First of Season

Camouflage is the most interesting of all the arts.

~Kris Saknussemm

I sometimes feel like we live in the jungle. Looking out across the small sunny area around the house you see a green wall of vegetation before the tall trees of the forest begin. The yard itself is a tangle of all sorts of wildflowers and shrubs, layer upon layer, with years of accumulated leaves in between the green patches. Being at home so much this spring has given me a rare opportunity to actually do some tidying up (also known as weeding). Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually like the wild look, but there are unwanted species (like Microstegium) that tend to infiltrate everywhere and then some wanted species that like to take over if not watched. But, here in the hood, I try to be careful about where I put my hands and feet in this jumble of greenery because of one local resident in particular, the Copperhead. Yesterday found me repairing a patch of deer fence where a dead snag had fallen during the heavy rains. As I was walking through the woods dodging tree branches with my armload of tools I thought…Jeesh, it is hard to watch where you step in here, and they blend in so well with these leaves. Well, an hour or so later, I walked down the road to check on something, and on my way back, there was the first of the season, out in plain sight, where its usually incredibly effective camouflage was not so effective.


First Copperhead of the season (click photos to enlarge)

This one was particularly beautiful, with a bright, contrasting pattern of dark and light colors. As I approached, it flattened its body in what I assume is a defensive posture (to make it look bigger perhaps?) and remained motionless (one of their usual defensive modes). I took a few images with my phone and then walked back the hundred feet or so to the gate to our driveway to get my real camera. When I returned, the road was empty.


Distinctive traits include a vertical pupil, the pit between the eye and nostril, and the Hershey Kisses-shaped pattern along the sides (like hourglasses when viewed from above)

I walked into the woods where the snake had been headed, only to see nothing but leaves. At least, that was all I could perceive. The snake was now back in its element – advantage Copperhead.

Guilty, or Not

Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many…


You may have noticed some long lapses in my blog posts. These past few weeks have been busier than usual, not so much for work, but for personal reasons – a wedding and honeymoon trip to Yellowstone (more on that soon). This post hails back to the couple of days after our wedding and the day before we headed to our favorite place (that “Y” park). One of the joys of living out here in the woods is being able to watch all sorts of wildlife in the yard. Chipmunks are a favorite of mine, so I was distressed when I went out one morning and saw a dead one lying on the walkway to the front door. I immediately blamed the neighbor’s cats (someone down the road has 4 or 5 outdoor cats that have been seen here in the yard a few times). I went over and inspected the victim – no obvious chew marks or injuries, but when I picked it up (I was wearing work gloves) I noticed some fur slid off quite easily, exposing a patch of skin. I told Melissa about it, fuming over the harm to wildlife done by outdoor cats, but speculated that another possibility was that a copperhead had bitten the chipmunk and was waiting for it to die before trailing it to dine.

I tossed the dead chipmunk over in the woods, determined to discuss this with the neighbor. A few minutes later, I was walking down the driveway, looked over, and saw a copperhead on the walkway where the chipmunk had been. I usually try to move copperheads from inside our deer fence (they seem to like to lie on our walkway, unfortunately) but this one quickly scurried into the thick vegetation when I tried to lift it with my homemade snake stick. Hoping to lure the snake back out, I retrieved the chipmunk and placed it back on the walkway. About 10 minutes later, I walked by and noticed the chipmunk was gone!

I walked over and saw a slight movement in the vegetation along the walkway…there was the copperhead starting to swallow its prey.

copperhead with chipmunk

Copperhead beginning to swallow an Eastern chipmunk (click photos to enlarge)

copperhead with chipmunk 3

Eye level view of copperhead lunch

copperhead with chipmunk 2

Note the flies on the carcass

Our friend, Jeff Beane (Museum herpetologist), discussed copperhead behavior in an article for Live Science back in 2014. In it, he described copperheads as being “mobile ambush predators.” Mostly, they get their prey by “sit-and-wait ambush”; however, they sometimes do hunt, using their heat-sensing pits to find prey. Primary prey includes mice and other small rodents, birds, lizards, small snakes, frogs, salamanders and certain large insects (especially cicadas and large caterpillars).

For small prey, copperheads will strike and hold the victim until it dies, and then swallow. For prey that presents a possible danger to the snake (like a rodent that could bite or scratch), it will strike, inject venom, and recoil quickly, allowing the victim to wander off. The venom breaks down blood cells and leads to circulatory collapse. The snake then trails the prey using a behavior known as SICS (strike-induced chemosensory searching). This involves searching movements of the snake’s head coupled with an elevated rate of tongue-flicking. A snake’s tongue collects particles in the air, and inserts them into its Jacobson’s organ in the roof of its mouth. Receptors then send a sensory message to the reptile’s brain. Research suggests that copperheads primarily track the scent of the envenomated tissues after a strike rather than just the scent of the prey itself.  I managed only a few photos before the snake pulled its meal back into the cover of the plants. I was amazed to see what I assume were several blowflies already on the carcass in way less than an hour from when I assume the chipmunk died. These flies seek out dead animals to lay their eggs on, where their larvae serve as important decomposers. A lot can happen just outside your door when you live in the woods!





Cicada Killer, But Not The Kind You Think

There is no better high than discovery.

~E.O. Wilson

I walked out the front door before heading to bed last night just to see what I might see. The din from form the katydids was almost deafening, punctuated by the loud throaty “gunk” calls of the Green Frogs in the nearby water garden. When I swung the flashlight beam across the walkway, I saw something that really surprised me. I ran inside and grabbed my phone to try to get a quick image, as it was moving quickly.

Climbing Copperhead

Climbing Copperhead (click photos to enlarge)

What I saw was a Copperhead climbing in a stressed (almost leafless) Heart’s-a-busting shrub out front. Probably the same Copperhead we had seen the night before on the wooden walkway when we came back from a late dinner. I have seen many Copperheads in the yard, but never one climbing that far off the ground (probably 4 feet up in the shrub). It was several feet off the path, and, since I had only shorts and sandals on, I really didn’t want to venture out into the vegetation. The snake seemed purposeful in its movements, flicking its tongue and seemingly headed in a particular direction. Suddenly, my flashlight caught what I guessed was the snake’s destination – a cicada was starting to emerge out on the end of a delicate twig in that same shrub. I bolted inside to get my real camera which was, unfortunately, snugly tucked in its camera bag. These things never go as fast as you want – get camera, get macro lens and attach, grab twin flash and attach, install fresh batteries, run back outside. By the time I returned, the snake had worked its way much closer to the cicada.

Climbing Copperhead 2

The Copperhead was headed for something

The transforming adult cicada was now almost all of the way out of the nymph’s exoskeleton. I wanted to get closer for a photo so I gingerly stepped out into the vegetation, carefully looking where I was placing my feet. When I looked up, the snake was almost there, and as I brought up the camera to fire a shot, the emerging adult insect dropped free of the clinging nymph’s skin..dang it (honest, that’s what I said).

Closing in on cicada 2

The Copperhead closing in on the now empty cicada nymph shed

Closing in on cicada

Checking out the cicada shed

The hungry snake nudged the shed (the snake was also probably murmuring, dang it), and then changed direction, and, to my surprise, started heading toward the adult cicada now clinging on a small twig below.

Closing in on cicada 1

The Copperhead gets very close to the adult cicada, which is still unfurling its wings

Right as it closed in on its intended victim, the snake changed direction and started climbing back up into the shrub. I can only guess that either I was creating too much commotion with my excited movements and firing of flash, or, the cicada’s twig was just too small to support the snake.

Climbing Copperhead 1

The Copperhead retreats

The snake quickly descended down a larger twig, dropped to the ground, and slithered off, despite my attempt to corral it into a bucket (I usually like to move Copperheads to somewhere outside the deer fence).

It all happened pretty fast, and I had hurried my shots as I tried to take in this incredible scenario. What a discovery…a Copperhead climbing several feet off the ground to feed on an emerging cicada. Who knew!

Well, it turns out several people knew. This is a much more common occurrence than I realized. I immediately thought of a reference book on my shelf entitled Reptiles of North Carolina, co-authored by my former museum colleagues, Bill Palmer and Alvin Braswell. I remembered being surprised to read in this volume about Copperheads feeding on Hickory Horned Devil caterpillars, the largest caterpillar in North America, and one of my favorites. I located a table in the book listing the food items found in an analysis of the stomach contents of 41 Copperheads. Here is what the researchers could identify: 15 small mammals, 15 caterpillars (mostly large species sch as Hickory Horned Devils and Luna Moths), 5 lizards, 3 small snakes, 3 salamanders, 2 cicadas, and 1 small turtle.

So, they do feed on cicadas, but the climbing of trees and shrubs, how common is that? I turned to the internet for some answers (how lucky naturalists are now to have the power of the internet at their fingertips when they discover something new and want to learn more). The first hit was an incredible study by someone documenting Copperheads climbing trees to eat emerging cicadas! The three things that struck me from the report were that Copperheads often aggregate in areas to climb trees to feed on emerging cicadas; that they are following the scent trails of the nymphs as they climb from their subterranean feeding area up into the trees and shrubs to emerge as adults; and that one of the scientists that helped identify the cicadas to species for this study was another former museum colleague, Bill Reynolds.

Cicada escapes

This cicada narrowly escaped being dinner for a Copperhead

This really made me appreciate even more the dedicated field work, observations, and documentation being done by scientists like my former colleagues. I stumbled upon something that I have never seen before, but that is fairly well-documented. By searching my references and the internet, I was able to learn something about an amazing feeding behavior by a creature that I now appreciate much more than before. It is discoveries like these that can help us to understand and appreciate our world and that can only help us want to conserve it, even when it at first seems like something most of us might not care about protecting. And it once again made me realize how much I love discovering new things and learning about our natural world, a never-ending source of amazement.