A Photographer Who Made History (for Snake Lovers)

They say that good fortune favors the prepared mind.

Still, Arizona Highways photographer Richard Webb was completely unprepared for what he witnessed in Hellsgate Wilderness. Lucky for him, his camera was ready.

Deep in the rugged canyons of the Mogollon Rim, he confronted a lethal battle in a shallow rivulet — a garter snake and a desert sucker fish in a death match.

“It was a dramatic life-and-death struggle, a natural moment,” he recalls.
Because Richard always hikes with his camera at the ready, he documented an event rarely seen. Grabbing his camera, he snuck within inches, almost becoming a part of the action.

“I felt like Jim on Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom,” he remembers. “The snake saw me and kind of moved away, but then decided to come back for the fish.” Hunger will do that to a snake.

For the next 20 minutes, Richard had a view to a kill. As his photographs attest, the snake eventually won, drowning the fish in a calm pool in the stream, then swallowing it whole as Richard exposed a roll of film. The scene has played out for a millennium, but this time Webb and his camera were there to record it.

Not realizing the images’ significance, Richard developed the film and filed his photographs away. It wasn’t until two years later that he approached Arizona Highways editors to see if we were interested in publishing them.
When the photographs first appeared as a “Focus on Nature” in our May 1999 issue, they generated strong reader reaction. You either loved it or hated it. But Arizona Highways editors also failed to realize the significance of the photographs when we first published the story.

Enter Dr. Andy Holycross from Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences.

“That story and photos in Arizona Highways represent the only documented record that Thamnophis rufipunctatus (garter snake) was ever in the Tonto Creek system,” says Holycross.

Holycross spends a lot of time conducting reptile surveys in Arizona’s river drainages, so he knows a thing or two about garters. It’s not surprising to him that Webb encountered T. rufipunctatus in the Tonto drainage, but more recent surveys failed to find many traces of the species in the area.

“They are probably wiped from that system today,” he admits. “We looked for them all last summer at many locations where they were once abundant. They were gone from all but one location. In the intervening 20 years since the last survey, crayfish have invaded most of those streams.”

But the significance of Webb’s photographs doesn’t end there. Holycross worries that this rare native snake is disappearing throughout Arizona and New Mexico, the only places where T. rufipunctatus occur in the United States.

“The story is complex, but I think introduced crayfish figure prominently in the story. Once crayfish invade, recruitment in narrowheaded garter snake populations is over. These snakes feed exclusively on fish, and are adapted to feed on our native fishes like the one Richard saw,” says Holycross.

“I think the crayfish are the coup de grace,” he continues. “Crayfish are abundant and voracious. Once they invade, I think baby narrowheads are toast. The baby narrowheads (the size of a pencil) have to get in the water and anchor in the rocks to feed. If they don’t, they die of starvation. Once they are in the water, crayfish probably make short work of them.”

Curiously, I had my own close encounter of the garter snake kind last year while photographing in the West Fork of Oak Creek. Wading in thigh-deep to set up my tripod mid-stream, there at my feet was a garter snake anchored to a rock. I watched, mesmerized for more than an hour, as it darted out after the small fish that came within striking distance.

So now having learned about the plight of the garter snake, not only can I pronounce Thamnophis rufipunctatus, but my garter snake encounter seems much more important.

And I can’t help feeling a little bit lucky myself.

[tags]Peter Ensenberger, wildlife photography [/tags]

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