In mid-Autumn the days in Northern Taiwan are still hot, yet not as oppressively hot as in summer; however the nights have cooled down significantly. At my main stomping grounds up at 2700 feet behind the house I can now see my breath at night, and only the hardier snakes come out at those temps around 70 F/21 C. There is one extremely rare species, Ovophis monticola
, that loves very cool, almost cold nights, so this is the time to find it - unfortunately, it's so scarce that no sightings were recorded between 1930 and 1980, and I've seen this animal only twice myself, so I don't think it's worth all the time, gas and hassle.
The day temps up there are now in the mid-seventies, with cool mornings and (late) afternoons, so there are less and less chances of seeing many snakes there. Autumn is the big pig-out time in preparation for brumation, hence the snakes have moved onto lower elevations - and the smart hunter follows his prey. Since yesterday, I've been doing my daily ditch hikes along a lovely five-mile stretch of forest road in the midlands, at about 900 feet. It's officially called "Cherry Blossom Boulevard", onaccounta the hundreds of ornamental cherry trees (Prunus serrulata
, the dark pink variety) lining the road on both sides, and luring thousands of tourists every March. Internally, we prefer the moniker "Toad Road", because the first few times we cruised there in late winter 2009, the tarmac was covered with such immense numbers of Bufo bankorensis
that you were guaranteed to squish at least half a dozen per mile even if you were riding a scooter.....
The entire road runs through a mix of dense lowland and midland forest, interspersed with many creeks, and apart from the small farmsteads on the bottom of the valley which the road encircles, on the other side of the road there are no signs of human settlements whatsoever - pristine jungle all the way up to the summits of Yangmingshan National Park. The area teems with wildlife: birds, fish, insects and small mammals galore, lots of herps, and even wild boar which have become extremely rare this close to Taipei City. The vegetation is richer than on the mountain tops, and even if you don't spot any herps, there's always something to feast your eyes on: kingfishers, Taiwan Blue Magpies, red-bellied squirrels, and stunning views of the valley below.
My initial walk yesterday yielded promising results: a Ptyas dhumnades
in its breathtakingly pretty hatchling stage, and two neonate Mock Vipers
, one beige, the other charcoal grey with black dorsal pattern. Finding three snakes during two hours of walking is not too bad for jungle environs, so my hopes for today were high - and they were fulfilled.
Now, I could start the main story launching into the same spiel as with the other cobra tales - how I spotted it from the car, jumped out like a Screaming Eagle, snakehook in teeth, and heroically gained control of the furiously spitting animal while simultaneously parking the car, readying the camera, and tearing the wrapping off a pack of chili-flavored dried tofu. But sadly, no dauntless stunts were involved in the catching of this here specimen. Instead, I was walking inside the ditch, admiring the legions of red-and-black striped millipedes milling around (that's where they got their name), enjoying the morning sun, and thinking of the nice bottle of green tea-flavored sports drink awaiting me at the end of the walk, when suddenly from the leaf litter below my feet emerged this tiny, black, squat Naja atra
that looked like a dead ringer for one of its conspecifics I had found a couple weeks earlier
on that very road - only of truly lilliputian dimensions. I hooked it onto the road, and it immediately began its hard-wired Scary Dance....which at this miniature scale looked so preposterously adorable that for a moment I forgot I was standing eye to eye with an animal that could introduce me to a world of massive grief if I didn't pay proper attention at all times. A minute later, though, that fact was driven home when I had to decide what to do with the snake. Considering my record for escaped elapids (don't ask), there was no way I would bring the cobra home for a photo shoot, but the roadside didn't lend itself for photography either, so I thought it best to bring the snake someplace more photogenic, but in the woods. Unfortunately, to achieve that goal I had to bag the cobra....and I'm not really big on bagging hots. As a rule, we don't touch them at all, and even if we did manage to get a venomous snake into a bag, it could still bite the bag carrier/handler through the cloth. I ain't gettin' paid for all this snake foolery anyway, so why chance it? But there was no other option save for balancing the snake on the hook for the next two miles, and after much swearing, sweating, and almost messing my knickers, I finally managed to hook-flick the animal into the bag which I was holding open with the tongs (no, it wouldn't have worked vice-versa - the Gentle Giants don't close tight enough to secure small snakes of this size). I hastily tied the bag, fully aware of the angry, venomous serpent just a few inches from my hands (I really should have used the bigger
bag!) and then transported the package on the end of the hook to the place I had intended for a photo session.
Arriving at the photo spot, I first shook the cobra out of the bag onto the bench and had a closer look at it. Instantly, I was treated to the formidable wrath only a cobra can deliver with all its impressive manifestations - hooding up, hissing, lunging at the enemy, repeat until enemy shorts are soiled. But this one was the flea circus version: the lunges hardly exceeded two inches, the hood was barely visible, and the hisses sounded exactly like those "Sound & Steam" kits you install in HO scale locomotives - pitifully thin fizzles almost inaudible over the racket the birds and insects were making.
As I prepared to take the first shots, a gentleman passing by got out of his car to see what the crazy bignose was doing. After introductions and a little chitchat, I explained to him that it's quite difficult for a single person to photograph a cobra any way but frontal, because after the snake's eyes have homed in on you, the entire head will follow all your movements. Thus, you need someone to distract the snake and make it turn its head somewhere else, and I asked him if he would help out. To my great joy, he kindly agreed to act as a lure for the cobra and happily paced up and down along the bench, the snake monitoring him all the time. He even was nice enough to take a few shots of me sharing the bench with the reptile. Alas, when I offered him to shoot a few souvenir pictures of him
sitting next to this adorable little animal, he vehemently declined for reasons unknown
One more interesting thing came of this episode: I was sitting on the ground in front of the bench taking close-ups, and suddenly realized that the snake was following my lateral camera movements. I took the opportunity to explain to the guy the mechanics by which Indian snake charmers get their animals to "dance", and then used the snake hook as a fake flute, "playing" an inaudible melody for the animal and swaying to the left and right. Lo and behold - the cobra followed each and every one of my movements. I think that could be a nice fallback profession, should my translation agency go belly-up someday...
Chinese cobra peacefully drinking the nectar from a lovely Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus
). Ah, the serenity of Nature...
(the first one to fall for this will be publicly ridiculed in the next issue of Herp Nation)
Beauty & The Beast - you decide which is which.