Trip Details

Location: Jackson County, IA

Weather: 70 degrees. Completely sunny. Low wind.

Time: 11:45 a.m.

Herpers: Jim Scharosch & Matt Ricklefs

Account by: Matt Ricklefs

Photos by: Jim Scharosch & Matt Ricklefs

One of the great things about having an interest in nature is the discovery and enknowledgement (that's not really a word, but it sounds super cool so I'm going with it) that it provides. Whether you are a storm chaser, an amateur ornithologist or entomologist or just simply enjoy being outside and valuing all that is around you; you always have a chance to engage your senses with something new and often times unexpected. Obviously, field herping is no exception. Every time you are out in the field you add to the knowledge you have gained through how many ever years you have participated. Even though you may not be a professional and are documenting hard data for the furthering of education, anecdotal information, once added up through time, is also valuable. But a true joy is discovering something new. SomethingÖ unexpected.

This spring in Iowa has been unusual in that everything seems to be out a little earlier than normal. Plants, animals, everything. We have had some unseasonably nice weather, but in 2012 we had a March that was primarily in the mid 70's before April went back to being seasonable, and that did not seem to have the same effect. Jim and Don, in efforts to manage habitat by cutting down Cedars at the location we visited this day, had already documented a sub-adult and adult Timber two weeks before, and those snakes had even dispersed a short way from the den. This was the earliest we had seen from this location, and it appears the efforts in opening up the area choked by Cedars is continuing to be good for the Timbers in the area. Needless to say Jim and I were optimistic about our trip and it was my first time out this year herping.

Since we split up a little ways to cover more ground in some areas, if one of us finds something out we'll let the other know so they can come over and spot it on their own; even having narrowed the search area down. Such was the case when Jim had his first find. I went over but ended up having to yield so Jim pointed out our first Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) of the day.

Photo by Jim Scharosch

It was about a two year old and was comfortably tucked back in a crevice. To be fair Jim is a bit shorter than I so he had a better angle, but I should have ducked down a bit more where the crevice was in this game of hide and seek. There was however no one home at the den on this side of the area and we moved on. After a little work, Jim did find a last years Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum).

Photo by Jim Scharosch

We also checked some tin and boards we had placed out earlier in the spring, but though nicely settled (and the boards nicely chewed on) no one was home yet.

We made our move to another hillside and our first stop was the den at this location. This time it was my spot and Jim's chance to find. Where I saw a head a partial coil, the way Jim came up he could see a larger back part of the snake so it was a bit easier and it was an easy spot for him.

Photo by Matt Ricklefs

This Timber was about the same size as the first one we had found and was right on the den where we have seen them before. On the bottom side of this same den there is some nice shelf rocks that we see Timbers at as well. However there is also a unique configuration of rocks in about 5-6 little segments that always fools us when you catch it out of the corner of your eye. It looks like a small Timber coil. This mirage will come back to play a little later in the story.

We looked around a little more and checked some more tin and boards we had put out and under the largest piece of tin we nabbed two Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis).

Photo by Matt Ricklefs

Both were approximately 24 inches long. So the tin was CERTIFIED, SNAKE-IFIED! Now, the true purpose of the tin and boards is to try to allow us some cover to check for Black/Western Rat Snakes. Sorry, I still like the old Black Rat name. We have found one sub adult a number of years back and have some other evidence and this is obviously a good area, but we want to try and get some idea of how many may be around and the tin and boards will help us bring them in to something we can check easier since our other means have been less fruitful. We walked around our normal areas and Jim spooked up another Garter on the crawl and flipped another last year's juvenile Milk but that was it.

There is one other location, a little access road that just leads to a hilltop field that we hadn't checked much in the last year or so. They had widened the road a few years back and we wanted to let the area settle in and recover a bit before we did too much. There is also a power line cut that had recently been cleared and that had opened things up quite a bit. Today was the day and both Jim and I were planning and looking forward to checking this spot. And we were hoping for an adult Milk or two as well.

On the right day, we have found very decent numbers of Milk Snakes on this little road cut. The jumbles of rocks are good, the exposure is good and it certainly goes in deep enough for Milks to use for overwintering so this can be checked both quite early and quite late in the year.

We had flipped a few rocks when I came upon a very nice rock. Upon turning it I was flabbergasted and shouted out "What the $%&+?!?!". After all the years we have been checking this spot we had only found Milks. But this time I uncovered a Timber that was a good 2 feet long.

Photos by Matt Ricklefs

Photo by Jim Scharosch

Not often in field herping does someone call out an expletive that identifies the snake to the other herper, but Jim knew what I meant. Sure, a Rat Snake would have provided a possibly similar response, but the feeling in the air was just “timbery”. It sat for a few minutes and we did get a few in-situ shots, but it was quite warm and it was in direct sun and decided it had had enough of us. It gave a bit of a rattle then crawled into the cover of a nearby shrub and root cluster. Since it was still safe and not far from the rock it was under we left it alone at this point.

WOW. Now we had a puzzle to solve. Even with the seemingly early emergence and short dispersals of other Timbers in the area, this spot was significantly far from either of the known dens we had on the other hillsides. Our hypothesis was this was from a new and yet undiscovered den at this location. We couldn't rule out that it had not come from the closer of the two other dens, but we figured we were about 95% sure we had found something new. As Jim pointed out though, without corroborating evidence we couldn't be 100% sure.

Fortunately, the rock this Timber was under was right downhill from the area that had been cleared for the power lines.

Photo by Matt Ricklefs

We had both walked the area before and it seemed marginally OK, but we had never found any signs of Timbers there. There are a number of outcrops and with the newly exposed areas, we had a better chance and the removal also made it much easier to get around. Jim also commented that there is no way we would be lucky enough to find this first one and in the same trip find another in such a definite way to support our hypothesis. So, the search was on. But before we got too far, Jim was able to pull up a nice adult Milk Snake about 18 inches long that we took a break to get some shots of. It was nice that we were able to get an adult yet on this trip.

Photo by Matt Ricklefs

We also found a third baby milk snake.

Photo by Jim Scharosch

We climbed to the top of the outcrop. We looked high and low. We ducked and stretched to attain to the levels that these tricky snakes may have found to hide themselves from us. At one point I was down below about a 25 foot outcrop and Jim was above and I heard at least one rock flip and asked how it was up there to which he replied not bad but nothing that stood out immediately. I was having the same luck. As Jim worked his way down and we were about done with the search but something kept drawing me to look up. We were still close to being up the hill where we had found the first Timber and since the low ground was not paying off, something kept me looking up to the outcrop Jim had been on.

Jim was coming around and down the hill and was able to see me looking and even taking my glasses of and rubbing the sweat from my eyes. Was I really seeing what I was thinking I was seeing or was it another rock mirage like the configuration at the other den? Perhaps just a play on the rocks from the mottled sunlight? But no, it was not. Up on a small rock cliff about 25 feet up and not far from where Jim and I had talked was the side mid-body coil of a large Timber. Gold and black subdued in the shade and mottled sunlight, but still clearly visible. It was a glorious sight. When Jim came over I had to show him to make sure I really was seeing this and he concurred in stunned and mutual disbelief.

It's one of those things. To be exactly in the right spot at the right time. Luck has no little part in this. Jim had looked down, but just not in the precise area where it was and I happened to look up at just the precise angle to see it. Had it not been on a fairly small ledge where it had a large enough coil out or had it been a smaller snake, we both would have completely missed it. I have a series of in-situ shots to show what we saw from down below and then a zoom shot of the coil to help demonstrate the difficulty of seeing this snake where it was.

Photos by Matt Ricklefs

When we got to the top and looked over the ledge (and to get pics we actually needed to lay down to see and get the good angle) this one was as big as we had figured.

Photo by Jim Scharosch

Here is another angle of the same snake.

Photo by Jim Scharosch

It was a good 4 footer. There were two interesting things about where she (we thought it was a female) was. It was on a ledge in full shade (at this point in the day it was the hottest and there was full sun with no clouds out) AND she was very dirty. Dirty to the point of what we have seen other snakes have JUST emerging from some den sites. In his review of the area Jim had found a few rock/ground holes or areas where it did seem to go down far enough for it to be a den and they were in VERY close proximity to where this snake was. In the other den areas, the snakes emerge from rock outcrops and therefore there is not as much dirt and so they come out fairly clean. This new one was covered and it made perfect sense that she could have emerged from more of a ground/rock hole.

I knew part of Jim saying earlier that we would “never be lucky enough to find something to support our theory” was partly a ruse and partly an anti-jinx, and ya know what? IT WORKED!!! This was the evidence we needed to feel 100% sure that both of these snakes had come from a den in or near this outcrop. We still don't know for sure which hole or crevice they use, but we have a fairly tight area to start with and that will certainly drive us to find it; though it may take a few seasons.

Since this happened and we had talked about this anyway since we were there early, we went back to some of the first outcrops we had visited when we first got there and Jim was able to spot one more Timber that had not been out before.

Photo by Jim Scharosch

It took me just a bit, but this one I did find. We guessed that it was a between 2-3 foot and was at an outcrop that we had not seen a snake at for a season or two so that was cool. Time to head home. What a great day!

The unexpected. This was basically going to a whole new area and discovering Timbers. Already this season we had gained an even greater understanding of the area. Adding to the knowledge we had and allowing us a basis for future exploration. That newness also drives you. What else could we discover or observe that we didn't know? How can that be applied to other areas? What do we have yet to find? And isn't nice just to get out in the warming spring rays and shed off that winter chill.

Boldly go, fellow herpers. Boldly go!

Observe and Conserve, happy spring and as always a very heartfelt HAPPY HERPIN'!!

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