Friday, October 31, 2008

I haven't posted enough about my black ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoleta) obsession, or, depending how I look at it, it's best that I don't post about my black ratsnake obsession.

I didn't start the season (back in March?) with a black ratsnake obsession. They were one of my favorite species to find, indeed probably tops on my list, but I could count on seeing at least a few (two in 2006, four in 2007) in a year's worth of slogging around wetlands and lowland forest and hiking through the mountains of PA. Their ubiquity gave me a false sense of reliability - they live in all the habitats I herp - upland, lowland, the edges of wetlands, farmland tree lines, and remote mountain ridges. A snake that I have a chance to see on every trip outside the city should show itself to me at least once, but that's not what's happened.

Other people have suffered black ratsnake droughts - Eitan most famously in my herping circle, and a herper from the DC area who posts frequently on Field Herp Forum recently posted that he broke a four year spell. Even the great Kauffeld wrote about a ratsnake drought in Snakes and Snake Hunting.

As the season has progressed, I've grown more frustrated and focused on black ratsnakes to an emotionally unhealthy degree. What makes this especially infuriating is that it's very difficult to focus on finding black ratsnakes. They're not predictable in the same way as spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) or rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), species that, if you know where they live, will almost always be out at specific times of the year under specific weather conditions. I know several black ratsnake spots, but however often I've visited them this year, I've come up empty-handed. Black ratsnakes frequently cohabit with timber rattlers, for example, and I've spent a lot of time with rattlers this fall, but nary a ratsnake have I seen.

I tried to break my dry spell with a trip to the mountains on the 13th. This was a longer drive than I usually do for a day trip, but I wanted to return to where I'd seen the gravid timber on August 23rd (see my August 27th post). I got in one hell of a hike - about five solid hours of hiking almost directly up a ridge and then scrambling around a line of short cliff faces and boulders.

I should note the spectacular views from the top. I hardly ever post gorgeous vistas like this (this will be no exception), with a valley spread out below me, a patchwork of deep reds, bright yellow, and blazing orange. Basically I'm afraid someone will recognize the landscape and deduce the locale, even when I suspect, as in this case, that it's a place that none of my fellow herpers have visited. You'll have to use your imagination, I guess, but the point I'd like to get across is how surprised I was at how beautiful it was - I don't go out herping for the views, however predictably gorgeous they'll be from the top of the rocky ridge lines I work for rattlers. In addition my eyes are usually on the rocks at my feet, not at the view behind me, so when I turn around and see a view that belongs on a postcard, I'm always surprised and delighted that it's been there behind me the whole time.

However successful the hike was, I ended the day disappointed. I only saw one snake, and then just barely. I had scrambled to the top of yet another rocky shelf sticking out of the mountainside, and as I made it up to my feet I heard a slow sliding noise, that steady rustling of dead leaves that gives away a moving snake. I jerked my head around to look and saw a thin black tail disappearing under a boulder. There was no rattle on that tail, which leaves two possibilities: black racer (Coluber constrictor) or black ratsnake. Now in my notes I've recorded this as a mystery snake (my term for an unidentified snake, kind of like the mystery turtles that dive before I get a good look at them or the mystery frogs that you hear jumping in the water before you know they're there), but I'm leaning towards ratsnake. That wooded, rocky terrain doesn't strike me as racer habitat (I could be wrong, but I associate them more with flat, open woods or overgrown fields), and the snake was not escaping like a racer. Racers tend to zip away in dramatic fashion, kind of like a guy in a sports car showing off. This snake was sliding away slowly, gracefully getting out of sight before I noticed it was there, and of course it succeeded in doing just that.

I'm not counting this as a success. It certainly doesn't feel satisfying; I didn't get to handle the snake (my favorite part of finding ratsnakes) or see it rear back in that ascending zig-zag that ratsnakes use to look tough. I'm obsessed as I was before, and of course now I'm facing the long winter - four and a half hard months of guaranteed ratsnake-less frustration.