Sunday, May 13, 2007

I am a bit of a herping snob. I get a certain pleasure from seeking out and taking pleasure in herp species passed over by normal herpers (especially the trophy hunters) – witness my obsession with Storeria – brown snakes (dekayi) and redbelly snakes (occipitomaculata). Of course I really do think these are really cool snakes and lot of fun to track and find, but as with all such snobbery, maybe it’s a defense mechanism to cover for my lack of real herping prowess. Maybe my love of the ‘trash species’ stems from my difficulty finding the real trophy species; I’m subconsciously boosting my ego by caring deeply about what I can easily find.

So what are the trophy species? I can brag that I’ve found one of the turtles recently – those spotteds (Clemmys guttata). The same goes for the pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) and eastern kingsnakes (Lampropeltis g. getula) in Jersey last summer. Others that I haven’t found over in the Barrens are the ‘coastal plain’ milksnakes (brilliantly colored snakes that are probably a relict mix between eastern milksnakes Lampropelis t. triangulum and scarlet kingsnakes Lampropeltis t. elapsoides), corn snakes (Elaphe guttata), and hognose snakes (Heterodon platirhinos).

The biggest trophy of them all, though, both in New Jersey and to the west of the Delaware, is the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Behold its species name! You don’t have to understand Latin to know what ‘horridus’ means. These are big, hefty snakes with blocky, rugged features, and of course they can kill you with a simple bite. People might be squeamish about other snakes, some might have genuine phobias towards even the little brown snakes, but anyone would be a little afraid at seeing a big timber rattler curled up in the middle of the trail in front of them.

Now that I’ve set up that terrible vision of a big, deadly snake, I’ll dismantle it. Timber rattlesnakes, while certainly the largest and the most dangerous of the venomous snakes in the area, are really nothing to worry about as long as you’re not trying to handle them and you’re not actively seeking them out. Most people bitten by venomous snakes in general are bitten while trying to handle them, including trying to kill them. Most ‘victims’ are young men, and many of them are intoxicated when bitten. Even if they do bite you, you probably have several hours to get help before your life is threatened (not that you shouldn’t seek help with all possible speed).

These snakes are extremely shy and secretive, and very few of them rattle, let alone bite, unless you actively disturb them. If you’ve ever been close enough to a timber rattler for it to bite you, you probably walked right by it without it even flinching and without your even knowing it was there. They are extremely well camouflaged and tend to stay in the forest away from anyone but serious hikers and mountain bikers.

That camouflage and secretiveness is compounded by their having been eradicated from most of their range since. They might be ‘horridus,’ but they’re a poor match for any human with a big stick, a gun, or (especially) a car. Some of the eradication has been intentional, with people seeking out dens and killing every snake in them, but most is the accumulation of random killings – people swerving to run them over on roads, hunters shooting them for kicks, macho hikers showing off to their girlfriends by beating them to death with sticks, etc. Timber rattlesnakes don’t reproduce quickly, and it only takes a few killed every year to whittle a population down to extinction.

All this – the secretiveness, the rareness – makes it really hard to find them when you actually are searching for them. Rattlers’ vulnerability also makes other herpers loathe to share their timber spots with you, and rightly so. If poachers found them, they could collect the whole den. If the wrong locals found out, they could show up with shotguns and kill them all.

Wiping out all the timbers in a given area is pretty easy because they all tend to spend the winters together in big, communal hibernacula (dens). If you get there as they’re all emerging in the spring or coming back in the fall, you’ll find all the rattlesnakes for a few miles around in one place. These dens are usually around rocky outcroppings on southward-facing hillsides.

What’s so special about rocky outcroppings on southward-facing hillsides? First, rocky outcroppings mean there are cracks in and beneath all those rocks and boulders that lead back into the hillside. That’s great protection from predators (try and follow a rattler 20 feet back in a two-inch wide crack) and also great protection from the cold. In the winter that southern exposure means the most possible sunlight warming the rocky ground. It is not unheard of to find timber rattlers basking just at the edge of those cracks on sunny days in the middle of winter.

That information about the outcroppings on southward-facing hillsides might seem pretty helpful when you read it at first. You figure, ‘Oh, I’ll just wander around in the mountains until I see a southward-facing outcropping.’ Then you drive along one of our long Pennsylvania mountain ridges (look to the north next time you’re on I-78) and realize there are miles and miles of rocky outcroppings on southward-facing slopes. Most of Blue Mountain’s southern face is edged with rocky outcroppings.

So, if you’re looking for timber rattlesnakes in PA on your own, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

I hope now that you’ll understand why I’m going to be so vague about where I was searching for timber rattlesnakes. I’ve posted some locations where I’ve unsuccessfully searched for timbers last year - I won’t say whether I was back in those places or not, but I’ve been looking in other spots as well lately, and I’ve gone back and removed all references in past posts to specific possible timber locales.

Now, about my search for timbers on Monday, May 7th:

I met up with Simon in Drexel Hill about 6:30am, and we hit the highway. We got to our destination two to three hours later. We were working on a tip from another herper who had given me some directions to a very specific timber rattler and copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) spot.

We spent about an hour and a half hiking around some pretty steep territory not finding what we were looking for. (I need to write here that our herper informant should not be blamed for our poor luck at finding his site. Giving directions in mountainous country can be tricky, and I very much appreciate his generosity. We’ve since discussed the site again, and I realize how we made our mistake) At least it was beautiful mountain country; a nice feature of most northern timber rattle snake habitat is that it’s quite scenic. Even if you don’t find them, you get a workout and lots of great vistas.

We gave up after some thorough swearing and got back in the car to drive to some potential habitat I’d identified on topographical maps. We had to hike a few miles to get there once I’d parked, but it was a gorgeous day with temperatures in the mid 60s and a nearly cloudless blue sky (and I had remembered my sunblock!), so it was a nice time getting to the next series of rocky outcroppings.

I caught a glimpse of some large, black snake disappear into an overgrown pile of rocks by the side of the path, but a lot of searching all around that pile turned up nothing. The leading candidate was a black rat snake, but we held out hope for a black timber rattler. We marked the spot in the trail so we could check it on the way back, and we kept on hiking.

When we got to where the lines bunched up on the topo map and the ground started to fall away, we found the first thing we were looking for: a lot of rocky outcroppings. On the one hand this was quite satisfying – there was a lot of good habitat to search, but on the other hand it was somewhat overwhelming. Acres of boulders and small cliffs equal a lot of time searching and scrambling.

We got right to work, climbing and hopping from shelf to shelf and boulder to boulder, searching with our eyes and listening as carefully as possible as we went.

There aren’t too many snakes you hunt by such focused listening. Usually you’re covering a transect (to use a fancy term for walking along a path or driving a road) of habitat to see what might cross your path, or you’re actively looking under and into hiding spots. In a landscape of steep slopes and boulders, it’s hard to do either. It’s not easy to lift up a fifteen foot wide and two foot thick slab of rock and look underneath. With timber rattlers you’re listening for any rattling, of course, but since they’re probably more likely to retreat into a crack than rattle, you’re also listening for the slow, steady slide of a big snake moving through dry leaves and brush.

And then, of course, when you and your herping buddy are spaced out in the woods, you’re also listening for shouts that s/he has found something. That’s exactly what I heard about half an hour into our searching.

I was down between some massive slabs of sandstone, and I heard Simon shouting from uphill. I bounded up (for real – that was about as fast and agile as I get) from rock to rock and shelf to shelf until I found him pointing at a space in front of the boulder on which he was standing.

A rattlesnake, right there! He had come up over that slab and had seen a black rattlesnake coiled up and basking in the sun. Simon shook his head at himself, saying he should have taken a picture before he had gotten any closer and before he had started yelling for me. It’s a hard judgement call, but from that moment on I made sure my camera was out and ready.

Whatever Simon should or shouldn’t have done, that snake was under that boulder, and we talked about the best way to try to get a photo of it. We only had Simon’s small, pocket flashlight with us (next time I’m bringing a really big flashlight), and it didn’t reveal anything as I laid myself out flat on my belly and peered under, into the space under the big slab of rock. That crack was full of leaves, and I couldn’t see any hint of a snake. When I used a long stick to try and push some of the leaves out of the way, however, I sure did hear it. “Rattle” snakes are better named for the appearance of their rattle rather than its sound. It’s much more of a buzzing noise when they’re excited and scared. That snake buzzed and buzzed and even though I still couldn’t see it, and the sound let us pinpoint its location about two feet under the rock.

This might be the point in the story when Jen yells at me, as I poked a stick (albeit a long one) into a crack holding a very scared rattlesnake that was sitting a couple feet in front of my face. That snake was retreating, though, and we could hear that buzzing noise receding further and further away into the crack, and I knew I wasn’t going to see it.

What a perfect teaser it was. Where there’s one timber rattler on a rocky outcropping in spring, there are sure to be more, and we headed back out into the rocks to search for its den mates.

We proceeded with our heads down, peering around us at every space under every slab and overhang. I looked up about twenty minutes into this and saw a black snake stretched out in the sun in front of me. It was not a rattler, but rather a black rat snake (Elaphe o. obsolete) – not quite a trophy snake, but still one of my favorites. With Simon's timber rattler fresh in my mind, I snapped this shot off before I picked her (remember how I had been forgetting to check? I’m proud that I remembered this time) up.

I shouted for Simon. I thought he was shouting back – I could hear him but couldn’t tell what he was saying. After what felt like thirty seconds of him not understanding quite what I was shouting either, I thought I heard him holler that he was coming, and I stayed put.

Simon did show up after a minute, and he explained that he had heard a rattler “explode” buzzing under a boulder, but couldn’t get a good look at it. It turned out we were both shouting for the other to “come here!” at the same time. We took photos of the rat snake, let her go, and then headed back uphill to try to find the rattlesnake. Simon had cleverly marked the boulder with a crossed pair of sticks (although, surprisingly and confusingly, there were a couple other boulders naturally marked by crossed sticks in the vicinity), but there was no sign of the snake, and no sound of it either.

We searched for another hour or so before we gave up to hike back to the car. It’s worth mentioning here that Simon was working on three hours of sleep. He had gone to a concert in Baltimore but had nonetheless found the energy to wake up early and hit the mountains. Now I think of myself as a fast walker/hiker. Jen, my family, my coworkers, and many of my friends complain about how fast I walk around West Philly and Center City. Simon, however, the man who had slept three hours the night before, was still covering ground on the hike back to the car with an ease that made me think he was politely slowing down to keep from embarrassing me.

We checked where we had seen that first snake on the trail, but didn’t see anything. We drove to a couple other likely herping spots as well, but gave up with nothing under our belts besides the mystery snake, the black rat, and those two rattlers I didn’t see.

The trip was a great success and a powerful frustration to me. I didn’t actually see any rattlesnakes, but I did a decent job of locating them. Now we know exactly where to go next time. I might try it again in another week or so, or I might try it again in the fall when they’re massing for hibernation. That’s the beautiful thing about knowing where a timber rattlesnake den is: you know they’ll keep coming back there, assuming no one steals them and no herpacidal idiot goes and slaughters them.