Throughout our two-plus decades of married life, my husband and I have hiked many miles in many locations. Wildlife encounters have generally enriched the experience and have, mostly, been of the harmless, and feathered or furred kind – birds, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, coyotes. Our somewhat more borderline interactions with brown bears in Alaska are a different story, but will have to wait for another time. With regard to encounters of the scaly kind, we have made the acquaintance of turtles, lizards, and snakes – the latter predominantly nonpoisonous individuals.
Even though many trailheads in Colorado’s foothills and prairie bear warning signs about poisonous rattlesnakes, it was only three or four years ago that we saw our first, when we nearly stepped on a “baby” that sunned itself in the middle of the trail. I had barely enough time to take a few photos before it shimmied away.
Just a few weeks back, we had our second sighting (or our third, if we count one we saw through the car window during a May trip to northeast Colorado). When my husband suddenly stopped in his tracks during a hike at a local nature preserve, I nearly ran into him. He pointed to a shallow gully about fifteen feet ahead of us, which we had to cross and where we recognized an elongated albeit slightly stocky form. Even though my partner in crime is colorblind, his ability to discern patterns, especially on the ground, is better than mine, and he often notices amphibians or reptiles before I do. “Look at the triangular head,” he said. “That’s a rattlesnake.” A second glance confirmed his impression, as it revealed rattles at the distal end, and pits underneath the eyes. These house heat sensing organs and are responsible for their classification as pit vipers. We were most likely facing a Prairie Rattlesnake.
Three to four feet long, its body extended instead of coiled, and not in striking distance, it did not pose a threat. We watched it closely, as it did us. When three more hikers approached from the opposite direction, we alerted them to the snake’s presence, and they, too, paused, to catch a few glimpses. The reptilian head swiveled back and forth, between them and us, but the cold-blooded creature neither hissed nor rattled, merely flicked its bifurcated tongue from time to time (though never when I took a photo). After I made a wide arc around it to reach the other side of the gully, it, too, made up its mind to move on, though not far. It slithered behind a sun-warmed rock ten to twelve feet adjacent to the trail and curled up, seemingly ready for a siesta, perhaps to digest a recent meal.
We are convinced that we have been scrutinized by wild critters countless times, without ever knowing about it. Their usual modus operandi is avoidance of large animals, humans included. This fortunately peaceful meeting served not only as an opportunity to admire the greenish hue, white facial, and gray dorsal markings of this specimen that seemed particularly unperturbed, but also as a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. It is possible, not to say probable, that on our way back to the car, we looked behind rocks and over our shoulders slightly more frequently than usual. 🙂
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