Even though it is the South, the winters in the Blue Ridge Mountains can seem to linger on, especially in late February and early March. But in April, what seem like often dreary winter skies turn clear and sunny. The plants reawaken from their long winter dormancy with dogwoods flowering and red maples budding, dotting the mountainsides with bursts of color. Migrating animals begin to arrive and the songs from these visiting birds reverberate throughout the awakening forests. Turkeys begin breeding and the early morning forest is filled with the resonating gobbles of male turkeys preparing to fly down from their nighttime roost. Bears and other mammals are waking from months of hibernating and now roam the mountains in search of their first meals.
As life in the mountains slowly begins to unfold, it is the Timber Rattlesnake emerging from their overwintering sites that comes to mind. With mud still clinging to their bodies, they emerge from the subterranean caverns that provided refuge from the freezing temperatures in the world above and make their way onto rocks that have been warmed by the morning sun. This time of the year is when one of the greatest icons of wild places in the east first sits high in the rocky cliffs looking out across the vast landscapes within which it will spend its summer migrating, breeding, and giving birth. This is Timber Rattlesnake season.
To deal with this lack of knowledge, we have been working for the last 5 years to study their ecology in the southern Appalachians. In the early years, we focused on conducting broad inventory work to understand their distribution in the Nantahala Mountains and Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment regions of Georgia and North Carolina. Throughout this time, we learned that gestation and shedding sites are relatively widespread in higher elevation areas that have been protected as part of the US National Forest system and that the snakes rarely occurred at lower elevation sites on private land. For the last 3 years, we have run a monitoring program at approximately 30 of these gestation/shedding sites to document how factors such as occupancy, the number of gravid females, and the number of offspring change over time. We have also launched an education outreach program in the region as our primary applied conservation program. While we do not know a great deal about the rattlesnake’s status and biology in the region, we do know that direct human persecution throughout this region is one of the primary threats. Most rattlesnakes encountered are likely killed and one way to change that pattern is through education. Over the past 3 years, we have provided over 20 outreach programs to over 500 people in an effort to educate local communities about rattlesnake biology and try to inspire some interest, appreciation, and respect for the species.
As the 2017 season begins, we will continue to build upon many of our existing efforts while initiating several new projects as well. During this season, we will focus much of our work in the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment region as we have learned that this is an area with a high amount of human-snake encounters. We will continue our monitoring efforts. Following last year’s productive year for rattlesnake reproduction, it will be interesting to see what type of reproductive effort develops in 2017. To deal with our general lack of knowledge on the location of overwintering sites in the region, we are collaborating with interns from the Highlands Biological Station to radio track snakes from gestation/shedding rocks back to their overwintering sites. Finally, we will continue our education programs throughout local communities and plan to develop a system by which we can determine if our education efforts are resulting in positive outcomes.
Rattlesnake season is always exciting and I encourage all of you to get out and experience these amazing animals in the wild. While doing so there are some important things to consider. First, careful thought should be given before sharing the location of rattlesnake sites. In the wrong hands, this secret information may be used with the intent to harm the snakes by certain groups of individuals. Instead, it is always important to share any information you have with the state wildlife management agency in the state where you are located. Second, herpetologists often have the need to handle every snake they encounter. When you go out this year, try just watching some snakes through binoculars and photographing them without disturbing them. The truth, is most rattlesnake photos you see are of snakes in a defensive posture rattling, which is something they would rarely do in the wild. It would be similar to birders always photographing their animals doing a broken wing display to protect their nest. This season take a different approach and spend some time simply observing snakes and you will witness far more interesting behaviors than a snake in a stressed environment attempting to flee the situation.
This truly is an amazing time of year to be a part of nature. Wherever you spend your spring days, I hope a few of them may be in the woods, I know that is where I will be.