Trip Details

Location: Jackson County, Iowa

Conditions: Sunny. Around 78 degrees. Low wind.

Start Time: 10:30 a.m.

Herper(s): Matt Ricklefs

Account written by Matt Ricklefs

Thought of the Day: What the heck is a Fox Snake doing way up here?

I had a relatively unproductive trip abroad so upon returning to good ol' Iowa I was ready and eager to hit familiar ground. Upon walking in the the area to herp, I reflected that it was about twenty years of coming to this location. Then after refiguring, it was actually 21 years to the month. That's a long time to be herping the same area and a long time to be working with the main quarry in this habitat, the Timber Rattlesnake. We have had a few unproductive trips here as far as timbers go the last couple of years, but some habitat preservation was sure to help the area.

Walking in, there are a number of pieces of tin that have been pretty much unproductive for the most part the past several years, in other words no "big game". Only garters, browns, and ring-necks occasionally and even more rare the odd red-bellied. This day I was to find a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) under one of the last pieces of tin I was to turn.

Not too big at only about seven inches, but I took some time to try to get some nice pics all the same. Then I moved on.

It's a bit of a stretch walking the trail from the tin to the main hillside. It was a beautiful day. It was cool in the morning but warming up nicely. The rocks were about at the optimal temperature - not too hot or cold. We had had cool temps over the last several days with rain intermixed. Not great herping but apparently good for the vegetation as it was more grown over than usual this time of year. My first "big" find was pretty cool. Most people who have herped for a number of years can break down a sighting into split seconds. Some species are easily and quickly identified. Most are identified after a second or two. This comes with experience, especially when the herper finds poisonous species on a regular basis. Some species can be identified easily from a mere location. The "sighting" I had can be broken down into four quarters of a second. Quarter one: Here is a shape, it's a snake. Quarter two: This is a colubrid and not a Timber Rattlesnake. Quarter three: What the heck is a Fox Snake doing way up here? and finally quarter four: That is the good ol' Black Rat Snake. Sure enough, it was a Black Rat Snake (Elaphe o. obsoleta).

This was about a two year old or so and topped out at about twenty inches. We have seen full adult Black Rat snakes with a high yellow content in this area. You could actually call this the "Hawkeye Phase". Some obsoleta in the area or more like a "normal" one with the yellow and pattern much reduced and the overall black effect. This young one had a high yellow and pattern even after a few years as I would guess the adult ones of this phase would have had when young. I took some time to get some nice shots of this find. I always thought this may be a good breeding project, but I would be hard pressed to take a pair out of this area. I suppose that if you can't sell captive born Black Rat Snakes of other phases or morphs, you would probably find it hard to sell patterned, yellow Black Rat Snakes. Identifying the genetic traits and seeing if it would breed through would be the main value. As it was I was happy to let this one go on it's way once picture time was done.

The next find was just the normal catch when possible. It was a Five-Lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus).

This was an adult female at about five inches. She appeared very fat and was most likely gravid. She was cool and being as fat as she was was easy to catch. I took some pics and let her go back under the rock she was under as the soil appeared good for egg laying. She did not seem to appreciate my courtesy as she kept fleeing the other way. I finally persuaded her that I was no threat and the rock she picked was a good one.

As I said, it had been a few years since we actually found a timber here. The area is still good, we just had bad days. After flipping half the hillside by myself I did get a little complacent. Not careless, just used to not finding anything. I was nearing the end of the second "good area" and wondering if I was to strike out when I flipped a fair sized rock on the forest fringe and exclaimed "Oh ____" - actually out loud. No matter how many you find, it's still a rush to find a rattlesnake. This was no exception. Near the underside of the top part of the rock I flipped was a three and a half foot Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).

It just sat there like they usually do. I secured the rock and began taking situ pictures. It was patient but was wary. It was not the Iowa "golden phase" and not quite the "grey phase" we find, but it was still pretty with a mix of grey and tan. It's eyes were a striking steely color. Most of the pics were in full sun as there was little immediate cover (as with the Black Rat Snake) and between the angle of the hill and the height of the sun (it was about 1:00 p.m. at this point) I could not even produce shade with my body for pics. I did get her moved a little for some other shots. I did try again to get shade. This is when it (I do believe it was a female) decided that I had gotten too close and in a whirr coiled tighter, puffed up and rattled full on. Again she startled me. Timber 2 Matt 0. Oh well, the endorphins were a fair trade off. I don't mind saying that even after 21 years they can still command my respect. I did get some good shots and even got her in a shaded area. While she was there I repositioned her rock for the release back. After I was done, she went back under and I got a few shots of here showing under as well. During the wrangling of this one, I did think I heard the tell-tale even brush in the weeds of another snake. Judging by the rate of movement I guessed it was a timber, but I was preoccupied with the first one. Now that I was done here I carefully moved on. The first one was still rattling. About fifteen feet down and to the left I flipped my second timber. This was about where I heard movement. I was ready for this one. It was a little smaller at about three feet.

This one was the "golden phase" timber not uncommon to this part of the state. It's funny how a half a foot can make a visual difference in the size of the snake. The second was more slender and had a smaller head. The first looked more like a Puff Adder. The second was also crankier faster. I did get some nice shots. As with the first one, I positioned it (this was possibly a male, but I am less sure than my guess on the first one) away from it's rock and got it's rack back in place. The second went mobile and I was hard pressed to get it to sit still from that point on. I did get it back under the rock and got some pics of the second under as well. I was hoping for a milk to round out the day, but it was not to happen. I was very glad to find a couple of fine timbers, and especially here. I counted my blessings and moseyed on out ready for the next herping adventure.

Happy herping all!

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