Saturday, May 10, 2008

Update: Eitan posted his account of the trip here (see "Pennsylvania 05/08"). You'll see it wasn't just me going all loopy; the day was just that awesome!

I have dreams in which I'm finding more snakes than I know what to do with. They're usually species you can't find here like coral snakes or mountain kingsnakes, and they're often fanciful inventions of my imagination: half rat snake, half cobra or something similarly outlandish. I flip a board and find three more, five more crawl out from under a bush, and then they're everywhere; I'm simultaneously delighted and panicked that they'll get away because I can't catch that many snakes. I grab a handful (whether or not they're venomous) with one hand, then more with the other, but they keep crawling around me and I can't even get my camera out to start taking pictures. A little while ago Scott mentioned having roughly same dream, and I've started to wonder if this might be a universal dream for herpers, kind of like the not-having-studied-for-the-final dream (which I still occasionally have, even four years out of grad school) is universal for students.

On Tuesday (May 6th) that recurring snake dream came true for me.

After about a couple of hours driving and more than an hour of hiking (we found a few redback salamanders – Plethodon cinereus – and a leopard frog – Rana pipiens on the way), Eitan and I reached some rocky outcroppings I've been scouting and herping.

Simon and I had seen a couple timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) and a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoleta) there last year, and on a sunny spring day like Tuesday (highs in the low 70s in the mountains) I figured it was worth checking for more.

I'm a little nervous whenever I bring a fellow herper to one of my sites. Will the snakes show up or will they be inexplicably absent? Will I look like an idiot if nothing's out but birds and ants? It's like hearing about a party and bringing your friends along. You could turn out looking pretty cool if it's a good time, but if it's a bust everyone could blame you for the wasted evening. I know that all my herping buddies understand the fundamental unpredictability of herping and won't blame me for a skunked trip, but I still get a little anxious that things might not turn out.

We split up to start searching around the outcroppings and big slabs of sandstone. I headed for the coordinates of the snakes I'd seen last year, and Eitan searched above me on the slope. In five minutes it was clear I didn't have to worry about a thing; Eitan called me on the walkie talkie: he was looking at a black snake basking in the sun.

On his instructions I took a wide arc back to his location (to avoid walking too close to the snake), and together we stared at the tight black coil and plotted how to get closer for a photo without spooking it.

Here is a photo of Eitan making his approach,

and here is one of my photos of the snake.

Note that it looks kind of dirty. We're pretty sure it (and most of the other snakes we saw) had just come out of their dens after their long winter nap and haven't shed their skins yet. They'll look a lot shinier and prettier in a few weeks.

I headed downhill again while Eitan stayed to take a few more pictures. I don't think I'm very good at spotting critters (Jen's a natural, Chris supernatural), so I paused in front of a pile of boulders and looked around, forcing myself to stop moving and just observe.

Somehow that worked. I slowly panned to my left, and instead of just leaves, shrubs, and sandstone I saw the charcoal form of a rattler stretched out a few feet away.

This is a classic situation in herping: you and the snake (or turtle, frog, lizard, etc.) make eye contact, and you both freeze. The animal is hoping it hasn't actually been spotted but is ready to flee. Who moves first? You'd like to grab it or take a photo, but either action requires movement that could spook the animal. After a five second showdown I reached for my camera, and the rattler turned around and headed back for a space under a slab, buzzing a little as it retreated.

I was powerfully tempted to just reach out and grab it, but I obeyed the voice in my head reminding me not to get myself maimed or killed doing something that stupid. Rattlers are docile snakes, but they're not that docile. I took photos until I saw it stop, still in view under the rock.

I stood up, feeling quite pleased with myself, but then I heard buzzing coming from behind me. This time I didn't see the rattler, but I sure heard it buzzing away from beneath a slab to my left.

I was pretty excited at this point, and I called on the walkie talkie to Eitan to come right away. "Just a minute, Billy," he replied, "I just nearly stepped on another one. Over."

I figured my two weren't going anywhere, so I turned around, thinking to head uphill to see his second snake. I went about two steps before I stopped hard and froze again. There were two yellow rattlers right in front of me, and the bigger one was buzzing its tail off. I have no idea how I hadn't seen them on the way to my location; I must have passed them by about a yard. Apparently they'd been watching me the whole time and only decided to sound off when I looked like I was heading right towards them.

There are a few moments in herping I recall as among the happiest moments of my life, and this was one of them. I'm still feeling high as I think about it as I write this a few days later. At the time I was going a little nuts with glee, basically overloaded with not one, not two, not three, but four rattlesnakes to keep track of, and another one really close by. I pretty much spazzed out on the walkie talkie, shouting just-barely-coherently that I'd found TWO MORE! Eitan replied he'd be there in a minute, and I got down to taking pictures of the yellow pair.

Eitan soon showed up and was deep into photographing the yellow pair when I spotted the first rattler coming back out. Apparently this snake had somewhere to go, and it was not going to be deterred by the two humans standing a few yards away, just as long as they didn't move in its direction. This time I already had my camera out and the small motion of lifting it to my eye and pressing some buttons didn't spook it as it crawled towards and then under another slab.

I did calm down enough to follow Eitan back up top to see the one he'd almost stepped on. It was another solid black beauty of snake.

He spotted another black one not too far away, this time half under the shade of a slab. Unlike the other two black basking rattlers (neither of which had rattled), this one responded to our presence by making some noise. It didn't retreat however. Apparently it was enough to let us know it saw us as long as we kept our distance.

It was clear this was a den site. Timber rattlers spend the winter in communal dens (hibernacula) and then spread out for the summer. Den sites for mountain populations are usually in rocky outcroppings or cliffs on slopes facing south. The snakes can crawl back into crevices deep into the mountainsides to escape the frost, and the south orientation means the winter sun will keep the ground relatively warm. (in the Pine Barrens rattlers tend to winter in stream banks)

In theory finding rattlers is a question of locating these outcroppings on south-facing slopes. Of course most of Pennsylvania is mountains, and much of that is in the ‘Ridge and Valley Province,’ a landscape of long mountain ridges and deep valleys. Blue Mountain, for example, is one long ridge running for about 150 miles just north of I-78, and it’s chock full of rocky outcroppings facing south over the Piedmont. There’s another ridge to the north, then another, and then another, and so on. Once you get to the Allegheny Plateau, there are yet more south-facing hillsides with rocky cliffs.

At the beginning of European settlement there were likely dens in all of these suitable sites. We’ve been slaughtering the rattlers for 400 or so years, unfortunately, and now they’re just scattered here and there, meaning you need to check a lot of outcroppings (as I’ve been doing for the past three years) to find the active ones. The best time to look is late spring when the rattlers are getting ready to head out into the world again and early fall when they’re catching just a few more rays before the long sleep. If you know exactly which gap in the rock to check, you might even find them in winter warm spells sticking one or two coils into the open to soak up some sun in the afternoon.

I hope to locate another den site or two before the end of the spring, and I’m starting to fantasize about a fall or spring vacation, a week of hiking ridges and finding yet more new dens.

So, although we could have stayed there all day, searching out in a wider radius around the den, we struck off for another outcropping that I think might have an even bigger population. Storm clouds gathered as we hiked, unfortunately darkest in the direction we were heading. The wind whipped around us, and the temperature dropped by about ten degrees in a half hour (to the low 60s). With the first few drops we made the decision to turn around. We didn’t relish the prospect of getting caught on in the open at high elevation during a thunderstorm, so we backtracked towards the first den, and when it was clear the clouds were blowing by we checked to see if our friends were still out basking (it turned out that most were).

Eitan spotted the yellow pair right away, and he walked over (stepping on and over the slab that had hid the rattler I had heard but hadn’t seen) to take some pictures. Here are two of mine.

I followed him but I went around the slab. I quickly spotted this rattler (I think it was my crawler), which had been blocked from Eitan’s view by the edge of the slab when he stepped up onto it. It was only about a foot away from where he’d been standing.

I need to be clear that both of us had been very carefully watching where we were stepping; we knew the dangers of walking around a dense grouping of well-camouflaged venomous snakes. As careful as we were, however, it’s simply impossible to see every snake from any single vantage point on a rocky, brushy landscape; step a few feet in any direction and you can see better into some new gaps between rocks and around boulders that had been blocking your view.

This moment also highlighted the rattlers’ docility. Of course you shouldn’t mess with them, and a bite can be horribly painful if not lethal, but it seems like you have to step right on them or within some very close radius of personal space before they’ll strike. These aren’t horrible villains lying in wait to kill unsuspecting hikers; these are incredibly calm and confrontation-averse animals that just want to sit quietly and bask in the sun.

On a related theme, I’ve heard some evidence that rattlers sometimes abandon den sites if they’re harassed too much by researchers or amateur herpers. Since abandoning a good den site can mean death the next winter, this is a potentially serious problem. It’s hard to say what ‘too much’ is, but we made a special effort not to bother them. We did not pick any up, we didn’t yank any out from under rocks, and we did not prod them into defensive coils. We gently hooked one that had been in the open to detain it for a moment for a photo before we let it retreat back to its hole, and I’m wondering if even that might have been too much interaction. This is another good reason to keep your timber sites to yourself. Even if you trust no one will collect any, too many people visiting and handling the snakes can hurt the population.

In the ‘other finds’ category, I lifted a rock away a few dozen yards away from the den to find this very pretty slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosis). I love the big, shiny spots.

It was late in the afternoon when we called it quits and hiked back to the car, cutting through a boggy area (I’ve noticed these on top of several ridges) that looked promising but produced nothing. We’d already had enough fun to be sure, but I couldn’t resist the urge to turn over the rocks and trash around the car.

Under this rock, I found a redback salamander along with another small salamander that looked like a orange, wrinkly redback with a bigger than normal head.

It took me a second to realize I was looking at a four-toed salamander, (Hemidactylium scutatum).

Note the white belly with black spots (here’s a lame photo of this squirmy little guy) and the constriction at the base of the tail – the easiest way to tell these apart from the more common Plethodon species.

Four-toed salamanders like boggy areas with lots of sphagnum moss, and herpers look for females guarding eggs under mats of moss next to water. Their territory covers most of PA and NJ, but they can be hard to find, and this is my first.