One of the most beautiful snakes in the Tehachapi Mountains — or in the entire state, for that matter — is the California Mountain Kingsnake.
These harmless snakes have alternating bands of red, black and cream-colored rings along the length of their body. California Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata) that live in the Sierra Nevada and Tehachapi Mountains typically have red markings that aren't as pronounced as the black and off-white bands.
While they are not necessarily rare, Mountain Kingsnakes are quite secretive and tend to spend most of their time concealed, underneath rocks or fallen logs, in rock crevices or bramble thickets, and similar habitats.
As a result, these splendid snakes are seldom encountered by humans. I have easily seen a hundred of the more common black-and-white banded California Kingsnakes to each Mountain Kingsnake I have been privileged to see.
Mountain Kingsnakes generally have a black nose and head, followed by a cream-colored band, then the rest of the body consists of a repeating pattern of a black band, red band, black band, then a cream colored band, then another black/red/black series, etc.
Each element of a red band bordered on either side by a black band is known as a triad, and a Mountain Kingsnake averages about 30 of these triads.
There is a somewhat similar-looking but highly venomous snake called an Arizona Coral Snake which also possess red, black and cream-colored bands, but in this case, the red bands have a light yellow or cream-colored band on either side of them, instead of black.
This gave rise to the warning mnemonic: "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black is a friend to Jack." There are some exceptions to this saying, and in California it's not particularly relevant anyway since the ranges of the two snakes don't overlap — we don't have Coral Snakes, they are not native to California, and Arizona doesn't have California Mountain Kingsnakes.
California Mountain Kingsnakes prey upon lizards, small rodents, eggs, amphibians, and other snakes. Kingsnakes get their name from their ability to overpower and eat other snakes, and in the areas where Mountain Kings live, they will encounter and eat Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes.
Mountain Kingsnakes like woodland or forested areas with some clearings and rocky outcroppings, and are also found in riparian corridors alongside creeks, and in chaparral and scrub with some grassland. Despite their shy nature, they can sometimes be found moving around in the middle of the day, especially during the cooler months of spring and autumn that bracket the summer warm season.
It was a on a warm Mother's Day in early May that Ian McLaughlin encountered a Mountain Kingsnake whose photo is among those included with this story. Ian says that he was in Bear Valley Springs visiting his grandparents, and was hiking alongside a creek. He heard the sound of a snake moving through the brush, and he spotted a very large Mountain King. Ian froze and the snake continued crawling his way, eventually coming right by his boot.
Ian reached down and picked her up, and the snake was very calm and docile while he handled and admired her for a minute and took the image. "Easily one of the most beautiful photos I've ever taken, the coolest snake I've ever caught and a gift from God all together," Ian told me, full of gratitude for his natural sighting.
Despite not being seen very often, California Mountain Kingsnakes are permanent residents of our area. These jewel-like reptiles are part of the beautiful diversity of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.