Cochise County: First Rattlesnake ID Sighting of the Year, a Western Diamondback

Not a Mojave green rattlesnake? A Western Diamondback? Really? On or near our southern Cochise County, Arizona, property, my first rattlesnake sighting of the year provided easy ID and a bit of a surprise. Nothing earth shaking, but in recent years, it seemed like the Mojave rattlers had taken over and put the local Western Diamondback reptiles out of business. The last Western we’d seen had been in 2010–out back of our water storage tank area, sneaking up from behind, headed directly toward my wife’s unprotected ankle. Every other pit viper spotted by us between here and Highway 92 to the north and the San Pedro River to the west…has been a Mojave green.

Okay, so I’m getting a wee bit weird. Why should I get all excited about spotting a locally less common snake? Any one of them can be Slithering Death, right?

Right. But somehow, don’t ask me how, my attitude toward rattlesnakes has shifted considerably in the last eight years. Used to be, I had my share of anti-rattler attitude and then some. Now, as long as they’re not close enough to the Border Fort to present a clear and present danger, I actually enjoy seeing them. And this one, about half a mile from the house, spotted on Paloma Trail, was interesting.

For one thing, this is the first time ever that I’ve been able to get any photos of a Western Diamondback. Check out the Critter Index on this site and you’ll find at least half a dozen posts chronicling our encounters with Mojave greens, but Westerns? Nada. Zilch. Zip.

So: Opportunity! I can now, finally, post pictures showing readers exactly what the differences in “tail patterns” are between the two species, which is by far the easiest (and safest) way to identify the snake in the field.

This is important, why? Simply put, these two highly beasties, though highly similar in appearance, possess different venom types. Anyone who has to deal with a rattlesnake bite (God forbid) needs to know which rattler did the fang work. Different venom type means different antivenin type; if the Emergency Room folks don’t have to start treating a victim by-guess-and-by-gosh, that’s good thing. (Western Diamondback venom destroys muscle tissue. Mojave green venom shuts down respiration.)

On the tail of  the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, the white and black "coontail" bands are roughly equal in width, as shown here.

On the tail of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, the white and black “coontail” bands are roughly equal in width, as shown here.

On the Mojave green rattlesnake's tail, the white bands are much wider than the narrow black bands.

On the Mojave green rattlesnake’s tail, the white bands are much wider than the narrow black bands.

There was one other thing that was really noticeable about today’s Western Diamondback sighting: The rattler was much warier of me than most of the Mojave greens sighted over the years have been. Several times, Mojaves have simply rested out in the middle of the road and allowed me and my camera to approach to within fifteen feet or so…without moving at all. They’d just laze around, soaking up the sun, keeping an eye peeled my way but otherwise taking no notice whatsoever of the lurking human. Not so the rattler in the road today. Like many another, it was chilling, soaking up the rays, when I first stopped the truck. But after I got out to take pictures, Jake the Snake decided within seconds that it was time to move on, get outa Dodge, find some cover.

This Western Diamondback seemed warier of humans than most of the Mojave green rattlesnakes we've sighted over the years.  Here, it's heading for the brush at the side of the road.

This Western Diamondback seemed warier of humans than most of the Mojave green rattlesnakes we’ve sighted over the years. Here, it’s heading for the brush at the side of the road.

This shot came out a bit blurry but does provide a good view of the distinctive spade-shaped head of the pit viper.

This shot came out a bit blurry but does provide a good view of the distinctive spade-shaped head of the pit viper.

Home Sweet Home, heading into deep cover under brush at the side of the road.

Home Sweet Home, heading into deep cover under brush at the side of the road.