“Spring” – Georgia’s Timber Rattlesnakes (part 1)

The Spring Egress
Moments with Georgia’s denning Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus)

HN Blog: Daniel Duff

My annual quest to get to know a little known and little explored jewel of Georgia’s herptofauna, began in 2006, shortly after my discharge from the US Navy, at 22 years old. While enlisted I had the privilege of being stationed in Whidbey Island, Washington, where I developed a passion for the nearby mountain country – A passion I would carry home to Georgia, and where I was anxious to begin anew the hobby I put on hold while enlisted. Now, since 2007, I make annual excursions to many of Georgia’s denning Crotalus horridus (Timber Rattlesnakes) locations, and I observe them, and dwell among them during different stages of their spatial life. One of my favorite times is during the youthful season of spring.

Northern Georgia Timber Rattlesnake habitat in spring. Photo by Daniel Duff.

Crickets gathered and basked where the path I walked was bathed in rays of warm, mid-May sunshine; and as I shuffled through, they hopped and popped, making a sound similar to the first heavy raindrops of a summer storm hitting the dry leaf litter. My path was narrow, stick and stone laden, hardly suitable for a vehicle, and it was also covered over in all sorts of weeds including poison ivy. As I marched on, eyeing every plant and high stepping like a soldier, I could almost feel the burning oil of Toxicodendron blistering my skin. When it was time to leave the path and follow a branch to the top of the mountain, one of a multitude of creeks and streams which thread the forest; I felt an unabated excitement swelling in my chest and all thoughts of poison ivy vanished from mind, as do black clouds after a rain storm.

On the ascent, I passed familiar stone structures including a wall that was this winter sheeted in a glistening capsule of ice, but now it resembled more an ancient ruin covered over in a green veil of vegetation. Some rocks were draped in frilly gowns of moss, which adorned the natural curves of the stone as accurately and as beautifully as any well shaped woman in dainty attire. I also passed where water seeped, or slowly bled from the ground; where during winter it was a frustrating and dangerous ice slick, and now it was no less frustrating as a giant sucking mud hole.

A wall on the approach to the den, gleaming with icy teeth! Photo taken 1-29-2011 by Daniel Duff.

Soon I could see the sunlight breaking through the darkness of the wood from over the horizon signaling the summit was near, which was a relieving sight since my heart beat with such violence from the long, steep climb. At nearly 3,690 feet above sea level, this is one of the highest dens in elevation that I frequent. My last few feet through the woods was fraught with saw toothed brambles, and thorns nearly an inch long, which scratched at my arms and tore at seemingly every inch of cloth on my body.

After an hour or more of fairly hurried and intense climbing, I sought out a safe flat spot to sit and cure the hunger that I had worked up. These quiet lunches overlooking some of the earth’s oldest geologic masterpieces are always enchanting; the glacial swirls in the grey stone all around me interpret like some bygone language of Oros. Then the romance of my heavenly perch was suddenly shattered as a fat gnat flew directly into one of my eyes! I dug the corpse from my tear duct, cursed some – cursed some more, and then readied myself to search for timber rattlesnakes.

Shelter stones for Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), spread out amongst the spring grass in Northern Georgia. Photo by Daniel Duff.

With my eyes wide I gazed intently into every crack and crevice, and at every flat shelter stone which could possibly be refuge to rattlesnakes. This day was an unseasonably cool 67 degrees, and so I knew most of the snakes here would be basking in the most sun exposed places of the den. For a half an hour I looked all over and found nothing; when suddenly, my raking gaze caught sight of a fully coiled, black phase timber rattlesnake, sitting at the edge of a shelter stone the size of a car hood.

A coiled black phase timber resting near shelter stone. Photo taken in Northern Georgia 5-18-2011 by Daniel Duff.

She did not move as I approached for observation, and when I dropped my pack to remove my camera a yellow phase timber in neighboring stones began to rattle angrily, causing my heart to skip several healthy beats. Still the snake in front of me stayed motionless and ever silent, and so I continued with my intentions of photographing her. As I clicked away I could hear the other rattle grow muffled as the snake slid under a stone. I then backed away and took a seat in the grass nearby.

As I was writing my observations in my thinking book, my ears caught a curious rasping sound. I looked up to see the female uncoiling and slowly sliding beneath her shelter stone. A few more minutes passed and I heard the same sound again, she had slithered through some tunnel under the shelter stone and her head was now poked out of the opening just two feet from my crossed legs! I sat still and silent, she made several tongue flicks, and then slid over in the direction of the yellow phase that rattled earlier. I was entranced by her graceful movements and watched fixedly as she slithered through the vegetation.

Another hour passed without any notable events, and so I began to retrace my steps back to the top of the den. However, as I did, I noticed an area through a fragmented patch of woods that I had not looked over. It was now strangely colder in the afternoon than it had been earlier in the morning, and I had little expectation. But to my delight the one beam of sunshine hitting the basking knoll was illuminating a coiled timber rattlesnake. From my vantage point it looked to be male, it was in tight coil with the rattle rested against its head, and it made neither a single movement nor sound as I took several photographs.

This Timber Rattlesnake seems to know where best to sleep, he blended flawlessly. Photo taken in Northern Georgia 5-18-2011 by Daniel Duff.

Like earlier, I took a seat about ten feet distant, and began to take notes, and the whole time the snake gave not one single hint that it was even alive. I felt honored to share the warmth of the basking knoll with such a magnanimous creature, and I felt a small sense of sadness when it came time to leave his company. I had no idea that only moments later I would meet another of North Georgia’s impressive mountain beasts.

My old grey companion on the knoll. Photo taken in North Georgia 5-18-2011 by Daniel Duff.

I was making my slippery and awkward descent from the den, still soaring emotionally from the day’s events, when through a wall of dark green I suddenly heard the piercing, scratching sound of claws against a tree slice the dead silence. I have heard this sound before, but never so near, so lucid, and never with the blunt and heavy thud that came after. Then came a rapid and fearsome stir along my flank, and foolishly I waddled toward the source of the raucous to investigate. A great big bruin had taken the high ground and was staring directly down at me. The bear’s tremendous hulk literally dwarfed the recently felled tree at its side. I stood there looking at him, admiring his healthy black sheen and careful not to make any sudden or offensive gestures.

I removed my pack and stooped to retrieve my camera, but as I did so, he gave a bellowing snort and feigned a short charge. I quickly rose to my feet, my breathing hastened, my pulse quickened, and I gripped tightly the only object I had to defend myself – my snake hook. I could go nowhere amid the sticks and stones on the hill side, and so all I could do was wait and saturate myself in fear and awe of the beast. We stared at each other for what felt like an eternity before he finally sauntered off confident that I was not a threat. I on the other hand, did not turn my back until his black hide disappeared from sight.

Also visit…..“Summer” – Georgia’s Timber Rattlesnakes (part 2)

Daniel Duff has had a lifelong love for nature, sparked in childhood from a fascination with dinosaurs. He can most often be found hiking the most remote regions of the North Georgia Mountains, or camping on the black water rivers of South Georgia, reflecting peacefully by a campfire. Armed with a research permit from the Georgia DNR and US Forest Service, Daniel spends much of his field herping time gathering notes from the field. He currently resides in Gwinnett County, Georgia with his family.

Images of Georgia Timber Rattlesnakes. These are NOT related to the blog.

Yellow phase Timber Rattlesnake from North Georgia. Photo by Daniel Duff.

Female Georgia Timber Rattlesnake. Photo taken in situ by Daniel Duff.

Juvenile Georgia Timber Rattlesnake. Photo by Daniel Duff.

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