In Search of Massasaugas

Massasauga country - a low, wet field.

Crayfish chimney

Newly emerged.

It is March here in central Illinois.  The sun is coming back, the vegetation is just starting to become green, and deep down in a crayfish burrow the Eastern Massasauga stirs.  It begins a slow crawl towards the surface, towards the warmth of the sun.

The Timber Rattler, the Copperhead remain in their winter torpor for at least another month, but the Massasauga toils upwards, to begin another year, a new year above ground.  Thus it has always been, for many thousands of years, from eastern Iowa to western New York, from Ontario to central Illinois; in the prairies, the wet prairies, bogs, fens and swamps.  The little ground rattlers emerge from crayfish burrows, from stumps, from whatever buried place that allows them to ride out the cold prairie winters.

Drab with spring mud, the Massasaugas warm themselves in the sun and wait for the year's first meal to come by.  Frogs, small snakes and even birds are eaten, but voles make up the bulk of the Eastern Massasauga's diet.

My companions and I are here in this low, wet field to see the Massasauga if we can.  This place, one of the few places left where the snake hangs on in spite of agriculture and human encroachment.  Luck is with us this morning - the sun is shining and sky clear. The temperature is climbing steadily through the fifties.  This could be a good day, if the snakes are in agreement as to the conditions afield. 

We walk slowly, eyes scanning side to side.  The ground is rough and irregular, grasses and sedge growing from tussocks elevated several inches or more.  Here and there the chimneys of crayfish burrows, good places to check carefully.  In the lowest spots several inches of water pooled.

"Here's one!" Ken shouted.  Steve and I hurried over to see. "I could have stepped on it," said Ken.  It was a small snake, maybe two feet in length, looking a lot like a muddy fox snake or even a prairie king snake.  Its form was caked with mud from whatever burrow it had crawled out of that morning.

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