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Today’s Teachable Moment: Gopher Snake

So who said they rarely see snakes in the wild? Me? Yikes, I should have know better than that.

Today on our hike I took a little side trail because I could see some delphiniums blooming on the hillside. I was by myself and down about 20 yards from where I left Mr. A and our dog sitting in the shade.

I was busy taking photos when I looked to my left and just a few feet away was this huge snake laying half on the trail and half in the dry grass.
Gopher Snake 1

He was so still that I thought maybe he was dead and at first I couldn’t see his head. I hollered up to my son not to come down with the dog because there was a really big snake. He wanted to know what kind because immediately we think rattlesnake when we see a big snake.

Gopher Snake 2
I checked his tail and didn’t see a rattle and then I moved ever so slightly closer to see if I could locate his head. Wow! He was a big snake but I did manage to see the head and it was round and not diamond shaped so I felt fairly comfortable identifying it as something other than a rattler. I am guessing that he was at least 5 feet long. I snapped a few photos so we could take a closer look once we got home and make a positive identification. I didn’t get the whole snake in the photo and I did not take a photo of his head since I did not want to get that close to a live snake.

We had done the preparation work (you can read our entry HERE) for all the snakes on our list last week so I thought it was either a kingsnake or a gopher snake. We came home and pulled out the field guide and sure enough….gopher snake or Pituophis melanoleucus. The guide says gopher snakes can be up to 7 feet long. They eat small animals such as gophers, mice, ground squirrels, and small rabbits. They squeeze their prey until movement stops and then it swallows it whole.

I found this graphic online for our future reference:
Know Your Snakes: Differences Between Gopher Snake and Rattlesnake

I knew we wanted to do more snake study but I never dreamed a subject would come our way so quickly.

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A Study of Snakes: Armed with New Information

I waited to post my snake entry until the results of the snake poll were in. It was interesting to me to see just how my readers experience snakes. There were 113 people who responded to the poll.

How Often Do You See Snakes?

Frequently 9 votes
A few times a month 17 votes
A few times a year 55 votes
Rarely 24 votes
Never 7 votes

What Kind of Snakes Have You Seen?
Garter 78 votes
Milk 8 votes
Water 37 votes
Rattlesnake 18 votes
Other 64 votes

We are not a big snake family. Although we have had pet iguanas in the past and currently we have fire-bellied toads, snakes have not been a big fascination with my children. Our only on-going contact with snakes has been through our cats when they bring a dead one home and leave it on our doorstep. They are usually the small kind that don’t bring much distress when we see them.

Fire-bellied Toad
I do not take many photos of snakes so I decided to share our fire-bellied toads instead. This is Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley.

Occasionally we will see bigger more scary snakes on our hikes. This spring we have seen two rattlesnakes, one dead and one alive and curled up practically in the middle of the trail. We gave him some distance and left him alone.

We decided to research the garter snake since this is the most common one we see in our backyard or neighborhood. We found more information on this website: Identifying California Garter Snakes. After looking at the ranges and the photos of the garter snakes we potentially could see in our area, we narrowed our garter snakes down to two kinds:

Sierra Garter Snake or the Mountain Garter Snake

Garter snake journal
We made drawings and journal entries for both these snakes and the next time we come across one, we will be better equipped to identify it.

We also made a list of potential snakes to study in the future:
California Kingsnake
Western Rattlesnake
Gopher snake
California Striped Racer
Western Yellow Bellied Racer
Northern Rubber Boa

My son brought me the current issue of the National Wildlife magazine to show me an article on garter snakes. Lots of interesting bits in the article that helped us understand this snake a little better. (If you click the link above it will take you to an online version of the article, scroll down to the part about garter snakes.)

I encourage all to pick a snake and take a few minutes to learn some facts about it. I find it interesting that the more I know about something, the more I appreciate its beauty. Yes, even snakes.

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Outdoor Hour Challenge Spring Series #8: Reptiles-Snakes


Outdoor Hour Challenge
Spring Series #8
Reptile Study-Snakes

“There are abroad in the land many erroneous beliefs concerning snakes. Most people believe that they are all venomous which is far from true. The rattlesnake still holds its own in rocky, mountainous places, and the moccasin haunts the bayous of the southern coast; however, in most localities, snakes are not only harmless but are beneficial to the farmer.”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 193

Inside Preparation Time:
Snakes are a topic that most children are interested in learning more about. Read pages 193-194 in the Handbook of Nature Study. Make sure to highlight perhaps four or five points that you want to relate to your children before you observe a snake. Our local pet shop always has a few snakes available and they are eager to let us take a look and perhaps even hold one or two. Check around and see if you can find a local pet shop or a zoo that has a good reptile display as part of this Outdoor Hour Challenge.

Choose one or two snakes to learn about that you may find in your local area (Lessons 49-51)

  • Garter or Garden Snake pages 194-196 (This snake is the most widely distributed snake in North America.)
  • Milk Snake or Spotted Adder pages 197-198
  • Water Snake pages 198-199
  • Various snakes discussed with images pages 200-203

Outdoor Hour Time:
It is rare to observe snakes in the wild. This challenge is more about general knowledge and arming ourselves with some truths about a creature that perhaps we might encounter at some point in our lives.

You have two choices.
1. Take a field trip to a pet shop or zoo to observe a snake in real life. You may also know someone who has a pet snake that would be willing to let you observe their snake. Make sure to complete the inside preparation work before you go so you have some facts about snakes ready to share.
2. Talk about where a snake would live in your local area. You might need to do a little research for your particular state. Spend 15 minutes outdoors playing snake detective carefully looking for signs of snakes. You will be successful even if you just enjoy your backyard and observe anything that your child finds of interest. The most important thing is to get outdoors!

Follow-Up Activity:
Complete a notebook page for any or all of the snakes you researched during your preparation work or you observed up close. You can use the provided notebook page from the Spring Series ebook or a blank nature journal. You can look up your snake on the internet and use the image found there to draw your snake for your journal. Make sure to show the colors of your snake as best you can.

If you would like all the Spring Series Challenges in one place, I have an ebook gathered for you to purchase for your convenience. The ebook also contains art and music appreciation plans for the spring months as well as custom notebooking pages for each of the challenges. Please see this entry for more details:
Spring Series Cover
Spring Nature Study with Art and Music Appreciation

Handbook of Nature Study Ultimate Naturalist Library

The Summer Nature Study ebook is included in the Ultimate Naturalist Library membership!

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Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Our Fabulous Five

A few weeks ago I wrote about finding something extraordinary in the ordinary as far as things we see in our own backyard and in our own neighborhoods. We have done some follow-up work on our five subjects and I wanted to share a little about what we learned and didn’t learn. 🙂


Morning Glory (Handbook of Nature Study page 519 reference to twining)
We learned that it is closely related to the sweet potato. It is called a morning glory since the blossoms only last one day. It grows in just about any soil, doesn’t like too much moisture, and will thrive in full sun.


I love the way the vine curls up the poles and then into the trees.

Alligator Lizard (reference and photo of alligator lizard and fence lizard, Handbook of Nature Study, pages 210-211)
We did some research on our alligator lizard but guess what? We saw an even bigger and more glorious lizard last week.

How is that for a lizard? I love his feet!

I think he might be a Northwestern Fence Lizard which we have had in our backyard before but he also may be a Sierra Fence Lizard. He has lots of color on his back and we have always just called these guys “blue bellies”. I am not definite about who exactly he is but still enjoyed observing him with his wonderfully long toes on his feet and his inquisitive eye.

We learned from reading on different websites that lizards can have ticks! That is something we definitely did not know before and for some reason we all found it very interesting.

CA Alligator lizard nature journal
This is an older journal entry my son did for a lizard we had in the backyard. He incorporated a photo and a sketch. We did some additional research this week on the alligator lizard and found that there are several species that live in our area. Now we are not sure which one we have so during our next encounter we will know more in detail what to look for.

Caterpillar (Handbook of Nature Study -lots of caterpillar info. We used page 299 for a drawing in our nature journal.)

We had no luck with figuring out what kind of caterpillar we saw on the sidewalk under our Sweet Gum tree. You would think that with its bright colors and outstanding horns and markings that we could find it somewhere in our field guide or online. Nope. We will be keeping our eyes open to see if we can observe more about these creatures right outside our back door.

Hummingbirds (Handbook of Nature Study section on hummingbirds starts on page 115)


We were still not able to figure out our dark headed hummingbird from a few weeks ago. We have been watching the feeder but the regular hummers are keeping it busy. Anna’s Hummingbirds are very common at our feeders all summer long and then even over the winter. We learned that they are *not* migratory which is really interesting since it gets very cold here in the winter and we even have snow. Where do they live when the weather is bad in the winter? You can be sure we will be keeping our eyes open to answer that question.


We have been working on taking photos of the birds in sports mode and we get much better photos…a tad bit clearer.

After some research and online digging, I think we have identified our migratory black headed hummer as a Black-chinned Hummingbird. I looked at the migratory map on WhatBird.com and it looks like it is highly likely it could be just this bird. Here is more on their migration.

California Towhee


We read some more about this regular to the feeder, or more specifically…under the feeder. They always come in a pair. What is interesting is that the map does not show that we should have these birds but we have them year round in our yard. The other thing that is interesting is that the maps show that we should have Spotted Towhees all year but we don’t during the summer. Hmmm….don’t know what that means but it is interesting.

We also learned that California Towhees are sometimes called “car birds” since they like to run and hide under parked cars. We have actually witnessed this behavior several times and think it is quite funny. They also will sit on car mirrors and “fight” their own image. We have not seen that behavior but it wouldn’t surprise us.

Here is a link for reference on the CA Towhee.

Our Fabulous Five Ordinary Things
That wraps up our fabulous five ordinary things that we looked more closely at from our yard. This was a great exercise and we will be certain to do it again.



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Desert Walking Again….Just a Glimpse

I can always tell when I am ready for a road trip. It is a very good thing that we live in a place in the world that with some driving we can totally change our environment. From snow to the desert sunshine…I feel so much better.


The desert is getting really close to bursting out in blossoms. This is a cholla cactus putting out its buds.

Here is what the cactus looks like as we hike along in the desert.


I added this photo for those that know how much my husband is into alternative energy. He was amazed at the wind turbines out here in the desert.

A little rock climbing went on. Well, maybe A LOT of rock climbing. How about this natural arch?


Here is one critter that we saw while we were out hiking in the desert…he sat still for a very long time while I took a few photos. If you click on the photo you should be able to see his blue spots.


My husband spotted the desert cottontails in this area of the trail. Very, very cute little mammals to observe!

One last photo….here is the star of our desert hike. The Joshua tree is a unique plant that we are just now starting to get to know.

Winter will soon change to spring. Sigh.

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More Reptiles to Identify: Arizona Style

I am still struggling with my disgust of reptiles. Lizards are becoming a bit more palatable but as far as snakes go, I’m still struggling.

Good thing for me that we saw mostly lizards on our trip to Arizona.

On pages 210 to 213 of the Handbook of Nature Study there are many lizards and their descriptions listed. I think on page 213 that number 7 looks surprisingly like the lizards we saw in the photo below.

I did recognize this reptile but only was able to capture his hind end as he scurried under a rock. He was definitely some kind of iguana.

These two photos were taken while we were at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. They had an enclosure where they used to have a bear but the bear has since been retired to a more comfortable place on the grounds. The enclosure did have these interesting, if not rather large, reptiles inhabiting it.

Climbing up the rocks

This guy was also at the museum and was making his way across the riparian habitat.

Now for something pretty to look at. I can only take reptiles for so long and then I need something colorful and beautiful to enjoy.

Close up of the spines

Are you proud of me? We are still working on identifying the reptiles for their nature journals but we are learning a lot along the way.