Eye to eye with a copperhead

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.


Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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37 Responses to Eye to eye with a copperhead

  1. Tim Eisele says:

    What a handsome snake! I particularly like the shot looking straight down the IR sensor pits.

  2. Ani says:

    Those are super awesome closeups! I know you noticed this, and I hate to point it out, but I wish the flicking tongue was not cut off in the second picture. All of these pictures make a perfect desktop wallpaper😉

    • I know – you won’t believe how many shots I took in that one position trying to get a good tongue-flicker. That was the best one – others had the tongue in weird positions or other technical flaws (or no tongue at all!). I’m a patient man, but I do have my limits!

  3. Sally says:

    Amazing photos indeed, Ted, and what glorious coloration… Thanks for a great post on this species! (I liked the linked story of your other encounters too.)

  4. macromite says:

    Beautiful snake and shots. Also, interesting that a red-backed salamander shared the log. I worked my way through most of my undergraduate degree by collecting plethodontid salamanders. By day, this involved wandering the woods with a short-handled potato rake, turning over rocks and logs, and making a diving grab for the slimy wrigglers.Since the professor who ran the project always totaled up the day’s catches for each of his students, the competition to be the salamander grabber of the day was intense.

    As you might imagine, close encounters with copperheads (and rattlesnakes) wasn’t uncommon, but the only bite I remember was of the professor himself – in mid-thigh, so it must have been a relatively large copperhead. Happened in the Hell Hole Recreation Area in the Francis Marion NF in South Carolina, if memory serves, which seems appropriate. The prof was on crutches for months, which he blamed on the local doctor using cryotherapy (ice packs around the bite to keep the venom from dispersing). Copperheads must pack a lot of tissue destroying chemicals in their venom based on the size of the hole in the prof’s leg. Didn’t keep him from coming on field trips, but he was never a serious contender for salamander king of the day afterwards.

  5. Jim Johnson says:

    What a beautiful snake, and beautifully represented too!

  6. Gorgeous photos Ted! We ran into a copperhead sitting right outside the dorms during the first entomology field course I was on in South Carolina. Such a pretty snake, and gave us lots of time to admire it!

    • Thanks, Morgan. The cool demeanor of copperheads is both their greatest and worst asset – it allows greater time for admiration and reflection than other venomous snakes, but it also allows many more of them to be needlessly killed by the less informed among us.

  7. sherkat says:

    Nice. I saw a squished Crotalus horridus on my ride yesterday up on the ridges beyond the Pine Hills….Drop me a note if you ever cross the bridge!

    • I’ll bet there are lots of timber rattlers up on those bluffs.

      I’d love to do some riding out there, but I’ve been thoroughly warned to stay out of Illinois!🙂

  8. Such a gorgeous creature – and awesome photos, thank you for sharing them!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely stunning snake! I am envious, I’ve been trying to find one of these to photograph for 3 years now. I keep hearing all sorts of reports on places where I can find them. I search those places to no avail……I am hoping this will be my year. I have however found 4 rattlesnakes this year! The only thing I love more than insects is snake…I keep 9 at home as pets. Your images of this snake are superb! Love those eyes!

    • If you can find rattlesnakes, you should be able to find copperheads no problem. Time in the field, my friend… time in the field!

      And thank you for your very kind remarks.

  10. rebecca says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. You mentioned the need to know how to look for them – any tips? I came face-to-face with a cottonmouth in Georgia this spring, but I would dearly like to see a copperhead and never have.

    • Hi Rebecca – all I can say is it takes a certain search image that is strengthened everytime you actually see one. There’s something about the pattern on the back begins to stick out amongst the leaves after you’ve seen it. Looking under logs and in rock crevices will increase your chances somewhat.

      For me, finding one is pretty much a chance occurrence – just one every now and then. I’m sure true herpers could go out and pretty much count on finding one if they want.

  11. david winter says:

    A lovely creature photographed beautifully. One of the great things about blogs like yours is the chance to feel a little close to creatures we just don’t have in New Zealand.

    (I also enjoyed the linked story about your first encounter with one of these snakes. I’m sure I would have reacted in much the same way. I have seen a snake once in the wild, and, being completely naive to these things, a shot of terror ran down my spine at the sight of it and I went rigid. Until I realised it was dead. And decomposing!)

  12. jason says:

    Stunning photos, Ted! Just… Wow! They are such beautiful creatures, potential danger notwithstanding (and they’re relatively docile anyway, so common sense keeps you safe).

    Now see, these are the kinds of photos I hoped for when I had my patio encounter with one. I’m SOOO envious.

  13. MObugs41 says:

    Incredible images of a beautiful misunderstood snake. I must admit I am envious, I’ve been trying to photograph one of these elusive snakes for 3 years, and I have yet to see one. Each time someone tells me they have seen one, I visit that area to no avail. I know they are incredible camouflage artists, but sooner or later you would think I would find one. I’ve seen 4 timber rattlers this year so far and that has been exciting. Thanks for sharing this post of such an awesome reptile!

    • Funny, because I was looking for rattlesnakes to begin with and found this instead. They prefer rocky areas near water, but beyond that it’s just a matter of time in the field (as I’m sure you well know).

      Take a look at what the idiots down the street from you in Weston are doing about their “infestation” of copperheads: SNAKES ALIVE!

      • MObugs41 says:

        Holy Cow! You’re right they are idiots! Stories like that make me so sad…..I was doing a program today at the local library (no one showed up)…and a gentleman who worked at the library was talking about someone he knew who was seeing copperheads in Amazonia, MO and ran over one 4 times with his car and still didn’t kill, so he got out and hacked its head off. This man was laughing about it….and truthfully I was offended! This man went out of his way to kill a snake on the road, not near any houses or people! I am amazed at the ignorance when it comes to snakes, especially the venomous kind. I work hard at dispelling myths and educating the public about the importance of all our snakes…and pray I am winning some of them over to our side.

        • I was especially disturbed by the willingness of residents to spray or dust the entire area with poison for “protection.”

          • MObugs41 says:

            People who don’t fully understand the ramifications of spraying broad areas with chemicals are all too willing to use them as a solution to a problem they perceive as being more of a threat. I shudder the think if they do something like that the effect it will have on other wildlife as well as the children they are trying to protect.

  14. I used to see 1 or more copperheads a week when I worked summers in Jefferson Co., MO. One time I was walking off a trail, when I heard something. A small copperhead had put its tail down in the dry leaves and “rattled” at me. They are beautiful snakes and I never saw one that acted aggressively unless it was harassed.

  15. Just back from a week int he mountains…

    Beautiful photos! I can see why you can’t resist stopping for these, they are so striking in pattern and color. I hope you get a longer lens if you intend to keep chasing rattlers!

    • Thanks Adrian. I’ve got a beat on a spot where I can find lots of rattlers, and I want to get photos just like these. A longer lens isn’t in the bugdet, but fortunately the area manager has a 300mm lens and says I can borrow it!🙂

  16. Marvin says:

    Awesome photos, Ted. I must live in the copperhead capital of the US since a typical summer will include a dozen or so close encounters, usually in the early evening when I’ve worked outdoors past dusk and am still putting away tools and flanging up my outdoor activities after dark. If it gets too dark before I finish, I’ll go get a flashlight to avoid accidentally stepping on a copperhead.

    • Problematic, yes – but still cool. Make sure you keep your boots on!

      I suppose they’re going nocturnal now that summer is here in force, so daytime encounters will be less frequent.

  17. Pingback: Naturalist-Artist John Lokke – In Pursuit of the Timber Rattlesnake and In the Footsteps of Karl Bodmer « Leo Adam Biga's Blog

  18. Lloyd Bonifide says:

    Stunning photos of a gorgeous animal. Got a message from someone saying they had numerous copperheads “infesting” their yard. “You lucky #!&$*!&!,” I replied.

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