Trip Details

Herpers: Jake Vardaman, Austin Scharosch, Jim Scharosch & Matt Ricklefs

Location: Jackson County, Iowa.

Start Time: 4:30 pm

Weather: Sunny. High winds around 15 - 25 miles per hour with up to 50 miles per hour gusts. High of about 85 degrees, 75 degrees by the end of the trip.

Quote of the day: “Yesterday. All the Elaphe seemed so far away.”

Knowing the weather has not been cooperating very well, we decided to take advantage of any good weather we could. The weekend looked like it would be cool and rainy, not so good for snakes, so we decided that the unseasonably warm Wednesday might fit the bill. Unfortunately it was unseasonably warm with a SW influence and it was moving through quick on very high winds. Still it was warm and sunny, so we made plans to go out after work. This is also unusual as we usually go in the morning. This was a good change. We were able to take two of our kung fu "brother" out with us - Austin and Jake. Austin is practically a seasoned veteran now and has been out with us before. Austin is Jim's son and you can see him throughout the site on many expeditions. Jake is a newbie! It's fun to take new people out and Jake fit in just right with our herping efforts.

We arrived at about 4:30 pm and started our walk. We planned to look at the sites we scouted out earlier this month and were excited at the prospects. We stopped at our usual areas, one area being our "tin spot". Jim and Jake found two Prairie Ringneck Snakes (Diadophis p. arnyi).

They were nice sized. About ten to twelve inches long. After seeing the southern Illinois variety we could really notice the difference and it helped us to appreciate even more the vast diversity of herps even among the same species. These were Jake's first ringnecks. Jim and I can hardly remember our first, as we have found so many. They are very cool though, and the first ones you see are always a memorable experience. Jim has often commented that if they were four feet long and ate mice they would be very popular in herpetoculture - the community of those who captive breed herps. After some pics, we let them go and moved on.

We did see more Five-Lined Skinks than normal. It was warm and they were very fast. They were also in breeding colors and the males had the bright orange splash on their jowls. We also found a lot of females and juveniles. This is always a good sign, as this is an area of some disturbance and it's good to know that this population in this area is still thriving. We decided to move up to the bluff and see what we could see.

It was a good walk as usual and we decided to start on the near side and work toward our "good area" and the new area we hoped would pay off. We found a lot more skinks and more ringnecks on the bluff than we had found for quite some time. This was also a good sign.

We hit all of the bluff and all of our good areas on the main side. Nothing but ringnecks, skinks and a garter snake that was on the run down the bluff that I missed as it was rocketing. A snake at full speed down a bluff side close to the edge is not easy to catch. I did suffer a good bump on the knee trying however. We didn’t find any timber rattlesnakes. This was a little disappointing. We rested and decided that we would check one other usual area then decide if we wanted to check the scouted area.

We split up and Jake and I went one way and Jim and Austin went another. We always check the rock that yielded two nice Black Rat Snakes in 2001. It's a nice area that pays off from time to time. I checked the top and Jake went around the side. There was nothing on top, but Jake saw something. As he rounded the corner about eight inches of a big snake was sticking out of the rock. Jake commented that it looked like a moray eel. I thought that was a cool analogy. Jake and I converged to look in the hole as it had already moved in. The commotion brought Austin and Jim from around the corner. We were talking and Jim and I commented that it was probably a Black Rat Snake. It's funny that when you get so focused on one area, you can miss things that, once seen, really stick out. As we were looking up and toward the hole the black rat went into, Austin said, "What kind of a snake is that?" We all looked down and within a few feet of all of us was another Black Rat Snake (Elaphe o. obsoleta) coiled nicely in a tree/shrub about eighteen inches off the ground.

Picture perfect. It made no move at first and even as we closed in and took some pics it moved only a little. This was an awesome spot by Austin as we certainly could have just moved away and missed it. I thought to myself that I would have to adopt the morel mushroom technique to snake hunting: once you see one stop and look around, as there may be others. We took a good amount of time documenting this one and eventually picked it up. Jim and I got some good bites. I have an especially good one with a clear outline of the top jaw from a straight on grinding bite. It wasn't all that bad though. For the most part it behaved nicely and Jake and Austin held it with no bites. We looked in the crevice that the first black rat went into and could it tucked back in the rocks. There is a good chance these two snakes are the same ones we caught back 2001. After we finished taking pictures, we let the snake go back up on the rocks where the other one was.

We got some nice pictures as it traveled along the side of the rock. It did not take long to find the opening where the other on was and make a hasty retreat to safety.

It was getting late. It was about 6:00 pm and we knew we had some light left but not a lot. The hike to the other new area was about fifteen minutes. We did get energy from finding this snakes though, and in the end the possibility for finding more won out and we moved on. You can be really tired and when you find something cool it will give you a lot of energy to keep going. If you are finding things regularly you usually don't even get tired until the end and you "come down" and realize how hard you worked for what you found that day. We walked down into a valley and again questioned if we made the best choice as the sun was hiding pretty well behind the bluffs from the valley bottom. We decided not to go all the way to the end of the bluff, but did find a good rocky draw that was climbable, so up we went.

This was a good area. Skinks were around and it was a due south exposure. Rocks were plentiful and loose, although you could see that it was a deep rock pile, which gives anything you do find a quick get away. As we moved up toward the top the rocks stayed the same but were now on ground. This was a perfect area. I found something that was a bit unexpected - a Northern Water Snake (Nerodia s. sipedon).

This was a juvenile, about nine inches long, but it did have some nice brown coloration. Most of the water snakes we find are a lot more gray. 

We spent a good amount of time documenting the water snake when Jake said, "Look at that."  We all looked up at the rock outcropping we were working toward and there was another Black Rat Snake sprawled out on the side and down a little.

Again, picture perfect. Jim suggested that one of us go up as not to spook it, as we could still not tell if it had a quick means to escape. We agreed and Jim went up. Then Jake said, "There's another one!" Jim said, "Where?" Jake pointed out one coiled up tighter up and to the left of the first one. You could only see parts of the coils from where we were. Jim said, "That's the one I thought you were talking about." We then pointed out the first one. It's funny how people lock in visually to different things. This was twice today that this happened. We were pumped that this area was paying off. At this point we let the water snake go on it way and turned out attention to the black rats. These were great "spots" by Jake and Jim!! Now that there were two, we decided that Jim and I would both go up. Jake took over video duty, as we wanted to capture anything funny that may happen, and to document our herping stealth. Jim circled around to come up from behind the one on the left. We could not see it all, but we knew it was big. I went about straight for the lower one. We both converged and since they sat tight decided to take a few pictures au natural. This turned out great. If you are a herper I'm sure you have had visions of snakes in certain situations. Here was a beautiful rock face and snakes sprawled out sunning themselves. We couldn't have placed them for pictures as well. As Jim and I were standing there I looked around and spotted another Northern Water Snake in the rocks coiled up a little back from where the black rats were.

I then saw another black rat snake where all we could see is one coil and its nose.

This was obviously a place that snakes were using as a hibernaculum. Once we had captured enough "wild pictures" we picked up the two we had originally seen.

The bigger one was just about six feet long.

The smaller one was about four feet long, but thicker than the one we caught first in the day.

We left the others where they were as they were dug in pretty well. They cooperated nicely. These never did bite. It was getting later, but it was still light enough to get some good pictures. After a long while of documenting these, we let them go back to where they were laying. They moved in a little closer to the crevices and we moved on.

We did not find anything else, but the area is certainly good and we look forward to check this new spot again. So often you loose areas that were once good to different factors. It was nice to gain a new spot that is fairly secure. We had put a good day in. Although we started out slow, it ended very well. This is the most black rats we had ever found in this area in one day, and we were very encouraged that the population here seems to be good. We made the long trek back to the truck and took of for home. We did make a quick stop at Subway for some eats. It was about 9:00 pm when we got done eating and went to go home. Yes, I'm getting somewhere here.... 

It was completely dark now. As we were driving we passed something, and Jim announced, "That was a snake!" Jim made a quick U turn and back we went. It was near a small stream and at first we thought water snake. As luck would have it, we hade found the second of the two species of rat snakes in Iowa - The Western Fox Snake (Elaphe v. vulpina). I had seen two so far this year - both DOR. This was an AOR (alive on road) and we were very grateful. We were in a bad area so we scooped it up and went back to find an area to take some photos.

We actually found a storage garage with lights that we were able to park at. This Fox Snake was very typical in behavior. It rattled its tail, but did not make an attempt to bite. Of course we were being nice and not restraining it. For those who may not know, "wild" snakes always do better if you don’t restrain them too much. They don't seem to feel quite as threatened. Of course this is not always true and anything can happen. You learn that getting bitten comes is part of handling snakes. After a while you just don't react. This lack of fear can help you catch some snakes that the fear of being bitten could make you miss. Of course you tend to be a little more careful with a six-foot long snake than with a two-foot snake. Also, no matter how used to getting bitten you get, you still don't let them get too close to your face. That would be a bad place to get bit. You also learn to "read" the snake. You can tell after a while of dealing with snakes what their tendencies are. This is true of all snakes, even the venomous ones. You just always need to be more careful with venomous snakes. Never forget that they are dangerous. If you treat them with the respect they deserve, you will be okay. Snakes have species-specific behavior also. A ringneck snake has never bitten me, but I have been bitten by a similar sized brown snake. Bullsnakes tend to be crankier than Fox Snakes and so on and so forth.

The fox snake, yes I remember. Forgive the long ramble. This one was very cooperative other than pooping all over me in the car. In a closed area this can be quite strong. The fox snake gets its name from the strong musky order it can emit when defecating. As odd as it sounds though, you do build up an immunity of sorts to the smell. Most people would be pretty grossed out, but to seasoned herpers it is not really all that bad. We had done very well with rat snakes today. After taking pictures of this one we took him back where we found it and Austin made sure to get it off the road as best we could to keep it safe for now. We can only hope that it will not end up DOR later on. Such are the dangers of being a snake.

We went home with no further finds, but we were very happy with the day. Everyone had great contributions to the day and it was great that Jake had a good first time out. That's all for now.

Until next time - Happy herping! 

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