On the ancestral dens of timber rattlers

“Do you see them?” he asks.

I scan my surroundings: granite boulders, a carpet of brown pine needles, a few trees clinging to the thin earth.

My guide points, and then I see it: an adult timber rattler coiled on a rock shelf, just a few feet away.  It’s thick and tan with dark-brown bands. And it’s not alone.

Herpetologist Marty Martin has brought me to a rocky knob in Shenandoah National Park to witness the spring emergence of the timber rattlesnakes. These snakes hibernate for the winter in dens high in the Appalachian mountains. On warm days like today, they come out to bask and eventually, to disperse throughout the surrounding forest.

Some rattlesnake dens are as simple as a stump hole. Often, a colony will occupy a series of crevices spread out over the mountainside (so I don’t recommend scrambling up an unfamiliar rock face in the early spring). But others are known as ancestral dens: deep fissures or chambers in the rock that have been used for as long as 6,000 to 8,000 years. These ancient refuges are rare, because as soon as settlers found them they would destroy the sleeping snakes. Martin has spent decades mapping the remaining dens and zealously protecting them.

The biggest dens in the central Appalachians support 250 to 350 snakes, counting juveniles. At these, Martin has seen as many as 72 snakes on a given day. While the timber rattlesnake is venomous, it is not an aggressive animal.

The door of this particular den is a long horizontal crack in the granite. I can see about six snakes peering from within and several more sunning on the shelf that serves as their front porch. We count 18 timber rattlers in all: large males, skinny females and little babies. Most stay still. A few flow down the rocks like water.

I hear their tails buzzing in a chilling chorus. They know we’re here.

But they stay at a distance, and so do we.