Hiking with Rattlesnakes

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Less than a mile from Kongo’s abode in Southern California is the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The monkey’s neck of the woods lies at the northern end of the mountains before abruptly giving way to the Oxnard plain, where most of your strawberries are from. Anyway, it’s a beautiful wilderness area with hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Kongo headed there yesterday morning to get some exercise and see what he could see. Naturally, he brought his camera. From the vantage point in the above image you can see all the way to Anacapa Island on a clear day. Yesterday there was a lingering marine layer that clung to the coast and rolled into the valleys.

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But the sun was shining on the monkey so he headed for a hill where he has seen plenty of birds in the past. Atop the rise is a small copse of pine trees with a view into a rugged ravine with spikes of Spanish Bayonet plants. There are a few picnic tables there where you can sit in the shade while waiting for the birds to appear. You need some patience to spy the exotic local avians.

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Lots of people use the park for horseback riding. A nearby stable boards and rents horses. Kongo has taken his grand girls riding there in the past.  (See https://wordpress.com/post/travel-monkey.net/2062) Plenty of people living in the area have horses. Kongo sees them on the trail behind his house all the time. Whenever there’s a fire (and we’re entering fire season now) everyone worries about where to evacuate their animals.

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There’s lots of off-road bicyclists in the area too. People come from all over Southern California to ride these trails. Sometimes you see them in large groups of fifteen or more but mostly you can spot just the solitary rider communing with nature.

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This man is riding on a narrow trail through high, dry grass that leads to a rocky overlook a mile or so ahead. Remember that trail because it plays a part in a later part of this blog.

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Dog walking is also a popular activity. In the park area dogs must be leashed at all times. It’s not just for other hikers. Mountain lions are frequently spotted in the area, coyotes abound, and these little canines would be nothing more than tasty treats for a prowling lion or a pack of coyotes.

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Naturally there are plenty of rabbits about. This whole area along the 101 Freeway north of the more famous San Fernando Valley in LA Country is known as Conejo Valley. That’s Spanish for Rabbit Valley.

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Finally, some real wildlife showed up. This is a Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and it’s the first one the monkey has actually seen up close. It’s part of the cuckoo family. The little fleck of white behind the eye identifies this bird as an adult male. It has four toes and the rear one points backward, enabling it to run at speeds up to about 25 MPH for long periods of time. When running, the roadrunner leans his head forward until it’s parallel to the ground and uses the tail as a rudder. He obligingly flew up into a nearby pine tree and hung around for about five minutes to let the monkey get a bunch of pictures. This guy loves to pose for the camera!

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Notice the rather large bug in the roadrunner’s mouth. Not sure what kind of bug this is but it looks like a camel spider, which is not uncommon around here. The roadrunner wasn’t eating it, he was just carrying it around. Kongo suspects that it was heading back to the nest to feed little roadrunners.

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These birds are monogamous and mate for life. They eat insects, small rodents like mice, and will even go after baby rattlesnakes (yes rattlesnakes) and gobble them down without a second thought. Native Americans thought these birds brought good luck and protection against evil spirits, which Kongo thinks may actually be true considering a later encounter he had on the trail. In Mexico, some believe these guys bring babies, similar to the baby-bearing storks of Europe.

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These roadrunners are the state bird of New Mexico and, of course, everyone knows of the long-standing battle between Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.  Beep beep.

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Pretty soon, along came Mrs. Roadrunner. If you look carefully at her mouth you will see a little field mouse in her beak. Roadrunners kill their prey by running them down then banging them rapidly on the ground. This gal was in a hurry and went speeding across the open area where Kongo was waiting at about 15 MPH. She was on a mission.

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On his way home, Kongo decided to follow another trail that he’d seen horses, dog walkers, and cyclists on. He’s a curious monkey in the wild and Mrs. Kongo had warned him to “be careful” because she is convinced that any foray off a wide, paved path will lead to an attack by mountain lions, coyotes, snakes, or some other creature she wants nothing to do with.

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This is not the kind of trail Mrs. Kongo will go hiking on. No way. The monkey, on the other hand, though cautious, thinks “nothing is probably going to happen here.”

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So, as you can probably guess, as Kongo is making his way through the section of trail shown above, looking carefully at his feet and stepping lightly, he suddenly hears the unmistakable, bone chilling, terror inducing sound of a rattlesnake. It sounds like hundreds of tiny ball bearings rattling through a glass tube or maybe a Mexican gourd rattle you had when you were a kid.

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That’s exactly what it sounds like. So naturally, the monkey froze, thought fast, and backed up two quick steps. The grass was so thick on the side of the trail that an army of snakes could have been there without being spotted. Kongo realized that that advice about being careful and looking where you step when out on the trails was pretty useless on this type of trail. What was he doing here anyway?  To his left, Kongo saw the grass moving and there, just a few feet from him, was a big, ugly, slithering, snake with a rattle on its tail. Fortunately for the monkey the snake was moving away from him. Thoughts of getting a picture evaporated as quickly as that snake disappeared into the grass.

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Photo Credit:  John Delgado @ YouTube

Now, Kongo didn’t take the image above. Someone else did. Kongo is just reminding you what a rattlesnake looks like. Actually the snake Kongo saw was not coiled and it was moving away so this image is only serving to present a dramatic effect but you get the picture.

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Once Kongo realized he wasn’t going to get bit, he whipped his camera around and tried to focus but that snake had vanished. Lucky for the monkey. Then he realized he still had another several hundred yards to go before he came to the big, wide, paved path that Mrs. Kongo would want to stay on. It was a careful trek back to that big, wide, paved path and fortunately there were no more close encounters with snakes.

Now Kongo knew that rattlesnakes don’t attack humans (or monkeys) unless provoked and that they probably want as little to do with us as we do with them. Still, knowing that  when you’re on the trail after being rattle-warned doesn’t really make you feel any better when one starts rattling at you next to your feet.

In any event, Kongo lived to tell the tale and he’s pretty sure that the Greater Roadrunner was looking out for him. He’s lucky that way.

If you want to visit this part of the Southern California wilderness, get off the 101 Freeway in Newbury Park at the Lynn Road exit and head south (toward the ocean). After you pass Las Brisas Road (about five miles) you will see the entrance to the Santa Monica National Recreation Area on your left. Drive another quarter mile, go past the stables on your left, and find a nice place to park.  By this time, the name of the road has changed to Potrero Road. A sign proclaiming Rancho Potrero lets you know you’re in the right place. You will see a nice, wide, paved trail heading up a slope into the mountains. STAY ON THAT TRAIL!

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Travel safe. Stay healthy. Have fun.

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Kongo’s neighborhood is in the far distance

10 comments

  1. Those are some excellent roadrunner pics, Kongo! I think Mr Roadrunner has a Jerusalem cricket for the kiddies.

    I’d love to explore that area on foot or mountain bike. As you point out, the rattlers are good about alerting you to their presence. I’ve come across many and never felt truly threatened. Really, we are a bigger threat to them than vice versa.

    There was a Spanish land grant in the Santa Clara area known as Rancho de Portrero, but I assume this is not the same place. It figures in the history of my ancestors’ time in California during the gold rush.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right about that Jerusalem cricket. Just about all of California was at one time under various Mexican land grants. The one around here was known as Rancho El Canejo but long, long before that the Chumash native Americans were here for at least 10,000 years. Kongo likes thinking about Chumash hunters roaming through what is now his backyard. Maybe he’ll find an arrowhead one day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Kongo, glad you survived your rattling encounter. I once had to kind of step over a rattler on a hike. He was laid out in the sun and refused to move so we eventually just hopped around him, not the biting end, and hurried on our way. Luckily he was gone on our return. This is such a beautiful area, and I loved your pictures of the Roadrunner with his take-out meal.

    Like

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