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NATURE HAPPENINGS - August 2004


August Heat
by Damian Fagan

If “April’s showers brings May flowers”, then “July’s sun makes August overdone.” I’m looking forward to the start of the summer monsoon season to wash away the heat of July. The air feels like an oven; I feel cooked. Even the reptiles, those classic desert creatures, watch me and the Englishmen and the mad dogs from beneath protective shade.

Many people think of reptiles as able to withstand these searing temperatures, going days without a drop of moisture. Though these snakes and lizards are well adapted to the desert, they are not immune from the heat. Like us, they tolerate these hot days, but you might find yourself alone if you are looking for them during the middle of a hot day.

Early morning and late afternoon are good time periods to search for lizards. The temperatures are warm enough for their insect prey to be active, yet not too hot for the lizards themselves. Though most lizards are insectivores, the colorful collared lizard and the spotted long-nosed leopard lizard might be out hunting their smaller cousins.

Collared lizards, sporting their turquoise bodies and yellow heads, seem hard to overlook, especially when they are perched atop some rocky outcrop or boulder, scanning the neighborhood for prey and predators. One might think that their coloration is a bad idea, but it makes them visible to other collared lizards. The color is a good idea during mating season or when defending their territories through visual displays. Unfortunately, certain predators like redtails and ferruginous hawks can also spot these colors from a distance. As one would guess, the life span of a collared lizard is not all that long.

The long-nosed leopard lizard seems to blend into its surroundings better than the collared lizard. Their spotting pattern makes them difficult to see against the sandy ground, except for when they move. Like the collared lizard, the longnosed is also a large lizard.

Besides the hawks, these two lizards have to be aware of other predators like foxes, coyotes, and snakes. Bull snakes, sometimes reaching four feet in length, might go after one of these lizards. Unlike rattlesnakes, which inject venom into their prey, bull snakes are constrictors, killing their prey in a reptilian embrace. A good place to look for bull snakes is the Arches National Park road during the evening. While out searching for prey, sometimes these snakes utilize the warm pavement to maintain their body heat.

Of the smaller lizards, the side-blotched and the tree lizard are two common ones that hikers might encounter. The side-blotched is named for the dark spots behind their forelegs, while the tree lizard might be seen climbing a tree trunk in search of prey. Mostly, I see them on the ground or traversing across a rock face. Maybe they are enroute to the trees.

These lizards feed upon ants, beetles, flying insects, and moths. Because of their small size, it does not take these creatures long to warm up or overheat. Later in the season, when there is a hint of autumn in the air, the larger lizards might be thinking of hibernation, but these two species are still active. In fact, I’ve seen side-blotched lizards scurrying about on warm December days.

In places like the Cisco Desert, where you might find all these reptiles, the side-blotched and tree lizard might fall prey to a burrowing owl. Though these small diurnal owls feed on mice, grasshoppers, and beetles, they do select an unsuspecting lizard for themselves or their fledglings.

So even though these reptiles have to content with desert temperatures and predators, their track record through time is impressive. I could ask them if they too feel cooked by summer’s sun, but I’m sure they would pay me little attention. They have more important matters on their plates and palettes.

 

 


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