Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Snake Mountain

Bob Cammarata
As a wildlife photographer, Bob has become a popular contributor to "Tales of Relentless Pursuit." It is a matter of pure coincidence that this amazing snake adventure is being presented so soon after Nancy Hovey's story of how she overcame her snake phobia!  Nancy, this story will certainly test your progress!

So get ready to increase your respect for the intrepid Mr. Cammarata, as you relive with him his day of extreme adventure on Snake Mountain!  The photographs are paralyzingly good!

If you have not had the opportunity to read Bob's previous posts, here are links to them:


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Michelle Alton


If you ask any group of individuals to describe Paradise, you will likely end up getting varying responses. Some may fantasize about a leisurely stroll along a deserted tropical beach…with soft sand scrunching between tired toes as gentle ocean breezes caress the body and soul. Others may envision lounging pool-side at the Ramada at some exotic locale sipping Pina Coladas and snacking on Shrimp Cocktail while foregoing the concerns of the day. But surely, someone within the group in defining their interpretation of Paradise might mention The Garden of Eden…even though there was but one serpent there.

I call the place Snake Mountain and for good reason. Nestled in the heart of central Appalachia, it’s a foreboding place, desolate and wild, oft intimidating but I dare to consider it my own personal Paradise. This story chronicles one truly special day on the Mountain…a day which would surely have left Adam and Eve trembling in their fig leaves!

It was a warm, sunny July morning as I navigated the deserted road up toward the secluded summit of Snake Mountain where the timber rattlers call home. Locating and photographing poisonous timber rattlesnakes in their own environs represents obvious challenges. The chance of being bitten, while extremely remote,  certainly weighs heavily upon the mind but of greater concern is being able to safely navigate the treacherous, rocky terrain in which they thrive. The greatest challenge of all though is actually FINDING one…since the secretive timbers tend to spend most of their day underground or otherwise hidden from view.

My arrival time at the summit was around mid-morning and I began gearing up. High-top leather boots and a firm hiking staff would, as in previous trips, aid in navigating the rocky crags…hopefully without mishap. I’d chosen to travel light that day, with just one camera body with a 105 mm lens slung over my shoulder. Previous trips to the Mountain earlier that year and most of last year had proven uneventful so I felt hesitant to strap on my usual heavy back-pack full of gear for what would likely end up being nothing more than yet another wasted walk in the woods. But this was a new day and I set off down the trail toward one of my favorite haunts with renewed hope that today would somehow be different.

A short time later, I spotted my first rattlesnake near an old den site. This was really a great find since I hadn’t seen a rattler there in over three years. As the snake quickly uncoiled and bolted toward the entrance of the den, I hurried forward to try to get off a quick shot or two before it disappeared. In my haste, I spooked a second one which had been basking nearby and it too, quickly vanished from view. I carefully and meticulously tip-toed around the den to the other side and in doing so, nearly stepped on a third rattler. Measuring nearly four feet long, it was stretched out full-length on some rocks completely out in the open!

The sunning snake immediately reacted to my presence and flattened it’s body as if to appear even larger and more intimidating to this would-be intruder. A few tongue flicks tasted the air as the hefty rattler circled its thickened form into a defensive coil.
Now this was more like it…no wasted walk today!

From what I considered a safe distance, I was able to capture multiple frames of the energetic reptile before leaving it to go on it’s way. A short time later, I spotted a fourth rattler and realized that this was evolving into a truly special day.

My personal record of five sightings in one day occurred many years ago and it seemed apparent that I was well on my way toward shattering that long-standing record. While an extensive search of the area eventually yielded #5, my record breaker seemed an unattainable goal. With my confidence beginning to wane, I decided to search another area and hiked a long trail toward a rocky ridge I’d discovered the previous summer . Even though I’d never actually seen a rattlesnake there, the habitat contained all of the requisite “ingredients” so it certainly seemed worth a try.

Don't Tread on Me

My explorations in the new spot were rewarded early when I spotted a colorful copperhead snake tucked into a tight crevasse. It was oblivious to my presence and I was able to ease my camera in really close for a few intimate portraits. That copper was a great find and a bonus, but I was on a mission.  I left the copperhead to go about its business and set off in search of that elusive sixth rattlesnake.

Over an hour had passed and I again began to lose confidence. Exhaustion from the heat of the sun and the stress of scrambling around rocky cliffs all day was beginning to take its toll and it was becoming evermore difficult to stay focused. As my mind wandered further, I found myself finding photographic interest in the simplest of life forms that normally wouldn’t even warrant a second look. A weird looking clump of colorful moss caught my eye and I immediately began composing images in my mind’s eye.

“What could I do with this?” “Should I get low or shoot it from above?” “How would I light it?” I even ventured so far as to play with the moss with my hiking stick…feeling its texture.

It was about then that I realized that it had been a REALLY long day!
What made matters even worse was that I was so focused on that useless clump of moss that I failed to noticed that Rattler #6...the record breaker, was coiled and staring at me from five feet away!

It was a really big one too…definitely over four feet, maybe five. It was dark-phased and recently shed…a truly beautiful specimen! We seemed to react to each other at exactly the same instant and the large viper violently rattled its tail in defiance then quickly uncoiled and raced toward the sanctuary of a nearby boulder. I could still hear the big snake buzzing as it descended deeper and deeper into the bowels of Snake Mountain’s clandestine inner core. I was somewhat saddened at not having rewarded myself a single shot of so pristine a specimen but as I plotted my course back to the car, I felt satisfied in the knowledge that a record had fallen that day.

As I traversed the top of the ridge on my way back, a muffled, barely audible buzzing sound instinctively stopped me in my tracks. It was very faint and only lasted a fraction of a second. I was sure that I’d imagined it but I remained motionless as I visually scanned the surrounding area.

Right there in front of me, coiled on top of a huge boulder was another big timber rattlesnake. This was another “darkie”. It was the blackest one I’d ever seen!
And best of all, this newest discovery was completely unaware of my presence so it would be a prime photographic subject. But the handsome snake rested in a perilous position near the edge of a cliff…and since I was armed with only a 105 mm lens, I was much too far away.

I scanned the surrounding rocks to plot the least precarious course which might get me closer and to my amazement, I spotted another big snake ten feet to the left of the other one. (…since we’re still keeping score…that’s #7 and #8.)

In complete contrast, this other rattler sported the more traditional color pattern typical for the species. I momentarily abandoned my quest to get closer to “Ol’ Blackie” and realized that to effectively illustrate both color morphs, I had to somehow figure out a way to get both snakes in the same frame. …But how??

They were too far apart and the angle of perspective on my 105 mm was far too narrow. I couldn’t even back up for fear of falling off a 20 foot cliff to a certain death. Then, as if on cue, the lighter snake slowly uncoiled, crawled toward Blackie and re-coiled right next to it. This was a gift from Heaven! (…Hey, maybe this really WAS Eden?)
Now, it was simple to get both snakes in the same frame…and actually live to tell about it!

Rattlers Light and Dark Phase

…But it soon got even better!

A colorful copperhead snake obligingly emerged from a crack in the rocks directly behind the two timber rattlers and I was quick to recompose to include this newest member to join the party. I’d always known that rattlesnakes and copperheads coexist (They’ve even been known to den together in winter.) but now I have photographic proof!

Pit Vipers a"Trois

I remained with the trio for nearly an hour observing and documenting their behavior. All the while, they were totally unconcerned with my temporary intrusion into their shadowy world. In observing how the two timbers were interacting, I would have bet that they were a mated pair. Toward the end of the session, Blackie uncoiled and crawled over to a different rock from its mate. (..a lover’s spat, perhaps?) It was then that I decided to leave but before I made my way off that ridge, I spotted one final rattler.

#9 was a photogenic and feisty youngster…likely less than a year old. This was a fitting end to the perfect day.


And so the legend of Snake Mountain lives on. Through years of exploration I’ve witnessed what was feared a declining population. Throughout their extensive range, timber rattlesnake numbers are a mere fraction of what they once were and with so few sightings in recent years, I was afraid that the “wrong element” had discovered the tiny island pockets of timbers struggling to survive in my tiny Eden nestled within the vastness of the Appalachian Wilds.

That special day along “Blackie’s Ridge” offered renewed hope for the future of the species but one must be ever vigilant and enigmatic to ensure the continued survival and prosperity of these misunderstood, often maligned members of our natural world
…As Don Henley eloquently quipped in an old Eagles song, “You call someplace Paradise…kiss it goodbye.”


Bob's Bio:

I am a Maryland photographer who specializes in nature in all its forms. For as long as I can remember, my love for the outdoors has inspired me to capture nature's beauty and intrigue. My primary interests photographically involve traveling the country and getting up close and personal with subjects in nature. My travels have taken me to every corner of the U.S. and parts of Canada but in today’s economy, it’s becoming evermore difficult to plan a road trip unless it’s all downhill! I prefer to shoot in full-manual 100% of the time because I believe that it affords the ultimate in control and accurately represents the challenges and rewards that this great art has to offer. I’m an active member of and a regular contributor to their Forums and Newsletters. My photos have been published in business brochures and on Bugguide and other popular wildlife sites and many have been sold as fine art prints. Lately though, I do this for fun.

I believe photography to be the therapy which keeps one sane in a crazy world.

Feel free to visit my website at .
  All photos by Bob Cammarata
Bob Cammarata's Bonus Photos

Ol' Blackie

Head to Head
A Promise for the Future
(newborn timber rattlesnakes at a den site)

"6 6 6"
Hognose Snake

Northern Copperhead



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Nancyj said...

Bob deserves Kudo's for all of his patience and studying of snakes on Snake Mountain. This interesting story, inspires me to work even more at getting over my fear of snakes...I know I am not at the level he is. Fantastic images, with tremendous gratitude that it is he on that mountain and not me! 8o) I have much respect for the danger he puts himself in, to learn about snakes. We can certainly learn many lessons from his relentless pursuit!

Anonymous said...

I live in the desert and have yet to see a rattler!! No way never would I be still enough to photograph one! A tale of courage and awesome photo's!!! Tammy

Peaches said...

WOW, I cant believe you walked around a mountain lookikng for poisonous snakes, so dangerous to not get bitten
We had Timber Rattlers all over the farm when we had out pond dug yrs ago
My husband would take a very long stick, broom handle and put them in a pail....what was interesting is they laid still until in that bucket, we moved them to another woods by the river instead of our farm. We havnt seen any since.
LOVED the story and glad you are ok to tell about it!!!

Monnie Ryan said...

I'm one of those oddball folks who think snakes are beautiful and fascinating creatures. But I admit to feelings of trepidation about being in the wild amid this many, especially when they're the poisonous variety. Great story and photos, Bob!

Patricia said...

Hi Bob.....Really cool story and neat photos....I hike and always hop to spot a snake in our local park, The White Tank Mountain Regional Park in Waddell, Arizona. I hear the rattlers, but not usually see them....I consider it both an honor and a thrill to see these creatures....I've never been attacked by one (so far....I know the Mojave rattler is pretty agressive) I just give them their space and they go their way....hopefully after I've snapped their portrait...
I guess what folks don't understand is that we're not their prey. They just want their space, like all of us....give it to them and you'll be fine. Perhaps one day I'll post the story about the Grand Canyon Pink my husband and I encountered while hiking out....

Thanks for the great story and pictures!


Patricia said...

I hike and always "hope" not hop ...oh well it's early here in Arizona....

joe DiGilio said...

I enjoyed reading about your exciting adventure on "Snake Mountian" and seeing all the terrific pictures you got Bob. What a great day that turned to be. You can't get much luckier than that. I think your personal record is unbreakable.