Wednesday, May 29, 2013

BOOM.....Not a bird!!

By Cory DeStein

Earlier today I decided to hit up the mountains of Fayette County again, rather than spending a day focused on the birding I decided to spend my morning looking for some of the regions reptiles! Unfortunately with my limited time schedule I was only able to come up with three species, but it was a great morning to be out exploring. I started my morning off along the Youghiogheny River, searching for Northern Copperheads. Of Pennsylvania's three species of venomous snakes, the Copperhead is the most widely distributed and abundant. The cryptic coloration of this species allows them to melt into their habitat of dried leaves on the forest floor. Earlier in the week my friend Aaron and I checked an area along the Yough River and nearly missed a snake right infront of us as it blended into leaf litter.
iPhone photo of Northern Copperhead

Heading back to the same area today, I did not find any snakes along the rocky hillside. Instead I checked along the river and along some of the rocky ledges where we had 2 copperheads earlier in the week. Sure enough not far from the original spot, the two snakes were sunning themselves in the early morning. A great start to the day!
2 Northern Copperheads

With the temperature increasing rapidly I decided to head up the ridge for rattlesnakes, before they retreated to the rocks to escape the heat. Timber Rattlesnakes can be found in the spring and fall basking at primarily southern facing outcrops, boulder fields, and forest openings. One of the most feared snake in Pennsylvania, I find they are one of the most timid, docile, and misunderstood. This is my third summer going out with the goal of finding these pit vipers, and the hunt has taken me to some truly beautiful habitat. Timber Rattlesnakes prefer forested habitat above 1800 feet in elevation, and Fayette County is exactly that. The first spot I hit was a secluded boulder field, where I have had up to 13 rattlers in the past as well as 4 different species of snake. This spring I have only observed two gravid(pregnant) females, but today only 3 Northern Ringneck Snakes were found.
Flipped a rock to find these 3 Northern Ringneck Snakes

Striking out on rattlers at the meadow, I headed over to a rocky outcrop that is reliable for the snakes through out the spring. Venturing out onto the rocky ledge, I encounter 2 Five-lined Skinks scurrying across the stones. Near the edge of outcrop I came upon the rock that has been most reliable for snakes, 9 rattlers were out sunning themselves along the boulder's edges. A few retreated under the rock as I approached, but a majority remained still and silent, relying on their perfect camouflage. Quite a few of these snakes were clearly gravid, impregnanted the previous summer and due to give birth to live young this fall. I was excited to find a small yellow phase hidden among 3 black phases, only the second yellow I have seen in the county.
First Yellow Phase I have seen in the county since 2010.

Soon the males and non-gravid females at this location will begin to move off into the forest, the males up to 2 miles from the den. The gravid females will carry out their 14 month gestation typically within 200 yards of the den. They will not typically feed during this time and will give birth to live young in late August to September. These females are not sexually mature until the age of 7 or 8, and males mature around the age of 5 years. Protecting the locations of these maternity sites is crucial in protecting the species from illegal collecting and poaching. In Pennsylvania snake hunters are allowed to collect 1 Timber Rattlesnake a year with a permit, only males over 42 inches in legnth with 21 or more sub-caudal scales. These are beautiful misunderstood creatures that for me represent the Pennsylvania Wilds. They face constant human threats everyday from vehicles, habitat destruction, poaching and just senseless killings.

Black Phase
Gravid females

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