Diamondback In The Rough

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I’ve been taking a lot of walks at Sabino Canyon lately with a specific purpose in mind: to find and photograph a Black-tailed Rattlesnake.  Black Tails are among the three commonly observed species of rattlesnakes in the canyon, the other two being Western Diamondbacks and Tiger Rattlesnakes.  I’ve spotted and photographed Diamondbacks and a Tiger so far this summer, so I’m aiming for the trifecta.

And, not having any luck, so far.   Oddly, Black-tailed Rattlesnakes are commonly seen in the canyon.  Last summer I saw several of them.  Even odder still is the fact that several of my friends and acquaintances have seen and photographed them this summer.  But, I’ve been skunked, despite my incessant poking around in the underbrush.

I persevere, however.  This morning, I was walking on a narrow trail near Sabino Creek, a perfect location for Black Tails, and actively seeking one out.  I peered under some brush and rocks adjacent to the trail and saw this:

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This is the fourth Western Diamondback that I’ve seen in Sabino Canyon so far this summer.  When I saw it, it was doing what Diamondbacks love to do, lying perfectly still under cover.  It undoubtedly knew that I was observing and photographing it.  If nothing else, my flash announced my presence and, besides, it probably sensed my footsteps when I was several yards away, given that rattlesnakes are exquisitely sensitive to the vibrations given off by human footsteps.  But, it did nothing in my presence.  It didn’t move, it didn’t rattle, it didn’t even stick out its tongue to “taste” my scent.  It just sat there perfectly still.

That is typical rattlesnake behavior and it is why we most rattlers remain undetected by humans.  Rattlers are not anxious at all to interact with people.  A rattlesnake’s first line of defense is to remain utterly motionless when a person walks by it, even when someone steps within inches.   Rattling at an approaching human is actually a rare behavior.  A herpetologist at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum told me recently that it is estimated that rattlers don’t rattle 97% of the time when approached by humans.  Striking at a human is actually incredibly rare.  On average there are only about 300 rattlesnake bites in Arizona annually, a state with a population of millions of people that is augmented by millions more tourists.  Far more people are bitten by dogs than are bitten by rattlesnakes.  That’s not because human-rattlesnake close approaches are rare, but because the kind of interaction necessary to provoke a bite, which is, after all, a defensive reaction, is very rare.  Which is another way of saying, don’t mess with the snake and it will return the favor.

I follow my own advice when I photograph rattlesnakes.  I never got closer than six feet to this one, well out of its striking range.

Photo taken with a Canon 5Diii, 180 f3.5L Macro lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, “M” setting, ISO 125, f9 @ 1/160.

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