Well, it has been more than two months since I reported the first births of the year among the wild rattlesnakes in the Effie Yeaw Nature Center preserve. And while my hectic fall schedule prevented me from investing as much time as usual, I was able to record enough detail to compare this season’s behavior to previous years.
If the timing of the first births among our telemetered females (between 8 and 12 September) were representative of the larger population, we would expect to start encountering youngsters about the third week in September. Remember, new kids remain with their mothers in their birth shelters until their first shed, which usually occurs a little over a week after birth. Only then do they venture out into the world where people might encounter them.
Sure enough, the first young-of-the-year was encountered on 26 September, ironically on the sidewalk just outside the EYNC classroom as my UC California Naturalist class was leaving that evening. Of course, since I had just talked about baby rattlesnakes in class a few minutes before, the students were suspicious that I might have planted the little guy! The next day, I encountered another one (see photo below) stretched out next to the hollow log where Females 39 and 53 had recently given birth.
And sure enough, Female 39 once again made a beeline from her birth shelter to the blackberry thicket across San Lorenzo Way as soon as her kids’ natal sheds were complete (photo below). She has produced broods in three of the last four years and she has followed the same pattern each time: she used the same gestation/birth shelter, she made a direct 200+ meter move to hunt in the same blackberry thicket as soon as her kids departed, then she returned directly to her usual hibernation site after several weeks of foraging among the blackberries. Some of these individual rattlesnakes have proven to be quite predictable from one season to the next… but not all of them.
Female 41 spent the past three winters apparently by herself (as far as I could determine) in a ground squirrel burrow among the roots of a large living Valley Oak. However, she has apparently decided to spend this winter under the EYNC Visitor Center building! Now before getting excited, remember that she is one of only twelve rattlesnakes carrying radio transmitters at EYNC – and we have estimated that there are about 100 additional adult rattlesnakes in the preserve. We can make that assessment because we have 52 rattlesnakes marked with paint in the rattles that are not implanted with radios… and about half of our chance encounters with rattlesnakes without radios over the past year have been with unmarked animals.
Almost none of the EYNC staff or regular long-term visitors with whom I have spoken thought there were anywhere near that many rattlesnakes in the preserve. That’s a testament to just how secretive and non-aggressive rattlesnakes really are. It is highly likely that other rattlesnakes over-winter under the Visitor Center every year undetected.
It is simply prudent in rattlesnake country to be careful where you step and where you put your hands; simply look before you step or reach. Assume that a rattlesnake could be encountered anywhere – in any shed or under any wheelbarrow – and proceed with reasonable caution, not fear. Don’t walk around outside at night without a flashlight (or boots); while usually pretty timid, rattlesnakes really dislike being stepped on! That’s the same advice I have given countless people at my rattlesnake presentations.
As of 7 November, all but three of the telemetered rattlesnakes had returned to their previous hibernacula (hibernation shelters): exceptions are Female 41, who is under the Visitor Center 185 meters (a little over 600 feet) from her usual hibernaculum in the woods, Male 46 is on the hillside below the residential area instead of 265 m (about 870′) away under his usual log in the meadow, and Female 66 is under a new log 80 m (about 260′) from her usual log near the study pond.
The study comes to an end
As some of you know, 2017 will be my last year of data collection at Effie Yeaw Nature Center. We implanted the first transmitter in an EYNC rattlesnake in May 2014 and built up the group of telemetered rattlesnakes that summer. As a result, we have good data from three complete seasons during 2015, 2016 and 2017, plus many valuable observations from 2014. I will remove the transmitters from the remaining rattlesnakes in the spring and release them. Several are carrying their fourth transmitter (they must be replaced annually), so removal will be their fifth surgery. I also have blood samples in my refrigerator from nearly 70 wild EYNC rattlesnakes, as well as many dozens of shed skins collected from various locations in the preserve… and DNA can be extracted from both blood and shed skins.
Now the real work begins. Field work is great fun! Sitting at a computer for weeks or months is, of course, far less entertaining. Yet the field work means nothing if the data are not analyzed and shared. And as a favorite mentor of mine is fond of reminding me, “If you don’t publish it, it never happened!” So, while we certainly have answers to the original questions (like how many rattlesnakes are there, where do they give birth, spend the winter, etc.), the most exciting part involves the potential for unexpected discoveries. And as I have written about in this blog before, I have found the EYNC rattlesnakes associating in three loose groups without an obvious environmental reason to do so. I suspect they are socializing in family groups, which has only been documented in one previous case with Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in the Appalachian Mountains. Genetic analysis of the blood and shed skins will make or break that hypothesis for the EYNC animals. I will continue to post analysis updates and eventually publications here.
So stay tuned!
I’ll leave you with one of my very favorite photos from the study: big Male 37 basking peacefully on top of a large pile of dead branches among blackberry and wild grape vines early one morning in April 2016. The third rattlesnake to receive a transmitter at EYNC, he has always been a joy to watch and has provided some of my most memorable rattlesnake encounters of the last four years. The yellow and red paint in his rattle is slightly visible in the photo. Like others of his kind, he wants nothing to do with people but is a mouse, vole or ground squirrel’s worst nightmare.