Shades of Copper


Originally published by Connecticut Woodlands Spring 2019.
Published here with permission.

A local rock climber encounters Connecticut’s most common venomous snake. 

By Chad Hussey

My late-afternoon climbing session at Southington's Ragged Mountain was about to get interesting. I carefully inched my way up one of the cliff's  classic routes. It was late August, a warm day, yet surprisingly clear. The near-vertical face was bathed in a glowing rose light.

Only a short, steep headwall stood between me and the top. I pulled a cam off my harness and plugged the protection into a solid crack as I had many times before, clipped in the rope, then laybacked sideways to get my feet up high. Once I stood up, I peered around a shallow corner to scope out my next piece of gear. An unfamiliar flash of color caught my attention. But it took a moment for my eyes to focus on what was right in front of me.

Something wasn't right. The texture and color of the rock were off. Slowly I noticed a neck and a head. I could see an eye, jawline, and eventually a hollow pit set into a snout. I was face-to-face with a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). We were both acutely aware of each other's presence. Still, while the snake's appearance was menacing, it wasn't agitated or threatening. I retreated back around the corner, my hand still clinging to the exposed vertical edge.

Again I poked my head around the corner, but the snake hadn’t moved. I decided to forego a final piece of protection and moved slowly to the top, relieved to be out of the “strike zone.” My partner lowered off after removing the final piece. “Yeah, I'm good,” he said. So there we were, two climbers, man and reptile, looking far out over the valley towards a red sun sinking in the west.

Copperheads are Connecticut’s most common venomous snake, and there’s no reason to be alarmed if you see one. “Encountering a copperhead is a cool thing,” said Brian Hess, a biologist with the Wildlife Division of Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Seeing one will not do you harm. They will give you every opportunity to back away or go around. They are very shy by nature and rely on their natural camouflage, so they will often stay still and go unnoticed.”

“There we were, 
two climbers, man and reptile, 
looking far out over the valley towards a red sun 
sinking in the west.”

Today copperhead snakes are appreciated for their ecological role, which includes preying on small mice and voles that can spread Lyme disease. But this wasn't always the case. In colonial days, towns offered a bounty paid in shillings for both copperheads and timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), Connecticut's other venomous snake.

According to W. H. “Marty” Martin a field biologist who has worked for the National Park Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, climate models suggest that both timber rattlesnakes and copperheads have probably been in the Northeast for some 6,000 years. “That represents hundreds of generations of snakes living in communal dens over the winter and following age-old scent trails to navigate to prey runways, water sources, and shedding rocks.” Sometimes the snakes make strange bedfellows. Martin has even seen timber rattlers, copperheads, and black racers overwintering together in the same den.

In Connecticut, the snakes emerge from their dens in mid-April to forage and mate. “Early in the season, they ‘leaf hide’ in order to stay warmer at night, and for camouflage. They are ambush predators that hunt primarily at night because their pits, which function as directional thermal sensors, are more precise when the air cools,” said Hess. Copperheads also use their tongues to smell and taste in conjunction with the Jacobson's organ at the roof of their mouth. This is how they navigate and track down their prey after envenomating it.

Copperheads are ovoviviparous, which means they gestate in eggs inside the mother and are born live, usually in litters of six to eight. Young copperheads are entirely self-reliant and must catch their own food starting on day one. Their bright yellow-green tail attracts small insects and amphibians within striking distance. As the snakes mature and their diet transitions to warm-blooded prey, this bright tail fades away. 

Copperheads are formidable predators. They even have been known to climb trees to gorge on cicadas. But they’re also on the menu for a surprising number of creatures, including hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, skunks, and other snakes, such as the northern black racer. “I once witnessed a broad-winged hawk swoop down and snatch an adult copperhead right off of a highway retaining wall in the Shenandoah National Park,” Martin noted.

It is a risky business for any animal that would make a meal of a copperhead. Few are immune to their deadly venom, and predators must rely on precision and quick reflexes to catch the snake. There are times, though, when things don't go according to plan. If the snake strikes a fleshy part of the bird or mammal, it can be fatal. In fact, there are times when both combatants have been found dead.

Connecticut's Blue-Blazed Hiking Trails travel through some ancient and important copperhead habitat. Day hikers, trail runners, bird watchers, and rock climbers seeking the spectacular views  and accessible wilderness of the state's traprock ridges should know that mid-April until late-September is when the snakes are most active, even if they are seldom seen.

Copperheads may have a reputation for being mild-mannered, but bites still happen, usually by accident and normally to hands and feet. That's why it is a good idea to always look where you are going and to take a moment to survey an area before you sit or set down your pack.

Anyone with a family knows that children and pets like to charge ahead of the group. Consider having an adult lead the way and keep your dog on a leash and under control. If you do happen to get bitten by a copperhead, call 911 immediately. Remove all rings, jewelry, and other items that could complicate swelling. Stay calm and avoid exertion, and keep the bite area lower than your heart. Still, Hess insists that most encounters with these snakes are peaceful and memorable experiences.

“People and copperheads have coexisted for centuries,” he said. “Sometimes observing and understanding a wild animal just using our eyes is the best and most rewarding thing we can do.”

Chad Hussey is a freelance writer, photographer, and communications consultant from Farmington. He is an avid rock climber and has been climbing in Connecticut since the 1980s.

Special thanks to Chad Hussey and CT Forest & Parks Association, Connecticut Woodlands for allowing us to republish this story.


Also Read:
Dog Meets Copperhead at Ragged