June 9, 2011 37 Comments
I don’t know what it is about Osage copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) that makes every encounter with one so special. They are perhaps the most common of Missouri’s five venomous snake species, and I’ve seen them more often than I can count. Still, every time I see one I simply must stop and marvel. This particular individual was seen a few weeks ago at Sam A. Baker State Park in Missouri’s southeastern Ozark Highlands. You might say it was “sloppy seconds”—I had actually gone to the park to look for timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), a juvenile of which I had seen during last year’s Annual-Birthday-First-Bug-Collecting-Trip-of-the-Season™ trip. I did not see any rattlesnakes this time, as access to the rockpilish cliffs along Big Creek where I saw the juvenile last year was blocked by high water, but I was quite pleased to find this copperhead underneath a log while we were there.
Copperheads are marvelous photographic subjects. Beautiful, rarely seen by those who don’t know how to look for them, and with an air of “danger” about them. Yet they are among the most docile of all snakes, venomous or otherwise. They don’t use aggression or warning sounds when threatened like cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) or rattlesnakes, nor do they dash for cover like most non-venomous species. Instead, they rely on their cryptic, dead-leaf coloration to make them invisible. It works—even I, my eyes tuned to see just about anything after a half-century of clambering through the brush, didn’t immediately notice this individual when I first rolled over the log under which it had taken cover (although I did immediately notice the little red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus, at the other end of the area covered by the log). I suspect I’ve walked right by many more copperheads than I have seen, completely unaware of their presence.
Their docile nature also invites extreme close-ups that I wouldn’t dare attempt with a rattlesnake or cottonmouth—at least not without a much longer lens than my 100mm. These photos make it seem that I was right on top of the snake, although at a maximum magnification of around 1:2 there was still a reasonable amount of working distance (I did, however, keep my hands well back of the front of the lens—just for good measure). Still, in all my copperhead experiences, I have never seen a copperhead actually try to strike unless I touched it (not what you think!).
Eventually it’d had enough of our gawking and began to look for new cover. As it uncoiled, I could see it’s still greenish but not too yellowish tail, indicating that it was still a youngster, though perhaps a little older than the first copperhead I tried to photograph. We watched it as it crawled into the loose, dry leaves… and disappeared.