On a recent cold morning– overnight low of 30 degrees F, windchill at dawn 25–I climbed the remains of an old windrow, a small knoll of earth and pine logs , and spotted a big diamondback from a good twenty feet. It was exciting and unexpected in this cold.
Sure, it was sunny, but the wind came in mini-Arctic gusts. I had just sampled the ambient temp with my loyal Schultheiss, which read a hair under 8 C (ca. 45 F) at 1100 hours.
In the bright winter light the snake appeared black. At first I wondered if it was an oak log. But the log was kinked, with prominent, rough scales that looked beaded, like those of a Heloderma , or Bushmaster. It was stretched out slap in the sun, on the edge of the sand apron of a large tortoise burrow, facing away from the burrow entrance.
I ran back to the truck for my camera, nose running and sweat gathering under my red stocking hat. Hustling like a whiptail lizard down a series of sand lanes I grabbed camera and ran back. A hanky I’d knotted in the top of a small turkey oak warned me I was close. It was an eerie feeling approaching the burrow, knowing the snake was there. Closer and closer I crept, each step calculated (talk about watching where you put your feet). The snake was gone.
Had it already curled up in the palmettos, where it would find camouflage in brown fronds and splintered light? A hidden diamondback melts into its environment.
I ogled the fresh snake track on the apron; it doubled back and went into the burrow. Actually, that’s what I had expected the snake might do. The big guy, or girl, was now curled tight a meter deep in the tortoise hole, facing out (i.e., facing me). It had wanted to bask, or perhaps relocate to a different burrow, and after it emerged decided it was too cold to remain on the surface, and beat a hasty retreat, slinking back into its refuge. At least that was my interpretation. On a number of similar occasions I have observed indigos crawl from the depths of tortoise burrows to the burrow exits, only to backpedal, as if they sniff the air contemplatively, gauge the temperature, and reconsider.
To photo the rattlesnake, clearly immobilized by the cold, I lay down in the sand and used my large magenta hand mirror (carried to flash sunlight into tortoise burrows) to carefully scrape away the fresh lace of a black-widow web that curtained portions of the entrance. I have navigated a toxin ten times as potent as a rattlesnake’s, so I stuck my head into the burrow to photo Sir Crotalus. He was cold and wore an expression that said “It’s been a long winter.” Folds of skin were visible along his sides—not emaciated, but skinny, the hide slack ( think David Byrne in the Big Suit). The eyes were blue, a shed event near. But the head followed me, and the protracted tongue-flicks spoke volumes. It was a good, healthy rattler, and later in March a cotton rat or rabbit meal will warm its body, and its spirits.