Trip Details

Location: Pennsylvania

Weather: Mostly sunny, high of 64 degrees. Low to moderate wind.

Herpers: Eitan Grunwald, Kyle Loucks, Jim Scharosch

Account by: Jim Scharosch

Photos by: Jim Scharosch (unless noted)

The movtivation driving individual trips to the field to look for herps can vary. Some trips can be as simple as a quick trip to spot near home to see a couple of garter snakes. The motivation behind a trip like that might be just to enjoy being outside or to alleviate boredom. The quantity or quality of herps you see doesn't matter much on a trip like that. Other motivations include spending time with your herping buddies, seeing some animal not commonly seen or recording data from animals at a specific site. The list goes on, and obviously any trip probably will feature a combination of motivations.

The reason I thought about motivation was that this trip had everything to do with black timber rattlesnakes, or, more specifically, timber rattlesnakes with black heads. I have had a fixation with timbers with black heads since I first saw pictures of them on the various field herping forums I have visited over the years. I love the golden timbers we find in northeast Iowa. They are fantastic animals and I wouldn't trade them for any other color phase of timbers, but I wanted to see a timber with a black head, and they just aren't here in the midwest. In parts of the timber range along the east coast, they are the predominate color phase.

So this is an "obsession trip", and as such it has two major motivations. One is to see the object of my obsession with my eyes, the other is to capture an image that will always remind me what it was like to see that animal. The image doesn't have to be technically great, or please anyone else. If people like it, that's fine, if not that's fine too.

After that "Matt like" introductory rant, it's time to put some pixels on the page.

I have considered a trip out east for the last few years, but for various reasons it had never worked out. Every time I saw a black timber photo appear on the internet, I would get that desire to go find one, but then never follow through. One day in October of 2011 I got an email in the herpjournal email account. It was the tenth anniversary of herpjournal, and Eitan Grunwald had sent us a letter congratulating us on managing to keep up an undertaking like this for so long. Eitan keeps a fantastic website of his own, and I remember reading his accounts and wishing I could write as well as he does. One account on his website from Pennsylvania in 2009 in particular stuck with me over the years. It was a trip where he had visited a rookery area and seen A LOT of timbers, most of them varying shades of glorious black. Eitan mentioned in our email exchange that we should look him up if we ever ended up out east, and that was all I needed. I jumped at the opportunity to finally see the snake I had been fascinated with for all these years. After exchanging a vast quantity of emails all the arrangements were made and I flew out to New Jersey to meet with Eitan and begin our search.

Eitan picked me up at the airport and we drove to east-central Pennsylvania. We wanted to get an early start so we knocked the drive off that evening in order to get out to the first site in the morning. We were meeting up with Kyle Loucks to visit a site where he regularly sees black timbers. We met him at the gas station and followed him to the site. For someone used to Iowa timber habitat, it was an odd location for timbers, especially this early in the spring. It was a site with grassy fields, old stone foundations and tumbled stone fences. I was glad when Eitan mentioned it wasn't typical habitat for him either.

We weren't there long when Kyle mentioned "We usually see a pair of black rat snakes right here". As if on cue, we spotted a Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta) basking in the grass.

We took some photos without disturbing it. We moved along and came up to one of the stone fence rows. We soon heard the telltale sound of a snake on the crawl and looked up to see a large black Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) crossing the trail.

Fifteen minutes into the trip and I had seen my first black timber. The snake was a solid three and a half feet long. I was really happy, but knew I wasn't going to get the image I wanted with this snake because of the nondescript background. I do like the first, "on the crawl" photo with the snake's head held up high.

Soon after, Kyle turned a rock and found an eighteen inch long Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum).

It was very similar to eastern milks I had seen in Massachusetts, and remarkably similar to some we find in the easternmost parts of Iowa. We continued on and came to another large field with an old foundation. This too looked nothing like what I considered timber habitat, but I knew that didn't mean anything.

We found a Northern Ringneck Snake (Diadophis p. edwardsii) so I grabbed an "in hand" shot, not wanting to take a lot of time to photograph it.

Soon, Kyle spotted another timber on the crawl. It went under a small rock, so Eitan and I got our cameras ready and Kyle turned the rock over. It was smaller than the first, probably just under three feet long.

It was a cool snake, with the lighter background color that was halfway between the black timber we had seen and the golden brown timbers I normally see in the midwest. It still had the sweet black head though! It sat unperturbed through our photo session.

On our walk back down, we found a small American toad (Bufo americanus).

It was a cool orange color so I grabbed a photo.

A bit farther down the trail we approached another stone fence and Kyle spotted another large black timber coiled up in the leaf litter.

Photo by Eitan Grunwald

This one was really chunky and I would have guessed it at three plus feet in length. Many of the timbers in this part of the state seem to have a fungal growth on the side of their head. It looks like an infection of the loreal pit. This snake had it pretty bad, though it is difficult to see it in the photos. It wouldn't be the last time we saw a timber with this issue.

I snagged an eighteen inch long Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) on the crawl.

It had a cool olive background color and broken dorsal stripe was neat. It battled for a while, but I finally got a photo I was happy with. Even the common animals can be cool when they are different than what you are used to seeing. Eitan commented on this while he wrangled the snake for photos.

We walked back along the same trail where we had found the first timber, and in almost the same location Kyle spotted a gold colored timber tucked up in the bushes.

The snake had very little pattern. We looked more carefully and could see that the black timber from earlier was coiled right next to the gold one.

We got back to the area where we had seen the black rat snake, and soon turned up baby milk snake.

I knew it wouldn't sit for photos, so I didn't try. After a bit, I found a milk snake, this one was just under three feet long, and had the "chocolate milk" coloration we sometimes find in Iowa.

Photo by Eitan Grunwald

As we were getting ready to leave, Eitan spotted a garter snake headed toward the wall and sprung with cat-like reflexes and snagged it.

This one was a bit different from the first in that the dorsal strip was so indistinct that it disappeared on parts of the body. It wouldn't sit still for anything, thus the relatively terrible photo.

At this point Kyle had to leave for a previous engagement, so we said our goodbyes. I told Kyle how grateful I was that he had put us onto this spot and that three hours into my trip I had already seen three black timbers.

Eitan and I grabbed a quick lunch and moved on to another location. He hadn't been here so we relied on some directions he had gotten from a friend. When we got there it didn't look great, but I climbed up the hillside and started to work my way back along the ledge. It got more rocky as I moved along, and I thought that this looked more like what I was expecting to see for timber habitat in this part of the country.

Photo by Eitan Grunwald

I hesitate to tell this story because I know a lot of people frown on turning rocks in eastern timber den areas. The area I was in was a slate talus slide with large flat slabs of slate in a deep pile. I saw a few larger pieces along the edges that looked like they could hide a snake. I decided I would only turn a couple along the edge. The second slab I turned proved me correct, as I could see a coil of very black timber sticking out from under the rock below the one I moved. I took this opportunity to get out my camera and put my camera bag up farther on the hillside. I straddled the rock with the coil showing and placed my fingers on the rock out of range of the snake. I carefully lifted the rock and peered under to see FIVE three foot long timbers coiled up. The black one along the edge and one other crawled out and the other three didn't move at all. I carefully set the rock back down and took photos of the blackest timber. The other timber crawled under a larger rock near the first.

The snake was really beautiful, but was dirty from living in the rocks. It was a nice photo op, and I thought to myself that this image could be the one to fulfill the second goal of capturing a photo that grabbed the essence of the trip.

While this photo turned out pretty well, SPOILER ALERT, it didn't end up having to be "The Photo".

I included this photo so you could see the loreal pit fungal infection I mentioned earlier in the post. This snake had it pretty bad on the left side of it's head.

After pointing the timber back towards the talus slide and watching it crawl back under it's original rock, I turned one other small rock near the one I had turned before and found a baby timber. It was crawling so I didn't attempt to take any photos and returned the small rock to the pile. We worked our way up the hill, it was fairly overgrown and I didn't really expect to see anything else. We looked around for about ten minutes and were ready to head back to the car. I had to heed nature's call, and while I stood watering the local flora, I nearly watered the local fauna. There, coiled up a foot from where I was dampening the soil, was a last year's baby timber rattlesnake.

It was really tiny, the entire coil wasn't much more than three inches across. It was a bit browner than the baby timbers we see in Iowa, so it was cool to be able to get some pictures of it. As we sat photographing the snake, Eitan says "Shhhh, quiet!" and we listen to the telltale sound of a snake gliding across the leaf litter. We look up the hill in time to see a gold colored timber cruise down the hill towards us then duck under a rock outcrop about eight feet from where we are sitting. I grabbed this quick photo in which you can almost tell there is a snake.

That was it for the day, and we rolled back into town and grabbed a nice dinner and a walk around town. We spotted a nice rock outcrop near a small pond and couldn't help but to flip the cap rocks in hopes of seeing another snake.

Photo by Eitan Grunwald

It wasn't to be though, so we headed back to the hotel. It was a fantastic first day, and I was looking forward to what tomorrow would bring.

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