The temperatures are heating up—and the snakes are out. Not only is it rattlesnake season (April to October); it’s peak rattlesnake-mating season.
One of my friends, Marnie Hesson, was recently hiking the Quail Hill Trail in Irvine with others when they came across two large, intertwined rattlers. Both rattlers had the top half of their bodies off the ground as if they were “standing up.” My guess was that they were dancing and courting each other prior to mating—but after checking with local field biologist Paisley Ramstead, I now know that wasn’t the case: It was two male southern Pacific rattlers in combat!
I learned that if two male rattlesnakes meet up while tracking a female rattlesnake, they may engage in this type of combat to establish dominance. They will each raise their heads up and wrestle by twisting their bodies together and trying to knock each other against the ground. You must see the video that my friend captured to believe it.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in nature,” Hesson said. “It went on for a bit, I’d say 5 minutes or more. (It was) crazy cool to watch!”
This type of combat could last from a few seconds to many minutes; the winner will stay and attempt to mate with the female rattlesnake that’s usually somewhere nearby. During the mating process, the male will do a twitching dance with its head against the female—but this dance occurs on the ground, as opposed to the upright posturing of males in combat.
Ramstead told me that we can expect to see a lot of rattlesnakes this year.
“The abundance of wildflowers after the rains means that everything is especially active and taking advantage of the resources that haven’t been available the last few years,” Ramstead said.
She went on to say that almost every snake she has seen this year has been at a healthy weight, because there are more rodents available, too. “Everything is being well-fed and hydrated by the rains from earlier this year.”
Snakes like to hang out in the shade underneath creosote bushes and other plants that grow alongside trails—and all the overgrowth along the trails this year is making it even more difficult to spot them. Some species’ colors act as camouflage, meaning the snakes blend in with their surroundings and are nearly impossible to see from a distance. I can’t tell you how many times I have encountered rattlesnakes and didn’t see them until I heard the rattle—and was far too close. Thankfully, that rattle is there for a reason: I was warned. However, sometimes snakes don’t rattle at all when being approached; there have been times when I passed by rattlesnakes before noticing them, because they blended into the sand or dirt so well and stayed quiet.
Rattlesnakes also hang out in the crevices of big rocks and boulders, so be cautious. Most rattlesnake bites occur on the hands, feet and ankles; these bites can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Always stay in the middle of the trail when you can; check the area before resting on a boulder—and check again before putting your hands down to push yourself up.
Here are some more safety tips and practices:
• Wear protective clothing and gear. When hiking in areas where rattlesnakes are common, wear long pants, hiking boots and thick socks to protect your legs and feet. Additionally, consider wearing gaiters to provide extra protection.
• Stay on designated trails. Rattlesnakes usually prefer to avoid humans, so sticking to designated trails will help minimize the risk of encountering them. Avoid hiking through tall grass, brush or rocky outcroppings where snakes may be hiding.
• Keep your distance. If you do encounter a rattlesnake, give it plenty of space. Rattlesnakes can strike from a distance of up to two-thirds of their body length, so stay at least 10 feet (or 10 steps) away from the snake. Do not attempt to handle or approach a rattlesnake, and never attempt to pick it up, poke it with a stick or move it out of your way.
• If you hear a rattling sound before you see a rattlesnake, freeze! Don’t jump or panic. Instead, try to locate where the sound is coming from, and back away slowly.
The most common rattlesnakes seen around the Coachella Valley are the red diamond and southwestern speckled rattlers, according to Ramstead. The red diamond rattlesnake, one of Whitewater’s reptilian species of special concern, is likely the one encountered most on their trail system, according to The Wildlands Conservancy. They’re often confused with the western diamondback rattlesnake (seen primarily in the westernmost parts of Coachella Valley). The biggest difference is that western diamondbacks are rarely the beautiful orange color of the red diamond rattlesnake. Both of these snakes are threatened by a significant loss of habitat throughout their range.
All snakes are an important part of the ecosystem and should be respected from a safe distance. By being mindful of their presence and taking appropriate precautions, we can minimize the risk of encounters—and safely enjoy the natural beauty of the trails.