The hard drive on my laptop bricked recently, and while going through the laborious process of restoring files from backup, I came across a folder labeled ‘10292006’ in my image archive. Opening the folder and looking at the images within, I remembered that October 29th, 2006 had been a good day, no, a great day in the field, a pit viper extravaganza at the very end of the field herping season in southern Illinois with my buddy Steve. These were the unedited, original archived images – my method is to save them off after tossing out the bad and the blurry, and to process copies via Photoshop. The file sizes from back then were little more than half a meg and 1280×960 in dimension, shot with my first Panasonic Lumix. In the decade since then I have learned a thing or two about image processing, and I wondered how these old photos would look if I ran them again. As I edited them (copies of course), memories of that day came flooding back, and while I had journaled about it over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2006, I knew that day, and those images, deserved another look. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in ten years and sadly, Steve is no longer able to get out in the field with me – I sure miss his company. From this point forward, the images are updated (click for full size), but the text is from ten years ago.
October weather in my part of the world is fickle as spring. The last week of the month was marked by temperatures in the thirties and forties Fahrenheit, but Friday…on Friday the wind changed and came out of the south, the sun came out, and things warmed up a bit. Saturday looked like more of the same. I called Steve – “let’s do it!” Steve is always ready for a trip to the southern end of the state, and if the herps weren’t providing enough excitement he’d make a day out of the bird life. Early Saturday morning found us heading south, and we would be arriving just about the time the sun was high enough to warm things up. Our destination for today was a set of bluffs along the river, a place we’ve visited before. The sun was climbing through a nearly cloudless sky, and the temperature was climbing towards the 60 degree mark as we started out. High overhead, a Cooper’s Hawk turned in a tight spiral, hardly more than a speck in the sky; the woods were quiet, save for the faint tap of a woodpecker somewhere.
Reaching the bluffs, we turned to the north, keeping our eyes on the ground, the autumn sun to our left, and the rock ledges on our right. In gaps between the trees the sun was striking the bluffs with full force, and we looked over these areas with extra care. Our first snake of the day was halfway out of a crevice, lying motionless in the sunlight – a young adult Black Rat Snake. The snake cocked its head at us as we gave it a wide berth, not wishing to disturb it during one of the last sunbaths it would take this year. I snapped a few pictures and then we moved along.
A cleft in the bluff next merited our attention. Fronted by the trunk of a large oak, there were numerous cracks, crevices and hollows to investigate. Hunkering down, I spotted a familiar snout in a turned up position, about a foot down a slender hole – Copperhead! There was no reaching this little serpent, but perhaps I could grab a picture from a better angle on the other side of the tree. I backed out and took a step over a thick tree root…and nearly stepped on a little rattlesnake! The young-of-the-year Timber was crawling along the root, away from one of the crevices. Holy cow! Ten minutes of walking and we hit pay dirt! I took some pictures and we left the snake to continue on its way. I then finished stepping over the tree and took a tunnel shot of the Copperhead’s chin.
Just a few minutes later my brain’s search image wetware picked an adult Copperhead out of the leaf litter, crawling along the base of the bluff. You simply can’t go wrong by watching that line where the leaf litter meets vertical rock. Hmm, this day was starting to turn into something…wait, better not say it out loud and jinx the thing! Nobody ever mentions a no-hitter during the baseball game for the same reason.
Steve was up on a waist-high rock shelf, intent on investigating a deep vertical crack, while I checked the lower level. “Mike! Baby Cottonmouth!” He pointed to a little yellow-tail, closer to me than him, and on the crawl towards the great big warm afternoon. I took his picture, and then looking towards Steve, I grinned and pointed. “Baby Black Rat! Two feet in front of you!” I took a couple shots of the neonate rat snake. “Mike!” Steve whispered at me, pointing towards the crevice. There was another little Timber, just crawling out!
To say the least, we were somewhat taken aback by this thirty-second trifecta, but that didn’t stop us from grinning from ear to ear as we circled the day’s second rattler for some pictures. We knew we were in the middle of something special, a rare day, the second warm day after a cold week, amid autumn’s heyday.
At this point we just settled back, ready to accept whatever else would come our way. What would be next? Here came a series of young adult Black Rat Snakes in a very short section of bluff, some out sunning and others coming out of the earth to join the big basking party. A few were in reach, but most were up high on the rock face. Who could tell how many Pantherophis were out and about on this long length of high stone?
Watching the base of the bluffs never fails to pay off – it’s a natural highway for serpents, and that’s where we spotted our third neonate Timber of the day, coiled up just outside a small crevice, soaking up the sunlight. This one had a lovely rust-colored stripe down the dorsal. A few pictures and we left the snake right where we found it.
Not too much further and we ran out of bluff, and before us a wooded valley sloped away towards another section of rock some distance away. It was time for us to turn around and return – at this time of the year, the window of available light was very narrow, with the sun disappearing behind the tree line around five o’clock. Now it would be interesting to see if any of the snakes we met on the way in would still be around on the trip out.
We must have walked right by the next snake on our way in, but with our eyes to the ground, and this snake being chest high, I suppose we had an excuse. I don’t know how many neonate Blackies I’ve seen stretched straight across some narrow crack in the rock, but it’s more than a few, and here was one more. A couple of the adult Black Rat Snakes were still out on the rock face, but Timbers Two and Three had moved on.
Coming around the corner of a section of rock, we spotted another new snake, and it was an impressive sight. A large adult Copperhead was just beginning a vertical ascent of the rock face, just underneath a dead tree trunk leaning against the bluff. Aagh! I got too close in my desire to capture this on film, and the snake spotted me and dropped down into a coil in the leaves. I really didn’t want to disrupt the animal’s intentions like that. Moving on after a few pictures, I hoped the serpent would pick up where it had left off; it was a magnificent specimen to be sure.
Not long after we spotted another Copperhead, a yearling perhaps, crawling towards a large vertical crack. Our fourth Copperhead of the day was heading for home and perhaps the season of sleep. Nearby I found another neonate Black Rat, this one with a pleasingly aberrant dorsal pattern, coupled with a strong contrast between dark blotches and light gray background. A very pretty little snake.
Our last Black Rat was the tenth one of the day, a young adult crawling along the bluff base. One Cottonmouth for the day seemed unusual, but we soon doubled that number, coming across a robust thirty inch specimen. This handsome snake was nicely banded; usually moccasins this size have faded to a dull black with little or no dorsal pattern left. It delighted us further by coiling and gaping in typical piscivorus fashion.
We weren’t done yet. The snake highway next yielded a nice Rough Green Snake, this one with a smear of clay across the top of its head, pointing to having been denned down already, and perhaps lured back to the surface by the sun’s warmth.
Done now? Not yet. The prettiest rattlesnake of the day lay before us, our fourth neonate. This one had the nicest colors, pattern and contrast of the four, and it was in good shape as well. No adults for us, but who could complain about four little Timbers, or the whole day for that matter?
One more Green Snake, emerging from a hole, and one more Cottonmouth, close to our exit point, crawling up to wish us goodbye and thank us for visiting. The sun was just brushing the treetops to the west, and would be setting soon. The day was running out and so was our season for snakes; the cold would return soon, the sun fade away further, and our next visit was at least a season away.