Friday, May 07, 2010

I don't like driving far to go herping; I'm an inveterate localist. I try to stick within an hour range of home, but I'll stretch that for timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus). No other herp in our region has quite the same presence, the gravitas of a full grown velvet-tail.

I'm not greedy; I'll head to the hills for a glimpse at a one or two nice rattlers, sufficient to give me a pleasant buzz for the rest of the week, but last spring Scott and I stumbled into a scene we had only dreamed of. (I mean that literally - we both have very similar, repeating dreams of stumbling into piles of turtles or snakes, so many that we don't know what to do with all of them.) On that very real morning last May (2009), we were hiking towards a ledge on which I had seen a pregnant female basking the previous August (2008), scrambling and rock hopping over a talus field of large-appliance sized boulders when Scott pulled up short, his face seized by a mix of shock and wonder.

He was looking at a heap of timber rattlers, what I've since learned is colloquially called a 'pile up.' Here are a couple shots of the pile up, one from that first day (taken by Scott), another from a little later in the season:

We had found a rookery site, where gravid female rattlers spend the spring and summer basking in the sun together. They don't eat much for that season; they just focus on keeping their body temperatures up.

In late summer the girls had their babies, giving us some beautiful images of baby rattlers cuddling with their mamas in the sun (the first one by Eitan):

Gravid female rattlers stick close to their hibernation dens (a.k.a. hibernacula - timber rattlers den communally, generally at the same spot year to year), and last fall I suspected that I had found the den site at which all these snakes spend the winter. Here is a shot of three rattlers cozily basking in the October sun, sort of arranged in an equilateral triangle - see if you can spot all three.

I made a quick trip in early April, which is early for finding rattlers. If you know exactly where the actual hole or crack in the ground inside of which they're shacking up, you can find them basking right there, but last fall I had only narrowed it down to the right talus slope, which had a whole lot holes and cracks in the ground. Here is a pic of a similar talus slope to give people a sense of the terrain (note that I'm really careful not to specify where we're going - our code name for the spot is "Forbidden Ridge," and that's about as specific as I'll get):

On the first of May I made a trip back out there, and I brought some friends so I could be sure I saw the rattlers if they were out there. My herping buddy Eitan (whose herping page is still the finest personal herping page on the web) drove me up, and at Forbidden Ridge we met up with two other herpers, Dave and Chris, rattler bloodhounds of sorts whom I've long admired, specialists in scouting good habitat and sniffing out the snakes.

We hoofed it up to the slope, I feeling a little nervous - organizer's jitters as the guy leading three other guys who had driven a long way to find the snakes I had told them were there. My anxiety peaked as we huddled at the base of the supposed den talus slope. I pointed to where I had seen the snakes in the fall, and we started up, ready to step slowly from rock to rock, looking and listening (not for rattling - that doesn't take much focus to notice - but for the rustling slide of a snake slipping back into a shadow.).

We didn't look long: "There's one," Chris matter of factly stated a few steps up the slope. I let out a deep breath, knowing the day wasn't a total waste. From there it only got better, with each of us seeing multiple snakes as we moved up the slope, more or less confirming that this was indeed where they spent the winter.

The sun was strong, which meant the snakes didn't need to expose themselves very much to warm up, making for very few decent poses (we did not touch the snakes to reposition them.), but here's a nice yellow-phase snake in full sun and full glory:

We saw a few clustered around a nice looking hole in the ground as well, making us wonder if this is THE spot:

We saw several more snakes at other spots, though all pretty spread out, giving us the sense that some had started dispersing to their summer hunting grounds and rookery spots. Here is one cozy black-phase snake:

... and not too far away, evidence of another exciting creature that roams that ridge:

We usually see piles of bear poop, but I guess this one left a little more behind.

I saw a lot of this:

That's Chris getting photos of a snake - time after time he'd call out another snake he'd found, leaving me to scramble up behind him to record the coordinates and get my own photo (I report the finds to the PA Herp Atlas Project).

I'll wind up with the last snake we saw. I was standing on a boulder, peering around and chatting with Dave and Chris who were spread out a few yards away, when I heard that little bit of rustling nearby. I looked down to see this guy tucked in between the rocks where I wouldn't have been able to see it from any other angle.


Steve Willson said...

This is a really interesting post. There are timber rattlers in Shawnee State Forest, about 30 miles south of where I live in southern Ohio, but I've never run into any in the wild. An encounter like yours would have to be an amazing experience.

Ted C. MacRae said...

I would give anything to see one of those pile-ups, but then to find a bear skull like that? What a trip!

Bernard Brown said...

Thanks Ted and Steve,

Last year Eitan and another friend parked themselves a respectful distance away and watched the pile for a couple hours, the girls basking for long stretches with some shifting in and out of the shade. Sometimes I think we owe them some chipmunks for the privilege.

I should have mentioned that I have seen a live bear there too. I was coming up a lower part of the slope, too busy munching on blackberries and blueberries to pay close attention to anything else, and thinking to myself 'gosh, a bear would love all these berries,' just before I rounded a bank of rhododendron and nearly ran into a bear, which of course shot off into the woods before I could reach my camera.

Amber Coakley said...

What a great trip! My first thought when starting to read your post, was surprise to learn that these were all the same species - so much color variation. Beautiful. The pile-up is exhilarating.

It is also great to have a look at the terrain - so different from Blackland Prairie that surrounds my home.

Enjoyed it!