"Science and Research"

Field Notes: Seek Nature’s Truth and Fear Not!

by Charles Bier

Frieda and Mary Ellen, once residents of the Barn at Fallingwater

For a long time I have sought out both the hidden and obvious truths about Mother Nature. As such, I have also been drawn to science as the ultimate endeavor that seeks to determine the facts. This has, over time, led me to be fascinated and comfortable with snakes, bats and spiders, or being out in the forest at night. Knowing the truth about the natural world leads to a higher level of enjoyment of the outdoors.

Over the years, I have been challenged in sharing an objective approach of relating to Nature with others of all ages. For example, I used to teach elementary students about snakes. But to get them to listen to my initial message about how harmless snakes are, I would hide Sidney, a five foot black rat snake, inside my shirt until it was either the right moment to pull him out, or he would appear out of my sleeve. I only wish that along the way others could learn to become comfortable with wildlife and the outdoors and did not carry some level of trepidation. I was reminded of all of this about one year ago.

I was by myself at the end of a very hot July day, deep in the woods of Chestnut Ridge on a gravel road inside state game lands. I had rushed to complete a habitat study even though it was over 90 degrees. There was not a dry spot left on my shirt and although I was exhausted, I was feeling pretty good about having held up on the third long day of trekking over the mountain’s greenbrier patches and boulder fields.

On the way out I was driving along a dirt road when I saw ahead of me some odd movements that I could not see at the road’s edge. As I drove closer to the swaying grass, my jaw dropped — I saw two male timber rattlesnakes engrossed in their combat dueling behavior. I had never seen this before! I grabbed the camera and climbed out of the passenger side door and walked right up to them. At first, they were oblivious to me and intent upon each other. I snapped several photos. Then, one seemed to detect me and started moving away. The other one, apparently not knowing where his competitor went, saw my movement and thought I represented the male that had left.

The remaining male started coming towards me until he finally caught on. I was still taking pictures, while he moved away from me and into the forest. The two male snakes were both beautiful and appeared to have recently shed, showing rich hues in their skin. Neither snake rattled during this encounter.

This behavior, sometimes referred to as a “combat dance,” is competition for dominance regarding courtship of a female. The males attempt to push each other over until one gives in. I did not see any other rattlesnakes, but there was likely a female in the area.

If you are fearful of certain wildlife, I encourage you to learn more about nature. There are so many myths and misconceptions about various animals in the wild, many of these lead to unwarranted fear. Who knows, you might have a chance to safely witness rattlesnake combat, it’s fascinating.

– Charles Bier is the senior conservation scientist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.