Plants and Animals

Osage Copperhead

Last autumn, as I was hiking and photographing my favorite trail at Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County, I came upon an Osage copperhead coiled before me in a patch of sunlight. The chestnut-colored pit viper paid me no attention, not even a head turn, as it soaked up the waning light of the afternoon. My first thought was to get some quick shots before my good fortune slithered into the woods, but I soon realized that the docile snake was none too eager to give up its strategic position, carefully selected for solar gain.

The Osage copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) is the most common of Missouri’s five venomous snakes. Growing up to 3 feet long, the copperhead can be identified by its reddish-brown body with darker hourglass-shaped saddles and its copper-colored head. Osage copperheads are common in the northern two-thirds of Missouri and a subspecies, the southern copperhead, is found in the southern third of our state. Copperheads are not easily spotted in the wild because their coloration allows them to meld into the surrounding terrain of their preferred habitat—rocky hillsides and forest edges. As with all of Missouri’s pit vipers, a cat-like vertical pupil and an opening (pit) between the eye and nostril distinguish the copperhead from Missouri’s nonvenomous snakes. The temperature-sensitive pit helps the copperhead detect mice and other warmblooded prey. Copperheads rarely strike at humans unless antagonized and their bite is painful but rarely fatal.

Copperheads are active throughout much of the year except for winter when they retreat into underground dens on warmer, south-facing slopes. Mating typically occurs in spring and young are born by late summer into early fall. Copperheads are born alive, rather than hatched from eggs, and newly born individuals must fend for themselves, eating mostly insects. Juvenile copperheads use their yellow-tipped tail to lure in small prey, such as frogs and lizards. Adult copperheads pursue a variety of prey, but they prefer mice and help to keep their populations in check.

So how does one photograph a copperhead? My preference, as with all creatures, was at eye level, so I found myself lying on my belly, not unlike my subject. I needed at least five feet of distance between the snake and my lens to achieve focus, so I knew I wouldn’t have to get too close for an effective image. I selected the creature’s coppery head as the focal point of my composition to add impact to the photograph. I was amazed that even its eye was coated with a coppery film. As I finished shooting and parted ways with the serpent, I began to feel a chill in the air with the approach of evening. The copperhead would soon join others on its wintering ground and find its favorite den from the year before. I looked forward to the possibility of our next meeting, perhaps in spring.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

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