Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rounding out the Year with Rattlesnakes

One of the biggest ways conservation organizations protect species is by raising awareness. The general public really could care less to protect something they know nothing about. Every year, countless brochures, videos, and other forms of media are created for outreach programs for a particular endangered species. The problem being an imperiled rattlesnake is that, well it's a rattlesnake. To many rural residents of the Wolverine state, the only good snake is a dead snake. And even though the Eastern Massasauga is an extremely shy species, people in rural Washtenaw & Oakland counties want nothing to do with them and would just as soon kill them. So, how do you educate the public about a rattlesnake that can be locally common not far from human habitation? Well, some county and state parks have taken a few steps in order to try and raise awareness.

Road signs such as these two at two popular parks are a perfect example of raising awareness for the well being of the species. Both parks have roadways which cut through appropriate rattlesnake habitat and often these rattlesnakes are found smashed on the roadways, even when the speed limit is 25 mph. Although signs such as these do not eliminate road mortality completely, they at least alert motorists to be mindful when driving in the parks so that sights like this are avoided.

This young Eastern Massasauga was still writhing when I drove up on it and had been obviously hit shortly before. It twitched for a few minutes and eventually died.  I hate seeing any snake dead on the road, much less this species on a driveway to a nature preserve. Many of the trails at such parks and nature preserves cut through appropriate habitat where rattlesnakes are found. Some parks have taken the liberty to warn guests that they are passing through rattlesnake habitat and are required to stay on trails. This protects the snakes, the people, and the habitat the snakes inhabit.

In some cases though, people don't need to go wandering through waist high grass and sedges in order to have an encounter with a rattlesnake. This beautiful individual was sunning itself right in the middle of the trail at a preserve in southeast Michigan in late July.

Later during the outing on the same morning, this monstrous adult male was found basking just off the edge of a trail on a grassy hillside in the morning sun. I've seen this particular snake  few years in a row and he is well within the 30" range and always puts on a great show.

As I mentioned earlier, most parks and preserves encourage visitors to stay on trails for their own safety and in order to protect vegetation and other wildlife. But on state land, there's nothing wrong with doing a little free roaming through appropriate habitat to look for snakes. On another particular evening in late July, my cousin and I ventured to a grassland which is adjacent to a tamarack swamp in hopes of bumping into a few snakes. We ended up running in to two individual snakes, a large gravid female and a freshly shed male.

As the summer turns to fall, my field time becomes much more limited as school takes over. But every now and then there's time to get out and do a bit of poking around. One a unseasonably warm October weekend, I met up with good friends Chris and Colin one morning at one of our favorite spots to have a look around. Before Chris and Colin arrived, I noticed a dark stick in the middle of trail which turned out to be much more than a broken branch.

This adult female was calmly making her way across the trail towards a tamarack swamp area and was extremely sluggish. She is a snake that I had seen several times over the summer and she was obviously thin which indicated she has been gravid in the summer and dropped a clutch of babies. She was obviously a freshly shed snake as well, as indicated by her bold coloring.

As the morning progressed, more rattlesnakes made appearances on this unusually warm October day. We noticed two rattlesnakes that were basking side my side only a few feet apart. We snapped a few photos and then both of the snakes proceeded to dart down burrows that were right next to them, indicated these snakes were at their hibernation sites.

More than a month later, temps again soared in early Novemeber. So I decided to meet up with my friend Chris at one of our favorite sites to see if any snakes were out. Temperatures were in the low 60s and the string of days before had been around the same temperature. We walked a lot of trails and habitat and eventually we were fortunate enough to stumble across a lone rattlesake basking in the late afternoon.

So once again another field reason rolls to a close and I'll have to wait til April of next year before these awesome little rattlesnakes emerge once again. Until then, stay warm!


  1. Nick,

    Amazing photos. Would you consider writing a short blurb about a rattlesnake encounter for a compilation on my blog? More information is available here:


  2. Hey Dave,

    I'd love to help out. Any account of a species encounter you're particularly interested in?