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The Desert Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii, is one of the smallest rattlesnakes in Arizona, and the only rattlesnake in Arizona that is not in the genus Crotalus. It makes its home in the semi-desert grassland of extreme southeastern Arizona. The grasslands feature relatively isolated rolling hills that create a beautiful and unique landscape. Unfortunately these grasslands have recently been receding, and the Desert Massasauga’s range has been restricted considerably. It needs these grasslands to persist in order to survive. If trends continue, this snake may go extinct in Arizona.
Also present in the area is the Mexican Hognose Snake, which I photographed the same night I was lucky enough to find the Desert Massasauga with my friend Jules. These snakes can be found across a much broader extreme southeastern Arizona range. They inhabit the same semi-desert grasslands as the Massassauga as well as other grasslands and chihuahuan desertscrub. A fun fact about these guys is that they play dead when threatened. They keel over in an inverted coil with their mouths open and musk, releasing a foul smelling substance. They will not break from this position until they feel the coast is clear.
Busy finding a personal best of 33 snakes this trip last summer, I had no time to get any decent photographs of the surrounding landscape. I took the voucher photographs above, one of the car we were using with the hills in the background, and the other from a different angle, to document the environment. As these animals and this area is perfect for inclusion in my project, I decided to return to this spot to get some landscape photographs that match the quality of the snake photos. Starting at my mom’s house in Rio Rico, AZ, I took a 3hr+ road trip east across southern Arizona to try and grab some sunset shots of the area. I drove through Patagonia, Sonoita, Sierra Vista, Bisbee, and Douglas in that order, encountering many photo opportunities and beautiful sights.
The first opportunity I seized was this picture from Brooks Trail on the way to Patagonia. It is basically somebody’s driveway, but passing by on the main road I glimpsed the Santa Ritas peeping over the hill, with the road directly leading to it. I love photos like this, so I did a quick u-turn and snapped this photo.
This next photo is a massively downsized panorama consisting of quite a few photos. I forgot the exact amount, but it is definitely over 10 photos. It is also two photos tall, which means I took this by taking a lower and upper panoramic collection of shots, and merged all of them together to make the photo taller and more inclusive. I could not include the full photo because it crashed my browser every time I tried to upload it. This is a photograph of the San Pedro river travelling from Sierra Vista. At this time it was getting dangerously close to sunset and I needed to drive as fast as I could. However, this view struck me when I drove over a hill, and I just had to turn around, pull over, and capture it.
Unfortunately, when I had gotten to Douglas the sun was setting, and I had not yet arrived at my final destination. Refusing to give up, I hurried as fast as I could to where I needed to be. Luckily border patrol doesn’t mind much, they actually drive the most recklessly of anyone I have ever seen. When I finally got to my destination it was pretty much dark. But I packed a tripod, and I knew this from the start. Desert Massassaugas are primarily nocturnal animals, so I figured regardless of when I arrived, it would be really cool to capture the landscape at night. In the middle of nowhere with barely enough gas to get back to Douglas, my mom sleeping in the car, I pulled out my tripod and set up the shot, sometimes timing photos to include the passing glare of the out of place semis driving to and from New Mexico.
After taking some great photos I admittedly have not edited yet, an almost full moon started to rise. It was completely orange, and absolutely amazing. However I wasn’t in the best spot to photograph it, so after getting a few shots of it on the rise I quickly jumped in my car and drove until the road bent around the hills I was focusing on, positioning the moon directly above them. I kept driving until I had the moon where I wanted it.
This was one of my best shots of the night, and easily my most frustrating. Positioning my camera through a barb-wire cattle fence over unstable lumpy dirt and tumble weeds, I attempted my first panorama of a night scene. However, getting the photo was not the hardest part, despite having the guess what I was composing in an all black viewfinder. Due to some good old-fashioned human error, I forgot to remove any vignetting present in the photos before stitching them into a panorama. This caused inconsistencies in the brightness of the sky where the edges of the photos were joined, and was extremely difficult to get around in post-processing. I had to individually remove the inconsistencies with dozens of spot adjustments, slowing my computer to a halt by the time I was done. Imperfections aside I am still proud of this photograph and am looking forward to editing the others from this trip to use in my final book.
After a long day of driving and photographs, I drove to Bisbee where my mom and I had an excellent dinner at Santiago’s. I had no idea that Bisbee had a night life, but it is apparently a hip and happening place. I figured that I was done and this marked the end of my day, my mom taking over the remaining drive back home. I was wrong!
On the way home I stared out the window, observing the rolling hills just outside of Sonoita, brilliantly lit by the nearly full moon. I toyed with the idea of capturing the hills, and possibly even the Santa Ritas, at night. I thought it would be very unique to get a shot during a bright moon, as it would allow for the landscape to be well lit while the sky is still filled with stars rather than blue. After talking to my mom about it, she made a u-turn and we parked in the entrance to the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. I took several photographs, but this one was my favorite. It just so happened to be the second-to-last shot before every single one of my three SD cards filled up completely. I had never been so satisfied.
Stay tuned as this week I will hopefully be taking some pictures in the Pajaritos to get more shots of one of my favorite places in Arizona!
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