Friday, October 17, 2008

I keep saying ‘this trip to the mountains will be my last one this year,’ and each time I prove myself wrong. Last week I was hurting for some timber rattlers again; it’s now very much like an addiction – not just the snakes but the whole experience of leaving the city, hiking out over rocky trails through the woods, and hopping from boulder to boulder in search of the rough, heavy beasts. Even now I look out the window at the blue sky and know there are probably thousands of rattlers basking in picturesque locales all across PA.

So, I planned a trip Sunday (October 5th), and pretty soon Scott, Simon, Eitan, and Eitan's wife Karyn were coming along as well. In a replay of the week before, the clouds were thick and low in the sky, but there were enough gaps of blue to convince us that it was worth hanging around. After some initial scouting, Eitan and Karyn went for a walk, and the remaining three of us poked around a bit and then stretched out on a cold boulder to chat and stare at the sky. It's hard to watch; the sun pokes through, but you see a swath of gray sweeping towards it, and you then try to find the back edge of the blanket of cloud (hard to call it just a 'cloud' when it's covering one quarter of the sky) and look beyond it for more blue.

After an hour of that the sun gained the upper hand. We now soaked up some rays ourselves even as we felt the rock sucking the heat out through our backs. We debated at what point the rocks would be warm enough to encourage the snakes to climb out onto them, but then I put my hand out on some leaf litter and found it warm to the touch.

That observation was enough to get us up on our feet and looking. We didn't have to look far; Scott peeked in between some stacked slabs maybe ten feet away and called out, "I've got one!"

Simon and I scrambled around behind him and pulled out our cameras. You can see it here peeking out into the sun, enjoying the rays, and making up its mind whether to come all the way out.

I called Eitan on his cell phone to let him know, and they started back. We fanned out to keep checking around boulders and sunny patches of leaf litter, finding no more timbers but feeling energized by the pretty black snake Scott had found.

Soon Eitan called back, I assumed to try to locate us, but instead he was reporting their own great luck: Karyn had spotted a copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)! See it basking so delicately sheltered by the oak leaf and the rock, soaking up that little patch of sun in between?

This last photo is Eitan's:

This is my first PA copperhead, and Scott's as well (come to think of it, it might have been the first PA copperhead for everyone there). I've seen them before in Ohio and in Georgia, and the others had seen scads of them down South, where they're one of the most common snakes you find crossing the road at night. In Pennsylvania they're pretty widespread across the bottom two thirds of the state, ranging through the rolling hills of Chester County, for example, but also found denning up with rattlers and black ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoleta) on rocky mountainsides.

The hard part about copperheads for me is how darn cute they are; I want to just reach out and pick them up when I see them. Of course that would be stupid. Their bite is generally not deadly, but it's strong enough to land me in the hospital and maybe permanently ruin a finger or two.

After our photo session with the copperhead, we led Eitan and Karen back to the rattler. By then it had curled itself up in a comfortable basking pose.

Eitan and Karyn had to make it to a play that evening, so they headed back to their car before we did. They called on their way back to the car to report another timber, and they were kind enough to mark the trail where they'd seen it so we could find it on our way out. We took a couple hours - we checked out some other likely den sites, and that took a LOT of hiking and scrambling around. By the time we made it to where they'd seen the snake, we needed the pick-me-up.

Here it is, back in a defensive pose.

Interestingly it was far from any plausible den site, at least a quarter mile by my estimation. I think it might still have been on its way back home, but there's always a chance of another den that I haven't found yet. I prefer the latter; it means there's yet more out there to explore.

Last thing, another hiker had introduced me to teaberries the week before. You can see them around the second rattler above, but here's a closeup:

They're not quite as fun as blueberries or cherries, but they have a refreshing minty/cinnamon taste, and I enjoyed munching on them as we hiked.