May 2011 saw us flying out to the United States for a short trip to find and photograph timber rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus. We spent time herping in the states of New Jersey and Pennysylvania where we encountered northern copperheds, black racers and ring-neck snakes amongst others, along with plenty of timber rattlesnakes!
Waking the Timber - Pennsylvania, USA 2011
Late into 2010, David Nixon and myself began to plan a herping trip out to north America, to find and photograph one of the prettiest and most highly variable species of venomous snake in the USA – the timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. Due to habitat destruction, persecution and poaching, the timber rattlesnake is recognised as a species at risk and faces an uncertain future - it's extinct throughout its entire historical range in Canada and populations across many states of north America are at serious risk. In Pennsylvania however, the timber rattlesnake is still relatively abundant, and so it was here that we decided to base our trip.
Due to time constraints, the trip would be limited to a maximum of five days, and so it was important for us use our time as effectively as possible. David had arranged for us to meet up with Leo Spinner and his son Leo Jr., who would show us around some of their local herping spots out in the Poconos, of the Appalachian mountain range, to look for our two target species - the timber rattlesnake, and the northern copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen, along with the many other reptiles and amphibians that could be found in the area. There was also the possibility of seeing American black bears, Ursus americanus, although these elusive animals are rarely seen - we would need a lot of luck on our side in order to catch a glimpse of one on such a short trip. It was suggested to us that May would be the best time of year to visit, as this would be when the day time temperatures would be warming up and the timber rattlesnakes would be emerging from their winter den sites.
On 12th May 2011, we flew out from Manchester airport to Newark, New Jersey. The 7 hour flight passed quickly and we soon found ourselves sat in our hire car, cruising down the 95 highway on our way to meet Leo and Leo Jr. We met them at a service station 40 minutes drive south of the airport, and after a short introduction we followed them to the first herping destination of the trip – Wharton state park, New Jersey. The area consisted primarily of pine forest, and we spent a few hours searching along an old and overgrown railway line, just a short distance from the road. During our time here, David and myself split off from Leo and Leo Jr. to search separate areas of the forest. Whether it was down to the jet-lag or lack of familiarity of the area, David and I found very little, turning up just two fence lizards, Sceloporus undulatus, under some logs – and failing to catch both. Leo and Leo Jr. on the other hand had more success, returning with an eastern ribbon snake, Thamnophis sauritus sauritus, a southern ring snake, Diadophis punctatus punctatus, and another few fence lizards.
From Wharton state park, we made our way into Pennsylvania, passing the city of Philadelphia – an impressive sight when lit-up during the night. We dropped off our rental car at a friend of Leo's, and threw our bags and camera equipment into the back of his vehicle. We were finally on the way out to the Poconos! We arrived late into the night, having stopped several times to photograph north American porcupines, Erethizon dorsatum, found wandering across the road. We were all tired and decided to grab some sleep, ready for a long day of herping the following day. To save room in the vehicle, we didn't bring any camping gear and had decided that, with this being such a short trip, we'd all just sleep in the car. We parked the car alongside a train track and after a drink and a bite to eat, settled down for the night. At some point during the night, I realised just how close we were to the track when a large freight train came thundering past, waking us all up. This huge train took several minutes to pass, and we guessed it would have been around a mile in length. Lucky for us, a train would generally only pass through this area once a day, and almost always at night.
After an uncomfortable nights sleep, we woke up at around 8am, and sat around waiting for the day to warm up before we would start herping. Having arrived late into the night the previous evening, this was our first glimpse at the habitat in which we would be spending our time. The morning was cold and the surrounding forest covered with mist until 10am. We made some breakfast, and at 10:30am headed off to search the surrounding area. Herping at this location, known as Drakes creek, consisted of trekking along the train tracks, flipping rocks, logs and bits of old timber, as well as scanning the edges of the forest looking for basking timber rattlesnakes. The first species caught was a northern ring neck snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi, found under a rock by Leo Jr. This small, fossorial species proved to be quite common, with several being found in the area. After another 30 minutes of searching, we found what we had flown all this way for - our first timber rattlesnake. It was a large adult, basking right on the edge of the woodland. Upon seeing my first wild timber rattlesnake, I realised just how well camouflaged this species is when sat on the forest floor, its extravagant colours and pattern making it almost invisible amongst the leaves and debris. The snake made no attempt to move or escape, but did let us know when we had gotten 'to close' by sticking its rattle in the air and giving it a good shake, creating the text-book buzzing sound that these pit vipers are so well known for. We retrieved our camera equipment and set about photographing the animal in situ before continuing on with our search. A short while later, Leo spotted our second timber rattlesnake, a beautiful dark specimen slowly disappearing under a large rock. We were quick to retrieve it, and proceeded to photograph the snake out on the rail tracks. After lunch we continued our search, and during the late afternoon I flipped a rock, only to find an adult northern copperhead coiled up underneath. The discovery of this belligerent little snake meant that we had succeeded in ticking off both our target species by the second day of the trip!
The next day we were up early, and after grabbing a coffee from a nearby gas station, we headed out to Hickery Run, around one hours drive from Drakes creek. After parking on the roadside, it was a 45 minute trek through the woods before we would reach our site of search for the day. During the walk, we took the opportunity to flip some of the many rocks and logs that littered the sides of the trail. Our rewards were two red-back salamanders, Plethadon cinerus, and an adult slimey salamander, Plethadon glutinosus. These pretty amphibians were a nightmare to photograph due to their habit of not staying still for a second - just continuously walking forward at a steady pace, always ensuring that part of their body was missing from the shot! We finally got the photographs we wanted and, after reaching our location for the day – a timber rattlesnake den site situated in the middle of a large area of woodland – we began our search. Timber rattlesnakes will hibernate in communal den sites, and often with other species of snake including the northern copperhead, so the discovery of a den can lead to almost guaranteed sightings. Unfortunately, not everyone is as content with taking just photographs as we were, and with poaching being a major contribution to the species decline, we were instructed by Leo to keep the exact location of this area under wraps.
It wasn't long before Leo spotted a large female timber rattlesnake wedged inside a crevice of a large flat rock. David used his M1 tongs to gently pull her out for a better look and for us to get some photographs. This area proved to be extremely productive, and within just a few hours we had notched up 16 timber rattlesnakes between us – a fantastic haul by any standard. With so many individuals caught, we were able to see the huge variation of colour that is displayed in this species, with almost every single one being different. Whilst we photographed some of the rattlesnakes we had found, Leo Jr. took a walk down to a nearby railway line and found a black racer, Coluber constrictor, wedged inside a log. This species has a reputation for being very fast and aggressive, and this one certainly didn't disappoint.
That evening, we returned back to the same spot at Drakes creek, and tired from a long day of herping, we made a camp fire down by the river and had some food. During this time, I found myself becoming very aware that we were in an area inhabited by the American black bear. Being reminded by Leo that the chances of us actually seeing one was slim, provided me with little comfort whilst we sat out in the open. Black bears are the smallest species of bear in north America and generally less aggressive than their grizzly cousins, however attacks on humans from this species can and do occur. Sure enough, the evening went by without a single mauling, and we retired for the night.
Another night, another train, and we were up early in the morning once again. We grabbed some coffee and breakfast and headed to our final herping destination of the trip – Lehigh gorge. It was a very overcast day and during the drive over, a light rain began. It was cold enough to see our breath in the air, and both David and myself we struggling to see how we would find anything out in such weather. The terrain was similar to that of Drakes creek, and we ended up trekking along a railway track for several kilometres. The first snake to be found was a juvenile north copperhead, sat under the shelter of a rock with just its head giving it away. We continued on and came across a small eastern milksnake, Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum, wedged in a wall. A few gentle prods to the tail with a twig, and the snake came shooting out the crevice with little trouble. Unfortunately, this pretty little snake was getting ready to slough its skin, making it rather un-photogenic. But, pleased with another species under our belts, we took a few 'tourist' shots and let it go. Further searching produced another 2 copperheads, including a large adult female, plus a five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus – the second and final species of lizard to be found on the trip. Our last photography session ensued, still with the light rain coming down, and we wrapped up our final day's herping of the trip.
We loaded up the car with our gear for the last time, and headed back on the three hour drive to pick up the hire car that we had left and Leo's friends house. Leo and Leo Jr. were staying at their friends that evening, so after saying our goodbyes and congratulating everyone on a successful trip, David and I jumped in our car and headed back to Newark, New Jersey, for our final night in America. After a long drive back, and with both of us very much regretting the decision not to hire a Sat Nav after getting lost several times, we made it to a hotel close to Newark airport. This was our first night of sleeping in beds since arriving in America, and it was more than welcomed. We retired early and, since we weren't flying until 4pm the following day, we decided to get up early and take the train to Manhattan, to spend the day in New York city. This was my first visit to NYC, and David proceeded to give me a whirlwind tour of some of his favourite places from previous trips. This day concluded the trip and it wasn't long until we were on the plane on our flight back to Manchester airport, having successfully found and photographed the timber rattlesnake!
I'd like to finish this article by saying a huge thank you to Leo Spinner and his son Leo Jr. for being so welcoming, and ensuring we had such a successful trip - I look forward to our next visit!
Wharton state park
One Eastern ribbon snake, Thamnophis sauritus sauritus (1)
One southern ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus punctatus (1)
Two fence lizard, Sceloporus undulatus (2)
Timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus (2)
Northern copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen (5)
Northern ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi (3)
Slimey salamander, Plethadon glutinosus (2)
Five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus (1)
Timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus (16)
Black racer, Coluber constrictor (1)
Red-back salamander, Plethadon cinerus (2)
Slimey salamander, Plethadon glutinosus (1)
Northern copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen (3)
Eastern milksnake, Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum (1)
Five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus (1)
American toad, Bufo americanus (1)
Phylogeography of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) Based on mtDNA Sequences - A. M. CLARK, P. E. MOLER, E. E. POSSARDT, A. H. SAVITZKY, W. S. BROWN, and B. W. BOWEN 2003
Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), Reptiles species of Concern - Pennsylvania National Heritage Program