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Illinois hunting and fishing

Photographs by Greta Myers of Springfield

Shawnee snake migration underway

September 09, 2009 at 11:10 AM

Once you become accustomed to the simmering sound of cicadas, the 2½-mile stretch within the Shawnee National Forest known as “Snake Road” goes beyond being quiet.  The stillness there is almost palpable.

But to the pit vipers that live off the one-lane road that runs through the LaRue-Pine Hills near Murphysboro, nothing could be more ideal.

A small vibration on the ground, a waft of scent and aIllinois hunting and fishingpulse of heat can be picked up by the copperheads, cottonmouths and timber rattlesnakes (like the one pictured at right) that hunt the Shawnee. The fourth venomous snake found in Illinois, the eastern massasauga, lives outside the area.

Scott Ballard, District Heritage Biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, compares the vipers’ ambush style of hunting to that of deer hunters.

Like the snake’s prey that straggles off after being struck with venom, deer must be tracked after being hit by an arrow or bullet. The vipers are equipped with a heat-sensing pit located between their eyes and nostrils, and a tongue that smells and tastes the ground and air to track their disabled prey. 

But as skilled as they are at detecting prey, the vipers’ camouflaged colors and calm make them just as adept at never being detected. 

Occasionally, visitors can glimpse a snake cooling itself in a shaded spot on the road, Ballard said. But for most of the year, evidence of the snakes’ presence is seen through the signs they leave behind, such as paths in the duck leaves that carpet LaRue swamp or by their discarded skins.

To see more snakes, Ballard advises visitors to, “Be observant and walk slowly. Take in all that is around you.”

Another optimal way of witnessing these snakes is to visit the Shawnee during their fall migration season.

Snake road lies between their summer and winter habitats, which are two distinct ecosystems: the limestone bluffs of Pine Hills and the gulf coastal cypress region of LaRue swamp. Their juxtaposition creates one of the most biologically diverse regions in Illinois. The 2,500 acres of the LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond Research Natural Area is home to approximately 35 species of snakes, 173 bird species and 1150 plant species. The area also harbors state endangered species like the eastern wood rat and the short-leaved pine. 

When daylight hours dwindle and temperatures drop, the snakes begin winding their way across the road and up the 300 foot bluffs to their winter dens. This gives visitors a chance to see the colorful migrates against the pale backdrop of the gravel road.

Nearly 40 years ago, snake road was open to year–round motorized vehicles. This led to the deaths of many snakes, amphibians and other reptiles as they tried to cross the road. In an effort to protect these species, the National Forest Service began closing the road to all motorized traffic for three-week periods during the spring and fall migratory seasons in 1972. 

But while researching the area’s reptiles and amphibians for his master’s thesis, Ballard found that the migration period of these species was actually much longer. This led to an extension of the period the road is closed to two months during the fall and spring seasons, beginning in 1994. For this year’s fall migration, snake road will prohibit all motorized traffic from September 1 to October 30.

Alternative routes will be available for vehicles and the road is typically back open before the popular duck hunting season starts, said Chad Deaton, District Wildlife Biologist with the Mississippi Bluffs Ranger District of the Shawnee National Forest.

Overall, visitors to the area have been willing to give snakes the seasonal “right of way,” and understand the need to protect these species, Deaton said.

The timber rattlesnake is an especially vulnerable species, Ballard said. The female rattler must be 7 years old to breed and produces a clutch of 10 every three years, from which, on average, only five survive. The loss of one female not only makes an impact on the local population of snakes but also on the number of rodents in the area. 

During the course of a year, Ballard said, a snake will eat approximately 9 pounds or roughly a pillowcase full of small rodents. 

Though the venom that a rattler injects into a small animal like a mouse is lethal, venomous snake bites to humans are uncommon and rarely life-threatening, Ballard said. In fact, in an effort to conserve venom for their prey, vipers will often strike with a non-venomous or “dry” bite.

Although these snakes are not aggressive animals, they can strike when injured or feel threatened, Ballard said. He recommends that if walkers come up unexpectedly on a snake they should slowly take two steps back. 

It is unlikely that fall visitors will see a cornucopia of snakes, as the road’s name might suggest. But with careful observation, Ballard said, it is possible to see a still remarkable 20 to 30 of these shy reptiles during a day’s visit. For a lucky observer, that might include a copperhead like this one pictured below. 

Illinois hunting and fishing

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

The only good snake is a DEAD snake!!!!!!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/09 at 01:10 PM

This is an awesome place. So much diversity crammed in such a small (2.5 mi) area. Not only snakes, but amphibians and birds too. Definitely a place I mark on my map.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/09 at 01:41 PM

Very interesting. I think it’s cool we still have places in IL. like this. I’m with you Shelby I am marking my map.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/09 at 02:58 PM

Before making the drive to visit snake road.
Read what Gretchen Steele posted about it on another site.

Talked to the forest service today today - said snake road is closed and isn’t really even passable for foot traffic.
Pretty much no snake road wanderings this fall..
The storm damage just was too much to get it sorted it out in time. I didn’t go on down there after talking to them because I saw no reason to just torture myself -
but I thought I should share in case anyone was planning a trip.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/09 at 04:36 PM

I just caught the smallest snake I had ever seen this past weekend.  It was pretty cool.  2 1/2 inches at the most. Of course the kids wanted to keep him but back to the wilds he went.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/09 at 06:38 PM

I really wish this area wasn’t getting published in a paper like this.  In the 15 years I’ve been visiting, I only see more and more inappropriate behavior and habitat destruction down there.  It’s getting pretty sad.  Especially when hicks love to say things like the only good snake is a dead one.

Posted by JMichels on 09/10 at 09:07 AM

It’s really no secret. Anyone google savvy can find it online through the Forest Service. I’ve been there numerous times and have encountered more scientists and enforcement personel than any ner-do-wells.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/10 at 11:01 AM

TW67, I was basing my statement on the wolf population from people who are biologists studying them (whom I talk to regularly).  Just because you hunt with a gun/bow doesn’t make you a wildlife expert, killing things doesn’t give you a better grasp on their behaviors, and placement.  Half of you guys bait things, or sit and wait ambush style…  Very sporting indeed.  I hunt snakes, it takes years of research to find some of them on your own, just for a photo (that’s my trophy).

  It’s funny that you’re still holding on to such things.  You should try harder to get over it, or produce a body, or pictures to back up your warrantless arguments!  You have the burden of proof here, not me.  One wolf that errantly made it to Illinois, doesn’t make a population btw.

Posted by JMichels on 09/10 at 11:05 AM

What do you all think about health care reform? Come on folks it was a nice article about a place in IL. that has some cool stuff crawling around that in most places are long gone. So lets all take a deep breath and be a little happy that theres a place we all could maybe visit sometime and see a critter that in time most likely will be gone. By the way let me go on the record I’m not for Government run Health Care.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/10 at 11:29 AM

I’m not saying to keep places private by any means.  A place like this has a lot of very small microhabitats, that are very easily disturbed if not destroyed. 

If you haven’t studied the natural history of the animals in this area, you could do serious harm without ever meaning to.  Things like rolling logs and rocks and not putting them back could put quite a few animals without a home, breeding or laying site.

I doubt the general public thinks the same way I do on this.  Scott Ballard was mentioned in this article and he’s a great champion of the area, instilling reform.  He’s one man though, and I see a lot of bad stuff happening down there during the migration.

Such as serious harassment of wildlife.  I have seen kids holding cottonmouths by the tail.  This is not only bad for the animal, but how about the kid?  Snakes aren’t like other critters, most of us don’t have intimate knowledge of them.  This is why I would rather the snakey people go there, since they find it, by looking for snakey places.

It’s just too easy to get hurt, or hurt the habitat if you don’t have some background in the area.

Posted by JMichels on 09/10 at 02:30 PM

I understand folks concerns, as I too have witnessed less than habitat and inhabitant friendly behaviours. I usually try to engage them in friendly conversation and explain why it’s so very important to follow all the posted rules, and be so very cautious and careful when visiting places Snake Road. The majority of the time I get a positive response. Many times, it’s just a lack of awareness or education about the situation, and who better than those of us who are snake road regulars to help educate folks. Who knows, that child you take the time to talk with and explain things to may be the next great herper!

Posted by G on 09/11 at 12:50 PM

Couldn’t agree with you more, G. Snake Road is public property with its inherent rules. Last time I was there, they were posted at both ends of the road. Anyone conscientious about the habitats herps desperately rely on will understand those rules and tread lightly. Most people I encounter on the road are there for the same reasons - appreciate, photograph, and let it be. It’s a great opportunity to get outdoors with people that share the same interests, and maybe educate some of the less informed wink

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/11 at 01:03 PM

AND ...they taste like chicken

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/12 at 12:05 PM

Damn wish I would have gone to college so I would know all about these critters, it got to be better than being amonst them all of our dumb lives!!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/12 at 06:01 PM

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