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June 6, 2004

Rattlesnake hunt in Poconos yields some up close encouters

From: Centre Daily Times, PA - Jun 6, 2004

It was hot and oppressively humid as Jeff and Jared Holmes, my brother Paul and I slowly picked our way down the steep Pocono mountain slope.

Although one careless step could tip a loose sandstone rock and cause a fall, I was acutely aware that a careless step of another kind would result in even more serious consequences.

A loud, unmistakable buzzing sound interrupted our conversation and Jared called, "Don't move!"

The four of us froze in our tracks as we used our ears and eyes to try to locate the source of the buzzing -- a timber rattlesnake.

Paul, who is hearing impaired, said, "I don't know where it is, but this one sure sounds loud."

After a few minutes of listening and peering into every nook and cranny, we discovered that the buzzing was actually coming from under the rock that Paul was standing on.

Although a little unnerving -- well, more than a little unnerving -- Paul was actually safe on top of the big, flat boulder under which the snake was well hidden, attempting to escape the heat.

While most people spend their outdoor hours with hopes of never seeing a rattlesnake, two Sundays ago I was actually looking for them.

With the help of my guides, amateur herpetologists Jeff and Jared Holmes, we successfully located seven.

Jared, a junior at Texas A&M University, is majoring in zoology and hopes to make his hobby a profession. His father Jeff is the technology coordinator for a Monroe County school district. Paul had been out with the Holmeses before, but this was my first rattlesnake hunt.

Our hike began along a dirt road and we walked about one mile through the forest up a narrowing hollow. The conversation was mainly about snakes, animal tracks and wildflowers, and we turned a few rocks looking for ringneck snakes along the way. Jeff and Jared know what they are doing, for we soon found five harmless ringneck snakes -- three under one rock -- and we also spotted several young American toads and a red-spotted newt.

Then we reached a crystal native brook trout stream and the foot of the talus slope. And what a slope it was, with much of it climbing at a steep 35-degree angle, along with a few straight 90-degree cliffs.

On this sweaty afternoon, the cool, gurgling stream was a real contrast to the hot, barren, rocky mountainside. Talus slopes are those mostly-bare spots that look like patches of loose rocks strewn on Pennsylvania mountainsides.

This particular Carbon County slope had some of the most inhospitable habitat that our state has to offer. It contained assorted-sized boulders and trees trying to eek out a living wherever they could. Sweet birch, sassafras and rock oak were the predominant species, with American chestnut stump sprouts scattered here and there.

Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) occur in two distinct color phases -- yellow and black -- and Jeff said that he and his son often find both here, as well as snakes colored halfway in between.

The poisonous pit vipers can reach adult lengths of 36-54 inches. Rattlers have distinct triangular-shaped heads with elliptical pupils. Their tails, which are always black, are tipped with hollow horny segments that rattle when the snake vibrates its tail.

Jared explained that the snakes den here, well below the frost line, and begin to venture out as soon as the weather warms up. However, some of the rattlers appear to live on the talus slope all year-round. According to Jared, when conditions are perfect, he and his dad have located as many as 27 in this single patch of rocks.

It was mostly sunny and over 85 degrees on the day of our hunt, so the snakes were not out sunning themselves as we had hoped when we planned this hunt weeks earlier. Instead, we located them back in the shady recesses between the rocks. Jeff explained that the snakes seem to have specific habitat preferences, for he often locates them near the same spots.

At the first location Jeff pointed out, we located no buzz-tails, but it was evident that they had recently been there, for the leaves were all matted down. At a second spot, Jeff said that we would have a 90 percent chance of seeing a rattlesnake, and he had given up hope when I spotted a large yellow-scaled snake hiding at the left side of the large rock. The second rattler gave away its location by giving us a warning buzz. Then we found it -- once again in a shady recess.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, rattlesnakes don't make a habit of attacking people. None of the seven snakes that we discovered displayed even a hint of aggression. Rattlesnakes evolved venom to paralyze small prey, not kill humans. If given the chance, rattlesnakes usually stay hidden, give a warning buzz or move away quietly.

It was no accident that we discovered these snakes in a place where humans rarely travel. Rattlesnakes have been hunted and killed by people for hundreds of years. These thoughtless folks don't understand the snake's place in our forest ecology. The smaller massasauga rattlesnake is now listed as endangered and the timber rattlesnake is an endangered candidate species.

I was purposefully vague about the location of this snake den. Most modern rattlesnake hunters appreciate the snakes for their beauty and mystery, and they don't want them to be killed or exploited by the less-informed.

On our hunt, we observed, took photographs and marveled at these large reptiles' ability to survive in such a harsh environment. I spend a lot of hours afield but during my life I'd only seen five rattlesnakes, three of those spotted while driving or riding in a car. It was a real treat to see so many in such a small place. Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a biology teacher and member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at

© 2004 Centre Daily Times and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.