For many years now, I’ve celebrated my birthday each year with the “season-opener-birthday-bug-collecting-trip.” This happens regardless of what day of the week it falls (although two years ago I did get roped into a business trip – I made up for it by stumbling into a quick but thoroughly enjoyable tour of Pipestone National Monument before my flight back home). Last year I made sure I got the day off and had a nice, festive (tiger beetle) birthday. For this past April 23rd, a Friday, I celebrated my 29th birthday (for the 2-dozenth time!) by grabbing long-time field companion Rich and shooting down to Sam A. Baker State Park in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri. My goal for the trip was to find the very uncommon Cladrastis kentukea (American yellowwood), a small tree that is known to occur in Missouri only in the White River Hills of the extreme southwest and in a few localities in and near Sam Baker State Park. Actually, it wasn’t the tree so much that I was after, but a small jewel beetle – Agrilus cladrastis – that utilizes this plant exclusively for its larval host. To date, the only Missouri specimens of this species have been collected by the late, great Gayle Nelson on yellowwood in the White River Hills, and I wanted to see if I might be able to find it in southeastern Missouri as well. April is still too early to encounter active adults, but my plan was to: 1) find examples of the tree, 2) collect dead wood from them, and 3) cut living branches to leave in situ for infestation this season and retrieval the next. Long story short, I succeeded on all three counts (though I won’t know for a few weeks whether the wood I brought back actually harbors any as yet unemerged adults – finger crossed!).
The area where we expected to find the tree was steep, rocky slopes overlooking Big Creek on the north side of the park. Rich and I were hiking a trail below the slopes, and I had gotten a little bit ahead of him when I saw a 30″ long snake stretched straight out across the trail. Recognizing it immediately as one of our venomous species, but not quite sure which one, I blurted out, “Wow, what a gorgeous snake!” Rich, a better herpetologist than I, shouted from a distance back, “What kind?” In the few seconds during which this exchange was taking place, it all registered – the dark stripe behind the eye, the bold markings (too dark for a copperhead, too big for a western pygmy rattlesnake, too widely spaced for a massasauga), the black tail (not yellow-green like a juvenile copperhead), and a tiny little one-chambered rattle! I yelled back, “A young timber rattler!” Rich got there promptly, and we decided that it must be a yearling based on the time of year, its length, and the size of the rattle.
I have seen a few timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in Missouri over the years, but never like this. My previous sightings have all been fleeting glimpses after hearing them shooting into the underbrush to escape my close approach – me oblivious to their presence until it was too late. This young snake, by contrast, didn’t flinch as I approached (carefully), set down the backpack, and assembled the camera to begin taking photographs. As I began taking a few photos of the head area (from a respectful distance – the vision of that terrifyingly aggressive prairie rattlesnake from two years ago still lingers), it became agitated and started moving for cover. Rich wasn’t too anxious to head it off at the pass, but I wasn’t satisfied with the shots that I’d gotten so far, so I grabbed my net to block it from disappearing into the litter. That caused it to pause just long enough for me to get back into position and frame a shot… that I couldn’t get off before it started moving again! We did this a few times until it finally just crawled right into the net – now what?! I carried the net over to some large rocks on the side of the trail and used them to flip the net and dump out the snake, which immediately headed for cover underneath the rocks. I figured the photo shoot was over then, but the space under the rocks was not deep, and after a bit of probing for escape routes the snake eventually settled into a money pose and I was able to snap away with glee – what do you think?
Missouri has five venomous snake species, all of which are pit vipers with three being rattlesnakes. I’ve featured two of these in previous posts – the Osage copperhead and the western pygmy rattlesnake. Both of these species occur throughout the Ozark Highlands, although the latter is more common in the southwestern part of the state. The third rattlesnake species in Missouri, eastern massasauga, is rare in wet habitats scattered across northern Missouri, while the cottonmouth (or water moccasin) is limited to stream, river, and swamp habitats in the southern Ozarks and southeastern lowlands. Many internet references list the western massasauga also as occurring in Missouri, but this subspecies is not included in the most recent Snakes of Missouri (Biggler and Johnson 2004). Within Missouri, timber rattlesnakes have a statewide distribution, but they have been extirpated by humans from many areas and now occur as small populations in scattered locations across the state. The same is true in other parts of their range as well, particularly along the western and northern limits. It is thus a rare and exciting treat to see one of these magnificent animals, although the reasons for its rarity are both sobering and maddening.
Briggler, J. and T. R. Johnson. 2004. Snakes of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 16 pp.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010