Why rattlesnakes? Most people will be happy if they never encounter one in the wild. But rattlers are beautiful and fascinating creatures if observed, unthreatened, in their own habitat. A part of that fascination is their menace, but rattlers are not malignant or vindictive. Specimens in natural habitat are seldom aggressive and will quickly retreat if disturbed. They simply require the same healthy respect given by humans to any wild animal.
Through my work with Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, I’ve been able to follow a lively rattlesnake population over several years time. I’ve observed baby and juvenile specimens of Crotalus Oreganus (first photo below, note the single rattle) . I’ve been fortunate to see rattlers before and after molting, very large male rattlesnakes, and very pregnant females (last photo in this section). There are rattlesnakes under the old ranch house, under the porch, a rattler under the old stove by the barn, many more in the lichen encrusted stone fences. All the photos are taken with a 300MM telephoto lens, I’m careful not to get too close.
The most startling observation I’ve made amongst the rattlers is the pre-molting stage, where the eye of the snake glazes over with an opaque, blue fluid. This fluid then disperses before the skin is actually shed. The snake lies quietly during the blue-eyed stage, as it cannot see, and is more susceptible to predation. Below is the snake in pre-molting stage. The final image is the skin I was able to collect one week later in the exact same sandy spot between the rocks.
There is one book necessary to study rattlesnakes. It was produced by Laurence M. Klauber, a retired electrical engineer who became fascinated with catching lizards in the desert near San Diego. He observed and collected rattlesnakes for over 30 years. As his knowledge of these snakes grew, he published his observations. His engaging writings eventually came to fill a 1,500 page, two volume book, Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, published by the University of California Press in 1956. Klauber’s descriptions of the lives, history, and myths about rattlesnakes remains the foremost guide nearly 60 years later (also available in an abridged edition). Klauber maintained that he would never bring up the subject himself, but that “rattlers, despite—or maybe because of—their sinister reputations, would always bridge a dull spot in a dinner conversation”.