A Horridus Birthday

For many years now, I’ve celebrated my birthday each year with the “season-opener-birthday-bug-collecting-trip.”  This happens regardless of what day of the week it falls (although two years ago I did get roped into a business trip – I made up for it by stumbling into a quick but thoroughly enjoyable tour of Pipestone National Monument before my flight back home).  Last year I made sure I got the day off and had a nice, festive (tiger beetle) birthday.  For this past April 23rd, a Friday, I celebrated my 29th birthday (for the 2-dozenth time!) by grabbing long-time field companion Rich and shooting down to Sam A. Baker State Park in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri.  My goal for the trip was to find the very uncommon Cladrastis kentukea (American yellowwood), a small tree that is known to occur in Missouri only in the White River Hills of the extreme southwest and in a few localities in and near Sam Baker State Park.  Actually, it wasn’t the tree so much that I was after, but a small jewel beetle – Agrilus cladrastis – that utilizes this plant exclusively for its larval host. To date, the only Missouri specimens of this species have been collected by the late, great Gayle Nelson on yellowwood in the White River Hills, and I wanted to see if I might be able to find it in southeastern Missouri as well.  April is still too early to encounter active adults, but my plan was to: 1) find examples of the tree, 2) collect dead wood from them, and 3) cut living branches to leave in situ for infestation this season and retrieval the next.  Long story short, I succeeded on all three counts (though I won’t know for a few weeks whether the wood I brought back actually harbors any as yet unemerged adults – finger crossed!).

The area where we expected to find the tree was steep, rocky slopes overlooking Big Creek on the north side of the park.  Rich and I were hiking a trail below the slopes, and I had gotten a little bit ahead of him when I saw a 30″ long snake stretched straight out across the trail.  Recognizing it immediately as one of our venomous species, but not quite sure which one, I blurted out, “Wow, what a gorgeous snake!”  Rich, a better herpetologist than I, shouted from a distance back, “What kind?”  In the few seconds during which this exchange was taking place, it all registered – the dark stripe behind the eye, the bold markings (too dark for a copperhead, too big for a western pygmy rattlesnake, too widely spaced for a massasauga), the black tail (not yellow-green like a juvenile copperhead), and a tiny little one-chambered rattle!  I yelled back, “A young timber rattler!”  Rich got there promptly, and we decided that it must be a yearling based on the time of year, its length, and the size of the rattle.

I have seen a few timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in Missouri over the years, but never like this.  My previous sightings have all been fleeting glimpses after hearing them shooting into the underbrush to escape my close approach – me oblivious to their presence until it was too late.  This young snake, by contrast, didn’t flinch as I approached (carefully), set down the backpack, and assembled the camera to begin taking photographs.  As I began taking a few photos of the head area (from a respectful distance – the vision of that terrifyingly aggressive prairie rattlesnake from two years ago still lingers), it became agitated and started moving for cover.  Rich wasn’t too anxious to head it off at the pass, but I wasn’t satisfied with the shots that I’d gotten so far, so I grabbed my net to block it from disappearing into the litter.  That caused it to pause just long enough for me to get back into position and frame a shot… that I couldn’t get off before it started moving again!  We did this a few times until it finally just crawled right into the net – now what?!  I carried the net over to some large rocks on the side of the trail and used them to flip the net and dump out the snake, which immediately headed for cover underneath the rocks.  I figured the photo shoot was over then, but the space under the rocks was not deep, and after a bit of probing for escape routes the snake eventually settled into a money pose and I was able to snap away with glee – what do you think?

Missouri has five venomous snake species, all of which are pit vipers with three being rattlesnakes.  I’ve featured two of these in previous posts – the Osage copperhead and the western pygmy rattlesnake.  Both of these species occur throughout the Ozark Highlands, although the latter is more common in the southwestern part of the state.  The third rattlesnake species in Missouri, eastern massasauga, is rare in wet habitats scattered across northern Missouri, while the cottonmouth (or water moccasin) is limited to stream, river, and swamp habitats in the southern Ozarks and southeastern lowlands.  Many internet references list the western massasauga also as occurring in Missouri, but this subspecies is not included in the most recent Snakes of Missouri (Biggler and Johnson 2004).  Within Missouri, timber rattlesnakes have a statewide distribution, but they have been extirpated by humans from many areas and now occur as small populations in scattered locations across the state.  The same is true in other parts of their range as well, particularly along the western and northern limits.  It is thus a rare and exciting treat to see one of these magnificent animals, although the reasons for its rarity are both sobering and maddening.


Briggler, J. and T. R. Johnson.  2004. Snakes of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 16 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Email to a friend

36 thoughts on “A Horridus Birthday

  1. What a great way to spend your birthday. I know yellowwood from the Hoosier National Forest near Bloomington, Indiana. I hope you get some nice examples of the Agrilus out of it.

  2. I would like an annual birthday custom like this as well…perhaps something safer, like a field-trip in search of wood-borers in the ale-stained oak tables of an ancient English pubs…


    Happy (belated) birthday from me too!

    • Oh, but yours are so terrifyingly huge. I saw one in Big Bend National Park once stretched out across the road – a full grown western diamondback. I wasn’t a photographer at the time, but my field companion was, and he was too nervous to try to take photos.

  3. I saw my first Missouri timber rattler at Sam A. Baker S. P., while hiking with my kids, oh probably 15 years ago. Accustomed to more irrascible western species, I was surprised (and the kids were disappointed) that I was unable to elicit rattling. Indeed, it never left the path across which it lay until I slipped a (long, stout) stick under its corpulent body and moved it. These are surprisingly easy-going snakes – until you step on one.

    Beautiful pictures of a truly handsome creature!

    • Almost forgot to mention: I just planted a yellowwood in my front yard last weekend. In 20 or so years, you can come collect from it… :-). As I recall, the yellowwoods at SABSP are quite tall and lack reachable limbs (I was attempting to collect seeds from them for propagtion). How did you access branches?

      • We only found one large tree – right next to the Visitor Center. There was a dead branch hanging down just within reach of my net – I was able to pull it down and grab it with my hand and then yank it down.

        The only other trees we found were a few very small ones on the bluffs above Big Creek. You know of more larger trees? Where were they?

    • Thanks, James. That was my experience exactly, coming on the heels of that terrifying prairie rattlesnake experience 2 years ago in the Black Hills.

      Recalling those jumbled boulder-strewn slopes above Big Creek and the protected nature of the area, I imagine there must be as healthy a population of timber rattlers as anywhere in the state.

  4. Fantastic shots, Ted! A truly beautiful animal. And what a cool encounter. That it slithered into the net tickles me. That second photo is especially captivating with the tongue out. Very nice.

    If I remember correctly, young snakes are more dangerous because they don’t yet know to control how much venom they inject. Or maybe it’s that their venom is more potent than adults. Well, in either case, I would side with Rich on not wanting to intercept the little thing (though admittedly as kids we spent time catching baby copperheads–because we were young and dumb–so it’s a wonder any of us survived to adulthood).

    • Thank you, Jason. Yes, I love the tongue-out photo – it was the only one I managed to get despite a deliberate attempt to time my shots to capture it.

      I checked into the “young more dangerous” idea and found some interesting recent research that basically debunks the idea of youngsters injecting more venom – the researchers used an ingenious system of water filled latex gloves to prompt strikes by juvenile and adult rattlesnakes, and adults consistently delivered greater volumes of venom than juveniles. There does seem to be some evidence that the toxicity profile of the venom changes during growth, with juveniles producing more neurotoxins for the herp-heavy prey base and then switching to more haemolytic toxins as they mature for the mostly mammalian prey that is consumed by adults. However, the differences in toxicity are not nearly enough to cancel the greater volume of venom delivered by adults. All in all, if I had to choose getting bitten by a youngun versus a hefty adult, I’d take the former (though neither would likely be a pleasant experience).

  5. Gorgeous color and pattern. Wow. What luck that you caught a snake in your bug net…who would have thought?

    I read about the tree, Cladrastis kentukea, at wildflower.org. It says that it only blooms two or three times in a decade!

    Hope your tree sample yields a marvelous beetle to see and read about in the future.

  6. This must be the year for them to flower in the St. Louis area, as every one of them at Shaw Nature Reserve is putting on an amazing show, as I write. I would note that in other years they also bloom, though less profusely.

  7. Happy birthday!

    These are beautiful shots of a remarkably beautiful snake. I absolutely love that high-contrast brown and black on his back.

    (And this definitely makes me a lot more excited about my upcoming trip to the Smokies and the Ozarks next week … )

  8. The Whitmire Garden – Bascom House area has most of them, still looking good when I last saw them on Wednesday.

  9. A happy belated birthday, Ted. Sounds like a great birthday tradition you’ve got going, a wonderful way to treat yourself. And a fabulous birthday “gift” in the discovery of the rattler, too!

  10. Pingback: House of Herps #8: The Reverse Constellation Edition

  11. What a beautiful snake! And wonderful photos too. I found a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake in my garden on my birthday last year. After relocating it (with tongs rather than net), I spent the afternoon looking for rattlesnake dens. I wish the Latin gave me a poetic title like yours; an “Oreganus Birthday” doesn’t quite do it.

  12. These are really great photos. I guess the youngsters are more intensely colored than the adults. These snakes are remarkably docile. I hate to see them run over on the roads and on the side of the road where it’s obvious someone deliberately ran them over. Guess the fear is understandable when there are children in the vicinity but I was taught, growing up in Oz, not to step over logs, walk though long grass without looking carefully etc. OK, off the soap box. Glad that you had the opportunity to view and enjoy this one.

  13. I stepped on a 3’4″rattlesnake yesterday around 7am. It never even flinched. I didn’t realize until my girlfriend who was behind me noticed it. When she screamed I turned and saw it and realized that is what I had just felt under my boot. I had my three dogs with so I decided it best to terminate the snake. Not sure exactly yet what kind of rattler it was ,but it had ten rattles and is the only other rattler I’ve crossed paths with other than a Pygmy rattler that I killed in my hm last fall. Lots of copperheads around Chadwick.

    • Let me see if I understand you correctly – you stepped on a “rattlesnake” and it didn’t bite you or even flinch, yet you felt the need to kill it anyway. Also, you don’t know what kind of rattlesnake it was, but you know precisely how long it was? I would go so far as to say it wasn’t even a rattlesnake – many snakes shake their tails when disturbed hoping to scare off the intruder. Killing a pygmy rattlesnake is even worse – tiny little things can hardly kill a rat. Your disrespect for wildlife is disturbing.

  14. Pingback: House of Herps #8: The Reverse Constellation Edition – House of Herps


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s