Little Rock Den
Hole in the Wall Den
Below Big Rock Den
Side of Big Rock Den
Member of Hole in the Wall
Poteau Mountains Western Diamondback "Study"
Beginning close to Poteau, OK and stretching to the Kiamichi Mountains are a small range of low mountains, including Cavanaugh Hill, called the "Poteau Mountains". This area is home to the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Most of these mountains are known to the locals for the large rattlesnakes which can be found on most any mountain in this small range. Large tracts of land in this area are owned by big corporations which put up large antennas, pump natural gas and harvest timber off them. Because of this, human intrusion is kept to a minimum. One of these mountains is home to my own special "Coon Tail" study. For approximately 10 years I have been watching several dens of Western Diamondbacks located in these mountains.
After hearing stories of the large Diamondback rattlesnakes in the area, I began my own search for the same. The first two years uncovered only Timber Rattlesnakes and I had almost decided that the locals did not know the difference between a Diamondback and a Timber Rattlesnake. Finally we started finding Diamondbacks and they actually turned out to be just as large as the stories I had heard. Well, maybe not quite as large as some of the stories.
The dens in my private study, which is completely unscientific as I am not a trained herpetologist, are located on a predominately south facing ridge. This particular ridge is approximately 200-250 feet above the valley floor and is less than one fourth of the way to the top of the mountain. The first ridge consists of a bluff of mostly solid rock that is approximately 15 - 20 feet tall on average and is basically straight up and down. At the base of the bluff the terrain falls off at an angle of approximately 30 degrees for an average of 50 - 75 feet across and is scattered with an abundant amount of native stone, deciduous trees and different types of brush. After this, the ridge makes another steep drop off of an average of 15- 20 feet again. This drop off appears in most places to have been caused by the erosion of the red clay earth which is common in this area. The mountain as a whole is covered mostly with pine trees like many other mountains in this area.
Much of the brush on the mountain is a vine type with thorns like found on a rose bush. In some locations the brush covers areas as large as 250-500 SF and has the look and consistency of a tumbleweed. This is a favorite location for the resident snakes to sun in the early spring. They are able to take full advantage of the spring sunlight, yet remain almost invisible to all but the most trained eye. At other times, they might be found partially coiled under a rock which will allow them to slip away unnoticed if they feel threatened and/or detect movement towards them. There are other types of bushes that allow the snakes to coil at the base and use their camouflage to hide in plain sight and still allow full advantage of the sun.
After many years of catch and release and watching the snakes closely, We have discovered the location of at least four dens. The dens found are most likely home to a population of 20 -25 snakes each. This is only a guess and is based solely on photographs and sightings of various snakes over the years. The first den, now known as "Little Rock Den", is located at what appears to be a large rock approximately 25 feet from the base of the bluff. The main opening faces mostly east, however, there is a second entrance at the lower south part of the rock and more than one more entrance located at the back of two crevices which also face the east. The second den, known as "Hole in the Wall", is located on the face of the rock bluff which faces predominately south. The opening is approximately 6'-7' up from the base of the bluff. This den is approximately 100+ from the first den, which is not uncommon for this species as we have noted in other dens found as close or closer in far Western Oklahoma and Texas. The third den, known as "Big Rock" Den, is approximately 1,000 feet east of the second den. This area is on the lower area and is always warmer than the upper dens. The fourth den, "Bluff Dwellers", is approximately 1/2 mile east of Big Rock. This den opening is a hole in the side of a large bluff approximately 40' high with a small flat area directly at it's base used for sunning. Some of the largest snakes on the mountain have been seen at this den.
The location of all of the "Little Rock" and "Hole in the Wall" dens located on the first ridge allow quick access to the base of the bluff which is used as a pathway to other areas on the slope below. Directly to the east of the bluff is a very large area of the rose thorn brush. To the west is a predominately rocky area with scattered smaller brush and grass. All in all, there are many places for them to sun, hide or lay in the open without worry of a human presence. The second den area is also close to a very brushy part of the slope, but allows quick access to the base of the bluff and also to the valley below. The "Big Rock" den is lower in altitude and more protected from the spring winds. As the other dens, there is ample brush in the immediate vicinity used for sunning. "Bluff Dwellers" den is also more protected from the wind and has what appears to be a large pile of rocks directly below. The surrounding area is also covered with thorn covered brush.
It dawned on me one day while viewing the photos taken over the years that each snake's tail was as unique as fingerprints on a human. Most of the Western Diamondbacks have five black rings and four white rings on their coon tail. This is also true of the Western Diamondbacks we have seen for years in Western Oklahoma. However, there are a few that have only four black rings with three white rings. One snake which is named Stubby, has only two black rings and one white ring.
Even with detailed photographs sometimes the snakes were difficult to tell apart. So this year I started taking close ups of the tails from top, bottom and both sides along with head shots. This technique has allowed me to positively identify certain snakes. Using this format, I have named many snakes and most of these have been seen more than once. One large heavy bodied snake which is close to 5' long (2009) has been dubbed Scarface. Scarface has a small scar on it's head. Most of the snakes on this ridge tend to be almost a greenish yellow color which allows them to blend in perfectly with the new spring leaves. (Please note that some of the photos do not show the exact color of the snake due to the variance in lighting). We have found one darker colored one that tends to be more of a brown color like most of the Western Oklahoma snakes and has been named Brownie. Brownie is approximately 3'6" - 4' long. Stubby has only been seen once and is a heavy bodied 3'6" snake. It is the snake with only two black rings and one white ring.
There are two 3'6" snakes that appear at first glance to be the same snake. They both have only four black rings and are almost identical in markings. However, one has an unusual habit of coiling only the front half of it's body. It has thus been named Halfcoil. It's twin has an unusually long stripe directly behind the head leading to the diamond patterns on the back. With this marking it has been named Stripe. Scarface also has this stripe but it's stripe is not as noticeable.
The latest snake to be named is Hulk. Hulk is one of the nick names of the person who found him. My friend Jeremy was with me on the 1st day of November when we found Hulk. Hulk is a very impressive snake that is between 4'6" and 5' long. The most impressive thing about the Hulk is his massive body. This snake is as big around as Jeremy's forearm, which is sizeable. Hulk likes to use the throaty hiss as well as a loud rattle to warn you. Another very impressive snake.
I have included photographs of each named snake and hopefully will add many more snakes to the list every year from now on. The largest snake seen on the bluff so far has only been seen from a distance and is probably over 5'6" long. While photographing Stubby one early March day, I looked to my left and saw this very large Diamondback stretched out sunning on a rock ledge in the open. As soon as I focused my camera, the snake turned and slid back into a crevice and has not been seen since. Have heard many stories of large Diamondbacks being killed in the valley every summer. I'm just hoping this snake was not one of them.
Beginning in the spring of 2009 we plan to use a new technique to mark the snakes. This will allow us to positively identify and collect data on more snakes. Along with the new identification method, we plan to collect other data (weight, length, etc.) each time a snake is found. We will share all information as it becomes available.
March 6, 2009 was a cool low 70's overcast day. But we did find two new snakes on the mountain. Two Bands gets his name from the 3rd & 4th black band on his tail being connected. Overall length was 53" which makes me now think we have been way underestimating the length of some of our snakes. From now on, all will be measured as I guessed this one to be 46" long. Two Bands is probably the most agressive snake found to date on the mountain. When agitated, he will actually throw his body at you and appears able to strike at leat 3/4 of his body length.
Spot was born last fall and has only a button for a rattle. He has a white spot in the middle of one of his black bands. Spot was found in a new location and most likely has shown us a new den site. The chances of this snake living long enough to see again is very small as most newborns won't make it through their first year.
The weather this spring, 2009, has not been good for snake finding. It's been unusually cool and wet. Normally the snakes on the mountain will start to emerge from hibernation after the first week in March. The cool weather kept them from coming out early and the only back to back half way warm days seemed to come in the middle of the week making it difficult to make it back to the mountain. On the occasional warm sunny day we seemed to always have high winds out of the south. I don't know if that kept them well hidden or if we just missed them this spring. Anyway, we found only four new snakes this spring. You have already been introduced to the first two.
The last week of March found Knothead. We named him knothead due to his age and codition. Most snakes found on the mountain are young and very large for their size. Knothead, the term given to calves that don't do well, was approximately 43" with nine rattles. By the size and shape of the rattles and the size of his head compared to his body it is obvious that he is an older snake. We have found many younger snakes that are larger and in better condition than this older snake.
M was found the middle of April. His/her name comes from the M pattern on the neck just below the head. After two weeks of cool, rainy weather it was back to the mountain to hopefully find snakes sunning all over the ridge. Just a few feet in altitude from the valley floor I found M coiled next to a animal run sunning at about 9:30 AM pretty much in the open. With this find, I was expecting a great day. No other snakes were found which would not be unusual in a typical year. Not one snake was found on the ridge used to sun on after emergence from hibernation. The den areas themselves have not been very productive this year at all. The snake named M is almost a twin of Knothead having a large head on a narrow body. Both are older snakes and approximately the same length. M has 10 rattles and one button.
It would appear that the snakes moved from the den areas down the mountain approximately the same time of year even though the weather was not cooperative. Will continue to monitor the den areas to see if maybe there will be a straggler, but who knows? Just when we think we have them figured out, they surprise us.
Since the last posting, we have found several more Western Diamondbacks, the largest being just over 6' long. We tend to find more Timber Rattlesnakes each year as well. What a great day it is when you can find a Timber Rattlesnake and less than five minutes later find a Diamondback within 20- 30 yards away! This area is also home to the Western Pigmy Rattlesnake. I can't wait for the day that we find all three on the same day, now that would be a great "hat trick".
The spring of 2011 was not good. We had both knees replaced in late fall of 2010. Went to the mountain a few times but the weather did not cooperate nor did the knees. By the first of May we were not feeling at all well and found the cause to be a large tumor. I was diagnosed with cancer and had a baseball size tumor removed from my lower right abdomen,12 inches of small intestine, 2 lymph nodes and my appendix. They can not cure the type of cancer we have but there is a chemo type of drug that is supposed to keep it in remission. So, this fall we will check on our snakes again. I hope they all remember me.
We are up to six known den sites with several very large snakes, however the larger ones are most likely to be killed during the summer months once them move down into the valley where the people are. People just can't seem to be able to pass up killing a large rattlesnake.