Monday, August 13, 2007

Trip Report Part 2: Otero County (Aug 5)

Continued from Part 1

I awoke quickly from a deep sleep at 6am on Sunday, Aug. 5th, sitting in my rental car in a remote pulloff in Comanche National Grasslands. I stared out in the golden glow of dawn before me, and soaked in the habitat that I had herped in darkness just a few hours before:

(Photo by Shawn Billerman)

I'm no expert on western plant and habitat terminology, but where we were it was plains of short, sometimes sparse grass with juniper growing near and in the rocky gullys and canyons. Joe was already doing a preliminary sweep of the trails near the pulloff, while Shawn and I immediately started picking up birds. Several sparrow-sized birds flew over, tempting us with too-poor-for ID looks and unfamiliar call notes. Western Kingbirds hawked from nearby junipers, and a scattered group of Common Nighthawks called as they flew around nearby.

We worked our way towards the nearby canyon, descending into a gully bounded by lots of rocks prime for flipping. Pretty quickly, I flipped a mid-sized rock, and a large squamate came bounding out and ran for Joe on its hind legs. Joe dove for it, and the three of us boxed it in and grabbed it. It was a Collared Lizard, Crotaphytus collaris.

While not as colorful as they can be in other parts of their range, this beautiful lizard ranked as a close second-place as my favorite herp on the trip (this is after-the-fact, of course, as we had yet to see all the rest...).

We continued on into the canyon, dodging cattle and flipping rocks. The sweet songs of Canyon Wrens began to ring down the canyon walls, and I was lucky enough to get a few looks at them.

See the Canyon Wren?
(Previous 2 photos by Shawn Billerman)

In the Canyon proper, there were many cow-dung-filled watering holes along a seasonal creekbed hosting Plains Leopard Frogs (Rana blairi). I certainly wasn't diving after them as they launched into the murky waters. Joe did wade after a few in a clean pool, but they escaped before I could manage any pictures.

A few more birds began to show up, with the nighthawks still flying overhead despite it easing into mid-morning. A Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus - how fitting!) flew overhead, croaking. Lark Sparrows and Bullock's Orioles flew around the canyon rim, a few Canyon Towhees popped up nearby, and a western Warbling Vireo sang, confusing us for a few minutes.

In the grass fields of the canyon bottom, the abundance and diversity of grasshoppers ruled. There were grasshoppers of every size and color - green, red, purple, yellow, blue, orange - that dispersed in clouds at times as we walked. One particularly nice one is this Pictured Grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor) (thanks Will for the insect ID's... I really should get that grasshopper field guide).

(Photo by Shawn Billerman)

There were also a few enormous green-and-pink lubbers that were so fat they could barely leap two feet.

While chasing these brightly colored beasties, Shawn stumbled upon a young Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata). This was a very feisty guy, barely posing for pictures and even biting Shawn.

(Photo by Shawn Billerman)

By now, despite the awesomeness of the Box Turtle (another all-round lifer), we were really feeling the relative lack of herps. With all the cover we had flipped and all the roads cruised, why were there no snakes? A nearby Canyon Wren distracted me, so I scrambled up the canyon wall, encountered a nice, close view of a fledgling Canyon Wren, and turned to snap this pic of Shawn in the canyon:

I birded the canyon edge for a few minutes before being called back down by Shawn yelling 'snake!'. On the way down, I encountered the first of many Sceloporus in the rocks, which many attempts failed to catch. I unfortunately and frustratingly never got a picture either. By the ranges in Peterson's Western herps, they were either Red-lipped Plateau Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus erythrocheilus, or less likely, Northern Prairie Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus garmani. Both of which are the same species as our Eastern Fence Lizard, Sceloporus undulatus, at least according to field guide systematics.

Quirky systematics aside, I never got a photo nor a clear look at one, so I won't be able to identify them. Back to the snake Shawn found, a very pretty Plains Garter, Thamnophis radix -

We moved out of the main canyon up a small gully, looping back towards the parking lot. We encountered two Whiptails (Cnemidophorus) in succession, and I dumbly decided to try to catch them before photographing them. Well, they live up to their other name (Racerunner) and easily evaded our team efforts at capture. Another round of lizards with no firm ID and no photos.

Leveling out above the canyon, we moved through a very sparsely vegetated area, which looked absolutely perfect for Phrynosoma (Horned Lizards), even with ant colonies. Well, we saw none, but Joe found this White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata).

As Shawn and I were walking through towards a cattle fence, we kicked up a sparrow that perched in a juniper ahead of us. We walked up and got a good look as the bird perched up - BAIRD'S SPARROW! We were stunned - this was well out of range and must have been an early migrant (a lot of birds are already moving!). The bird flew back out into the field where we attempted to catch up and get a second look. We never refound it, but we did find a Ladder-backed Woodpecker for our efforts.

On the way back to the car, we found one more new herp - a Six-lined Racerunner, Cnemidophorus sexlineatus, which I again made the mistake of trying to catch before getting a record picture of.

After refueling on ice-cold water, cheez-its, and cinnamon buns, we headed out for one last tour of Comanche with Joe. We drove down a long barren road, picking up some new bird species, including flocks of Lark Buntings, but no new herps. We stopped to ascend a hill next to the road and gained some nice scenic shots for our efforts.

(Photo by Shawn Billerman)

We drove several miles further down the remote roads before realizing that we couldn't access our intended target - some additional canyonlands near the main river, which we hoped would provide a lot more fauna. Really beginning to feel the heat and exhaustion, we turned around and headed out of Comanche, running into our first Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) along the way:

(Photo by Shawn Billerman)

As we pulled out of Comanche National Grasslands, we said our goodbyes to Joe, who pulled north to head home to Denver, while we turned south for more birding opportunities.

Part 3: Otero County, Aug 5th continued

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