Rattlesnakes in the Quehanna

Timber rattlesnakes are awesome creatures that have a unique place in their ecosystem.

a dark-colored timber rattlesnake coiled up in brown leaves
A dark morph timber rattlesnake, there is also a light morph with lighter brown between the chevron pattern.

On a recent backpacking trip in the Quehanna Wild Area, I crossed paths with several timber rattlesnakes. Resting on the side of the trail, some of the snakes rattled, a few hissed, and others remained silent as I maneuvered around them with a wide berth. I can respect an animal’s personal space, particularly if it appears annoyed and is capable of injecting life-threatening venom. Despite their fearsome reputation, I’m quite fond of these unique and remarkable creatures.

Timber rattlesnakes are the most common of the three venomous snakes in Pennsylvania (the massasauga and copperhead also call PA home). Still, these beautifully patterned snakes are found among rocky wooded slopes in relatively uninhabited areas. Within rock crevices are winter den sites where timber rattlesnakes may brumate, or hibernate, with other snake species.

Every time that I’ve seen a timber rattlesnake in the wild, they’ve been basking on the side of a trail. The snakes mean no harm to me, they just want to safely warm up so that they can hunt again as the sun sets. Timber rattlesnakes are also a good sign for me and other hikers because they help maintain chipmunk, mice, squirrel, and rabbit populations. These snakes hunt at twilight and night using their specialized sense of smell. This predator service is important for controlling the spread of zoonotic diseases like Lyme and hantavirus.

I also don’t mind bumping into fellow travelers while I’m on the trail. While a timber rattlesnake won’t hike out too far, they do migrate during the year. Males may travel up to 5 miles from their winter den sites while reproducing females tend to stay closer to home. A timber rattlesnake seen in one area during the summer will often move on to forage or find a mate, so there’s no reason to scare them off.

Besides that, most timber rattlesnake bites occur on hands and feet, usually the result of attempted handling of the venomous snake. Only licensed venomous snake handlers should attempt to handle rattlesnakes and only when absolutely necessary.

My several encounters with timber rattlesnakes on the trail were great reminders of the wild nature of Pennsylvania. I had a moment of shock and tread more carefully the next few miles after passing a rattling tail. But, with my heart racing, I also enjoyed each moment spent in awe of the beauty and unique character of the timber rattlesnake.

One of the less welcoming timber rattlesnakes that I came across

Waning Summer, Waxing Autumn

The summer sun was nearly wasted on me.  I spent a considerable amount of time indoors at a retail job in order to pay for the enumerating costs of living as an adult. Continue reading “Waning Summer, Waxing Autumn”

Pollution: Invisible and Obvious

Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends,
have become global garbage cans.
–Jacques-Yves Cousteau


On a walk through a local park, a young woman passes beneath a dense green canopy of trees.  Birds sing around her, wildflowers bloom along the trail, and a doe and fawn whitetail deer pass nearby with little caution.  This scene is timeless and anyone could enjoy these simple wonders of nature Continue reading “Pollution: Invisible and Obvious”

Climate and Weather

Climate is what we expect,
weather is what we get.
     – Mark Twain


The sky darkens as a mass of thick, low clouds sweep across the sky.  Winds blast frigid air through the city and flurries fly violently with every gust.  The snowstorm unloads more than a foot of snow in only a few hours Continue reading “Climate and Weather”

Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare: Tick Talk

Leave No Trace Series

View from behind Buttermilk Falls

After making a few wrong turns on roads winding next to cornfields and cows in rural Pennsylvania, my girlfriend–Kathleen–and I pull in to the small parking lot at Buttermilk Falls Natural Area.  The early April sun is unusually hot today and there is little escape from the heat as many trees are only pushing out flowers and showing swelled leaf buds, ready to burst into green.

Continue reading “Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare: Tick Talk”

Leaving No Trace

Leave No Trace Series


Take only photographs; leave only footprints.
     –Sierra Club dictum

The snow has all melted and warm air fills the nostrils.  It is finally Spring!  Time to lace up the hiking boots, waterproof the tent, put air in the bike tires, and get outside again.

There are some great advantages to spending time in the outdoors:  the fresh air is not only wonderful but it can have benefits for the mind and body as trees release healthful chemical aerosols; physical activity is good for the body and mind and sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D; park entrance fees and camping fees are considerably less than other attractions and hotels or resorts (sometimes free!).  However, before entering the wilderness, there are some things every responsible outdoorsperson should know–outdoor etiquette.

Continue reading “Leaving No Trace”

How How to Kill a Wolf An Undercover Report from the Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby

For some reason, the necessities of one species outweigh the survival of another.

D.K. Leung

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Ocean, Mountain, Forest

Sean and Brigette at a large Sitka Spruce.
Sean and Brigette at a large Sitka Spruce.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.
— John Muir

A blue Western sky opens for us as we leave Spokane, heading west.  I met Sean and Brigette while working at a Boy Scout camp in Northern Idaho, and I was staying in the Spokane area ever since camp ended.  Sean and Brigette are a couple of months pregnant, but are a young and active couple.  Both are genuinely good people.

We make our way across the state of Washington to Brigette’s family home southeast of the Seattle-Tacoma area.   Continue reading “Ocean, Mountain, Forest”

Sand, Salt, Sun and Birds

Land Hermit Crab (Coenobita clypeatus).  This hermit crab lives in a variety of shells and may be seen walking beaches and climbing trees.  Florida Keys, Florida.  Jan, 2011.
Land Hermit Crab (Coenobita clypeatus) crawling under mangroves.

We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.
     –E. O. Wilson

It is January, but the hot sun bakes the coral beaches of the Florida Keys.  Humidity is constant except when a rare breeze sweeps by.  Clouds are an unfamiliar sight here, and when they arrive they drop rain and quickly move on.  My bare feet sit in the warm Atlantic water off of Lower Matecumbe Key as my eyes scan the sky for one of the island’s top predators, the osprey. Continue reading “Sand, Salt, Sun and Birds”

A Great Sand Dune

Wild Nature Stories

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.
–Robert W. Service

One of my favorite things to do as a child was play in the sandbox on a summer day.  I did many other things, like ride bikes and tromp around on the nearby railroad tracks and even turned a refrigerator box into a mini-house.  However, my green plastic, turtle-shaped sandbox was always sitting on the back patio baking in the summer sun.  I would pluck ants from the lawn every so often and watch them struggle in a funnel of sand I made.  Then I would go back to get some more and that ant would be gone.  A few years ago–on a cross-country road trip with two good friends–I had a chance to play in the sand box again, but this time I was the little ant in the…

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