For thirty-six years Bill Brown has been tramping over the mountains, foothills, and lowlands of the Lake George Wild Forest keeping tabs on old acquaintances and meeting new ones in out-of the way crevices, under rocks, or wandering the forest floor.
Bill is a researcher who studies the Adirondack population of timber rattlesnakes, a threatened species in New York. In the Adirondacks, they are found only in portions of Warren, Essex, and Washington counties and are concentrated in the Lake George Wilderness.
He keeps meticulous notes of his encounters, as a scientist would, and knows how his subjects have fared. But he won’t divulge details like the number of rattlers in his realm or the location of their dens. He is very protective of them and doesn’t want to draw curious humans into encounters with them.
The venomous snake has a strong hold on the imaginations of many. For many decades these creatures were the objects of a visceral fear that led people to kill them on sight, and governments offered bounty payments to anyone cashing in a rattle-adorned tail.
“A bounty system represents a prejudicial view of wildlife of any species,” says Bill. “There was fear, misunderstanding, a desire to eliminate them.”
More recently the threat has come from a uniquely modern source: the Internet. Snake hunters who call themselves “field herpers” comb the forest not to kill the rattlers but to record them and share their findings through social media. Others then follow. The result can be damage to habitat in the area surrounding a den. Or the revealed secret can be discovered by hunters with more lethal intentions. Either way it can be hard on the snakes.
“It’s too much dissemination of previously unknown and sensitive information,”says Bill. “It’s metastasizing social idiocy.”
Bill’s records take several forms. He keeps a ledger book with neat rows of information about each snake he has found, its length, weight, and other statistics as well as the location where he found it. He fills out cards detailing the circumstances of each capture, and most remarkably, he annotates the snake itself. Subtle markings, made by slightly scoring the snake’s rattles form a pattern that can be deciphered to reveal a four-digit number that correlates with an ID number in the ledger book. If Bill encounters this snake again he can compare the current information about the snake with what he recorded perhaps years earlier. He also dabs paint on a portion of the rattles to indicate the location where he found it.
Bill’s life work is to document the fundamental realities of the timber rattlesnake’s existence. What is their rate of reproduction? When do they begin and end hibernation? (He’s found that hibernation now begins later than it did and ends earlier, a possible consequence of climate change.) Two years ago he discovered the answer to a question that had long remained a mystery: how old can a timber rattlesnake get to be? Forty years.
Now a professor emeritus of biology at Skidmore College, Bill, has been fascinated by his subject since he was a child growing up in southeast Pennsylvania. He recalls searching the landscape with a friend for garter snakes and water snakes. This wasn’t just a boy’s fondness for creatures that could make others squirm. It was an early-onset scientific inquiry complete with carefully documented capture cards.
It was his good fortune to discover as a graduate student that the study of timber rattlesnakes was a sparsely researched area. The field was open for him.
“As soon as I discovered timber rattlesnakes here in 1978 there was no question I was going to go after them,” he says. “It was a perfect opportunity.”
Photographer Seth Lang and I visited Bill and his assistant, Matt Simon, in late July. Bill and Matt, carrying poles with hooks or tongs on the end, led us into the woods. Bill wore a new day pack that he set on the grass when we came to a clearing among the pines. Opening the pack, he drew out a bag, the size of a large pillow case, and from that he pulled two white sacks. They writhed and emitted a buzzing, rapid rattle sound.
Rather than guide us to hidden haunts he had brought two of his subjects with him for a demonstration. He untied and overturned the first bag. A four-foot snake slid to the ground and began to move laconically in the direction of Seth and me. It was beautiful, green with black markings and a small head that waved slowly from side to side. A forked tongue darted forward to gather scents. But with its beauty came a primal power that we could feel instinctively. It wasn’t acting menacingly and in fact moved right past Bill without showing him any attention. But instincts are strong, and Seth and I were stepping back.
Vibrating its tale at a rate of sixty or seventy cycles a second, the snake’s rattles awoke ancestral fears.
“It’s not what you’d say is a pleasing and soothing sound,” Bill acknowledged.
Wearing hiking boots and heavy leggings below the knee, Bill pinned the snake with light pressure of his foot and showed us how to count the rattles (a rough measure of age) and pointed out the identifying marks that showed the snake had been recorded on July 27, 2009.
With the first snake rebagged (a procedure that involved lifting it with the hooked pole then repeatedly trying to drop it into the bag as both head and tail reached out for escape), Bill emptied the second bag. This snake, slightly shorter than the first was all black. Timber rattlers come in “yellow morphs” and “black morphs,” with the general population consistently made up of about 60 percent yellow morphs. This rattler was more spirited than the first and took off across the clearing at a good pace for a snake, though the researchers were able to keep up at a slow walk. After flowing over grass and low piles of branches, it contented itself with slowly circling the base of a large pine.
In spite of our instinct to shy away from these snakes, they showed no aggression. If Bill or Matt used a pole to herd a snake it would sometimes go into what Bill called a defense coil, first rather loosely and then in a tighter spring shape. It held its head forward and alert but never struck.
Asked if he’d ever been bitten, Bill rather reluctantly conceded he had.
“It’s always the human’s fault,” he said. “Never the snake’s.”