A Western Diamond back displays its rattle at Ravens Nest Sanctuary. The photographer was unharmed. Photo by Vince Pinto

This past winter and early spring have spared us the often unseasonably warm temperatures we witness across the mid and lower elevations of the Sky Islands. Bask in the memories of such forgiving weather as May enters the picture. 

Generally speaking, this is the month where around Patagonia we can witness temperatures in the 90s. Most flowers, save heat tolerant succulents, see their flowers wither or forego reproduction altogether in May. Bird migration slows down towards the end of the month. It seems as if May sets the stage for the month of June when getting outside in the heat feels like a chore and wildlife appear to have curtailed much of their activity. 

As many species of local flora and fauna become muted in May, our many reptiles are on the rise. Being ectotherms that regulate their body temperatures via ambient heat, these scaly beasts take advantage of the increasing warmth. Most reptile species increase their activity levels this month and hence are much more visible than earlier in the spring. 

Spotting and observing various species of Sky Islands reptiles can be both rewarding and educational. Ornate tree lizards doing push-ups on a mesquite. A quicksilver coachwhip snake racing across a road. Clark’s spiny lizards playing peek-a-boo from tree limbs.

One of my favorite reptiles is the Madrean alligator lizard – a reclusive species that even astute observers rarely get to lay eyes on. Living up to their intriguing name, they truly do look like miniature crocodilians with their elongated snout and sneaky little eyes. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from mesquite woodland to Madrean evergreen woodland to riparian vegetation. If you do visually ferret one out of the landscape, then your first impression might be of a small snake. Indeed, these long, lean lizards have legs so reduced as to nearly render them nonfunctional. Instead, they appear to slither their way through various dense cover at ground level. Leaf litter, thick layers of grasses, and the like provide various invertebrates that are the dietary mainstay of this slick species. Such cover also furnishes good protection from many would-be predators, such as gray hawks and a slew of snakes. 

I once made the mistake of picking up a close relative of our species, the southern alligator lizard, in California. Soon the irate lizard gave me a nip painful enough that I instinctively shook it off and it became skyborne – reminiscent of the line from the song “Ventura Highway”…. “alligator lizards in the air.”

There is generally no love lost from humans towards our next species, the infamous Western Diamondback rattlesnake. Minds naturally gravitate towards the seemingly ever-lurking threat of these large and potentially dangerous snakes. A good number of people do get bit by them, but, ironically, the last thing a diamondback wants to do is waste its energetically expensive venom upon non-prey. As far as humans go, they only wish to avoid us. Witness me stepping, barefoot, upon a full-sized one on a warm monsoon day at Raven’s Nest Nature Sanctuary many years ago. Not only did my forgiving friend not bite me, it didn’t even rattle. 

Instead, they use their hinged hypodermic-like fangs to subdue prey, particularly mammals and especially rodents. Having a few of these daunting, yet helpful neighbors near your home is like an insurance policy against the vicissitudes that rodents send our way – chewed automotive hardware and diseases included. 

Like their cousin, the Madrean alligator lizards, diamondbacks are reticent to show themselves. If you desire a reptile rendezvous with either of these fascinating fauna, then walk slowly through appropriate habitat in warm weather (day or night) and thoroughly scan the ground. If you’re lucky, you might just observe them going about their business, while also enriching your day.

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit: ravensnatureschool.org