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From the August 2011 Conservationist

A rattlesnake on a rocky summit

Watch Your Step

By Al Breisch, Photos by Peter Karapanagiotides

Editor's note: Speaking from personal experience, one rarely forgets an unexpected encounter with a timber rattlesnake. Upon discovering the snake, your focus is quickly-and necessarily-redirected. With patience and care, you and the snake can each go about your separate business. On the next few pages, we share with our readers one such experience. Nature photographer and DEC cooperator Peter Karapanagiotides came across these timber rattlesnakes at undisclosed locations in the Catskills, Taconics and Hudson Valley last June. We think the pictures help tell a very interesting story about snakes and their preferred habitat.

A rattlesnake hiding in the vegetation of a rocky outcropping
A timber rattlesnake's coloration allows it
toeasily blend in with its rocky and forested
surroundings. Above, a rattlesnake hides
in the vegetation in the foreground.

To many people, seeing a timber rattlesnake in the wild is a true wilderness experience. Their cryptic coloration, which varies from almost black to a bright, patterned yellow, camouflages them perfectly as they bask quietly on an exposed ledge or in a forest clearing, never too far from a sheltering rock or log to which they can retreat if danger threatens. Being cold-blooded, or more technically, "ectothermic," they need to bask in the warm sunshine to raise their body temperature, especially in the spring, shortly after emerging from their underground dens, and in the fall as the ambient temperature cools. In addition, females that give birth in late August or early September bask throughout the summer to aid in the development of their young.

Many hikers have walked by a resting rattlesnake without ever seeing it. If you are lucky, or observant enough to see one on the trail or at a scenic overlook, stop, enjoy and appreciate the opportunity from a safe distance. If the snake feels threatened, it may vibrate its tail, sounding the distinctive warning buzz that gives the snake its name. But it won't always do that, so remember to hike carefully in rattlesnake habitat.

Rattlesnakes feed primarily on small mammals. Their prey varies from items as small as mice and voles to chipmunks or red squirrels at the largest. When they strike, rattlesnakes inject potent venom through their fangs that quickly kills the small prey. They do not attack large mammals like humans, but will strike if they feel threatened. And a bite can be serious if not treated.

Give rattlesnakes the respect they deserve. By following proper precautions like watching your step, especially in sunny or rocky areas, you can learn to co-exist and enjoy the same rocky ledges and rugged deciduous terrain (like that shown in these pictures) that rattlesnakes call home.

You can learn more about timber rattlesnakes, which are threatened in New York. See a range map of the timber rattlesnake in New York.


Nature photographer and New Hampshire resident Peter Karapanagiotides cooperated on DEC's reptile and amphibian atlas project, identifying the location of several rattlesnake dens in New York. Recently retired botanist and herpetologist Alvin Breisch continues to study wildlife from his New Scotland home.

Photo: Peter Karapanagiotides