If you’re headed for a hike or a post-adventure cool-water dip at Split Rock – the popular moniker for the watering hole on the Mohonk Preserve more officially labeled the Coxing Kill Picnic Ground – don’t be surprised to see a sign on the rock ledges cautioning visitors that they are near copperhead nesting grounds and to leave the snakes undisturbed. I’m not sure why anyone would want to disturb a copperhead den intentionally, but this sign led Hudson Valley One to reach out to the Preserve and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to learn more about these special serpents with their distinctive copper-colored heads.
Northern copperheads love the exposed talus of the Shawangunk Ridge, which provides them warm conglomerate surfaces on which to sunbathe, as well as ample hunting grounds for rodents underneath logs, rotted stumps and leaf litter, where the snakes can blend in and hunt their next meal. According to DEC Region 3 Wildlife Program manager Nathan Ermer, the Northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) in New York is “associated with the Hudson Highlands, Shawangunk Ridge and the eastern edge of the Catskills.”
Ermer, along with Preserve research ecologist Megan Napoli, pointed out that Northern copperheads prefer a variety of habitats in our region, included forested ridges, talus slopes and other wooded areas with rocky outcrops: all things that the Shawangunk Ridge and Hudson Highlands offer. “As ectotherms, copperheads will often sunbathe on rocks in the early morning to raise their body temperature and metabolic rate,” Napoli explained when asked about rock climbers occasionally encountering copperheads on ledges along their routes.
The exposed talus of the Preserve and the Highlands provides ideal basking opportunities to warm those copperheads up. When they’re not sunbathing, they tend to find cover in leaf litter, logs and other areas with plenty of surface to camouflage themselves from predators, hunt for mice and find locations for nesting and overwintering in dens. “They are found near deciduous forest in hilly terrain, typically among rocks, under objects or in hollow logs or stumps, which the Preserve all has in abundance,” said Napoli.
What are copperheads up to in spring?
As copperheads emerge from their dens in springtime – typically in May or when the air temperature reaches 60 degrees or above – they often have their coming-out party together, sunbathing on the rocks, enjoying that spring air and mild temperatures like the human world; hence their visual presence at places like Split Rock. “Copperheads typically den with other copperheads, so when emergence occurs, it is not unusual to see multiple snakes sunbathing together,” explained Napoli, referring to the informational sign at the Preserve hot spot off Clove Road.
Not long after they emerge from their dens, copperheads will begin to mate, which makes early spring an active time for them. “They usually go their separate ways for the summer,” noted Napoli, “though, if there is a particularly good sunbathing spot, it is common to see more than one in a location” such as Split Rock.
A unique thing about copperheads, according to Ermer, is that they are ovoviviparous (say that four times fast), which means that their eggs remain inside the female until they hatch, so that the young are born live. The female copperhead gives birth to four to eight young at a time, usually in late August or September. “Neonate copperheads have a distinctive green or yellow tip on their tail,” he added.
Both early spring and early fall are busy times for copperheads, and according to Napoli, “are the most common times when one can spot this amazing animal.”
Local ultra-runners Phil Vondra and Jason Friedman have had plenty of copperhead sightings on their long training runs in the Gunks. “I’ve definitely seen copperheads at Split Rock,” said Friedman, who is also the host of the ultra-running podcast The Pain Cave. Vondra recalled one legendary run where he and Friedman and another friend were running at night. “We saw eight or ten copperheads on the carriage roads that night!” he said.
“Apparently warm evenings are prime hunting times for them, and this was around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night,” said Friedman, who remembers that they were specifically training at night to get him ready for a 24-hour running effort. “We saw at least eight copperheads stretched out across the trail – mostly along Trapps Road up towards Minnewaska and along Overcliff Carriage Road. Eventually we gave up and took the roads home.”
While spring and early autumn are busy times for copperheads, once the young are born and the temperatures begin to drop, the snakes will go back into their overwintering dens and hibernate together.
Let them be
While copperheads are venomous, their bites are almost never lethal. A copperhead bite is a rare occurrence, and typically follows humans meddling with the snakes – or letting their dogs off leash to do the same. “People may encounter copperheads when recreating in areas that provide good copperhead habitat such as the Shawangunk Ridge. In general, conflicts with venomous snakes in New York are rare and typically the result of humans approaching or trying to touch the snake, or the presence of a dog,” said Ermer.
Napoli concurred, saying that on the Preserve, copperhead bites inflicted on humans are very rare – “perhaps one bite every ten years.” However, there was a year when Mohonk Preserve Rangers responded to two separate copperhead bites inflicted on rock climbers who unknowingly put their hands onto a ledge above them where the snakes were lounging, unsuspecting of the human ascent up the cliff.
Like Ermer, Napoli said that it’s more likely that a copperhead bite will happen to dogs that are let off leash, which is one of several reasons that they enforce a strict leash regulation policy. “Though copperheads are venomous, they are not out to get you,” she said. “Nor are they even interested in being seen, which is why they hide under rocks and downed logs most of the time,” where they’re camouflaged. “They are generally quiet, preferring to lie motionless or to make a slow retreat when encountered. When agitated, they will vibrate their tails rapidly and open their mouths. This is the sign to back away immediately.”
If someone is bitten by a copperhead, the first thing to do, according to Napoli, is “Stay calm. Though the bite is painful, it’s very rare (almost never) for a bite to be lethal when inflicted on a healthy adult person.” Seek medical attention as soon as possible, and if a photo of the snake can be taken, that will aid medical personnel in species identification and applying appropriate treatment.
If you see a venomous snake, do not panic, said Ermer – just “Keep a safe distance of six feet or more and let them move along on their own. Most snakes are not aggressive unless provoked. If an accidental bite occurs, seek immediate medical attention or call 911.”
Protection of copperheads
Copperheads are a critical part of the regional ecosystem, and as such it is illegal to harm or kill them. The Northern copperhead is on the Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) list in the New York State Wildlife Action Plan.
Asked what makes the Northern copperhead unique or special, Napoli said, “Honestly, in my opinion, all snakes are special. They hold a vital role in forest food webs, performing as both a predator and a prey animal.” Snakes are a good food source for birds, mammals and other reptiles; conversely, she said, snakes feed on birds, mammals, amphibians, fish and insects. “Snakes are essential at controlling pest populations such as rodents and slugs.”
As part of the SGCN list, the Northern copperhead needs to be protected because it’s experiencing a population decline and threats that put the species in jeopardy. Conservation actions are needed to maintain stable population levels or sustain recovery.
Ermer said that, while reports of copperhead sightings to the DEC are rare, “If the public has questions about living with copperheads – or any other wildlife, for that matter – they should contact the regional wildlife program at (845) 256-3098.”
A map of the distribution of the Northern copperhead in the mid- and lower Hudson Valley (and New York in general) can be viewed at www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/herpatlaslizardssnakes.pdf. More information on copperheads is available on the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7147.html.