Here on the equable Adirondack Coast, we are blessed with more snake species than colder parts of the Northeast. By northern forest standards we are fairly rich in amphibians, especially salamanders; but like most cool areas, we have only modest numbers of reptile species. The excellent field guide The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State puts Champlain Valley tallies at about ten frogs and toads, eleven salamanders, five turtles, nine snakes, and a skink.
Daintiest of our snakes is the Smooth Green Snake. I’ve seen only two in my years of rambling the Adirondacks: one on Treadway Mountain in Pharoah Lake Wilderness, and one atop Rattlesnake Mountain north of Willsboro. We are more likely to see Common Garter Snakes, often in woods near our homes; Eastern Ribbon Snakes, frequenting marshes and pond edges; and Northern Water Snakes, which we may glimpse swimming near shore in Lake Champlain. Here, too, but elusive are Redbelly Snake, Ring-necked Snake, Milk Snake, and Brown Snake.
Handsomest of our native snakes is the Timber Rattlesnake, which is often the color of a quiet summer evening here in the hills along Lake Champlain, a charcoal gray that could make you think it a different species from the yellowish varieties farther south. This dark color helps the ectothermic (“warm-blooded”) serpent absorb the sun’s warmth.
I’ve seen perhaps fifteen rattlesnakes in all my years of rambling Split Rock Wildway. Notwithstanding their frightful scientific name, usually, they’ve been lying shyly coiled in a patch of sun in the woods, basking and watching for rodents to eat. Several times, I’ve come upon rattlesnakes while cycling Lakeshore Road.
Each time I’ve gingerly urged the snake safely away from the road. Twice I was too late, as people driving heedlessly fast already had run over the snakes.
Coexisting with Snakes
This would need study to prove, but I suspect Lakeshore Road is to some degree a barrier to dispersal of rattlesnakes, which den together in winter near the lake but disperse inland in summer, sometimes as far as Webb Royce Swamp. Historically, Timber Rattlesnakes surely had a range extending at least as far north as the eponymous mountain north of Willsboro and likely at least as far west as Coon Mountain, the rocky south slopes of which offer ideal snake habitat.
After decades of pointless persecution, rattlesnakes in their northern reaches appear to be limited in distribution to Split Rock Wild Forest and nearby private lands.
Split Rock Wild Forest is apparently at the northern extent of their occupied range in New York today; and thankfully the New York Department of Conservation protects Timber Rattlesnakes as a threatened species. So it is illegal, as well as unethical, to kill them.
If you come upon a rattlesnake on your land and don’t want it there, please call the DEC. They will translocate it back to the Wild Forest.
Risks, Ticks & Rattlesnakes
Never have I felt at all threatened by rattlesnakes, not even the greater numbers I’ve seen out West, some of which are not so docile as are Timber Rattlesnakes. (Even the one I nearly stepped on while descending Arizona’s Mt. Graham at dusk years ago merely rattled, with no intent to strike.) We are much too big to be prey for any North American snake; and they do not want to waste precious venom striking us. They just want us to let them be.
We are, by the way, at much greater risk from the ticks carried by many rodents (primary snake food) than we are from snakes or larger predators, which generally safeguard our forests by controlling the population of animals that serve as vectors for Lyme disease and other afflictions.
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.
- Split Rock Wildway: Creating and Protecting a Wildlife Corridor (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Snakes at Split Rock (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Skinks at Split Rock Wildway (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- More afraid of you: Rattlesnakes out for summer (cumberlink.com)
- Fish & Wildlife works to recover Vermont’s timber rattlesnakes (vtdigger.org)