A Visit to a Timber Rattlesnake Den

4 Jun

A few days ago I teamed up with some wildlife conservation friends and we ventured deep into a remote forest in the search of a Timber Rattlesnake den site.

The day started early and after a lengthy drive over rough and rutted roads (thank goodness for 4wd) we came to a remote pull off on the side of a long forgotten trail deep in the forest.  We geared up and headed off to shoot some rattlers–with cameras!  After a grueling hike up a steep mountainside covered in ripening blueberries we came to what looked like an impassible Rhododendron thicket…we dove in and picked our way through for at least a hour before we were rewarded on the other side by a view of a sprawling mountain bald laid out before our eyes.  It was a beautiful and somewhat surreal place, a fragile habitat that called for us to walk gingerly so we would not destroy the fragile mosses and lichens that grow like fairy gardens from the rocks.  Alan, our guide, pointed out a rock where he had seen several rattlers a few days before so we used our cameras to zoom in and search the area for occupants–and there they were, three large Timber Rattlesnakes basking in the morning sun!  They were beautiful snakes and they remained calm and still until we approached closer–then they began to rattle and slowly moved under the nearby rock to shelter from the huge creatures that had disturbed their morning basking ritual.  We laid down on the warm bald and used our cameras to zoom in and get some video and photos of these beautiful creatures (see video below).  Alan then noticed two rather plump Northern Copperheads sharing space under the rock with the rattlers–we took more pictures.

After we had our fill of the first rock Alan led us across the bald to another rock where we found a pile of rattlesnakes!  There were four in all and they were basking together in the warm morning sunshine.  Upon our approach they began to rattle and then they  moved quickly under their shelter rock to escape the invaders. We approached the rock and again flattened ourselves on the bedrock of the mountain to observe these beautiful and misunderstood creatures.  Several of them continued to rattle for a time until they felt content that we were not going to proceed any farther and harm them–then they calmed down and stopped rattling and let us take some more photos.

Nearby I found what looked to us like a possible den entrance hole and a shed timber rattlesnake skin.

We discussed the fact that so many chunky, healthy rattlers–7 in all–were basking together on this one small rocky bald.  We came up with the hypothesis that all of these snakes may be females and that this site may be a maternity/gestation site!  Female Timber Rattlesnakes and Northern Copperheads are live bearers–they do not lay eggs.  When they are gravid (pregnant) they move to a site that provides warmth in which to raise their body temperature and speed up gestation of the baby rattlers inside of them, shelter in the form of rocks to hide under and safety–these sites are usually far away from areas that humans frequent.  Not because the Timber rattlesnakes chooses these remote sites to be away from humans but because the other rattler maternity/den sites that were once in the areas where humans now range–have sadly all been destroyed by people that are fearful of snakes.

After surveying the remainder of the site for more rattlers and not finding any we decided to leave the site so not to further disturb these beautiful and sensitive creatures.  We have also decided to not return to the site any more than necessary so we limit the risk of stress to the snakes in this crucial time in their lives.  We may return in the late summer to see if the mothers have had their young and if we do I will be sure to report on it.

For the full story as it happened on film take a look at the video of our visit to a Timber Rattlesnake den.

The Timber Rattlesnake is vanishing from many parts of its range for many reasons:

Rattlesnakes are often killed on sight just because they are snakes.

Rattlesnakes are often collected from the wild for horrible rattlesnake roundups where they are tortured and killed and their arts are then sold for the production of boots, bags and belts and other rattlesnake trinkets and for their meager amount of meat.  These rattlesnake products are often used by people who believe that owning or eating a part of a rattlesnake will make them more desirable in some way.  In truth it makes them less desirable in all ways because they are supporting the continued killing of a beautiful, shy and unique creature that deserves to live.  Please do all you can to stop rattlesnake roundups.

Rattlesnakes are often kept as “pets” by people who like to keep snakes.   This is illegal in many areas without specialized state and possibly federally issued permits.

Rattlesnakes are often illegally sold to people in Asian countries for medicinal and fertility concoctions that do not work.

Because of the human persecution of Rattlesnakes–they are now extirpated (locally extinct) in many areas where they once ranged.

Many of these areas have now enacted protection for the rattlesnake.  In North Carolina it is illegal to collect, capture, possess or harm a rattlesnake unless it is threatening your life.  This means you cannot touch, harm or capture a rattlesnake if you see it in the forest while hiking/hunting/camping and so on.  The forest is the snakes home–not yours.  If the snake is in your kitchen or your child’s play area then that is a different story.  The snake has a role to play in the circle of life and it deserves to live just as much as we do.  If you are privileged and lucky enough to one day cross paths with a rattlesnake–stop.  Back up and marvel at this wonderful and beautiful creature that you have found.  Take out your camera and get some photos–from a safe distance of course.  Please do not harm the snake.  Please let it live and grow and play the part in nature that it is meant to play–the role of a very effective predator of rodents and food source for other creatures.

The fact is that many, many more rattlesnakes have been killed by people than people have been killed by rattlesnakes.  Less than 20 people per year die from the bite of venomous snakes in the USA.  How many people are killed by other people–it looks like we humans are FAR more dangerous than the rattlesnake will ever be.

For more on Earthshine Nature Programs please visit: Earthshine Nature Programs

If you are looking for a wonderful place to spend your next family vacation and learn about nature education and wildlife conservation then consider visiting Earthshine Mountain Lodge.


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