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Levin: Homecoming

Autumn is the time of Homecoming, on college campuses and family gatherings. In the natural world, it’s the time when birds fly south, and other animals return to dens where they’ll sleep until spring. Among them are the rattlesnakes I monitor. Their home is in a rockslide, where they’re gathered en mass around the doorstep of their den.A week of inclement weather turned them homeward, where the sun has now heated the rocks they bask on, the earth they crawl on, the air they breathe. I watch them from nearby - close, but not too close.

I think back to a day in late September, 1978, when a warm front over the East Coast was followed by a cold front and two days of heavy rain. Bird migration stalled until the cold front passed, the rain stopped, and several days of gentle northwest wind unplugged southbound birds.

On September 28, I counted more than five thousand hawks over the western end of Fire Island; and at Cape May, New Jersey, observers tallied at least twenty thousand. Uncounted scores of flickers, robins, tree swallows, cormorants, and shorebirds passed my lookout – while perhaps a million Monarchs fluttered by between dawn and dusk.

I thought of that long ago outpouring as I counted rattlesnakes returning to their den. Ingress, like migration, is a yearly event, but the precision of homecoming, like that of hawk migration, is a function of weather... and weather in the Northeast can be fickle.

But once cool nights and warm days set the snakes in motion, they follow a pheromone trail (invisible to us) laid down by previous snakes that runs along slanted grooves in the rock wall, along the base of a cliff, around the rim of a beaver pond, and over logging roads.

From all points of the compass, the rattlesnakes return to their ancestral den.

Three snakes pass in front of me, nose to rattle – a serpentine conga line. Eleven on the apron of the den, apparently ignoring me, are bathed in a filigree of leaf-filtered sunshine.

The myopic eye of one plump, well-fed snake is a black orb with bright yellow flecks, cut by a vertical cats-eye pupil in a deep, golden yellow slashed down the middle by a thin, black aperture.

A snake that’s recently given birth has loose folds of skin on both sides.

And I stand there remarkably still - for me - for a remarkably long time.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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