Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pinebrakes of the Pine Barrens

The excessively hot & dry weather here in New Jersey over the past few weeks has put a real damper on any sort of snake movement as of late. Repeated trips to the pine barrens has yielded few, if any snakes at all, with the exception of a lone Northern Pine Snake seen very early in the morning on the 4th of July. I've been itching to finding a pinelands rattlesnake since I arrived back in May and what would seem to be a moderately difficult task has turned into a full fledged unicorn hunt. There are one or two well known and heavily trafficked locations for timber rattlesnakes in the pine barrens, and both are usually home to at least one or two gravid females during the blistering hot summer months. But for whatever reason, they have been apparently absent from these locations this summer. An influx of irresponsible herpers with hooks and rakes have probably not only harassed the snakes but also degraded habitat enough at these sites that the rattlesnakes have wised up and decided to set up shop elsewhere. Finally, a prolonged and heavy rain hit the southern reaches of the state this morning and then cleared out by mid afternoon. Hoping the rain would either produce some snakes under cover or stimulate some movement, I headed south. After a circus involving locking my keys, cell phone, and wallet in my car, I finally got on some cover and flipped for several hours to no avail. The sun broke and temperatures rose into the low 90s, so I decided to drive some habitat in hopes of scoring a rattlesnake on the move. I'm glad I decided to do so, because I scored this monster male crossing a road at 6:45 PM.

Timber Rattlesnake - Crotalus horridus

An ominous and impressive snake to meet in the field, timber rattlesnakes are always a treat. This big boy was more than happy to stand his ground and allow me to take a few photos before disappearing into the thick understory of pine scrub. Some people have compared the timbers of the pine barrens to the canebrakes of the southeastern United States. Although they share similar coastal plain forests as their habitat and lowland swamps as winter retreats, the two are not similar in appearance for the most part. However, their look is unique among other timber populations and has garnered them the name "pinebrake" by some affectionate herpetologists. Nonetheless the pine barrens population is a special one, they are rarely seen and extremely isolated. Sadly, these snakes have had and continue to have a hard time with people. Historically, habitat loss was the main factor which contributed to their declines in the pine barrens, but now it is conflicts with humans which continue to plague its numbers. Many are still killed needlessly out of ignorance or lose their lives my motorists which either do not pay attention or run them down intentionally. 

The NJ Department of Fish & Wildlife, Pinelands Commission, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, and other conservation organizations continue to fight for the long term survival of this species in the New Jersey pine barrens. The biggest threat to the future of the timbers of the pines is us. If you're fortunate enough to encounter one of these impressive snakes, admire it from a distance and leave it be. I've attached a short video I took of the snake for your viewing pleasure, enjoy!

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