Here is the fourth part of Kevin’s journey. I have just realized that I posted the previous two in the wrong order, thus post #2 should be third and post #3 should be second. I was going by the order in which I received them instead of dates in the journal. And I am doing these things late at night (having them automatically published at a preset time – noon), doing all the HTML for italicising the species names, running the spellcheck, expanding IM-style contractions into full-length words, breaking long paragraphs into multiples of shorter ones for ease of reading on a computer screen, fighting with images, etc. Sorry about that. Also, the series will continue as soon as I get the next report from Kevin….
We left Muyu around 10am (Hi Yin had come into my room at 6:30 that morning to tell me goodbye and re-tuck me in. Very sweet. The day before she had brought me breakfast as well…). We traveled over much of the same territory as we did going to Xiagu. We had lunch again at Pinqian Station. Wong Ming, from Xiagu, was there, he was on his way to Muyu. It was nice seeing him again.
After lunch we left for Dongxi, there was a Taiwan Beauty crossing the road a few minutes down the road. No one saw it of course and this time I yelled “sh-uh!” I was out the door before the vehicle came to a complete stop and was running. In the distance I could hear Linsen say “where” as I ran over to the side of the road where I had seen the snake heading. There in some gravel it had started to kink its body, much like a black ratsnake. I picked him up and took him to a natural area where he would have some cover and let him go. Took a GPS reading, temperature reading, and on we went.
Eventually the road became too narrow to pass by car, so we had to walk across a construction area and hitch a ride with a mack truck. We arrived in Dongxi around 4pm. The field stations are getting nicer and nicer, which means they are probably more and more expensive…
For the station, Linsen and I both had our own rooms, and each room had its own bathroom and power outlets of course. The bed at this station was however the best bed I have slept in since arriving in China, including Beijing. Everywhere in China, all the beds are rock hard. This bed had a huge comforter, so even though it was harder than your typical American mattress, it was still far softer than any of the other beds. That was the only luxury item I was happy with. I was dreading the thought of the expense and wondered how much it would cost if I asked to just camp out in the woods.
The elevation of the station is around 900 meters. The plant life is basically the same as Xiagu and Jiuchong, except for sparse pine forests. A river is semi-nearby (about a 30 min walk). The director’s name is Mr. Gu. The day we arrived (the 7th), as usual I wanted to start walking right away, just to get an idea of the territory and what I had to work with, spot the good areas, any trails I might want to visit, etc.
We were walking along the road, and off to our right was a Ptyas mucosus trying to climb the embankment on the side of the road. The embankment was too steep and he was having trouble climbing it. I figured this was a good sign. Usually any time you come to a new location and within the first hour of looking for something you find a snake, it usually means it is a good area. I walked up to the snake and picked him up. Of course he bit me several times, but it was a small snake (62.5″ TL). Since the primary purpose of the walk was a scouting expedition, I didn’t bring any bags, GPS, or camera, so I just held onto him while we walked; the typical, “go-unprepared-and-wind-up-catching-something,” scenario.
At dinner we had a new meat – cow meat, it took me awhile to understand Linsen as he was pronouncing “cow.” So far I’ve had goat, pig, chicken, and now cow meat. Some of the more common dishes I’ve had are potatoes, egg, lettuce, and either pig or chicken in the center pot, in which a bar of solid alcohol is placed and lit on fire – this gel burns for probably about an hour and is a little bit smaller than a hockey disc. Chunks of cucumber diced up with garlic are another common dish, served at dinner and lunch.
I have yet to have any sort of dairy product since coming to China, no milk, no cheese, no yogurts. I eat more greens in a day than I could ever remember before. Bread is not very common. There is a green stem that is often served, it seems like it has gone through some kind of pickling process – it is tangy and a good palate cleanser, but I cannot imagine eating several in a row, they are nice to have every now and then.
Rice is of course served with every meal, and the dishes are placed on a rotating table, everyone just picks from a dish, turns the table, and picks from another dish. As usual, a lot of alcohol was served at dinner tonight. I had a cup of extremely strong liquor, and then finished a litre of alcohol on my own and helped finish off Linsen’s bottle as well.
Everyone was chatting around the table and I just kept watching the darkness set in. Eventually I couldn’t stand it. I told Linsen I would be right back. I stumbled upstairs, grabbed a headlight, an extra light, two bags, and my hook and headed back downstairs. I told Linsen I was going to get the GPS point from where that Ptyas was earlier.
He said we could do it tomorrow but I told him there could be snakes crossing the road and that I was going to go. He said to wait and he would come along. Mr. Gu came as well. I was quite drunk. I figured the best way to get rid of the excess alcohol was to sweat it out. I was worried about finding a krait or Deinagkistrodon and having to try to bag it drunk – BUT, you usually find snakes under the worse conditions, so I figured maybe I might come across one if I was drunk. Alas, we did not.
We got the coordinates, and walking down I heard a new species of frog calling. I told Linsen that before we leave this area I am going to catch that frog. He said “ok, let’s go”. I was happy with this response. Linsen was also drunk, and unfortunately tracking down frogs requires a semi-bit of concentration. We were walking along the narrow dykes of rice paddies listening for calls. I narrowed the calls down to two paddies and told Linsen to cut his light.
The moon was more than 50% and was giving me enough light to work with so that I could walk without turning on my headlamp. I walked down to a rice paddy, knelt and waited. After about 10 minutes the frogs called again. I repositioned closer, knelt and waited. Another 10 minutes passed and the frogs called again. I repositioned one last time, knelt and waited. After about 15 minutes the frog called and I cupped my ears to try and get the exact position, then turned on my light and scanned the embankment, and then the rice paddy. There, swimming in the water, was a little frog.
I had a feeling I was going to have to get wet when I first saw the rice paddies. I took a bead and started heading into the water. The farmer’s dogs were going wild. Mr. Gu went up to talk to the owners. I caught the frog swimming, then saw another in the water, slightly different color – perhaps a male. Caught him too, just in case (it ended up being a separate species).
We continued along. We stopped by another paddy field where I heard another call. We saw some more frogs, they looked similar but were slightly bigger, so we bagged them as well. A lot of the frogs are reminiscent of leopard frogs but have variations like cricket frogs. I thought I saw a salamander in the water but it was actually some kind of fish. I was pretty surprised at this. These rice paddies were man made, how did this species of fish get here?? I tried catching them but to no avail. I was semi-sober at this point, which I’m sure had an impact on my catching ability.
Continuing along the trail I see a huge anuran jump into the crops. I took a wide circle and start walking towards the trail, trying to scare it back into the open. It was the biggest toad I have ever seen. I am thinking it is Bufo chinensis, but since I do not have any frog ID books, I really have no idea. It is easily the size of any Cane Toad picture I have seen. It did not however exude any secretions when caught. It did make a very cute monkey type call though. We bagged him as well.
Unfortunately we did not come across any snakes. I was really expecting something. The temperature was great. The moon, however, was not so good, so maybe (and semi-hopefully – semi-hopefully in the regard that had the moon no impact, it would have gone against my research in the states) that had something to do with it.
Our first complete day in Dongxi. In the morning we walked down the road to where the river blocked it off. There was a small spring adjacent to the road, a short walk around that area revealed a salamander – the first one I’ve seen since the hotel. It still had gills. I photographed it but didn’t bother collecting. Linsen said it was a very common species and I asked if they had any at the museum, because if I didn’t have to collect it I didn’t want to. He said they probably had some already, so I was able to release it.
We kept walking. We got to a house and Mr. Gu and Linsen wanted to take a break. The owners quickly brought three cups of tea. While sitting there drinking tea I see a dog walk past the entrance, shortly after a hen and about a dozen chicks, then a cat, then two little piglets, they were followed by a goat and two kids (as in the animal, not the human), and then finally a huge bull. I thought the whole scene was kind of cool. The farmers here are a lot more self-dependent than Xiagu. In Xiagu, if someone wanted rice they could go into town and buy a large bag, but for the most part, everything else they grew or supplied themselves. Here at Dongxi, they produced their own rice as well. Later in the trip I would pass properties growing rice, corn, and wheat. Aside from the rice, it was more scenery that reminded me of Kansas.
After continuing along the road for another hour or so, we stopped at a little store, got a Pepsi and sat around with the lady shopkeep for a while. Mr. Gu, Linsen, the shopkeep and I then got lunch. It was quite hot – 103ºF. We continued multiple toasts of beer. They made me and the lady shopkeep make several toasts to one another. By the time they were opening the 3rd beer for me, I emphasized that this was my 3rd one – Linsen said not to worry and that this was “beer, not spirits. It is hot today, we will drink beer as if it were water” – of course I found this statement humorous.
The shopkeep was fun, she was not afraid of snakes. Before we left for Dongxi, Linsen had told me that some officers at the Guanmenshan Station had captured a snake, and we brought that one with us (to photograph) – Rhabdophis nuchalis, a rear-fanged species, but not considered dangerous. The snake refused to bite. Anyway, while we were talking at the store, I had taken it out to show the shopkeep, she promptly picked it up to examine it more closely. She would pretend to throw it at Mr. Gu, who was extremely fearful of snakes. Any movement she made towards him he got up out of his chair and went running outside.
After lunch we walked quite a ways down the river. Saw more Frog E’s. Also found another toad in a rock wall. We went through lots of rice paddies and lots of locations that I would love to visit at night, but some of these locations I do realize it would be fairly hard to get to at night, with the trails being as overgrown, as narrow, and as steep as they are, not to mention the distance.
Snake-wise, we came back empty handed that evening. We had many more spirit toasts that night. Linsen and I were once again drunk. So, much like the night before, I figured the best way was to sweat out the alcohol. I once again stumbled upstairs, got my gear and headed down. Linsen was still drinking. I told him I was going to walk the road and come back and was fine by myself. Mr. Gu waved for me to wait, he called someone over, a teenager, possibly early 20’s, and said he would come with me. So I handed him my cheap rechargeable light I purchased in Beijing and we headed out.
Of course I wanted to hunt the road but he motioned for me to walk up into the rice paddies. We found another toad. We were walking along the rice paddies and from a distance I see what looked like a snake under the water. I yell “she” (pronounced sh-uh) and start running over. As we get closer it looked more like a glass lizard. I get it with the clamp stick and toss it up on land. I grab it and it slides out quite easily. “Bu shi she” I say – is not snake, and try grabbing it again. It took us awhile before we finally got it. We quickly bagged it. I figured it was either something similar to a siren or amphiuma or a freshwater eel.
Eventually my assistant broke the flashlight and we had to head back. I took the time to dump “the find” and headed back downstairs ready to hunt the road. Mr. Gu had repaired the light. So again the assistant wanted to come along, so we head out again and I tried walking in the direction of the road and he points me in the other direction. We start heading up a mountain trail, a few seconds later, two little kids are running after us. So now there are four of us. We walk along a mountain trail for awhile, we see several toads, about six or seven. We catch a Frog B.
Then the little kids, possibly 9 or 10 years old, start heading up a mountain stream. My assistant catches a Salamander B, it also had gills. We finally head back and get back to HQ. Linsen is across the street at a local convenient store playing cards and still drinking. I tell him I am going to finally head down the road. I wanted to tell the three followers that the road was the best way to find snakes. It took quite awhile to get Linsen to say this sentence in Chinese. I would say “how do you say ‘The road is the best way to find snakes’?” And he would respond with “I do not think you should walk so far” – “No, that’s not what I’m asking, I just want to know how you say it.” “I think perhaps you should not walk very far…” After 5 minutes or so I finally got the expression out of him. The walk didn’t turn up anything, but by the time we got back I was fairly sober – Linsen on the other hand was far from sober.
Getting back to my room I took a look at the weird find earlier that night. It looked very much like an eel, but lacked any sort of dorsal or ventral fin. I could not see a lateral line (after killing and preserving it, I did see a lateral line). One of the most perplexing behaviors was its constant preference for keeping its head out of the water and breathing, or at least taking big gulps of air and then going under. Nor could I see any gills. Long story short… freshwater eel.
Here is where Dongxi really starts to get boring. We had gone the entire day before without a single snake or lizard. The previous day at least had some new salamanders, no new anurans though. So far today is the first day that hasn’t revealed anything new. We went a fairly good hike. Didn’t see much of anything. A few Frog E’s, some Frog D’s.
At one point we hiked up a new trail to a house. We told them what we were doing, and the old owner said that there was a snake that lived at the top of a nearby hill. He instructed Mr. Gu and I to walk down the path and wait, and that he and Linsen would walk up and flush the snake out. I was not very optimistic, but was willing to try anything. And if it was a snake that he saw on an almost daily occasion, then the plan could possibly work.
The trail he instructed us to walk down was an absolutely gorgeous trail; a closed canopy that led down to a small mountain stream, about a foot wide. In this canopy the temperature was a splendid 74º, 30 ft away you could see sunlight. I walked into the light and took another temperature reading, 95º. The attempts to flush the snake out did not work, and we headed back to HQ, defeated.
That evening, a local had captured a snake and brought it to us. I opened the bag and looked in to see a Taiwan Beauty. I smiled and reached in to pull the snake out. It was a fairly good size, 165 cm (I have yet to convert that into inches). Of course I told Linsen that we would need to hike the area where it was found the next day and asked the guy what time it was caught, etc, etc. I hiked two rounds that night, walked from the station, down to the river, back to the station, back to the river, and back to the station again. Basically each night, after dinner, I have road cruised by foot for about 2 hours, found nothing. The moon was nearly full, I could tell. One could easily walk at night without a light and would still be able to see a figure crossing the road. This at least helped to conserve battery power.
This day is a blur. I am writing on 11 June right now and I honestly cannot think of what the 10th had. Oh yeah, this was the day we released the T. Beauty, went on a different route, up to the peak, saw a lizard that got away. Today was mainly a photo day. We photographed the Ptyas mucosus, the Rhabdophis nuchalis that had been picked up by station officers at Guanmenshan station, photographed the Bufo, as well as all the different anuran species and variations.
That night I went out to road cruise as usual. Once again a local wanted to tag along and show me “where to go.” All I wanted to do was walk the road, after walking the road I was up for rice paddies, but I wanted to walk the road first before it got too cool. Not wanting to be rude, I followed behind the new guide. Linsen came with us this time.
We found the typical anurans, Frog D’s and Frog E’s. Had I known these frogs were so plentiful, and so easy to get to, I would not have gone walking in the muddy rice paddies that first night. My boots had been caked in mud and I lost a pair of socks in the process.
On this night, perhaps the coolest thing to have happened so far occurred; one of the Frog E’s was positioned right near the trail, so we blinded it with our lights, and I was reaching down to touch it on the nose, with the intentions of just surprising it, I didn’t have any need to capture it. My finger made contact with its nose, and to my immense surprise, the frog swallowed my finger! This was the first time I have ever been bitten by a frog! I would suspect such behavior from the African packman frogs (aptly nicknamed Packman frogs, after the video game character, for their desire to eat anything in front of their face, whether it is too big for their bodies or not), or the South American kukri frogs (named for the fact that their teeth resemble kukri knives and will give you some nasty cuts), but not something the size of a small leopard frog. So that was cool.
Linsen and the guy with us were also very surprised and said they had never seen that happen before. I suspect, as with the mud snake bite I incurred in 2002, this bite was the result of some sort of feeding response, but nonetheless, it was strange.
Dongxi finally paid off. It is amazing how much my attitude changes when I see a snake, and at that, a very cool snake – one of my China wish list snakes. Today was supposed to be the last day in Dongxi. This place has been kind of boring. Two snakes total (up until this writing), plenty of frogs, toads, and a few salamanders.
But during the day the place is pretty much dead. None of the life of Xiagu. With this day being the last in mind, I had a specific route I wanted to take. I finally got a good nights rest and told Linsen that we would not go out until things started to cool off – starting around 3pm and working until dinner.
So, around 3pm I start suiting up. I am waiting on the steps outside, in the shade, with a breeze. I decide to take an air temperature. The temperature was 94ºF!! So we were about to head out when a local boy brought me a “ching wa” – the term for any frog. I identified it as “Frog B” and told Linsen that we already had one and did not need to collect another one, but that we could go release and then start our route.
So we hiked up the mountain, out of the way, to the location where the frog was captured. Fortunately this was the same location where I had to collect some GPS points from a few days before where we had found “Salamander B” and another specimen of “Frog B.”
So after releasing and taking a few pictures I told Linsen my plan. I do not think he completely understood it – it was a quick English statement of “back down the trail, take a left, hike up the mountain, go across the peak, head down the mountain, back to HQ, down to the road, down to the river, across the bridge, into the town, and then heading back on our normal route to complete the circuit.” After saying this he said “ok” and started heading in a different direction. I just told him to follow me.
One of the reasons for going this route was that a specific peak looked especially beautiful. We had not really reached any “peaks” prior to this. The vegetation is so very different at the top of the peak where there is very little water. As you head down the side the vegetation gets thicker and thicker (because of more runoff and more water in the soil, compared to the peak). But still, the top was very pretty. Very open at the ground, a few rocks, shady, a nice secluded area compared to the scorching trails surrounding the area.
On top of this was the fact that a local had mentioned seeing a “red snake and a white snake at least once a year at that peak.” Of course the white snake had to be an albino. For my birthday I had requested many ID books of China reptiles. One of these books, The Reptiles of Sichuan Province, coauthored by Zhao Ermi, THE leading herpetologist in China, was particularly helpful. The book is written in Chinese, but the scientific names are there, and more importantly, it has plenty of color plates – these two characteristics were most important to me.
Though Sichuan was not my province, it was directly west of my location and Shennongjia is on the western edge of Hubei province, so it was very likely that any species found in Sichuan could potentially cross over into Hubei. Anyway, in his book, many of the animals pictured had wild caught albinos in the plates. I was surprised at how many albino species had been captured. In the states, albinos are fairly rare. Kansas, surprisingly, has a fairly high record of albinos, especially the Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster calligaster) of which about 20% of the wild population is albino. This is an extremely high percentage and the only reasoning for this I can think of is the numerous gravel roads in Kansas, in which an albino snake would blend in perfectly with, compared to a dark/normal phase.
As for the red snake, if it was truly entirely red, the only species it could be would be Elaphe porphyracea – one of the potential species of Shennongjia, though the subpecies that was suppose to occur where I was located was not supposed to be red but rather brown. The common name for this species is “Red Mountain ratsnake, Red mountain racer, Red bamboo ratsnake.” The subspecies that is red occurs in Sichuan province, but one of the benefits of working in an area with such a diverse vertical range was the fact that certain subspecies could inhabit the lower elevations, and another the upper – so it was entirely possible that this was the “red snake” the local was referring to.
After dropping off the frog, we headed towards the peak. At the top I stopped to take a breather and drink some water (I have been secretly pleased with myself that I can out-hike a local, all the while carrying a 13.5 lb camera bag and weighing almost twice as much). Linsen, being the botanist he was, was climbing a tree trying to get some leaves from a branch. I finished re-hydrating and was ready to hit the trail again.
Linsen and Meng Hui (Mr. Gu wasn’t with us that day for some reason) finished collecting the branches and followed behind me. Linsen, Mr. Gu, and I had walked this trail the day before. It was a bushwhacked trail through many ferns and as usual, on roughly 60% gradients. At every station so far, any flat ground has been taken up by crops. Many crops were also planted on >60% gradients.
On the first time through, once we broke through the mountain forest, we hit a field with a few rock outcroppings, where we had seen a lizard. I personally think the “once-a-day lizard” is much harder to catch than any snake. Try walking around a rock outcropping, getting a glimpse at a vanishing skink dashing out of sight at 2pm in the 90º+ weather and then trying to catch it. We had torn the rock pile to bits, only to uncover the skink as it flew through the air (remember the >60% gradient) to another, deeper, rock pile a couple feet from our location. To say the least, the lizard had escaped that first day, and I was hoping he would be out basking again, one of the main reasons I chose this route.
Alas, as we reached the rock cropping – the “xiyi” was not to be found. We headed back down to HQ, refilled our water and started hitting the road again. It was about 4pm by now and the sun had let up a little bit. I had intentions of taking a swim in the river on the return trip. The walk down to the typical half-way point (the Pepsi store) yielded nothing. No surprise for Dongxi. We took a break at the Pepsi store. This is the same store where Mr. Gu, Linsen, the lady shopkeep and I had lunch at on the 2nd day at Dongxi. The woman was one of the more attractive women I had seen, not as attractive as Hi Yin of course, but still attractive.
I purchased my typical Pepsi, Linsen and Meng Hui had some water and tea. We sat and talked for a while – actually, I sat, and they talked for a while. Eventually Linsen said “zuo” meaning “let’s go” I nodded and started to get up, but the shopkeep shook her head. I looked at Linsen who had a grin on his face. They talked back and forth, I waited for a translation. Linsen was laughing and it was taking him awhile to find the words. He seemed kind of embarrassed. He said that she was not going to let me leave and that I had to stay. I smiled and said “ok.”
Another 15 minutes later, Meng Hui got a call on his cell phone. After he hung up, Linsen told me that someone had caught a snake with a bunch of eggs. I made sure to clarify the difference between “saw” and “caught” as we had gone on a wild goose chase a few days before when Linsen said “someone found a snake” – which I took as “caught,” only to find out that they had seen a snake in their garden the day before, which is safe to say that the snake was long gone (as it was). He said that no, they actually had the snake.
The shopkeep gave in and let us go (prior she was blocking the exit). On the way out I said my typical “zai jian (goodbye)” she responded and said “man zo.” It took me awhile to recognize this. Ming, back at Xiagu, had said this when I left, it meant “I will miss you.” I smiled again.
As we were walking back, my hopes of taking a dip in the river were shot, but for a snake it was worth it – I was just hoping it wasn’t another Ptyas mucosus or Taiwan Beauty Snake. A ways down the road a police SUV was heading towards us. I walked to the edge of the road, the cruiser took a sharp turn in front of me and cut me off. I did not recognize the driver, but the passenger was Mr. Gu. The truck took a 3-point turn, and stopped, waiting for us to load up.
We got in and they drove us to the house where the snake had been reported. We had been to this house 2 days prior. On the first trip to this house, the owner, Mr. Gong, said he had bagged a snake, but when he went to retrieve the bag, there was a big hole in the side of it, and the snake of course helped create this hole. We hiked up to the top of the mountain, where his house was, and sat down exhausted. One of his sons immediately handed me a hot cup of tea, and Mr. Gong pointed to a cinder block with a large stone on top. I laughed (obviously he had a plan B in case this bag had proved to have a hole as well).
I removed the large rock and found a bag inside. He said to be careful and that the snake was “yo du (venomous)” (literal translation is “have poison”). I took him half-seriously. As with most people not educated about snakes (world wide), any snake is usually mistaken as venomous. However, some people are able to ID venomous from non-venomous, and for some reason I kind of believed this man.
For one, I automatically respect someone a lot more when they bag a snake live, rather than handing me a bag with a dead snake inside. I untied the bag and looked in. My heart lit up. One of the joys I have had in China, when looking into a bag someone has handed me, is usually seeing a snake I have never seen before. This doesn’t happen much in the states. And for the most part, any snake on the East Coast I have seen plenty of pictures of or have seen in a zoo or private collection at some point in my life.
Opening a bag in China had the potential of something new and amazing each time. Looking into the bag I saw a checker-board pattern of green and black, gently working its way to a black/red/ green checker-board pattern towards the head. Of course I knew immediately that it was Rhabdophis tigrinus lateralis; one of the snakes on my wish list.
This snake is much like the boomslang of Africa. It is a rear-fanged species, but unlike most rear-fanged snakes, fatalities have occurred from this species and it was considered dangerous.
The LD-50 (lethal dose for 50% of animals tested) of a species in the same genus was rated at 1.29 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (for an intravenous injection). For a U.S. equivalent, or at least something close, the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) has an intravenous LD-50 of 1.65 milligrams per kilogram. Everyone knows the danger of a diamondback, and this snake was rated worse. Granted a diamondback can deliver a massive dose of venom, much more than this species I am sure – in addition, because the fangs are in the back of the mouth, it makes it much harder to envenomate than a front-fanged snake. Typically a rear-fanged snake has to chew on you a bit until the fangs can be worked up to the flesh – in the case of the boomslang, they can strike with an open mouth of nearly 180º, so they do not have to chew, which is one of the reasons they are one of the more dangerous rear-fanged snakes.
I do not know the angle at which Rhabdophis can open its mouth and I don’t have any particular interest in finding out. Also, in addition to this bite hindrance, an IV delivery from a rear-fanged snake is highly unlikely, if the snake were to bite me it would almost certainly be subcutaneous (under the skin, not in a blood vessel). LD-50’s given IV are almost always lower (the lower the number, the more potent the venom) than subcutaneous. Unfortunately there was no data on what the LD-50 of a subcutaneous injection was, or even the yield of venom per snake.
Nonetheless, fatalities have occurred from the species, so that was enough reason to take it seriously. As I peered down at the gorgeous snake, I tried to find the words. All I could say was “wo hen kuai le (I am very happy).” I grabbed my snake hook and dumped the snake out of the bag. He flattened his neck out in a semi-hognose type flare. The nape of the neck was a gorgeous red and black checker-board with a narrow green band at the crest of the spine, as you more posteriorly the color changes to red, green, and black, and then finally to just green and black.
Hooking the snake for a short while, getting an idea of the attitude, I finally pinned it with the handle of my hook and picked it up. I examined the snake up close. The scalation (don’t know if this is a word, but it should be) was very different. At the mid-body and posterior portion the scales were typical sized. As you moved towards the head the scales became thinner and thinner so that more of the interstitial skin showed (typically interstitial skin is only visible if the snake is inflating itself with air or has just swallowed a huge meal).
The interstitial skin was red, which is what I thought originally caused the appearance of the red/black checkerboard pattern. When the snake would inflate with air or flatten it’s neck, this red showed not only on the neck but further down the body, but, closer examination of the scales around the neck revealed that they were green scales that the base of which were red. This was only in the neck region. At mid-body the scales were just green and black.
The head of the snake looks identical to a garter snake. The most beautiful garter snake I have ever seen. After admiring the snake for awhile I put the snake in one of my bags and the guy showed me the next surprise. Earlier that day he had uncovered 35 eggs! Based on the phone conversation, I had initially thought that he had found the snake with the 35 eggs (which I was originally confused about because after I picked the snake up I checked the sex to see that it was a male).
Linsen explained that the eggs were found elsewhere and were not with the snake. I have no idea what species they belong to and I am wondering if we should try incubating the eggs and hatching the species versus simply preserving the eggs. This will be very hard to do given what I have to work with, but I think that is what I am going to try to do. At the least, if they start to go bad, I could dissect the egg and see if the embryo is developed enough to ID it and could then preserve it.
I took two eggs from the 35 and asked where they were found and that I would like to put the remaining eggs back. I was pleased to see that he happily agreed. After replacing the eggs, I asked if he could take me to the location where he had found the Rhabdophis. He said that it was very far away and could not take me there. He said it was very far up in the mountains. I was disappointed. A snake without locality data was almost meaningless.
I told Linsen that we needed to get the locality data. I asked what time he found the snake, figuring it had to be in the early morning when the sun was low. He said he found it at 10:30am. My only other thought was that the location was a shaded location, because by 10:30am, the sun is usually very hot. I also thought that maybe the snake would be near water where it would be cooler, plus the species preys on fish and frogs, so it would make sense for it to be near water.
Mr. Gong had found the snake at 10:30am and it was currently 6pm, so the hike was at the most 7.5 hours, which is certainly not too far in my mind. This species is a higher elevation snake and I was quite eager to see the habitat in which it was found and to see what the elevation was. Everyone continued talking, I really had no idea what was being said. When everyone was starting to get up to go I asked Linsen if we were going to go tomorrow and he said that yes we would go.
Today was originally supposed to be my last day, but finding the location of this gorgeous animal would certainly be worth another day. My original offer was that I would meet with Mr. Gong around 5:30am (the sun is already up by this time for some reason), we could go to the location, I would bypass breakfast, and by the time I got back it would be ready for lunch and then we could head back to Muyu, but apparently this wasn’t necessary, Linsen and I would end up staying in Dongxi for the entirety of the 12th.
Today I had the option of sleeping in and skipping breakfast, but since I knew we were going on a fairly good hike I thought I would need the energy. After breakfast I went outside where Mr. Gong’s son was waiting. He was going to take us to the location where the tigrina had been found.
Linsen, Meng Hui, and I got our gear and followed behind the young man. He was quite a hiker! It was all I could do to keep up with him. I was winded and sweating and from behind he did not look to be the least bit tired, but I was not about to complain and suggest we rest. Luckily, after about 30 minutes we had reached flat ground (someone’s house – one of the 3 locations of flat ground we passed that morning) and he sat down for a rest. I was eager to drink half of my nalgene bottle to relieve some of the weight – but as with all drinks in China, in order to make the water safe, it is boiled – so the scorching hot beverage not only prevented me from downing half of the contents, but also did very little to refresh me.
I offered water to Mr. Gong’s son, but he refused. He did not take a canteen with him either. Figuring he grew up in the mountains, much like Zong Xu, who also did not carry water, I guessed he would just go to any stream and drink from there if he was thirsty. I was able to get a few gulps in and was attaching it back to my backpack. Linsen, with the best intentions, unhooked the bottle and went inside the house. He came back out with the bottle filled back to the brim.
I couldn’t help but smile. He had unwittingly demolished my attempts to relieve some weight. But, luckily, as I was about to don the backpack for a 2nd time, Mr. Gong’s son came over and motioned that he wanted to carry the pack. I didn’t argue. The added weight slowed this man to my speed and I was easily able to keep pace with him. Linsen and Meng Hui were still far behind, often out of sight.
Up and up we went. The habitat was changing slightly, more ferns, some new flowers. We finally reached the spot. Three of my estimates were correct. The location was a shaded portion of the trail and right in the middle was a small stream. My third guess was also confirmed when Mr. Gong’s son started drinking water from the stream. I took off my backpack, turned on the GPS and the thermometer, and started taking pictures of the habitat while those two instruments were registering (it was currently 10:17am, and since the location was in the shade I figured the temperature would be fairly consistent with the day before).
After that task was completed I pulled out the snake to get some natural shots of it as well. I pinned it and took it to the stream to wash it off. I walked back to the spot where I wanted to photograph it and pondered for awhile, I had run into a problem. “This is going to be hard” I said. The location I wanted to place the snake was on a rock which was bordered by a lot of vegetation. The day before this snake acted like an agitated garter snake, which meant more than likely I will not be able to simply lay the snake down and expect it to stay, nor could I hold it by the tail and photograph the fore-body, as it was a venomous species.
The hook would be inefficient in preventing it from escaping into the brush. I balled up the snake bag and put the snake under it and released my grip, hoping that the snake would think it was covered and sit still, which I would then uncover the snake and hopefully get a few shots off before the snake tried to move. This was not the case. As I sat there with my hand over the bag, waiting, I saw some movement in the grass to the side. The snake was not sitting still and was already moving. My only option at this point was to tail the snake. I judged the behavior and realized that the snake was not near as defensive as I thought it would be. It was quite easy to tail and showed no signs of some of the more threatening defensive postures (flaring the neck). Eventually I was able to get my shots in.
One of the snake’s defensive postures I found interesting was that it would rest it’s chin on the ground and bring its head upwards, revealing the “groove” by which the genus gets its common name. R. tigrina is also known as the “Tiger grooved-neck keelback.” Another species in the same genus, R. subminiatus, reportedly has a very weird defensive adaptation that I had not heard of in snakes, and for that matter is rare in reptiles of all orders. R. subminiatus supposedly has oil glands at the nape of its neck that secretes an irritant, much like the oil of poison ivy and poison oak. For the most part reptiles are supposed to lack oil glands and pores; many male lizards have pores on the underside of their legs (pheromone purposes), but other than that I did not know of any other reptiles with pores or glands. When confronted, R. subminiatus will put its head down and raise the back of its head, helping to expose this portion of its body.
As the tiger keelback was doing this I was wondering if it too had some secretions I did not know about. I had pinned the snake and so my hand was directly in contact with where the secretions would be. Throughout the day I never had any reactions, so I guess not. After photographing the snake and taking a GPS reading I found that in one hour we had hiked a vertical difference of 1,480 ft. It reminded me of the time in Philmont when Dad and I had to make a 1,000 ft climb. I do not remember how much time we had, or how much time we ended up taking – one major difference was that we each had 50 – 60 lb backpacks.
During the hike down, Meng Hui’s cell phone went off (the coverage is amazing and it is another one of those unexpected sights/clashes) – the poorest of the poor not only have satellite dishes and a TV in every house, but everyone also has a cell phone. Anyway, after hanging up Linsen told me that Mr. Gu had found a snake on his way home and had dropped it off at Pinqian Station and that we could pick it up on our way to Muyu.
When we got back to HQ it was time for lunch. During lunch Linsen pointed across the valley into the distant mountains and said that someone in a field over there had found two snakes the day before and captured them. How he knew this, I have no idea. He later told me that he told everyone in the village what we were doing and to hold on to any snakes they may find. I guess word of mouth spread all the way over across the valley and to the mountains on the far side. He asked if I wanted to go there. He did not have to ask… The answer was an immediate “of course.” He kind of sighed and said it was a long ways, but of course that didn’t matter to me. I told him we would leave at 3pm when the sun had lowered and it would be a little cooler.
Come 3pm I was loaded up, found Linsen and asked if he was ready. “Now?” he asked. “Yeah, it’s 3pm” I responded. “I think it is too late to go.” I didn’t know what to say, I gave a look of “what-do-you-mean” and just stood there waiting for an explanation. If 3pm was too late to leave, then why didn’t he tell me this at lunch? I would have gladly left immediately after the meal. I had picked 3pm for his sake. I was a bit frustrated.
He said that he thought it would take about 4 hours to walk there and back. I did not see a problem. That would put us back at HQ around 7-7:30pm. It doesn’t get dark until 8:15pm or so, and we could always take some lights with us if need be. I told him that I thought we could do it and that we should go now. He gave in and started getting his stuff together.
He called for Meng Hui and the three of us set out. Not 5 minutes down the road Meng Hui gets another call on his cell phone and he chats with Linsen. After hanging up Linsen said that the guy that caught the snakes was walking to our location and would be here soon. I couldn’t really argue so I just said “ok, I guess we’ll stay.”
We stopped by the local school while waiting for the guy with the snakes. Linsen started a game of ping pong with an 8 year old, who promptly demolished Linsen. I was offered the paddle at one point in time but refused. Linsen would have easily destroyed me, so I would have been a joke to this 8-year old. The style in which they hold their paddles is far different from anything I knew and I did not want to attempt to embarrass myself, so I just hung back and took photographs.
After about 15 minutes the guy finally showed up, carrying a large bag. Based on the size of the bag and the weight when I picked it up I had a pretty good guess at the species. Untying the knot (with about 50 school children around me), I look in, smile, and reach my hand in blindly (as I do with any non-venomous), and pulled out one nice-sized and one giant King ratsnake, both of which were gaping and striking all over the place. All the children immediately backed up. The smaller of the two ratsnakes was so ornery that any time the bigger ratsnake would strike, the smaller one would pick up on this movement and bite the bigger one in the head or neck, eventually drawing blood.
We put the snakes back and headed to HQ’s. Linsen paid the man 20 Yuan. I really didn’t like this whole paying thing. It certainly was not something I planned on. I told Linsen that we did not really need the snakes and that if he would release them he could just take them back – my only purpose was to document the species and location. It was nice to get measurements and some photographs as well, but not completely necessary. He said that if we did not pay the guy would simply sell the snakes for meat to someone else. So at this I didn’t argue. I asked the guy how long it took him to hike over. He said it took an hour and a half, so a 3-hour roundtrip, not bad at all. I asked Linsen if we could go to the location tomorrow, which he nodded in agreement.
After all the commotion was over with I went upstairs to take a shower. Getting out of the shower a few minutes later I hear Linsen’s voice out the window. I walk over and look down. He said that there were some more snakes here. From a distance I saw a Ptyas and a Cyclophiops, the latter of which I was highly interested in. I threw on some clothes and went outside.
He said that there was another snake in the bag still and in the crowd I heard someone mention “yo du.” I looked in the bag and could not believe it. Inside was a gigantic Rhabdophis tigrina with a monstrous lump in it.
The snake looked almost dead. I reached in and grabbed the snake behind the head. It did not resist whatsoever. I laid the snake on the ground and it just sat there. For awhile I had wondered if the guys that found it had beat it half to death, but the snake was actually just too stuffed to move.
Linsen asked if it had eaten a large rat, which it certainly looked like it had. I told him that chances were it wasn’t a rat because the species is only known to eat fish and frogs. It took me a moment before I thought about the gigantic Chinese toads all over the place. I told Linsen that I bet it was a toad. I grabbed the snake again and started rocking him back and forth, swaying him side to side, massaging his full belly. Everyone was laughing, wondering what I was doing.
I didn’t know how to say it, so I basically acted out the idea of eating a full meal and then being tossed around and throwing up. The message was clear. I put the snake down on the ground and started tapping his tail and mid-body. He gaped a couple of times – not defensive gapes, but gagging gapes. The bulge slowly worked its way toward the snakes head until out poured a full grown Bufo chinensis.
The snakes activity didn’t turn immediately around, but it was more lively than it had been. The snake, a female, measured 46.5″ in total length. Even though we already had a Rhabdophis, I felt it was very important to buy this snake since it was a female and a large one at that. We also bought the Cyclophiops.
I asked about the time and locations. Both had been caught earlier that day where the two rivers unite – a location Linsen, Mr. Gu, and I had walked about two days prior. I told Linsen that we would have to go there tomorrow as well. I released the Ptyas on the spot and so we didn’t have to pay for that one. I am still displeased with the whole paying idea. If the locals just wanted to help out I would be all for it, but I need to keep the goal in mind, which is to catalog species and locations, and employing 75 pairs of eyes will certainly turn up more snakes than three pairs.
Today the plan was to walk to the location of the two king ratsnakes caught the other day. We set out around 9am. The local police gave us a lift to the small town where I usually buy my Pepsi’s – that lift cut maybe 30 minutes off the trip. As we pulled up to the store I looked for my favorite Pepsi vendor, but she wasn’t there, instead a younger, very attractive girl was sitting in the store. I walked over, and by the time I got there the original shopkeep had showed up – I guess she was sleeping.
I showed the shopkeep the two king rats, which of course promptly bit me. Unlike the Rhabdophis nuchalis I had showed her days before; she did not pick up either of these snakes. After that we headed off.
Initially we covered much of the same trail that Mr. Gu, Linsen, and I had traveled on the 2nd day in Dongxi. When we got to one particular spot I was fond of, a flat area adjacent to a stream that was loaded with rocks, I started poking around. I was reminded on another Kansas moment while here. There had been many times so far in China, usually in a field (this time I was by a stream), when I would go to flip a large flat rock, just to turn the rock over and stare at an angry nest of wasps.
After a few minutes of poking around we found a shed skin. It wasn’t recent as in that day, but based on how brittle it was I guessed it was maybe 2 days old. The markings on the skin were quite clear – Elaphe mandarina – this damn species continued to elude me (I do not count DOR’s towards my life list). We could safely take GPS data and had a new species confirmed for Dongxi, but I still had not found a live Mandarin Ratsnake, and that was what irked me.
After photographing the habitat we continued along. I was quite impressed with the hike. I felt that the guy that delivered the snakes the day before deserved the money simply for walking such a distance (without being asked to). The day was overcast – I am not quite sure which I prefer, overcast or sunny. There was no wind and it was incredibly humid. Without the sun, the sweat would not evaporate from my capilene clothes, so by the time we reached the destination I was drenched. It had taken us two hours (the return hike was an hour and a half).
For the first time since coming to China, while we stopped for a water break (one of the two), I asked if we were close (usually a very annoying question). Linsen and the newest assistant said it was just right up the hill. So we walked up the hill, just to discover it was the wrong property and that the place was actually the next place up, so another 15 minutes later we finally got there.
The owner took us to the location where the ratsnakes were found – another 20 minutes from his place – I could tell Linsen and the new assistant were getting tired and impatient, even though I could not understand the sentences, every now and then they would ask the same question and the man would point up the trail and give the same response. I would imagine they were saying “how much further?” with him responding “just right up here.”
I think they had thought the location was very close to his house. Before releasing the snakes we measured them – as I read off the numbers, Linsen would repeat them, “1-8-0″ (cm) I would say and he would repeat “one-eight-rero” – I couldn’t help but think of Kim Jong Ill from the movie Team America (many times Linsen would sound just like him).
After getting GPS data and photographing the habitat we headed back to the owner’s house for lunch. As we ate it started to rain. I wanted to hit the trail soon before it got too muddy so after eating I got up and just walked around outside, hoping they would get the subtle hint (I think it would be rude to suggest we go soon, and cutoff our hosts’ hospitality) – plus the cool rain felt great.
As usual, after lunch Linsen offered the guy money on our behalf, which he simply would not take. Linsen tried hiding the money in the seat next to him, the guy found it and shoved into Linsen’s shirt pocket. After that he would not let Linsen out of his sight until he was out the door (to make sure he didn’t leave any money somewhere).
We headed down the trail. Anyone that does a lot of hiking knows that downhill is not always “easy.” Resisting gravity and trying to keep a controlled pace resulted in a heavy sweat soon after departing the dwelling. Even though the rain felt great, it was still 80º. On the walk up I would often hear the skittering of lizards in the brush, tempting me. Often times I would hear a noise that sounded like a lizard, just to see a struggling dragonfly try to free itself from the dense vegetation. I was tired of these lizards getting away.
As we walked along I heard a noise to my left and glanced over – I saw a striped tail, much like that of Takydromus septentrionalis, one of the supposedly more common mountain lizards. This species also has an incredibly long tail, which of course it will readily autotomize. However, some lizards will not drop their tail immediately, giving you an extra second to grab the body.
Not wanting to take any chances at the animal getting away I jumped at the movement, placing my left hand on the tail and my right hand at where I thought the body should be (since once I saw the tail I jumped, rather than taking the time to follow the tail towards the body – a common mistake, and often results in an escaped animal). I had the tail pinned in my left hand and I glanced at my right hand, all I saw to the right of that was more “tail” so it was obviously a snake – and a new one at that. I knew it wasn’t venomous, because none of the venomous species had such a striped body.
About this time Linsen had realized I had dropped all my gear and was digging in the bushes and let out his characteristic “oi” – which basically meant “what, what happened, what is it, what is going on?” I told him it was a snake. As I removed the snake from the undergrowth I realized what species it was – Zaocys dhumnades – one of the few Latin names I really do not like (because I do not know quite how to pronounce it).
BUT, it was a new species we hadn’t seen before and it certainly made the hike worth it. We finally got back to the town around 3:30pm. We walked to the Pepsi store where everyone was playing a 3-card version of poker, including the shopkeep, I told her that I was dying for a Pepsi, she was busy with cards but she had the new girl get it for her. The new girl was much younger and a lot prettier.
Linsen, the new assistant, and I sat outside and drank out Pepsis and beers while everyone played poker inside. The rain had let up for awhile but had turned back into a light drizzle – it felt great. After feeling refreshed and washing off in a nearby faucet, I decided to photograph the snake while we waited for one of the cops playing poker (also the driver) to finish up.
Once they saw me pulling the snake out, the young girl, Linsen, and another man started crowding around. The snake was only a baby, but still when it would shoot off in a direction the young girl would scream and run backwards. I found it quite funny. I photographed the snake for awhile and out of the corner of my eye I could see her get closer, so after taking the picture I would grab the snake, and pretend to move it to another location, then swing the snake out wide to my left (where she was) and back up, as if I was re-assessing the scene – she of course would shriek and take off running and I would just grin.
After Linsen and the other guy got bored, and I finished taking my pictures, the young girl was still there. I told her she should at least touch the snake and I would say “bu yao ren” – it did not bite. Surprisingly she said “it is too terrible looking to touch.” I was taken aback. Not letting it show I told her that she should touch the tail and that it could not do anything. She did.
She eventually worked herself up to mid-body but would not hold the snake. After putting the snake up we went back to sitting out in front of the poker game. We ended up sitting outside waiting for the game to end for about 3 hours. To pass the time I showed her my only 2 decent magic tricks. She was pretty impressed and was anxious to know how to do them. Normally I do not give up tricks without a trick in return, but since I am not in China very often, I had been teaching anyone that wanted to know at each of the stations.
After that she started hitting me with questions left and right. Her English was very good, though she would not say so. She continued to say “I cannot speak it fluently.” Then in her good, but not perfect English, she said “You are very’s handsome.” Another compliment from an attractive girl (I wish American women were like this…).
We had a good conversation over the 3-hours while waiting for the poker game to finish up. She taught me a few new Chinese phrases and I taught her some new English words. She said “I like you” and that she hoped I would be around for a few more days; unfortunately this was my last day. She was very sweet.
When it was finally time to leave I told her in Chinese that it was very nice meeting her and said goodbye. On the way out we were scheduled for stopping at the location where the giant Rhabdophis and Cyclophiops were captured to get GPS points. The SUV had to turn on the 4-wheel drive to make it up the steep rocky road. We got the data, and headed to a nearby house for dinner. As usual, I received many toasts that night – the only alcohol they had was some homemade liquor made from corn. It was quite strong. I wonder if it would be classified as moonshine, but I really do not know the distinguishing factor that defines moonshine, so I can’t say.
Towards the end, everyone was pretty drunk. In order to signify that I was done drinking I would take my chopsticks and make an “X” over my cup so that they could not pour me any more alcohol. The host loved to pour you more drink, especially when you weren’t looking. The host convinced Linsen to let him pour him a little bit more, he poured about twice as much as Linsen had requested. After that Linsen would only pour his own drinks.
After a while a moth flew into the cup. Linsen tried getting it out with his chopsticks, but the host wouldn’t have it and threw the cup out, fetching a new cup and trying to be sly, he filled Linsen’s cup to about a quarter over what it had been (while Linsen was looking elsewhere). He kindly handed Linsen the new cup, Linsen took a look at it for awhile and then said something in Chinese that I took to be the equivalent of “Hey!” as if someone had tried to pull a fast one that he had just noticed. We all laughed.
We enjoyed many more moments that night, but things finally had to come to an end. From the time we left the Pepsi shop it had been a constant light drizzle and the ground had thoroughly been soaked by now. None of us had brought flashlights. The host handed us each umbrellas and grabbed a flashlight and we started the hike back to the SUV (about a 20 minute hike).
So here are five drunken guys, walking on a muddy mountain trail, in the rain, illuminated by a single flashlight and two cell phone lights. There were lots of slips and slides but the frightening part was when we had to cross the river by rock hopping as usual. As far as rock jumping in China goes, for the most part the rocks are not side-by-side; they are usually quite a distance such that you have to put a lot of momentum into your jump if you want to clear the gap.
So again, now there are five drunken guys, illuminated by practically one light (in the back of the line) jumping from one wet, muddy rock to the next, all the while with muddy shoes on. Not a pleasant sight, or thought, especially when I thought about all the camera gear I was carrying, though I’d quickly sacrifice my body and discomfort to save the delicate electronics.
Amazingly we all made it across without any problems. We finally reached the car. The rest of the trip to the HQ was a road cruising, 4-wheeling trip up and down the muddy mountain road. Without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you would not be able to make it in the rain on this road. I kept a drunken eye on the road for any snakes that may have been brought out by the rain, but none showed up. With all the rocking back and forth I was quite surprised no one lost their dinner.
We made it back to HQ’s without a scratch and it was time to promptly pass out. It was a very good, very tiring day. Analyzing the trek later on, Dongxi HQ sits at 2,770 ft, in order to reach the ratsnake location, we walked down to the river valley (2,100 ft), and then trekked to the ratsnake location which ended up being 4,300 ft. I have no idea how many miles it was horizontally, but our vertical difference was 2,780 ft (one way).
We headed back to Muyu today. I really do not understand many of the costs in China. For our 7 days at Dongxi with all the meals, I was charged 250 Yuan ($31 US, a little less than $4.50 a day). Also, the taxi from Muyu to Dongxi had cost me 260 Yuan, yet the taxi from Dongxi to Muyu only cost 60 Yuan.
The day was very beautiful. We got to take some pictures as we crossed over the mountains. I took a temperature reading, it was 58º at 2700 meters. As we started to head back down our driver said he was feeling sleepy and needed to rest. We were at the primary Golden Monkey research station, so we let him sleep and walked around the area for a bit.
After a while Linsen said we could go see some Golden Monkeys. Of course I was up for this. After a short walk I could hear some strange noises. It certainly did not sound like monkeys. The call sounded like a mix between a “meow,” the bleat of a goat, and the whine of a baby. I asked if that was them and Linsen said it was. I then asked if that was a baby calling or an adult, he said it was the adult. It took us awhile to see them jumping through the trees, and the observation deck was quite a distance away. Not quite the experience I was hoping for, but hopefully I’ll get a closer look later in the summer. I was disappointed when I got to the hotel and Hi Yin was not here. Oh well, hopefully I’ll get to see her tomorrow.
That’s it for now. Hope everything is well, I will be hitting the 25%-through mark in a few days. Best,
Previously in this series: