Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake At Sabino Canyon
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The other day I jokingly referred to my recent nighttime walk at Sabino Canyon as “Venom Night.” That walk included the opportunity to observe and photograph some Black Widow spiders, but it also included an encounter with this:
This, of course, is a Western Diamond-back Rattlesnake, the most often seen of the 18 or so species of rattlesnake that inhabit Arizona.
I was with a friend, Dan Weisz, and we had just about completed our walk. We were passing through the exterior area of the canyon’s visitors’ center, a complex of buildings with a large patio facing a parking lot, when we saw the rattlesnake very slowly making its way on a sidewalk just at the visitors’ center entrance. At that hour of the evening (about 9:30 p.m.) we were virtually alone and in total darkness. Our flashlights clearly illuminated the snake.
The rattlesnake didn’t seem to be particularly perturbed by us. It rattled a bit as we first approached it and then it decided to ignore us. We kept a safe distance — at least five feet — from the snake and we observed it as it found a spot in the underbrush adjacent to the sidewalk and pulled itself into a tight coil. We made no attempt to interact with it other than to take its picture.
What we observed is very typical rattlesnake behavior. Rattlers are ambush hunters. They do not pursue prey. Rather, they find a camouflaged position that is near or on trails that their prey — almost always small rodents like mice — regularly traverse, and they wait. When a mouse comes strolling along, the snake strikes at blinding speed, envenomates its victim, and waits for a few seconds for the prey to succumb to the venom. Then, it leisurely crawls up to the now-dead rodent and swallows it whole.
The snake that Dan and I observed is a particularly handsome specimen. It is about three feet long, average size for a mature Diamondback, and its scales are quite bright, vividly displaying the diamond pattern on its back. Rattlesnakes are always brighter looking just after they’ve shed and I’m guessing that this snake had shed recently.
Rattlesnakes mean no harm to humans and will never bite unless antagonized or disturbed. This snake had zero apparent interest in us. It barely reacted to our cameras’ flashes. We left it, still coiled and waiting for prey. This time of year rattlesnakes are almost exclusively active at night. The odds are very high that by sunrise the snake had left its spot and headed back to wherever it is that it goes to avoid the daytime heat. I’m certain that it had departed long before the canyon saw its first visitor of the day.
A safety note about observing rattlesnakes. A rattlesnake may not reveal its irritation or fearfulness by rattling or even by its body language. You should never assume that the snake is “safe” because it is apparently indifferent to your presence. However, staying a safe distance away from the snake guarantees that you will not be bitten. A rattlesnake can strike to about one-half to two-thirds of its body length. Staying five feet away from a three-foot long rattlesnake is absolutely safe.
Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f10 @ 1/160.