Snakes in the Field

When I tell people that I work outdoors in the “wild” or “field,” I often get asked about all the snakes I MUST seed while bushwacking. “Actually,” I tell them, “I rarely see snakes and I feel lucky when I do.” “But what about dangerous snakes?” is their follow up question. Again, rarely I say. In fact, in the 20+ years that I have done field work in Oklahoma, I can count on one hand the number of venomous snakes I have seen. None of this alleviates the fears of the decidedly non-outdoorsy acquaintances. They assume I am just not looking. And that’s fair, I do focus on plants and birds.

I was having a similar conversation with my student research assistant, Abby, as we were driving down to southwestern Oklahoma to collect seeds of a rare Phlox subspecies. She wasn’t worried about snakes, I was simply going over some of the precautions for the day – be sure to carry at least a liter of water for our walk, bring a snack, and rattlesnakes are common in the area. However, I reiterated how few I have seen “in the wild” despite having I spent two summers in southwestern Oklahoma doing field work on mesquite encroachment into grasslands.

We started walking along a short trail at Quartz Mountain State Park and I was in teacher mode – jabbering away about plants and the landscape and the birds we were hearing. Abby asked about a small tree on the side of the trail and I got all excited because it was a little walnut (Juglans microcarpa), one of my favorite trees of western Oklahoma.

The little fruits of the little walnut, my hand for scale.

I showing her how little the fruits were and nerding out over the little tree. I walked down the trail and around the tree for better lighting to take pictures for an iNaturalist observation. I turn to walk back to Abby and there, inches from where I had been standing, coiled up in the sand on the edge of the trail was a small rattlesnake. The adrenaline flushed through by body even though I was perfectly safe now. It never rattled, but stayed motionless in the shade of the little walnut. Needless to say, we both focused more on the ground and where we were stepping and putting our hands.

Rattlesnake on the edge of the trail. You can even see the little walnut leaves right above it!

Well… after this trip I will need to revise my snake spiel and say I can count on two hands the number of venomous snakes I have encountered in the field! In the span of a mile and a half of walking we met three western diamondback rattlesnakes calmly curled up in a divot of dirt on the edge of the trail. None of them rattled, reared, or made any motion. So, if you are hiking at the Baldy Point Climbing Area at Quartz Mountain in the summer be sure to watch your step even if you are a botany nerd.

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