Tuesday July 31, 2012

Andie McGraw turned 14 Monday, but she got a very special early birthday present on Thursday -- a namesake. Or namesnake, as the case may be.

When Andie's mother, Elizabeth "Buzz" Hayes McGraw, walked out to the stone patio at the family's home in South Berkshire County around 3:30 that afternoon, she was greeted by the McGraws' dog, Bean, and a poisonous visitor.

"I walked out, and our dog came happily over to greet me," McGraw said. "Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a snake on the wood deck, slithering along.

"I screamed, grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck and scooted her indoors."

Once Buzz and Bean McGraw were back inside, she saw the visitor was in fact a 4-foot-long, honey-brown timber rattlesnake -- Crotalus horridus, by its scientific name.

McGraw called the police, and was referred to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife district office in Dalton. But it was not until she sent them a picture that they believed it was actually a rattlesnake, McGraw said.

With only five known remaining populations in the state, rattlesnakes are the most endangered vertebrate in the Northeast, and are classified as endangered in Massachusetts. Sightings are extremely rare, and people often mistakenly identify milk snakes as rattlesnakes.

The Division of Fisheries & Wildlife called upon Rene Wendell, a conservation ranger with the Trustees of Reservations at Bartholomew's Cob ble in Sheffield, to collect the snake.

"Buzz did the right thing because she called for help," Wendell said. "Most often people just kill them, which is unfortunate because they're one of the most endangered vertebrate animals in New England. Buzz did the right thing, and I appreciate it."

Wendell contacted Tom Tyning, a professor at Berk shire Community College, to return the reptile to her natural habitat. Tyning has studied rattlesnakes in the Berkshires for more than 20 years, and is currently assisting in research on local populations being conducted by a graduate student at the University of Mass achusetts, Amherst.

According to Tyning, other than habitat destruction and being run over, the greatest threats to rattlesnakes are poachers who seek out the reptiles to sell them illegally as pets. For this reason, Tyning and Wendell requested the location be kept vague of this particular rattlesnake encounter.

"There are some places where [rattlesnake] populations seem to be recovering," said Tyning. "But in most places, the populations are pretty suppressed from the pet trading industry."

Tyning also praised McGraw's response, as the snake can now be tagged with a radio transmitter which will relay valuable information to the research team, including data about where the snakes live and how far they travel when released back into its natural habitat. He estimated this snake to be between 4 and 5 years old, based on the number of rattles on the snake's tail.

"We've lived here for almost 20 years, and I've never seen [a rattlesnake] on my property," McGraw said. "But it's beautiful, when you see these pictures -- the markings are impressive."

But even she was rattled to find one on her porch, according to her daughter, Andie.

"I was just watching TV in our living room, and she let out this blood-curdling scream," Andie said. "My mom doesn't scream that much. She's always calm and collected."

For her part, Andie enjoyed the front-row seat to the rare spectacle when Wendell arrived to remove "Andie II," so named in honor of Andie I's birthday.

"I watched the whole thing, it was pretty cool," she said.

"People need to know that we live in an amazing place, Berkshire County," Wendell said. "We should all be very proud that we live in such an ecologically diverse place. It's one of the most ecologically diverse locations in New England.

"We should all be proud and grateful that so many species share our home. It's cool."


Timber rattlesnakes in New England

While timber rattlesnakes live in Berkshire County, they've also been documented in the Connecticut River Valley and the Boston area. They are shy creatures that prefer to flee than fight; the last known human fatality caused by a timber rattlesnake in Massachusets was in 1791. Generally, they inhabit mountainous, rocky terrain.

In addition to the rattle segments on the end of its tail, the timber rattlesnake has a broad, triangular head with a distinct narrowing just behind the head. Some are jet black in color; others are sulphur yellow with black, brown, or rust-colored blotches separated by cross bands on the back and sides. Adults are between three and six feet long.

Source: Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife's timber
rattlesnake fact sheet.

If you find a rattlesnake . . .

What should you do if you see a snake that you believe to be a rattlesnake? According to Rene Wendell, a conservation ranger with the Trustees of Reservations at Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield, and Tom Tyning, a professor at Berkshire Community College who has studied rattlesnakes in the Berkshires for more than 20 years, the most important thing is to remain calm, and try to move away from the snake without startling it.

"They're not vicious animals," says Wendell. "They're docile creatures, they really are. Venom is costly for the animal to make, and it needs it to protect itself, so it's not going to waste it unless it's extremely threatened."

Anyone who sees a rattlesnake may call:

  • Mass. Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, Dalton office, (413) 684-1646
  • Tom Tyning, Berkshire Community College professor, (413) 236-4502, ttyning@berkshirecc.edu
  • Rene Wendell, Trustees of Reservations at Bartholomew's Cobble, Sheffield, (413) 229-8600