you what we’re talking about.

When the 18 inch Mojave green rattlesnake was in its resting coil, before that area was shoveled out a bit, failing to notice the snake (Not likely!) would have put me in mortal danger.

When the 18 inch Mojave green rattlesnake was in its resting coil, before that area was shoveled out a bit, failing to notice the snake (Not likely!) would have put me in mortal danger.

Here are two more pictures that speak for themselves.

This photo really shows the large scales on top of the Mojave green rattlesnake's head...as well as the snake's escape hole, which I didn't realize was there until almost too late.

This photo really shows the large scales on top of the Mojave green rattlesnake’s head…as well as the snake’s escape hole, which I didn’t realize was there until almost too late.

From this angle, the Mojave rattlesnake's nose blends so well with its body pattern that it's almost impossible to tell what starts where.

From this angle, the Mojave rattlesnake’s nose blends so well with its body pattern that it’s almost impossible to tell what starts where.

2 thoughts on “Mojave Green Rattlesnake Adventures in Cochise County, Arizona: The Pump Shed Coil

  1. I understand completely. As it happens, I’d never taken a picture of a snake in my life until we moved here in 2009, at which time I was 65 years of age. Now, though, with the camera ever at my hip and another post ever in the offing, I’ve become semi-compulsive about it. Not to the point of choosing the picture over the snake’s demise deliberately, of course. Had I realized the hole was right there behind the snake…but I didn’t.

    I’m grateful for the ID photos, though. As you say, they’re good ones–at least, as good as any I’ve seen online and better than most.

    The worst mistake I made was moving 3 steps away from the shotgun while taking the pics. I did notice, after firing the shotgun, that the camera had been deposited on the ground, not carefully returned to its carry case. Nor had I donned my earmuffs. At that point (snake rapidly disappearing downhole), every split second counted.

    The blast did ring my ears just a little.

    One curious bit is that we really have clobbered exactly 3 rattlers per year, every year here so far. Which I probably shouldn’t have mentioned; speaking of it may have broken something, so that this year it will end up being more. Or maybe we’ll get lucky and fewer will show up next year. Oddly enough, I’ve killed more snakes here in 4 years (well, 4 1/2 years, 5 snake seasons) than I did in all 17 years of growing up on the Montana ranch…and that place was at the foot of Rattler Hill, no less.

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