for National Geographic News
Of his frontier explorations for The Birds of America, Audubon wrote, "I never was troubled in the woods by any animal larger than ticks and mosquitoes." Reports from Asia of tigers carrying off people prompted Thoreau to state, "The traveller can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts."
As I pulled into the parking lot of a Connecticut nature preserve for a stroll, wild beasts were the furthest thing from my mind. Minutes after I began my walk, deer flies buzzed around my ears and two mosquitoes lodged in my left eye. Waiting for the burning to subside, I hiked with my eyes cast downward to avoid another kamikaze attack.
It was a warm and humid summer afternoon, and although it hadn't rained much for weeks, the trail was damp and any bare mud had a slippery green film. A few bird songs penetrated the thick air, but with only one good eye and alert to other insect piranhas waiting to strike, I did not look for the undaunted singers. It was a walk for exercise, not nature study, and I was disposed to get it over with.
Half way along my 90-minute route, I saw on a rocky ledge the scales that a snake had shed.
Once, at that same spot, I had encountered a black rat snake about six feet long and double the thickness of a garden hose. This time, I scanned the ledge for the shy constrictor. Instead, I found, nestled in a shallow fissure, a two-and-a-half-foot northern copperhead.
In an instant I forgot the heat, the stickiness, the birds, and the bloodthirsty bugs.
The copperhead, a venomous snake, is dangerous, but its bite is rarely life-threatening to healthy adult humans. Although Connecticut is near the northern limit of the snake's range, the nature preserves in which I walk have ample copperhead habitat: wooded streamside slopes with rock outcroppings.
Most people who go to the woods never see a copperhead because the snake remains motionless in its red and brown camouflage or senses, through vibrations in the ground, the steps of an approaching hiker and slithers away.
"Keep Your Distance"
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