Levin: Slow Motion Migration

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(Host) According to naturalist and commentator Ted Levin, Timber
rattlesnake migration is slow, methodical, predicable – and for him –

(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

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.

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.

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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