Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Pile of Rattlesnakes

A pile of rattlesnakes warming up in the sun under the barn door on an early March day.  
We saw 18 snakes on the Dipper Ranch in 2015 despite the fourth year of drought compared to just 9 snakes in 2014. Rather than slam all the 2015 snake photos and stories into one post, I'll split them into shorter posts over the next week. At the end, you'll get to vote for your favorite snake which will go on the Dipper Ranch 2015 walnut label.

We've carefully moved Northern Pacific rattlesnakes away from the farmyard for many years, but we still have a lot to learn from them. The 2015 snake sightings began and ended with rattlesnakes, but 8 total rattlers isn't out of the range of prior years. The days and nights turned consistently warm early in 2015, and I knew the snake season was also starting early when I saw four rattlesnakes around the barn in early March. Did I mention that I think the abandoned barn is a winter den for rattlesnakes?

On March 8, I was out in the yard with Mango the cat, letting him chew on fresh green grass but keeping a sharp eye out for coyotes. I looked over towards the barn and noticed there were bands of dark and light on the ground beneath the rear sliding door. I snatched up Mango and took a few steps closer. Yep, it was a tangled pile of rattlesnakes.

I tossed Mango in the house and grabbed my snake relocation gear. With heads, rattles and coils intertwined, I wasn't sure how many rattlers were piled in the patch of sun and puzzled over where to aim the snake tongs. But feeling anxious to capture them quickly, I just grabbed for the biggest girth. A heavy rattler buzzed in annoyance at having its sun-nap disturbed (or whatever it was they were doing). I dropped it into the snake bucket and slammed on the lid. I saw a smaller rattlesnake slip under the door. I briefly peeked inside the barn but I've never been keen about searching for a venomous snake in a closed space so I went for Alertness Level 2 - checking the sunny spots outside the barn several times a day.

Lizards favor sunny rocks and are a good place for snakes to hunt.   
The next day I walked the captured snake a mile away from the house and released it in a sunny meadow with reptile-friendly looking rocks. It was a fat snake with 8 rattle segments. Hopefully, it had been eating mice in the barn.

Again at the barn door. A patch of sun near a hiding place - a good spot to be alert for snakes in the early spring.   
On my hike back to the house, I checked the barn again and sure enough, there was a rattlesnake circling underneath the same barn door. It was probably the snake I missed the day before trying to relocate its lost companion. With my snake gear still in hand, I quickly grabbed this one and dropped it into the recently emptied bucket.

The crumbling pig pen required mowing every year to keep the weeds down and one never knew what was afoot under all those fallen pieces. I'm glad the structure is gone now.   
Clearly, this was one of those warm spring periods when the rattlesnakes come out of their winter dens. I rechecked the sunny sides of the barn and then remembered the pigpen. Last summer, the crew took down the crumbling pigpen and hauled off the leaning posts, mossy boards and flapping corrugated metal roof. They did a great job cleaning up the junky site and left me a present - a big shed snake skin laid out on the concrete pad. I couldn't make out any clear pattern on the faded skin but convinced myself it was probably from a harmless gopher snake since they are the longest snakes I see around the Dipper Ranch. I've always suspected the collapsed pigpen was a snake hideout and gritted my teeth every spring when I had to walk into the jumble to cut down the weeds that grew among its fallen beams.

Another sunny spot near hiding places under rocks and a concrete pad - a good guess that a rattlesnake would be enjoying the early spring sun here.   
On this warm March day, I walked down to the former pigpen and carefully scanned the concrete pad and the big rocks which had gotten dislodged from beneath it. There was a large snake curled up in dappled sun at a broken edge of the concrete. With keels standing up on its big scales it looked like another rattlesnake. As I reached over and touched the snake with the tongs, it slipped beneath the net in my other hand and lunged under a big rock. I had a solid grip on the snake with the tongs, but it was grabbing somewhere midbody rather than just behind the head which is the best way to control a snake. Somehow, without the help of any limbs or digits, the snake was gripping tightly underneath the rock and I couldn't get it to budge. I took several deep breaths and remembered that slow steady pressure is the best way to move a snake. Within 15 seconds it weakened a little and I tugged out a few more inches but still couldn't see the head. A few seconds later, I felt another pause and was able to pull the snake completely out from underneath the rock and fling it into the open pillowcase before it got a chance to turn around and focus on me with its heat-sensing pits. This rattlesnake was long but quiet as I knotted the pillowcase and dropped it into the snake bucket with the previous captive.

Unwrapped at the release site, the pigpen rattler shows its full length. No wonder I couldn't get it out from underneath the rock at first.   
Golden eyes with a vertical slit and small scales between the eyes - other characteristics of rattlesnakes.  
By 3:30 pm on the same day, I made a repeat check of the farmyard and saw gold vertically-slit eyes peeking out from underneath a wooden box leaning against another corner of the barn. At last, a snake that presented its head for easy snagging with the tongs. That rattler went into another pillowcase and the snake bucket too. I didn't want to deal with anymore rattlesnakes for the day so I went inside to wash dishes.

Four smooth rattle segments on the smaller rattlesnake found under the barn door on the second day.   
All three of the rattlesnakes were relocated far away from the farmyard the next day. Feisty or frozen, they each gave me a good chance to photograph them and assess their size.

Four rattle segments with the tip of the button snapped off on the first large rattlesnake pulled out from under the barn door.   
Next up are more colorful snakes of 2015:  Counting Triads


Northern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus oreganus

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