Rattlesnakes are always around in the regional parks and other East Bay open spaces, but lately people have reported seeing more of them on the trails. So now is as good a time as any for the annual rattlesnake advisory.
I've seen two rattlers myself in recent weeks: one on Black Diamond Way at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, another on Lower Big Springs Trail at Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley.
People have also encountered the reptiles at Briones Regional Park near Martinez, on the trail around Contra Loma Reservoir in Antioch, and no doubt in other parks as well.
This isn't surprising, because now's the time of year when female rattlesnakes give birth. Unlike other snakes, which lay eggs, rattlesnakes bear their young live.
There's no cause for alarm, though. Rattlesnake bites are extremely rare. More often than not, the bites result from attempts to handle the snake.
The good news, relatively speaking, is that the bite, though painful, is very seldom fatal. However, the victim needs to get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Don't try the cut-and-suck first aid treatment. It has long been discredited as doing much more harm than good. Call 911 instead.
Here's some more rattlesnake lore, mostly courtesy of park district naturalists who have been studying the reptiles for years: The variety found in this area is the northern Pacific rattlesnake. They usually live under logs, in rock piles, or among scattered leaves, twigs and tall grass. Snakes regulate their body temperature by moving back and forth between sun and shade. So you may see them basking in sunny spots, or they may be out of sight cooling off under the brush. The best way to avoid rattlesnakes is simply to be aware of your surroundings. Stay on the official trails; don't take shortcuts through tall grass and brush. If you stop to rest, avoid the rock piles and logs that are snake habitat. If you do see a snake on a trail or fire road, take a wide detour. Be observant as you walk along; the snakes' color pattern blends well in dappled shade. And they don't always rattle a warning. Northern Pacific rattlesnakes are not aggressive. They would much rather hide or run away than confront large animals such as ourselves. So give them an escape route and they are likely to take it. Dogs can be at risk. Curious by nature, they may run right up to a snake, barking and sniffing. If they've found a rattler, the result can be a very sick pet and a very expensive vet bill. So keep your dog under control at all times. If you see a rattlesnake at a parking lot, picnic area, or other place where people congregate, contact a park ranger and the ranger will relocate it. Gopher snakes look a lot like rattlesnakes, and will even mimic the rattler by vibrating their tails rapidly in leaves and pebbles to produce a rattle-like sound. Their bite is painful, too, but they don't inject venom. Information panels at many regional parks have posters illustrating the differences between the two kinds.
Email Ned MacKay at firstname.lastname@example.org.