Tales from February

The thing about southern California weather is that it’s… well… VARIABLE. “Unpredictable” would be another good word that comes to mind. Yesterday, here in the canyon, it was foggy, cold, windy and the heavy, dark gray clouds unleashed some much needed rain. But, today, the sun is shining, hardly a breeze is stirring, insects and birds are winging their way through blue skies filled with puffy white clouds.


One of my favorite occasional pastimes is to go back into my photo archives and see what was happening in my world on that same day in previous years. As I’ve been a bit busy lately and not able to find much time for wandering around with my camera, I thought I might share a few stories with you from a past February…


snow on the foothills

February 13, 2009: Dusting of snow on the foothills above our home.


Snow!!! OK, OK, I know many of you who live in cold-weather states are laughing at my excitement over this admittedly light dusting of the white stuff. But, these foothills just above our home are only about 2000 ft. in elevation and it rarely gets cold enough at that altitude for snow of any kind. In the seven years that I’ve lived here, I could count on one hand the days that I’ve seen snow in the hills. As I recall, there was deep fog and clouds blanketing the canyon for most of the day, obscuring much of anything from view. Near sunset (as is often the case), the light finally broke through the cloud layer and the fog rolled away revealing this beautiful backdrop. Needless to say, I immediately put on my shoes and set out for a nice long walk up the fire road behind our house. I took many photos and tried to absorb as much of this unique February afternoon as I could. As I headed home for the evening, the snow was already disappearing fast…


rattlensake on path

February 25, 2009: Juvenile Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) *Be sure to click on the image to see a close-up of this beautiful snake!*

Snake!!! Yup. For those of you who thought that late February was not “rattlesnake weather” — think again! It was a mere two weeks after the aforementioned snowy day and the sun was shining brightly, but temps were still quite cool (a high of 60° according to the weather archives I looked at). In any event, I certainly was not thinking about the possibility of basking snakes. In fact, I wasn’t watching the ground at all as I walked down the small path that leads behind our cabin. But, via some sort of sixth sense, I suddenly felt compelled to look down. With one foot still hovering in mid-air, I froze in that position, trying to process the realization that there was a rattlesnake head directly below the impending trajectory of my shoe. The juvenile snake had been stretched across part of the pathway, its tail end obscured in the grass. (So, it was not quite as glaringly obvious as the position shown in the photo, which was taken several minutes after the initial ordeal.) I literally hopped backwards a few times — balancing on one foot! — and then slowly made my way around the still motionless snake, giving it a very wide berth.


Some of you might be thinking, “What?! It didn’t strike at you?” or “What?! Didn’t you hear it rattling first?” After many years now of regular encounters with rattlesnakes, I have formed two distinct impressions… First, they are shy and not easily stirred to aggression. I do not believe that one would strike unless they felt they had no other choice. (Frankly, in this case, I think the snake had every right to try and bite me, considering that my foot was on a collision course with its head — but for whatever reason, it didn’t. Too cold for such a quick response, maybe?) Second, despite their reputation for rattling, I have rarely heard them actually do this, even when approached very closely. There have only been two times that I’ve heard them rattle. Once, when one was being cornered and then lifted with a snake handling tool to be relocated, and then another time when I encountered one half-way out of an abandoned mammal hole. (Ground squirrel? skunk? gopher?) It quickly retreated into the hole and then continued to rattle at me for a really long time… I’m still uncertain as to why. My guess is that it was feeling especially vulnerable. (Perhaps it was mid-way through digesting a big meal? In the process of shedding its skin?) Whatever its reasons were, I was especially wary and careful around that area for several days following, as I had no desire to startle that particularly sensitive rattlesnake again.


Southern California is sometimes an overwhelmingly hot and uncomfortable place to live, and, yes, we do have annual high winds, many devastating wildfires and the occasional earthquake. But, there is simply no denying the truly marvelous moments that I have had living here… especially the unexpected ones such as these.


(If you would like to know more about the local species of rattlesnake, please check out this great page of photos, videos, sound clips and fascinating info from the brilliant website, California Herps. I cannot speak highly enough about this wonderful regional resource for learning more about amphibians and reptiles!)

Harsi / February 17, 2011 / hillsides, reptiles, weather


  1. Ro - February 18, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

    Hmmmm rattlesnakes I never get used to them and like you have seen them on the most unlikely days. Most recently Eric and I were hiking and nearly dark on a chilly “rainy” evening. I had no concerns for snakes and could barely see it was so late, like you something *told me I thought it was a stick or branch but put the flash up on my camera, shot a picture and looked at it zoomed. Sure enough it was a baby rattler in the rain and I must say very lively and aggressive. I had Banjo on a leash per usual but she would have certainly been bitten, that little snake was peeved. Glad we were both okay and our *snake sense in tact 🙂

  2. Harsi - February 18, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    Whew! I’m relieved to hear that your *snake sense* was working that night! The baby rattlers are the most worrisome because they can be so difficult to see until you’re right on top of them. (I’ve seen some curled up that are no bigger than a half dollar.) I don’t fear the snakes mainly because I’m usually very careful about where I step and try to be on the lookout for them at all times. BUT… I confess that I would be pretty panicky if I had a beloved four-legged friend walking with me — even one as well-behaved as Jo. You just never know where they might go poking their nose. (BTW, no one living up here has ever been bitten, but a couple of the horses have.) Thanks for stopping by, Ro! I always look forward to your comments.

  3. Chris - February 24, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    Thats a bit too close for comfort, for me anyway; Glad nobody got hurt! Don’t get me wrong, I love snakes, but I prefer to admire them from a distance, haha. I havn’t had too many snake encounters myself; I could probably count all of them on one hand, and only a couple of those were rattlesnakes. But your situation sounds like one that could easily happen to me, as I am the type of person who while hiking is looking everywhere but the ground, peering my head into flowers or at leaves looking for signs of life. A “snake sense” would be very useful in those situations 🙂 As usual, beautiful photos Harsi, love the snake close up. And also want to thank you for linking to the California Herps website, with it I was able to finally ID the last of my summer lizard photos 🙂

  4. Harsi - February 24, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    It was a bit too close for me too, Chris! 🙂 Like you, I am so easily distracted and engrossed by everything nature offers that I do find it difficult to be so vigilant. Many times, I’ve learned this lesson the hard way… Ha ha! Did you ever see this post on BugGuide? http://bugguide.net/node/view/367195 (I’ll send you the extra pic that got frassed via e-mail…) I’m soooo happy that I could introduce you to the CA Herps site!! It is a truly awesome resource and I hope to submit a few of my own photos to their archives some time soon. Thanks for the compliment on my photos. Always a pleasure to have you comment here!

  5. Chris - February 24, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    Wow! Another close-call… and right by the house too! I am not sure I could live in a place with rattlesnakes so close at hand. But then again, I’m sure all the owls and the mule deer and all of the other nature makes it worth it. Your story reminds me of a similar story that happened to me about a year ago… I was busy trying to shoot a bumblebee and like you, since I use a point-and-shoot in macromode, I have to be totally up close and personal with my subjects, and I wasn’t really paying attention to much anything else. Well, the bee decided that it didn’t want its picture taken that day and flew off, and as I returned to reality I noticed that just a few yards from me I was face to face with an adult coyote. How I was completely oblivious to such a large animal until then I’m not completely sure. Well, fortunately it decided that I wasn’t very interesting and it returned to the brush from which it came from, but for a moment there I wasn’t sure what to do. I know it doesn’t compare to your stories, but its another example of how easy it can be to become so engulfed in what youre doing that you lose sight of the big picture. Since then I’ve been trying to become a bit more observent when in the field so things like these can be avoided if possible 🙂

  6. Harsi - February 24, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    I think if I had known before we moved in here that I would be living in such close proximity to such a healthy population of rattlesnakes it might have unnerved me a bit. But, I grew accustomed to them gradually and have learned to really appreciate them, even if it does require a much more heightened awareness of my surroundings. What a great story! While I’m sure it was unsettling to realize that there was a big mammal nearby that you were unaware of, I confess that I’m a bit jealous. The coyotes around here are so incredibly skittish around humans. No matter how hard I try to be still and quiet when they are around, the minute they spot me (even from a great distance!) they’re off and running in the opposite direction. This doesn’t seem to be true for the populations which live closer to urban areas. I have heard many stories about their boldness and relative lack of fear around people. Interesting adaptive difference, eh?


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