Monday, January 5, 2009

Rangeland Rattlers on the 4th of July

I have only seen two rattlesnakes on the other 899 acres of the Dipper Ranch - the grassy range, forested hills and steep creeks. I saw them both during a hot July 4th hike, they were small and at locations I didn't expect them.

Subject 031
I was using an old grazing map to track down a former spring in Pasture 2. I walked up a steep ravine, following several eras of tangled pipes. Finally, I determined that the top of the bowl-shaped drainage had slipped and the former springbox was probably buried. I headed back down the ravine stopping frequently to decide where to step among the dense ferns and slippery banks. Just before I placed my boot on a narrow earthen bench next to a small pool, I noticed a small rattlesnake resting there in a flat coil. Subject 031's rattle was not marked by red spraypaint as Subject 028 which we had released 15 days earlier at a location 0.6 miles away in a southeastly direction.

I didn't expect to see a rattlesnake among ferns or next to water. However, I guess it makes sense. This was one of the few drainages that still had water after a dry winter and the fellow could have been waiting for small critters to come to the pool for a drink. Rather than pulling my camera out of my pack while balancing on the banks, I quickly backed off and went up the other side of the ravine.

Subject 032

Venturing further west in Pasture 2 on that day, I came across a calf carcass I had originally found freshly scavenged in early March. Four months later, the carcass was mostly hides and bones. I continued on and searched the west end of Pasture 2 to see if I could find any signs of the other 2 missing calves with no luck. As I returned past the March carcass, I decided to take photos to document how a carcass changes over time. When I focused my camera on the carcass, I suddenly realized there was a rattlesnake curled up on the black hide. Cow bones and rattlesnake - was this some sorta motorcycle dude tattoo? The small rattlesnake looked like a jungle king on his soft velvet cushion.

Notice that Subject 032 is in what is known as a resting coil. The snake's still body rests flat on the ground or slightly piled on top of other coils, with the head resting on the outer loop. If the snake was aggravated, it would get into a striking coil with its posterior end in a wide loop on the ground (as a sturdy base for a possible forward lunge), the anterior end raised vertically and in a loose S-shaped wave, and the body swelling, shaking, rattling and hissing (Klauber).

In a resting coil, a rattlesnake may be asleep or awaiting prey at a good hunting spot. It could also be using its first level of defense when aware of a potential enemy - holding still which along with its cryptic coloration might result in the enemy not detecting its presence. I often see rattlesnakes in the resting coil position (see most of the photos in the Barnyard Brats posting). Be forewarned that a rattlesnake is capable of dangerous bites in any position, however, the type of coil indicates how threatened a snake feels and the likelihood of it escalating to its next levels of defense - flight and/or strike (Klauber).

I didn't have the nerve to disturb Subject 032 to determine if it had a red-marked rattle. I decided to let him lounge peacefully on his velvet cushion and I headed straight home as I had had enough fireworks for my 4th of July.

Laurence M. Klauber, Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind, abridged edition, University of California Press, 1982.

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