All My Critters… Part 4

Great and Small on the Preserve

Speckled Rattlesnake

On a late April morning, Jeff opened the door to our RV…

Just look who came to visit!

A speckled rattlesnake! And yes, they are venomous and potentially dangerous if disturbed.

These long, heavy-bodied snakes with thin necks, triangular heads, and a rattle on the end of their tails, inhabit the rocky areas of the deserts and mountains, and southern coast region of California. (

Rattlesnakes are “pit vipers” which means they have 2 organs, one on each side of the front of the head above their mouth. These “pits” are used to sense the heat radiating from warm-blooded prey. ( I circled the pits in the photo below., courtesy of Gary Nafis

A few days later, Jeff steps onto the boardwalk of the main oasis. Luckily he was looking down as he quickly backs off and decides to take a detour…

Ginny, our Preserve Manager, hears this rattler in early May…

As we say on the Preserve, “let sleeping snakes lie…”

Desert Cottontail

Sylvilagus auduboni live in a wide variety of habitats including: arid desert grasslands and shrublands, riparian areas, and pinyon-juniper forests. (

The desert cottontail’s ears are larger than other species and most often are carried erect.

Normal behavior upon spotting a predator, most likely coyotes, owls, bobcats, and yes humans) is to freeze in place to avoid being detected. Upon sensing imminent danger, the cottontail will hop away in a zig zag pattern.

On windy days cottontails are rarely found outside their burrows because the wind interferes with their ability to hear approaching predators. (

Desert cottontails eat grasses, cacti, bark, twigs, and the beans of mesquite. Rarely do they need to drink as they get water from the plants they consume or from dew on leaves. (

Jack Rabbits…

also live in the Sonoran desert and are distinguishable for their big ears and top notch speed.

Jack Rabbit, courtesy of James Bremner Jr.

Jack rabbits are true hares because, unlike cotton tailed rabbits, they do not build nests. The mother simply chooses a place to give birth and the young are born fully furred, with their eyes wide open.

There are 3 species of the genus Lepus native to California: 1.) The black-tailed jack rabbit (Lepus californicus) is a desert dweller, preferring to live in the valleys that are flat and open. Its cousin, the antelope jack rabbit (Lepus alleni) prefers the Sonoran desert. 2.) The white-tailed jack rabbit is the largest of California’s hares and inhabits the hills of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. 3.) The snowshoe rabbits range is in the higher elevations of the mountains. (

Jeff and I would often see jack rabbits hiding and darting between bushes along the Indian Palms Trail across the street from the main oasis and in the open valley of Moon Country.


There are an estimated 117 species of identified dragonflies in the Southwest who prefer the arid lands and warm waters of the desert.

They come in a rainbow of colors including: red, fuchsia, orange, blue, emerald green, gold, black, maroon, earth toned, and even metallic. Their size varies too, from nearly 6 inches to less than an inch.

Dragonflies start life as a tiny egg, not much bigger than a period at the end of a sentence. These eggs are scattered over waterways or inserted into vegetation that is floating in or overhanging water. Eggs can hatch within weeks to become larva. This stage can last from a month or two to even a few years of growing and molting. After emerging from its shell, the new adult dragonfly is ready to fly off in an hour or more.

Sadly, adults live for only several weeks to months, feeding on vast quantities of mosquitoes, gnats, and other small insects in order to mature sexually and mate. (


Hot temperatures and long periods without water are the two major obstacles desert spiders must endure. Early mornings on the boardwalk of the main oasis is where Jeff and I would see them actively at work spinning silky orbs and feasting on snared prey. I think these spiders are sand wolf spiders who live comfortably in the dry desert and can stay cool under the shade of palm trees on the Preserve. Their eyes glow at night due to a special reflective tissue that helps them see better in the dark. ( Now, that would be a cool picture!

A similar desert spider is the giant crab spider with a body size of 0.8 inches and a leg span up to 6 inches. These huntsmen usually hide in the day to tolerate the heat and aggressively hunt at night feeding on small lizards, other spiders, insects, and other small invertebrates. (

The desert recluse spider, which we have never seen, has long legs for sliding through sand. It has a toxic bite that is capable of killing the cells and tissues around this bite. Fortunately, bites are quite rare in humans because, as its name implies, this spider dwells far off in the desert where most people have no desire to wander. (

The desert tarantula is a very common species of the desert, living in sand burrows to escape the heat. I never saw one, but Jeff did, right off the boardwalk of the main oasis. Apparently this lonely guy is wandering around looking for a mate, according to

Desert Squirrels

Since trees are scarce, squirrels that live in the desert are small gnawing mammals that dwell on the ground and dig burrows to live in and to safely retreat from their many predators. All Sonoran Desert squirrels are Ground Squirrels.

The round-tailed ground squirrel is active in the summer months as it hibernates during winter. It is sandy colored (duh), resembling a prairie dog, with smooth fur and a long tail tipped in black. I never noticed the black on its tail, however. These critters never stood still long enough for me to get a closer look! (

Courtesy of, here is a great pic of the round-tailed ground squirrel:

This little guy “invested” in real estate property outside of our RV and built a subdivision of burrows!

The antelope squirrel, sketched below, is courtesy of

Often mistaken for a chipmunk, the Harris Antelope Squirrel lives in the lower elevations of rocky deserts. It has a white stripe on its side, a white underbelly, and a bushy tail that it usually carries arched over its back.

And here’s a picture courtesy of en.m.wikipedia:

Tarantula Hawk

Courtesy of the National History Museum in London ( here is a great pic of this spider wasp, Pepsi genus:

And here are some pics I took on the Preserve:

The tarantula hawk is a spider wasp. Only the females have stingers to prey upon (yep) tarantulas. Using their 1/4 inch stinger they paralyze their victim before dragging it back to the nest as living food. ( and

(Picture below courtesy of Alan Schmierer, Wikipedia Commons)

The tarantula hawk then lays an egg on the prey which hatches to a larva. The larva then eats the still-living host. Lovely, huh? (

Here is a picture of the females’ stinger courtesy of Wikipedia Commons:

Only the wasp’s larva are carnivores. Adults get nutrition from nectar. (

Although tarantula hawks rarely sting people without provocation, their sting is among the most painful of all insects. Fortunately (?) the intense pain only lasts for 5 very loooong minutes. This pain has been described as: IMMEDIATE, EXCRUCIATING, UNRELENTING, and SCREAM-INDUCING!

The bullet ant, living in the forests of Central and South America, has a more painful sting which lasts from 5 to 24 hours! Ouch! No thank you! Below is a picture of this scary guy courtesy of Christian Vinces at

Because of their extremely large stingers very few animals are able to eat tarantula hawks. According to, only roadrunners will risk being stung to eat a tarantula hawk. OMG!

Seriously? This guy, pictured below courtesy of You go, roadrunner! You got this! Beep Beep…

Ant Lion

Also known as doodlebugs because of the marks left in the sand,

antlions are known for the predatory habits of the larvae which dig pits in the sand to trap ants. (

Below is a side-by-side picture of a distoleon tetragrammicus larva and the adult version, sometimes known as an antlion lacewing, often mistaken for dragonflies. The adult insects have a short lifespan compared to the larvae. (

Antlions are the immature offspring of a very different looking insect as you can see from the above photos. After being placed in the sand as an egg by their mother, baby antlions build inverted cone shaped pits by crawling backwards in a spiral and throwing piles of sand outwards. They then spend months to years sitting quietly at the bottom of the cone waiting for prey. Ants that step on the slope lose their footing and tumble into the pit where the antlion larva waits with powerful jaws and fast reflexes. Antlion young are well adapted to living in very hot and dry habitats and can survive for months without food or water. (Ann Dunn,

We never saw an actual antlion larva, although we had the opportunity to dig through their many doodles in the sand. But, as guardians of the Preserve, why would we disturb the habitat? And I am guessing that we DID see the antlion lacewing but just confused it for a dragonfly.

Once they have enough nutrition, they build a a silk cocoon and develop as a pupa for about a month until a delicate winged-form adult emerges resembling a long, thin moth. (Ann Dunn,


Oh how we loved seeing coyotes around the RV and Preserve and hearing them at night! (According to, we learned that coyotes “sing” to communicate with other coyote families and as a way to keep track of their own family members.) We even named two of them: Wiley and CJ (Coyote Junior). We respected them from a distance and celebrated their presence. Almost every evening shortly after 5:00 when the visitors were SUPPOSED to have left, at least one or two coyotes would saunter across the parking area in front of our RV.

Often mistaken for medium-sized dogs, coyotes have long bushy black-tipped tails, pointed ears, and a narrow pointed face. They adapt very well to different habitats and can be found living in large cities, desert scrub, grasslands, foothills, and populated neighborhoods. Coyotes are omnivores and will adjust their hunting style to what foods are available, meaning they will stalk small prey alone and often hunt in small packs together to kill larger prey like deer. In the Sonoran Desert they will eat cactus fruit, mesquite beans, flowers, insects, rodents, lizards, rabbits, birds, and snakes. (

Of course on the Preserve, Wiley and CJ and their friends would eat the palm fruit from the California Fan Palms as evidenced by the clumps of purple droppings and seeds.

In the wild, coyotes live between 10-14 years. Their most common enemy is disease. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions will also prey upon them. In cities humans are responsible for killing coyotes with their cars as the animals try to cross busy roads. (

Twice we saw dead coyotes: once a fully intact coyote at the bottom of Pushwalla Canyon (some hikers also reported this to us thinking that we would remove the dead animal… nope, it’s the circle of life in the desert). The second encounter was below Bee Mesa where the skeletal remains of a Canister latrans slowly deteriorated in the desert sun.

Since there are no mountain lions, wolves, or bears on the Preserve, we can safely hypothesize that these coyotes died from disease.

Side Blotched Lizard

Jeff finally spotted one and took a great picture!

I never could find the dark blotches located on both sides of its chest just behind the front leg! Below is a good picture of one from

Side blotched
Courtesy of Gary Nafis

Side blotched lizards are active daily all year round in the arid Sonoran desert. They enjoy basking on rocks, hopping from boulder to boulder, and running quickly along the ground. But they are also good climbers. When frightened they will run into a burrow in the sand or hide under vegetation. When captured, their tails often break off and wriggle on the ground to distract a predator from grabbing their bodies and allowing them time to escape. Fortunately, the tail grows back. Unfortunately, these lizards only live for about one year. (

Other Common Lizards at Home on the Preserve Include:

The Spiny Lizard

Spiny lizard 1, courtesy of Joe Fuhrman
Spiny 2, courtesy of Dan Schroeter

The Whiptail Lizard

Whip tail

The Zebra Tailed Lizard (public domain)
Zebra tail

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