Late April can be a dream time for Kansas outdoors people. The Kansas spring turkey season is at its best. Angling for spawning white bass and crappie can be outstanding. Plus, it’s a great time to pick delicious morels.
Joey Bisogno has access to all of the above, and more, but instead on a gorgeous afternoon hopped in a side-by-side rig and eventually did a slow drive by a long rock wall, looking for something most people avoid – timber rattlesnakes.
“The old timers say this was here long before we ever bought the place,” said Bisogno, who manages his family’s Timber Hills Lake Ranch, in southeast Kansas. “I love to come up here and take a look. It’s different every time. This isn’t something you can go just anywhere and see.”
Highly secretive, usually living in woodlands with plenty of rocks and brush on the ground, timber rattlesnakes are seldom seen by most who even live within their range. At the den in the ancient rock fence, which traces the remnants of a wagon road from the 1800s, Bisogno often finds a dozen or more. The day before my tour he and a guest found around 50, ranging from pencil-sized young rattlers to timber rattlesnakes as long as three or four feet.
Within seconds of stopping his rig in a section of stone that normally holds the snakes, Bisogno started pointing to serpents. It took a while, but I eventually began to see his discoveries. One was curled up on the ground against the rock wall. Several others were mostly visible as they stretched midway up the old fence. A few only had their heads poking from caverns in the old wall.
Bisogno pointed to a yellow-bellied racer, a common snake in Kansas, that lived up to its name and quickly slithered from sight. Meanwhile, all of the timber rattlesnakes stayed calm and unmoving, save the occasional flicker of their forked tongue.
“They are one of the most docile species of snake we have,” said Bisogno as he watched the rattlesnakes calmly a few yards away. “As long as you don’t bother them they could care less. I’ve never seen one act aggressive unless you step on it or something. They’re usually nothing like other rattlesnakes.” (In Kansas, both massasauga and prairie rattlesnakes are native. There may be a small population of western diamondbacks near Kanopolis Reservoir. If so, they may have been imported and released. All three species can be aggressive, especially when threatened.)
After a few minutes, Bisogno started the utility rig and headed down the old road. “We’ll come back and probably see completely different snakes in the same place,” he said. “It’s like you seldom see them move, but if you come back in a half hour to an hour, things are often completely different.”
And so it was when we returned in 40 minutes. We saw six rattlers in a column of rock three-feet high and two-feet wide. The snake on the ground, in front of the ancient fence, was still there.
Bisogno said the rock wall is off-limits to all so the snakes aren’t disturbed. He’ll occasionally take guests staying at the ranch for hunting or fishing vacations for a mid-day tour. Most are expected stay in the side-by-side rig for the sake of safety. He allowed me to get out and get a bit closer for better photography. Bisogno studied the area thoroughly before slowly getting closer to the fence, with me a careful step behind him.
“They’re pretty laid-back,” Bisogno said, “but there’s no need to take any chances.”
Before we headed back, we figured we’d seen about 20 different timber rattlesnakes along the old rock wall. Such concentrations are becoming less common in many areas.
Because of habitat loss, timber rattlesnakes are on the endangered or threatened species list in many eastern states. In Kansas they’re rated as a “Species In Need of Conservation,” which is the step before “threatened.” Still, it’s illegal to kill a timber rattlesnake (unless threatened) or destroy their dens.
That’s something the rattlers on Timber Hills Lake Ranch need never worry about.
“I think it’s pretty neat that we have them here on the ranch. It says a lot about the habitat for wildlife we have,” he said. “It’s also fun just to come up and show them to people or come up by myself.”