rattlesnake

Tom and Carol Sykes recently spotted a Western Diamond-backed rattlesnake in a tree, which they didn't find it unusual until speaking with friends interested in herpetology.

Tom and Carol Sykes, expert birders and nature guides, had an adventure on the trails at the San Pedro House: they observed a rattlesnake high in a tree. The San Pedro House is a world-class bird watching destination. Pretty much every day birders are here with binoculars and spotting scopes looking for the many species, often rare, to be seen here. Tom and Carol got a surprise!

When we posted his picture on our Friends of the San Pedro River Facebook page it went viral, attracting attention around the country, largely due to Tom’s great photograph and the atavistic fear of snakes a lot of folks have. At the risk of stoking that fear, we decided to share it as our monthly Herald article as a rarity.

Cooler weather brings the best time of year to be outdoors. We invite you to get out to the SPRNCA and take a hike on one of the many trails, including those at the San Pedro House. The odds of seeing a ‘flying snake’ are small though of course we can make no guarantees — just ask Tom and Carol! Here is Tom’s write-up of the event.

On the morning of 6 August 2020 while my wife and I were hiking at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, a singing Botteri’s Sparrow (Peucaea botterii) atop a mesquite tree (Prosopis sp.) attracted our attention. While observing the lone bird we also observed what appeared to be a snake in the tree’s upper branches. Seeing a snake in a tree came as no surprise as we have witnessed a variety of snake species in trees in Mexico, Central and South America, Thailand and Africa. While bird watching—our main passion—in the swamps of the southeastern United States, it wasn’t at all uncommon to see Water Moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) resting or hunting in trees and shrubs.

We set up our spotting scope for a better look and to ID the snake, which turned out to be a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). It wasn’t until we mentioned our find to other hikers later that day, specifically a few people with more than a passing interest in herpetology, that we learned seeing a rattlesnake in a tree was highly unusual.

So how did the snake come to be in a tree? One thought was that an aerial predator — an owl or a hawk — may have dropped the snake following an aerial struggle. However, the snake seemed to be in good health, comfortably coiled and resting.

The tree was quite close to the bank of a wash still wet from recent rains, although we also knew, from our walk two days earlier, that the wash hadn’t been flowing for a couple of days prior to finding the snake. The notion that the snake sought refuge from a flash flood didn’t make a lot of sense given the timing of the last rain.

We also know that in an effort to avoid ground dwelling predators, snakes will climb trees and walls.

Other snakes like a kingsnake (Lampropeltis sp.) are known to attack and eat rattlesnakes. Possibly coyotes or a fox may have forced the snake to seek safety in the tree the previous evening. Whatever the reason, here was a perfectly healthy Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake coiled several feet off the ground in a mesquite tree. As it was still relatively early in the day we assumed the sun would bring up the snake’s body temperature and the snake would eventually move on.

We frequently use our spotting scope coupled with an iPhone for digital photography and captured photos to document our find. Had it not for the singing Botteri’s Sparrow, we might never have noticed the snake. Many of our past snake sightings have been due to birds mobbing a snake which they see (rightfully so) as a perceived threat.

Tom Sykes retired from Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin in 2009 where he worked as the Director of Media Services for 25 years. Carol is the former Executive Secretary and lobbyist for the Madison (Wisconsin) Audubon Chapter. Following 9 years on the road as full-time RVer’s, they currently reside in Sierra Vista where they volunteer at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve (TNC) and Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary.