Crown Point photographer Seth Lang was driving on Lake Shore Road between Wesport and Essex yesterday when he spotted a large timber rattlesnake in the road. Timber rattlers are a threatened species in New York State. This specimen was all black.
“It was stretched across the lane as I swerved around it,” Seth e-mailed me. “I realized it was a snake. I threw it in reverse, and it coiled up and stayed coiled up while I photographed it. Very large, bigger around than my arm, and I’d guess five to six feet long. It did kinda keep puffing up like it wanted to strike, but no rattle noise.”
Lake Shore Road borders Split Rock Mountain, which is thought to be the northernmost habitat of the timber rattler. In the Adirondacks, the snakes also can be found on Tongue Mountain and other spots around Lake George. Timber rattlers range as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation notes that timber rattlers usually are three to four and a half feet long, so the one Seth encountered was larger than average—unless his eyes deceived him.
Bill Brown, an expert on timber rattlers, says the snakes rarely grow larger than four feet. “Anybody that sees a four-foot timber rattler thinks he saw a five-foot snake,” he said.
Brown said the Split Rock population is unusual in that all the specimens are black. Except for a tiny population in New Hampshire, other populations in the North are made up of black snakes and yellow snakes (with crossbands). In the South, there may be more color variations.
A biologist who has studied timber rattlers for more than three decades, Brown attributes the uniformity of the Split Rock population to the “founder effect.” It is supposed that all the founders of the population were black, and no yellow snakes contributed to the gene pool.
Essex County, where Split Rock Mountain is located, once offered a bounty on the venomous snakes—which led to a steep decline in their numbers. How is the population faring these days?
“As far as I know, it’s doing well,” Brown said. “It’s like all of the populations in New York State. They’re holding their own or coming back a little bit.”
Timber rattlers feed mostly on small mammals, but they also eat birds, amphibians, and other snakes. They use venom to immobilize prey. “In New York there have been no records of human deaths attributable to rattlesnakes in the wild during the last several decades,” DEC says. “Contrary to popular opinion, a rattlesnake will not pursue or attack a person unless threatened or provoked.”