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

Becoming a Naturalist

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
–John Muir

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As a youth I had a dream of becoming an astronaut.  I even made a T-shirt with the space shuttle on it using acrylic paint–I wanted to be the first man on Mars.  I grew up more in high school and thought that I wanted to be a Jack Kerouac or a Christopher McCandless. Continue reading “Becoming a Naturalist”

Enjoying Nature in All Seasons

You can’t get too much winter in the winter.
     — Robert Frost

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White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

I usually wait for a day when temperatures are bearable but not too warm–25 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t bad–and when there is a fresh coating of snow.  The fresh coat of snow helps identify trails, tracks, and scats which otherwise may have been obscured by weathered snow or melted away on a warm day Continue reading “Enjoying Nature in All Seasons”

Leaving No Trace

Leave No Trace Series

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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”