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Birder's Journal: Toxic Snakes Add Jolt to Nature Stroll

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2002
 
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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"

This was not my first encounter with a copperhead. Years ago, on another trail, I narrowly missed stepping on one. Before it escaped, I moved behind it and dangled a very long stick above its head, trying to get it to strike.

Looking back, I realize this was foolish, but I had been curious. The snake outsmarted me: Although it was coiled up like a spring, following the motion of the stick with its head, it refused to strike. Why waste precious venom on an inanimate object?

The haunts of this latest copperhead were similar to those of the first: an eastern slope on a rocky hill, surrounded by thickets of mountain laurel and mixed woods, with a stream nearby.

Coiled loosely in the cleft of a tranquil hillside, resting quietly in the hazy light of a summer afternoon, the snake presented no overt threat. Still, something about the copperhead said, "Keep your distance."

Perhaps it was the snake's bold patterning, or the thickness of its body, or its broad skull, or the way it just lay there, exuding quiet confidence in its ability to repel a much larger animal.

Leaving space between us, I sat on the sloping ledge and studied the creature—the copper-colored upturned head, an eye with the pupil narrowed into a vertical slit, the brown hourglass-shaped cross bands along the pale brick-red body. The cross bands are narrow at the back, wide at the sides. Usually there are conspicuous brown dots between some of the bands. This snake's appearance was typical, but the color and pattern of copperheads varies.

Through my binoculars, I saw the heat-sensing facial pit between the eye and nostril, which identifies the copperhead as a pit viper. The rarer and more dangerous timber rattlesnake, the only other venomous snake of the Northeast, belongs to the same family.

I was focused so intently on this copperhead that ten minutes or so elapsed before I noticed a second shed snakeskin. And then a third, farther down the ledge.

Nest of Vipers

Satisfied that the motionless copperhead before me had no inclination to approach, I stretched out my legs, leaned back on my elbows, and let my eyes wander across the surroundings.

My gaze fell on an alarming sight—another copperhead. But this one was huge, surely the largest copperhead on Earth. It appeared to be about eight feet long, and it rested in a crevice a yard from my heels. I folded my legs and slid away from the monster before getting up from the rock.

I was more confused than frightened by the unexpected encounter. I knew that copperheads rarely exceed three-and-a-half feet, so how could this reptile exist?

Now that I was out of striking range, I looked more carefully, and counted three heads. It wasn't the mythical Hydra, but three normal-size copperheads curled up together, taking a siesta.

Piled into the crevice, they made me think of disemboweled, living intestines. One of the snakes was wedged between the rock and the base of a sapling, the kink in its body apparently having no ill effect on the circulation.

The snoozing snakes never moved, never tasted the air with their forked tongues.

Disturbed that I had been reclining unsuspectingly with vipers, I became snake-paranoid. The copperhead is gregarious; I had found four on this ledge, but perhaps there were others.

No longer trusting my eyes, I checked and rechecked the rocky ledge, scrutinizing every nook for more copperheads. On the return trail I tread lightly and kept checking. Against the reds and browns of the forest floor, the well camouflaged copperhead could be anywhere.

I stopped at every unusual rock, every pile of decaying wood, every bed of rust-colored leaves, the base of every bush. If I continued this way, I'd never make it out of the woods. And stepping so stealthily probably increased my risk of surprising a copperhead.

My only choice was to walk normally and trust that the thud of my boots would warn any other snakes that may have been in the area to withdraw. Eventually I reached the safety of the trailhead, where I've anchored my walks in the nature preserve for more than 25 years.

Why not eliminate venomous snakes and make the woods safer for all hikers?

We have enough manicured parks and lightly traveled roads for safe walking, however. The destruction of native animals would be antithetical to the purpose of a nature preserve.

A scrape with nature's hidden potential danger gives the dedicated hiker a raw thrill. Other thrill-seekers have river rapids and mountain precipices. Let me have my beautiful and fearsome copperheads.

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