Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Banded Gecko Bonanza

We have been having a herpetological hoe-down here at the house! Tonight was banded gecko night. Unfortunately, my camera is taking a break right now, so I couldn't capture any visual magic to share with the world!

I was facebooking when Erik appeared outside the office window with a flashlight, waving his hands at me. I waved back in acknowledgement and he shook his head and motioned the "come here" gesture. I knew he had found some cool critter so I dashed out to the front door, slipping my bare feet into flip-flops just before I ran outside.

"A banded gecko!" he calls out to me.

"No way! Show me!"

My mind is filled with all the images of this beautiful lizard that I have only seen in books until now.

"He might have run away already. He ran pretty fast." Erik warned.

We came upon the path and Erik squatted down next to a good-sized agave clump.

"He went in here." He shown his flashlight around the base of the agaves, among the dried-up, curled brown protective layer at the bottom. Perfect hiding place for a banded gecko.

"I think he's gone. Nope, there he is! See him, Honey?"

I caught a brief glimpse of an ivory tail with chocolate crossbands. "I see him!" The gecko walked a little further into the depth of the agave clump.

Erik stood up and looked down the path shining his flashlight under the palo verde tree and cholla.

"Give me the flashlight! I want to see him!" I pleaded.

"Ok, but be careful of the agave spikes!" My husband loves to be the nature teacher. I let him. It's fun feeling like a kid at camp.

I step over some palo verde branches that have been laid out waiting for either a chipper-shredder or a brush-and-bulky pick-up. Minding the arrow-tips of the agave I squat down and shine the light under the blue, powdery spears. My flashlight finds him and my heart skips a beat.

"Hello there! You are so beautiful!" The gecko closes his eyes from the obnoxious light. I try to make sure only the edge of the light illuminates him, not the bright center.

His skin is the most creamy velvety texture of any other desert reptile I have seen. He looks so soft and squishy, too tender for such a harsh environment as the desert. He has the paired swollen gonads at the base of his tail, so I know he is a male, maybe looking for a female. The skin color is a base of buttery cream with purplish chocolate bands boldly crossing his body. His eye is a soft black drop of ink, with an innocence that makes me feel embarrassed to be so vulgarizing to him. This thought makes me immediately stand up to give him his space back. I smile at Erik and hand him the flashlight.

"Let's see what else is out there."

We continue our walk around the property, stopping to listen to Sceloporus, the spiny lizards, scrambling up a tree upon hearing us. We also note the abundance of tarantulas. As the path reaches the main driveway there are solar lights along the edge. Under one of these lights scurries another Coleonyx! The light was very dim, one of those LED glow lights that looks like a little pagoda lantern. Also under the light, perched on a rock just next to it, was a small green praying mantis, who clearly seemed annoyed at us interrupting his dinner hunt. We turned off the light to watch the mantis. A car drove right by on the road and the mantis turned its head in the direction of the car. Erik tapped the butt of the flashlight on the rock it was sitting on and the creature turned in that direction and looked right at Erik's face. Those things are just like little alien robots. I watched him, hoping to see a strike, but he started cleaning his grabbers, patiently waiting for the lumbering giants to keep on their way so he could focus.

We continued on out to the road to check for snakes. Erik shined his light on a plant that looked like a roadside weed in front of the neighbor-across-the-street's house. The house is up a slope and there is a railroad tie berm along the road to make the ground for the yard and house level. The space the plant occupies is about a five foot gravel clearance between the street and the base of the first railroad tie of the berm.

"I'm so jealous of that plant!" Erik said.

"What is it? I want to see it." I replied.

We walked across the street and up to the plant. "Proboscidea," Erik said, "Devil's Claw."

"Oh, you don't have to be jealous of that! That grows easily and we can get that anywhere!"

Erik bends down to look for a ripe seed pod. The plant is a prostrate form with small leaves, only about an inch across. It is about three feet in diameter. There are no other plants within ten feet on all sides.

"Another banded gecko! A baby!" Erik sputters.

"What? I think I see them too!" I can see definite movement among the fleshy stems of the plant. A hatchling Mediterranean house gecko, Hemidactylus, runs out of the shrub and climbs the railroad tie.

"Awww... they're just Mediterranean geckos. No wait, I see another one! And it has definite stripes. They ARE banded geckos! They're hatchlings! I think they just hatched right now!"

Erik starts looking around the base of the plant for more babies. "How many do they have?"

"I don't know. Leopard geckos have four or five I think."

We confirm two neonates. About the width of a pencil and half as long as your pinkie. They looked FRAGILE! One already was missing its tail. The first thing Erik thought was, "We need to move them. They're so close to the road. Let's bring them to our yard." He started to put his hand down around the one that still had the tail.

"No! You'll kill it!"

"Don't worry, I didn't touch it."

Erik keeps searching around the base of the plant with the flashlight, looking for more babies. There is some cellophane with some movement around it. "This place is crawling," Erik says.
What at first glance appears to be ants, on second thought looks more like termites to me.

"Look! The one without the tail is going over to the termites!"

As he approached the opening in the earth, spilling forth with grub, his posture perked up. He started looking straight down at the insects, and following their movement with little jerks of his head. He circled halfway around the hole, keeping his eyes on the prey. Then almost imperceptably he delicately picked one up in his mouth and mawed on it, turning it around with his jaws and tongue. The next one was a little more deliberate. We watched for one more minute and then stood up to allow the tailed one to join its sibling in one of their first meals.

We pondered the location of the geckos, so precariously close to the biggest killer of herps, the road. Maybe we could bring them onto the safety of our property... No, they had a perfect meal in front of them and that was more important for them at this point in their lives than our perceived sanctuary. Their mother probably laid the eggs close to that food source with her eons of wisdom. The railroad ties probably offered numerous tunnels and hiding spots under them. Perhaps their mother gave them the best possible chance that she could, in spite of it being so close to the road. The road is a reality of life. Maybe there are less predators near the road. Who knows?

As we walked back to the house, sans any kind of photographic record of the event, I pondered the wisdom of the desert. Why does she reveal her beauty in torrential showers, and not it parceled drips. All the times that I have gone hiking, hoping to see some new critter, and come home deflated. And tonight, each time I saw the banded gecko, I thought, "Wow! I want to stay here all night and watch this one. It can't get any better than this." And twice she proved me wrong, pulling back the veils to reveal ever more tender moments. And all so close in time to one another! Like fireworks, spectacular, short-lived bursts of light.

P.S. Last week in one day we pulled a neonate Holbrookia and a neonate Cnemidophorus from our pool filter, each alive. The next day a neonate Hemidactylus. And there are two Lampropeltis getula hanging around our house. Not to mention at least two Crotalus atrox. And a long-nose snake was picked up off the road at my uncle's house a few miles away and let go on our property. And Erik saw a Crotaphytus on a hike and a magnificent foraging Cnemidophorus burti.