Close Encounter of the Snake Kind!

Midget Faded Rattlesnake full bodyMidget Faded Rattlesnake full body – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/1000, ISO 320, Nikkor 70-300mm VR at 122mm, natural light

Yesterday I returned home from a camping and bird photography trip to the San Rafael Swell area located in Emery County in central Utah and even though there weren’t many birds to speak of in the area I still had an awesome time. Normally we camp near the San Rafael Recreation area near the swinging bridge but when we scoped that area out we didn’t see or hear any birds so we headed to The Wedge Overlook hoping there might be some birds in that area, maybe migrants moving through or raptors soaring on the thermals.

We were checking out the campsites at the top of  The Wedge to see if we could manouver the camping trailer into the the one closest to the edge of the overlook and because getting in to a campsite is sometimes easier than getting out so we got out of the pickup to walk around the site.  At one point I could not resist the urge to walk over to the peer down into the Little Grand Canyon and the San Rafael River 1200 feet below. The views are incredible.

Midget Faded Rattlesnake headshotMidget Faded Rattlesnake headshot – Nikon D200, handheld, f10, 1/500, ISO 320, Nikkor 70-300mm VR at 300mm, natural light

I was totally focused on the scenery in front of me as I walked between two gnarly old Junipers that might have been spaced about 12 feet apart and wasn’t watching my foot placement as closely as I should have been when I heard a very distinctive buzzing sound, it probably only took me 1/100th of a second to realize that I had walked too close to an extremely well camouflaged Rattlesnake. I estimate that I was within a mere 15 inches or so of stepping on it.

Talk about an easy way to get the adrenalin flowing, and it did!

Now Ron will tell you that I “squealed like a girl”, I’m not sure about that but I do know I made a sound as I jumped back away from the Rattlesnake, I hadn’t even seen it clearly at that point because it blended into the habitat so well. It took me a few seconds to even form the words “It’s a rattlesnake”. The snake was only about 14 to 15 inches in length but even at that small size it had startled me quite sufficiently.

Midget Faded Rattlesnake close upMidget Faded Rattlesnake close up – Nikon D200, handheld, f10, 1/64, ISO 320, Nikkor 70-300mm VR at 165mm, natural light

I scurried over to the pickup to grab my backup D200 with the 70-300mm VR lens attached and Ron’s “little camera” because our longer lenses would have been overkill while Ron kept an eye on my “find”. I took 46 images of the Rattlesnake, probably half of them were sharp, the others were not so sharp thanks to taking them handheld with too much adrenalin coursing through my body which caused my hands to shake!

I’m not certain about the identification of the snake, it may be a young Great Basin Rattlesnake – Crotalus oreganus lutosus or a Midget Faded Rattlesnake – Crotalus oreganus concolor. It might be another croatline subspecies too. If anyone reading this can identify the snake, I would certainly like to know.

Edit: I’ve been informed by Jamison Hensley; who  knows far more about rattlesnakes than I, that this is a Midget Faded Rattlesnake – Crotalus oreganus concolor. Check his blog out here.

I spent the rest of the trip in the San Rafael Swell area very carefully watching where I put my feet because I didn’t want another Close Encounter of the Snake Kind!


PS. Maybe I did “squeal like a girl”, I was rather “rattled“.

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About Mia McPherson

I am a nature lover, wildlife watcher and a bird photographer. I first become serious about bird photography when I moved to Florida in 2004 and it wasn’t long before I was hooked (addicted is more like it). My move to the Salt Lake area of Utah was a great opportunity to continue observing their behavior and to pursue my passion for photographing birds.


  1. Pingback: San Rafael Swell – State Park or National Monument designation in the future?

  2. Wow! What a close encounter!!
    We have been there. It’s so beautiful. I’ll keep it in mind about the snakes!
    Great images!

  3. Amazing shots of the viper Mia. Luckily we only have Western Rattlesnakes here in Shasta County. They are shy and totally non-aggressive. They can startle you though when not paying attention. That head shot of the Midget Faded Rattlesnake is so cool! I like the tongue shots too though. Incredible creatures they are, worthy of our respect! Glad you are OK.

  4. Mia,

    Great photos and story-telling! Thanks for coming to my blog and for reaching out for identification help. What you have there, is a Midget Faded Rattlesnake. They are quite small for a rattlesnake, and their markings are very muted compared to other rattlers…. Hence the name. Despite their small size, they have a very potent venom. They are protected in Utah and should never be touched, moved or killed. The fact that you got as close as you did without it striking at you, is a testament to the fact that these critters are not out to “attack” anyone. They simply hope to be left alone, and will sometimes make for poor photos, due to them constantly crawling away. :) Thanks again!


    • Jamison,

      Thanks so much for the ID on my Midget Faded Rattlesnake, that is what I thought it might be.

      I’ve been exposed to rattlers in AZ, and in FL so I was really aware of what the sound was, I just could not see it at first so I thought the best move to make would be to go back to the direction where I had been coming from. The rattling wasn’t very loud at all. I think I had read that the Midget Faded Rattlesnake has the most poisonous venom of the rattlers while I was trying to ID this one. It is a long way to a doctor from The Wedge so I am very glad it didn’t strike me and that my foot wasn’t any closer to it at the time.

      It was a pleasant surprise to find it because it looked like bird photography was going to be a bust anyway!

      Thanks again for your response to my inquiry.

  5. wonderful encounter and photos. Glad it was a safe encounter.


  6. Yup, you “squealed like a girl”. I might have too if I had been a couple of feet closer to the snake but more than likely I’d just have had to change my shorts…

  7. The photos illustrate why you may not have seen the snake. They blend into the background rather nicely. I had a similar experience with a coral snake in south Texas. I was walking in a grassy area that was regularly mowed by the park service. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was stepping because I was trying to get close to an American Kestrel. Don’t know if I screamed like a girl, but I jumped back like the youngster than I am not. Interestingly, I had a hard time relocating the snake in the short grass to take a photo so I could make sure it was a coral snake when I got back to my room.

  8. Wow. When I was first in the Army (old days) at Fort Polk, La, I was bitten by a pigmy rattlesnake. One of the platoon subdued the reptile and the medics took me and the snake to the hospital. They treated me after IDing the snake but I had a mild reaction to the injection (antivenin I think). It was not a fun experience. Throughout my many treks I have never been close again to a rattlesnake and I think they are beautiful and I enjoyed your images very much. I also agree with Phils comments but I have never killed a snake.

    A friend and I are going out to San Jacinto Wildlife Area Sunday morning to try and catch some wading birds. The some of the ponds there are raised there and I am hoping to get an opportunity to achieve a very low POV by standing or sitting on my stool in one of the ditches surrounding the ponds.

    Skip Harri

    • Skip,

      I remember pigmy rattlers from Florida, they don’t make the same buzzing rattle that other rattlers do. It does not sound like you had a good experience with that snake at all, glad you were ok in the end.

      I hope that you and your friend have a super bird photography day when you go to the San Jacinto Wildlife Area and that you get the low POV images you are after. Just watch your step, ok?

  9. Hi, Mia,

    40 years in Southern woodlands has had me seeing tons of pit vipers, mostly rattlers and moccasins. I used to kill them for the first few of those years. I wore heavy snake boots as well. I finally got my head sorted out about snakes and protection from same:

    1. Keep your eyes open
    2. Make a lot of noise in heavy brush
    3. A snake cannot strike any further than its own length
    4. A snake is a very private creature and will leave an area you are in if you let it. They are more frightened of you than you are of them.
    5. In very hot weather, snake boots will kill you more often than the snakes
    6. You can move faster than a snake with the right motivation
    7. You can actually reverse gravity if you are about to step on a snake and you see it. I’ve done it, jumping into a ditch over a coiled snake. Don’t ask me how, but I made it to the other side without landing on the snake. Had to be reversing gravity, but darned if I can figure how I did it.

    Be safe! Remember there are more dangerous things than snakes out there—heat is one, hornets, red wasps and yellow jackets are another.

    • Hi Phil,

      I didn’t see this rattler until after I had backed up, I thought that might be the safest step to take.

      I remember that buzzing rattle sound only too well after living in FL and AZ and having a few encounters with them, but from further away.

      Another thing to be safe about, at least here in Utah, is the bitter cold of winter, don’t want to lose any fingertips!

      Thanks for your comment & snake advice.

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