Gila Monster close-up photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Encounter with a Gila Monster

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Jul 10, 2020 | by Alex Lamoreaux

Southeast Arizona is celebrated among US birders for the number of regional specialties and stray Mexican rarities that can be found hidden away in the vast Sky Island region. From Elegant Trogon to Phainopepla, Rufous-capped Warbler to Rivoli’s Hummingbird – even the bird’s names sound crazy! I can’t wait for every August to come around, when we spend a week exploring this special place during our ‘Sky Island Specialties‘ tour. And for the birder visiting for their first time, it quickly becomes clear that the scenery, the birds, and the shear diversity of life is overwhelming! Sometimes creatures besides birds manage to steal the show, and for me that happened last year on the first evening of our tour… as the sun began to set we were exploring a small area of Saguaro National Park outside Tucson in search of Gilded Flicker and Elf Owl. A lump of orange and black caught my eye and I screeched our SUV to a halt. I jumped out to investigate and sure enough, we had found a Gila Monster!

The Gila Monster is a large, legendary lizard – actually the largest native lizard in the US – that can be found in lowland deserts of the southwestern US and Sonora, Mexico. They are slow-moving but not to be messed with; their saliva contains a powerful venom whose toxicity rivals that of a rattlesnake! Most of their lives are spent hidden below ground or under rocks, but they will venture out in search of food or a mate. Their incredible sense of smell is specially adapted for tracking down bird and reptile eggs, even if they are buried a few inches below the sand! Small animals and carrion make up a portion of their diet too, although a Gila Monster may only eat a few times per year. Some have been documented growing to 2ft long, but the one we found was just over a foot in length. It paused briefly, staring us down and flicking its tongue to smell us. My heart was racing with excitement, and we snapped off some quick photos before letting the monster crawl off into the desert scrub. What an incredible animal to see up close, and what a fantastic way to kick off a week in Arizona! I can’t wait to get back down there!

Gila Monster, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Gila Monster, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

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