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Levin: Slow Motion Migration

11/29/12 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(Host) According to naturalist and commentator Ted Levin, Timber rattlesnake migration is slow, methodical, predicable - and for him - irresistible.

(Levin) This time of year, I go to certain talus slopes to watch rattlesnakes, and I stay until autumn's chill sends the snakes underground for the winter.

I wish I could lead a field trip to one of these locations to educate people about the true nature of the snake - they're both gregariousness and docile - but sadly, this isn't possible.

Lethargic and predictable, timber rattlesnakes remain vulnerable to vandals and collectors, and to a New-Age group called "field herpers," who handle snakes, digitally photograph them, and post their exploits over the Internet. Anyone giving the GPS coordinates of such a sighting, can actually become the unwitting agent of the snakes' demise.

And that would be heartbreaking, because timber rattlesnakes are breathtakingly beautiful. They vary in base color from blackest black to golden yellow. Some are mustard-colored, others are olive or brown, tawny or twilight gray. They have crossbands or chevrons or blotches (sometimes all three) that may be faintly rimmed in yellow or white, and range from black to gray, chocolate to tan or olive-yellow. Some have a broken, rust-colored, dorsal stripe. Others are patternless black. Coiled in a bed of autumn leaves, a timber rattlesnake is hidden in plain sight unless it rattles, which is electrifying.

Here in the Northeast, den-site fidelity is the hallmark of their survival. Each fall, rattlesnakes return to their maternal den. When a well-muscled rattlesnake migrates home it doesn't undulate in loops and curves as it does when it's swimming; it flows in a straight line rather like melting candle wax. On a windless afternoon the vague sound of scales brushing against leaves gives them away.

I keep vigil at one particular den, and this year, a few snakes returned to the den in late August; more arrived in September, and the number peaked in early October, when I tallied more than eighty.

One day, I followed two big snakes through rock-studded woods and then watched them disappear down a crevice. Later in the afternoon, I stood quietly in front of the main portal as more than a dozen snakes slowly passed by me and disappeared over the stone rim of the abyss. They'll spend the winter underground below the frost line until they emerge once again in spring to bask on rocks warmed by the sun.

The snakes at my study site ignore me and I never touch them. A few of the snakes living here were born the summer the Beatles released Hey Jude; at least one forty-year-old still bears young. I do write and speak about them, but in order to ensure their continued survival I take care not to use any real names of people or places, especially recognizable roads, lakes, and mountains. To paraphrase a line from the 1950s television-show Dragnet: Ladies and gentlemen the story you just heard is true. Only the location has been omitted to protect the innocent - in this case, one of Vermont's rarest and most endangered creatures, the timber rattlesnake.

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