Snakes Hang Out in Douglas-fir Forests Too

I’m back in Sonoma County, California doing some fieldwork. One last season, mostly to pass the reins to another PhD student. It got me thinking about my last trip out in 2014, so here is a tale from the field.

We were on the lookout for snakes. Western rattlesnakes to be more exact. Doing fieldwork in Sonoma County, California these are probably the biggest immediate danger, next to twisting an ankle or fracturing something in a fall. A bite is unlikely to be fatal if you stay calm and get to help in a reasonable amount of time, or so I’ve been told. Much worse is the possibility of contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite. Fortunately, in five seasons of fieldwork I had never had to find out. So there we were, well off of any trail except what deer or rabbits (or snakes!) might use, traversing a hillside with clump grass and mixed chaparral vegetation. That means often dense, impassable shrubs with stiff, sharp branches at face height. Okay, that’s not what the vegetation classification means, but we make up our own meanings while cursing our way through. Rattlesnake habitat. Looking carefully before placing a boot down while hanging on to the branches threatening to whack you in the face on a steep hillside, while it’s 75 degrees F (or 45 and rainy) is hard work. Usually we’re doing both over ~7 weeks. Our vigilance seemed to pay off as we finished our scramble by exiting into a shaded, cool, soft, open, needle-carpeted Douglas-fir forest. The terrain flattened out, the understory dissappeared, the ground softened, and the temperature cooled.

The three of us stopped to catch our breath, and I told the others we were close now as I scanned down the hillside looking for the solar radiation shield that marks the center of each of our 200 plots. I knew we were within about 100 meters, and could probably just see that far, but couldn’t spot the site. I turned back around to see how the heavy breathing was coming along for the others. Joe and Kerri are standing about three feet away from me and starting to breathe a little more evenly. Then I see Joe point at the ground and say, “Kerri” on one of his heavy exhales. I follow his pointing finger, and there right next to Kerri’s boot, and I don’t mean nearby, I mean right. next. to. is a ~12-inch rattlesnake, stretched out long so that her boot is probably around the middle of its body. Kerri doesn’t follow Joe’s pointing finger, when he says her name she looks over at him instead. Kerri is the one who taught me about keeping a calm, clear head in the field, by example and some crazy stories. In an even voice (I think), I say “Kerri, there’s a snake right next to your right boot.” She looks down, calmly looks around to make sure she isn’t stepping into more danger, and takes a good large step or two away. Danger averted.

Now, often if you’re getting near a rattlesnake it starts rattling. They don’t really want to get into it with something that is so much bigger than them. Wasted energy on something that can’t be a meal. But this one had been silent. Upon closer examination this appeared to be due to recently having a meal, i.e. it had a distinctive bulge along the otherwise slender body. We were lucky. Out of the usual danger area we had relaxed, and even moved a little farther from the edge of transition from chaparral to Doug-fir forest, and one of us almost stepped on a snake. That was damn close. We gathered ourselves up, after a few pictures to document our encounter, started to make our way down toward the plot. I had taken about four steps and froze. Directly ahead in my chosen path, maybe 15 or so feet away was another rattle snake, and this one was no baby. Easily an inch in diameter and probably about three feet long. It hadn’t made a sound either. So, not that way.

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The snake that we inadvertently got way too close to

One other thing about Douglas-fir forests: the trees drop their lower limbs as they grow. In addition to the ground being covered in needles, it is littered with sticks. Interestingly, these sticks and twigs started looking a lot like snakes. It was the longest 100 meters I have ever walked, Kerri and Joe following my path (perils of being the leader), and all of us playing “stick-or-snake?” the entire time.

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Kerri & Joe coming up the trail after finishing the plot

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