Monday, May 31, 2010

I've been getting up to the mountains less often than I would like, but over Memorial Day weekend I managed a trip to an entirely new spot (for me at least). I haven't done this in at least a year - visit a new place during optimal rattlesnake searching weather (I've scouted new places in winter, but I haven't gone back to check them out in season).

As usual, I was late. The weather was sunnier and warmer than I would have preferred for rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), and even though I had gotten up obscenely early and the roads were clear, I knew that by the time I reached my south-facing hillside destination the sun would have a few hours jump on me and that it would feel hot, whatever the forecast said. I guess I'd have had to have woken up a couple hours before dawn to reach the slope around the same time as the sun, but I still felt delinquent about it.

Whatever I would find that day, I would earn it, I thought as I hiked nearly straight up the ridge, breaking away from the trail when it stopped going my way. I crested the ridge, already sweating profusely, and checked my coordinates. Something rustled beside me, and I took this little American toad as a good omen.

I followed the top of the ridge a little while, and then dropped pretty much straight down the ridge, which continued to pitch steeper and steeper as I went.

In the summer the foliage keeps you from getting clear views of the rocks and cliffs until you're right up on them. Teasing glimpses of gray or white keep you hacking through the next greenbriar or blackberry thicket (note to self: this spot will taste fabulous in another month), and after a few such patches that yielded nothing, I hit a cliff face I couldn't manage. I turned uphill and started scrambling, hacking up the 50 degree pitch (I'm not exaggerating; I checked it on Google Earth) to the top of that particular cliff.

Greenbriar doesn't have the worst thorns of the forest, but its long, flexible vines do a great job of wrapping around your leg and then tripping you before you realize they've started puncturing your pants and your skin. I end up taking big, sweeping strides to negotiate greenbriar, either stepping over it or trying to trap it down with the sole of my boot so that I can clear it without any trouble.

I was taking just such a long step, focusing on catching the briars with my boot when the pattern recognition part of my brain sounded the alarm.

I was aiming my foot only a few inches away from the most perfectly coiled, pretty little yellow timber rattler basking in just a dapple of sunshine on the leaf litter (the shot above from after the light had shifted a little, the one below earlier in the photo session).

The combination of my heart already pounding from the exertion and then the adrenalin rush of nearly stepping on a rattler, PLUS the general thrill of having validated the whole trip with the target species, clean overwhelmed me. I took a couple photos (that little rattler didn't flinch, but I did see it breathing hard) and then called Scott and babbled incoherently until I calmed down.

I took a drink of water, took some more photos, and bid the little guy farewell. I found a couple more rattlers - one I saw, and one I only heard duck away under the boulder next to the one I was standing on.

The way that girl was tucked in among the boulders and the alacrity with which the other had hid implied that finding any others was going to be hard; they were already warmed up and jumpy. I hiked around a bit more, in scouting mode more than hunting mode.

I was late getting home too. I tore myself off the slope too late and then booked it back down through the woods again.

These woods were mostly deciduous, with lots of chestnut oak trees, with bark textured with blocky ridges and long, wavily indented leaves. As I was charging along through the woods, though, a sapling caught my eye.

That wasn't a chestnut oak. In fact, it looked like... a real chestnut tree? These were wiped out by the chestnut blight a hundred years ago. Some of the old roots keep sending up shoots that grow for a few years before the blight strikes them down again.

I thought "huh, that's cool," and then kept on trucking. It was only later that I realized I should have written down the coordinates. The PA chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation needs to know about all the trees we find; the better to build up a genetically diverse, resistant base of chestnut trees to repopulate our woodlands.


Planter said...

Thanks for the fantastic Castanea dentata shot. Love the blog, and as a mostly plant-oriented naturalist type, it was fun to see a great plant reference amongst the herps. But I really enjoy your writing - it definitely makes me more aware and appreciative of the reptiles and amphibians that crawl, slither, or hop through my beloved vegetation. Again - thanks for the blogging!

Bernard Brown said...

Thanks for confirming the ID and the kind words. I am going to be hiking up that slope a few more times this year, and I will see if I can't stumble across it again, this time with my pen and notepad ready.

Planter said...

It certainly looks like a dentata from the single image. For a more certain identification, snap some shots of the attachment points of the leaves to the twigs, of the undersides of the leaves, and of the twigs and bark. The Missouri Botanical Garden has a nice key to chestnut identification online:

For an image-based reference (would give you an idea of some of the best photos to take for identification) check out:

Good luck finding it again!