Dirk Stevenson (Altamaha Environmental Consulting)
Keep reading to join Dirk Stevenson on a series of encounters with the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, frequent commensals of gopher tortoise burrows, are among the most beautiful and impressive of our native snakes. Those who champion conservation of tortoises possess a reverential adulation for this species, the largest of all rattlesnakes. Naturalists of all stripes cherish every field encounter we have with this snake, and I am fortunate to have had many.
I was looking for Crotalus adamanteus when I found my first. A week prior, I had stopped along a narrow road that crossed a marsh, to measure a five and a half foot roadkill, still damp with new death. I was stunned by the snake’s beauty, its size, and the sad fact that it had been dispatched minutes earlier. Where the wetland edge met the pinelands seemed a good place to search. As cinnamon phase red-shouldered hawks scream, I walk slowly, peer carefully, and an hour later spot a three-foot eastern diamondback pancaked beneath saw palmetto fronds. My heart races, I tremble with excitement.
(Rainey Slough, Glades Co, Florida, 1989)
On a remote, wild Georgia barrier island, I join a team of zoo herpetologists visiting from New York City. Boarding the boat to the island at dawn finds me discombobulated. My ring finger, engorged and tightly wrapped in gauze, throbs like the bass beat at a nightclub and my head is cloudy from pain meds − a snapping turtle bite the previous day landed me in the emergency room. And now, I co-lead an expedition with the express goal of observing wild examples of one of the largest pit vipers in the world.
My Big Apple charges show up clad in ankle-high footwear. About five minutes in, we find our first diamondback, and it’s an absolute whopper, stretched out motionless between clumps of muhly grass. The snake leggings that heretofore had been sliding about in the bed of the Polaris are gobbled up.
We explore a lush live oak hammock, an island of forest fringed with gorgeous Spartina marsh. I look on bewildered as one of the zoo herpetologists probes and whacks a cabbage palm log, hollow, soft and semi-deflated, that lies on the hammock floor. “Look at this huge shed skin I just found, still fresh-wet, he exclaims!”. “That’s a rat snake shed, not what we are looking for, and anyway your attempt to locate an adamanteus inside that is apt to be futile”, I reply, before walking off, amused. A minute later he bounces high in the air when an agitated rattler explodes from the palm log.
(Barrier Island, Glynn Co, Georgia, 2003)
It's one of those first warm March days that result in an eruption of flying insects, bird song, blossoms galore on our early-flowering blueberry species. Ostensibly, my wife (a diamondback magnet, just one of many reasons I love her) and I are hunting an uncommon and gorgeous dragonfly, the Say’s spiketail. Adults of this species, a lush golden-green in color, are endemic to sandhill seeps. We explore an aeolian dune sandhill lightly forested with sweet-smelling, albeit non-native, sand pines. Yellow tortoise burrow aprons, some the size of mattresses, pepper the adjacent ridge. Our feet sink deep enough in the sand road to make it qualify as exercise.
A very fresh track of a very large snake crosses the sand before us. Another snake track. Then, our steps bring us to a wave of dozens of slow-moving Norway rats. A chicken house sits atop the hill in a clearing to the south, apparently it was fumigated the day before. Inebriated by the poison, the squirrel-sized rats shuffle and wobble, sometimes toppling over. We have to work to avoid stepping on them. Still more snake tracks. A potential bonanza for any large snake, and we ponder whether indigos or diamondbacks are capitalizing on the opportunity. Soon, we locate a big rattlesnake coiled tight near a tortoise burrow, its scales vibrant yellow, shining in the sun.
(17-Mile Creek, Coffee Co., Georgia; 1999)
It’s late August as I explore the margins of a remote, primitive cemetery in southwest Georgia. The cemetery includes a dozen old-growth remnants, massive longleaf pines, their columnar trunks stout, knobby with age. The siblings of a new rattlesnake litter, rubbery and opaque, bask together on a large, weathered board like so many scaly hockey pucks. The little blue snakes are more than I can count. I stare hard knowing the female must be near; mother rattlers stay with their young for 10-12 days post-birth, until the babies shed their skins and disperse. Then I see her on the far end of the board, mostly concealed by a curtain of bracken fern. Mom, coiled, looks tired. Her skin hangs like a loose suit on her body. My presence disturbs them and the newborn diamondbacks beat a hasty retreat, following closely the scent trails of each other, back under the plywood and into a burrow.
(Grady Co., Georgia; 2015)
A big swamp diamondback has settled into damp earth shadowed by summer foliage − next to a log in the Altamaha River floodplain – muscley bald cypress, Ogeechee limes, sky-reaching overcup oaks. You would never, ever see this snake – unless, inadvertently, you looked right at it. In the nearby slough, herons fling spears into warm, receding blackwaters. The chin of the coiled snake rests snug on a log. A foraging posture. Hello Ms. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. How old are you, do you hunt here often? Are you a gray squirrel, or an eastern woodrat hunter?
(Moody Forest Natural Area, Georgia; 2004)
On the day before Christmas, a small congress of vultures perched in a far-off persimmon lead me to an eastern diamondback struggling to swallow a full-grown eastern cottontail. The rabbit was struck earlier that day and is now in rigor. The snake, a bit under four feet long and alarmed by my approach, rattles. An hour later, the snake is still struggling to work its maw over the stiff elbow of the lagomorph. I leave just as a warm rain comes on, one that will call Ambystoma and other amphibians from the ground. The drops come larger and quicker on my mile-plus walk back to the truck, rinsing sand from my face and soaking my clothes. So, how did things turn out? I return and successfully locate the snake the next day, crammed tight into a tortoise burrow, sporting one prodigious bolus.
(Altamaha River sandhill, Darien Georgia; 2016)
I spend over two decades in the Coastal Plain range of the eastern diamondback before flipping one under anthropogenic debris. Finally, two big adults coiled together, under a truck tailgate (a Dodge).
(Near Oliver, Georgia 2008)
Have you ever gotten an eerie feeling after walking past a tortoise burrow? Like you missed something. Once on a mid-November walk, I did. Something deep in my consciousness told me to go back and look again. The gopher hole was dug into an Ohoopee River dune and surrounded by a garden of mints and sand spikemoss. Returning, I gasp−in plain view is an enormous, golden diamondback. The snake is seemingly asleep on the surface, six feet behind the burrow entrance, in a compact coil. I return a third time, 10 minutes later, as I had to have a second look at this magnificent animal. The snake was gone!
(Ohoopee River sandhills, Georgia 1997)
Lying on my belly on the burrow apron, flashlight in hand, I strain to position my face at the mouth of a tortoise home (to inspect a fresh snake track). I press myself snug to the sand and feel the warmth of our earth.
One comes to recognize the characteristic scratching sound a surprised gopher tortoise makes as it retreats, post-disturbance by a hominid. Similarly, that wheezing HUFF (product of a protracted exhalation) issued by a concerned eastern diamondback is distinctive. And, you bet, hearing it when prostrate gets your attention. I had awakened a basking snake, less than a yard away, looped on the burrow roof among the charred stems of huckleberry shrubs. The snake’s natural response was to run into the burrow. I became bipedal again, instantly.
(St. Mary’s, Georgia, 2009)
Early in my hike I am soaked with perspiration – 90 F, and the humidity has topped out. Huge, bruised July clouds continue to metastasize, thunder pounds in the distance. Scratching about for salamanders at an idyllic, moss-lined seepage in the shade of mature oak-beech forest, I come close to trodding on an enormous canebrake rattlesnake. The snake so heavy-appearing that I assume it’s gravid. Nope, it’s a one healthy male, and looks as if he is going someplace, most likely he’s on the prowl for a “she”. Minutes later lightning rings close enough to send me scurrying back to the truck, and as I do I encounter a just-shed eastern diamondback, also on the crawl, on top of the ridge. Here hardwoods change to pines, and I feel exposed. I smell the musk of the snake, sweet in the heavy air, as it slithers deep into palmettos.
(Alapaha River sandhills, south Georgia, 2023)