Friday, August 7, 2015

A Surprise Around the Bend!

While not intending for the title of this post to sound too philosophical, it is quite true that we never know what truly lies around the bend, whether it be life in general or things we endeavor to pursue.  As a general rule, I try to anticipate what might be coming and try to plan accordingly, so as not be hit head-on by the oncoming transfer truck, metaphorically speaking of course.  After 20-plus years of botanizing and searching the high and low places of Hickory Nut Gorge for unusual species, I have come to expect surprises in unusual places and am usually rewarded with experiences that leave me in awe.  My latest meandering is a perfect example.

Since my work at Chimney Rock Park, I have spent a great deal of time accumulating photographs, mostly of plants, in an effort to not only catalogue and record my work but to also serve as a visual inventory of the wonderful biodiversity that calls Hickory Nut Gorge home.  Someday perhaps my efforts will be shaped into what I consider a goal and career exemplifying achievement, but I won't bore you with those nefarious plans.  Needless to say, this effort has driven me to continue my exploration of the Gorge at every opportunity, in search of those things that I do not yet have a photographic record of and that tell the story that I want interested people to know .  Because wildflowers bloom at different seasons, timing is critical when there are certain species you want to capture.  In this particular case, I was in search of various species of summer sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) and a rare plant called broadleaf tickseed (Coreopsis latifolia).  Broadleaf tickseed is not an easy plant to photograph.  It’s sporadic in nature and does not always flower, not to mention it’s rare so it’s more or less a crap shoot when you happen to find it.  A couple of places I had already searched were low quality sites and were not yielding the nice flowers I was looking for so I decided I needed to go a little further off the beaten path.

The backside of Chimney Rock Mountain along the shoulders of Stony Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain is a treasure trove for some of the less common species of Hickory Nut Gorge and I knew it was there that I would likely find what I was looking for.  The area is remote and somewhat hard to get to, generally requiring some type of purpose in order to necessitate the gas usage to get back in there.  I made my way up the old mountain roads back in that part of the Gorge in search of my quarry.  I was certainly rewarded for my efforts too because I ended up with photographs of three different sunflower species as well as photos of broadleaf tickseed, all taken along the roadside.  There’s nothing better than being able to get wildflower pictures without a lot of effort.  Here are a few shots of what I saw:
Whiteleaf Sunflower (Helianthus glaucophyllus)
The white underside of a leaf of Helianthus glaucophyllus.
Broadleaf Tickseed (Coreopsis latifolia)
Broadleaf Tickseed (Coreopsis latifolia)
As I continued to drive along the old dirt road, I started around a bend and noticed a large, black cylinder.  At first I thought it was a black log, but it had a weird appearance to it that didn't look quite angular enough for a piece of wood, further drawing my attention.  As I got closer, I noticed the pattern and then I saw the rattle and my heart skipped a beat.  I stopped the truck in the middle of the road, unconcerned about any vehicle traffic way back up in the sticks.  The moment my foot stepped out of the truck, this huge timber rattlesnake went from straight as a stick to coiled like a cable and rattling.

I was looking at quite possibly the largest timber rattlesnake I have ever encountered in the wild.  What made it even more special was that it was a black phase timber rattler which I had also never encountered in the wild up to that point.  I am generally not afraid of snakes, at least not in the irrational way that most humans are, but I do have that inborn sense of alarm when I am in the presence of snakes, particularly with really big snakes.  All humans are born with this response.  We are genetically pre-disposed to recognize a snake as a possible threat and therefore the alarm goes off.  That doesn't mean that it causes me to want to destroy the snake, it just heightens my situational awareness to biologically prepare my body for a fight or flight response.  The irrational fear of snakes is a learned behavior stemming from experience and bias usually taught to us by our ancestors.  In this instance, my senses were in overdrive.  Every pore tingled as I looked this big snake over.  I was intimidated to say the least because of the snake's size and the fact that I didn't know just how cooperative this snake was going to be given how quickly it detected my presence and reacted accordingly.

The adrenaline was pumping as I fumbled to change lenses on my camera.  As big as this snake was, I didn’t want to risk getting too close on possible uneven footing so using a telephoto lens was a sensible approach and helped me to get over the initial shock.  I adjusted my lens and started shooting pictures.  The big rattler remained tightly coiled with its head pressed flat to its body.  The rattle was held erect and incessantly buzzed during the entire course of the encounter.  The rattle sounded so loudly, that it seemed the woods had become silent.  I heard no birds or other sounds of the living forest.  All life it seemed had stopped in response to the buzzing alarm of this huge snake.

After several shots, the adrenaline rush began to fade and I got a feel for how the snake was going to behave.  I decided I needed to get an estimate of the snake’s size so that I could add it to my records.  I never leave home without my trusty snake hook, so I grabbed it out of the truck and gently prodded the rattling snake.  My family always hates hearing about me doing that.  The first thing my mom said when I was telling her the story was, "And you didn't have anybody with you either!"   Admittedly, I didn't and safety is paramount in such events, but sometimes the risk is worth it, not to mention if I was worried about such things I would never leave the house by myself.  As a general rule, when it comes to venomous snakes, I don't take unnecessary chances or risks.  I know my limits.  I always assess a snake's behavior before ever making physical contact.  I always use a snake hook if I need to move the snake, and I do not touch the snake with hands unless I am on flat, firm ground, one end of the snake is hook supported, and there is a reason to do so such as bagging, tagging, probing, weighing, measuring, etc.  One mistake could be too costly so I try to limit the stress for me and the snake and relegate most encounters to gentle prodding for picture posing.  With particularly big rattlesnakes, because of their shear size and weight, a hand is necessary in order to support their weight and prevent injuries to the snake, but again lifting a large rattlesnake off the ground should only be necessary when the snake is being studied or purposefully relocated for safety reasons.  In this instance there was no reason whatsoever for me to physically touch this snake with my hands, so I didn't.   

After being prodded with the hook, the big snake obliged by moving in the opposite direction of the poke, allowing me to then manipulate it into an outstretched position.  Although the snake continued to rattle, it tolerated the gentle pulling action of the hook until I could get a chance to get a reasonable estimate on length.  My hook is 3.5 feet in length.  Laid beside the snake, there was easily at least one more foot of snake beyond my hook, placing the snake somewhere in the 4 to 5 foot range.  The girth diameter of the snake at its middle was about 3.5 inches.  With no appropriate equipment for accurately sexing the snake, and no one to help me, I am going out on a limb to say that based on sheer size and tail length, this was probably a male snake and by the looks of things, had probably been around for several years.  Males typically are larger and heavier bodied than females but it takes several years for a snake to achieve the size of this one, particularly in the wild.

Using my hook, I once again re-positioned the snake so that I could get some additional photos.  At no time did this snake ever threaten to strike or go into a strike position.  All it did was rattle and try it’s best to be as still as possible, fully demonstrating that these snakes are not mean or aggressive, but rather are timid, afraid, and just want to be left alone so they can live and perform their ecological function.  That is not to say that timber rattlesnakes should not be respected.  They are highly venomous and can be deadly and that fact alone should encourage people to be extremely cautious around them, but it should not be a reason to senselessly kill them. It's interesting to me how we have such a predisposition to kill venomous snakes (or any snake) even though more people die from vehicle accidents, falls, bees, and heart disease in a given year than from venomous snake bites.  Yellow jackets scare me to death.  They have potent venom and a nasty disposition when disturbed, yet for some reason they don't draw nearly the attention for causing death as any of our native venomous snakes.  It just shows how illogical we can be in our biases and opinions.

I recently talked to a guy who was having what he believed was a rattlesnake problem.  He had even gone as far as to blow a sizable snake in half with a shotgun and post the photos on social media.  In my conversation with this fellow, I surmised that his rattlesnake issue was stemming from the fact that he had a severe rodent problem because he had lots of junk and old cars around his property.  I offered to come out and look for rattlesnakes and see if I could help him with his supposed problem but he flatly turned me down, saying that he could take care of the problem in short order, meaning, "I've got a shotgun and I know how to use it".  I informed him that timber rattlesnakes are protected in North Carolina as non-game and endangered wildlife and that the NC Wildlife Resources Commission could pay him a visit if he keeps putting dead snake pictures on social media.  This man's so-called problem was of his own making.  He had unintentionally created habitat for rodents, inevitably leading predators to his property.  In all honesty, those snakes were doing him a favor, probably killing hundreds of mice over a period of time.  When you look at the number of dread diseases that are spread by mice, and the number of mice that various snakes eat, it looks like a fair trade to me, having the snakes around.  I'm certainly not saying that I necessarily want a den of rattlesnakes in my yard to control my rat population...let's not carried away, but I am saying that I'd rather have snakes than be overrun with unwanted pests.  The bottom line is we have to consider our actions regarding all species of wildlife and the consequences those actions have on the ecological balance.

So, to end this story, I put the camera up and climbed back in the truck and continued on my journey for wildflowers.  I came to the Chimney Rock State Park back gate and turned the truck around.  As I passed back by the place where I saw the snake, I looked to see if it was still there.  It was nowhere to be found.  My guess is that it beat a hasty retreat and found a nice pile of brush or some other place to hide to recover from its traumatic encounter with me.  As always, I experienced this intense rush of emotion, knowing that I had seen something that is becoming increasingly rare in the wild.  Timber rattlesnakes are legendary and were even revered by the early settlers who came to this land.  It was so respected that it was chosen as a symbol of liberty and warning to the British monarchy in the days of Revolution.   I will always be mystified by these magnificent creatures and hate to think that sometime, possibly in the not too distant future, this species may totally disappear from existence.  That should be a sobering thought for us all. 

For more up close and personal shots of this beautiful snake you can view my Flickr Album at the following link:                                   Timber Rattlesnake Album

Until next time!