Summer heat brings rattlesnake viewing

posted July 31, 2017 9:16 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jerry Davis | Correspondent

  • con_rattlesnake_4a_072717-1
    Timber rattlesnakes are protected wild animals in Wisconsin.
  • con_rattlesnake_3a_072717
    A timber rattlesnake’s signature structure in its rattle, which increases in size with each skin shed.
  • con_rattlesnake_2a_072717-1
    The heads of two, probably female, rattlesnakes were visible as the pair was sunning on a rocky ledge in Sauk County.

Summer’s hot interludes are my not-so-subtle reminder that it is time to get a timber rattlesnake fix, or wait another year.

A rattler’s action is deliberate. For minutes, reactions may be nothing but forked tongue flicking for a chemical test. Or follow the sun as it shines on a flat rock and illuminates a response measured in angle degrees and just the right amount of sunshine.

“Timbers” may appear on what could be called a hibernaculum or birthing location, but that may not be until 10 a.m. Wind and rain, or cooler weather, may cause them to stay more protected. As the sun shifts, a snake’s body flows to get out of a shadow, or sometimes into a shadow.

Flat rocks, facing mainly east, are special places to timber rattlers. Scant plant life rarely blocks the sun.

One relatively short-appearing timber was already sunbathing by 10 a.m. By the time I was ready to leave, I had changed my position a half-dozen times, saw two rattles, two heads and one body moving with the utmost fluid movement imaginable that it could have passed for a stick with yellow or burnt orange background streaked with brown and black crossbars.

The black tail preceded a segmented rattle; the head was light gold and wider than the neck. Eye, pupil, nostril and tongue characters were prominent as seen through a binocular or digital camera image.

When there was some movement, slithering was too jerky a term. The slow movement of syrup fits better, and without anything audible as dry scales and stone must have chaffed one another.

These times often remind those who frighten of timber rattlesnakes coming down out of the hills for food or water.

There is little truth in that thought, but it is true that rattlers sometimes venture farthest in midsummer, increasing the opportunities for people living within a few miles of a den or hibernaculum to see this reptile.

They are looking for food and what better place to find a rodent than near a farmhouse, feedlot or woodpile?

Several years ago herpetologists discovered that “asking” the rattler to leave by spraying a garden hose of water at them usually sends them away and they generally stay away, although other snakes of the same or different variety may take their place.

So why go to look at a reptile on a rock?

Why stop to see an eagle, an elk, a turkey, a Michigan lily or any other thing that is absent most of the year?

They are there. They belong. We can observe.

Wisconsin has two rattlesnakes, larger timber and smaller Eastern massasauga. They prefer different habitats and have different protective status.

The timber rattlesnake is a protected wildlife animal and may not be collected, dead or alive, without first having a valid permit, which is issued for selected education, research and conservation activities.

When a snake began to move on the rock for a better sun angle, one portion remained still. The movement made clear two rattles, two heads and two snakes as they settled in to absorb more radiant energy, possibly to help development of a litter of smaller snakes inside readying for an October birth.

Only then did I know for sure I had been observing two snakes. But did they see me?

Snakes do not see well because their eye lenses do not move or change shape from the elliptical lens. But they can detect movement and can react quickly to such movement. Mostly they chemically taste air molecules as a way of staying alive.

That they accomplished that day.

Jerry Davis can be reached at

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