- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

HAMPTON, Va. — Rick Schumann was about to relax on his apartment patio near Sandy Bottom Nature Park in August when he saw it: a 5-foot canebrake rattlesnake.

“It was as big around as my forearm,” Mr. Schumann said. He has a photo to prove it.

Mr. Schumann lives at Meridian Parkside, a new apartment complex that opened last year on Hampton Roads Center Parkway west of Sandy Bottom. Not long after he saw the snake on his patio, Mr. Schumann said, a woman and her toddler who lived in an apartment across from his saw a canebrake curled up on his welcome mat. The woman has since moved, and Mr. Schumann has been very careful before walking outside.

“Every morning, I crack the door and look down,” Mr. Schumann said.

It’s that time of year again when snakes are on the move, including the venomous canebrakes. The snakes, which are officially designated by the commonwealth as endangered in Virginia, come out of hibernation about mid-May - when the weather warms up - and start looking for a mate. The first canebrake seen this year at Sandy Bottom was on a trail April 28 and was relocated within the park, said Hampton parks department spokesman Ed Novi.

In 2008, an official at Sandy Bottom Nature Park was called on three occasions to remove a canebrake rattlesnake from Meridian Parkside apartments. Management at Meridian Parkside declined to talk about the snakes, but last year managers put up fliers instructing people on what to do if they see a canebrake.

Despite being a scary encounter for people who might see one sunning on a patio, it is a misdemeanor to harm or for unauthorized people to move the snakes.

Besides Hampton, canebrakes are in York and Isle of Wight counties, Newport News, Suffolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, according to Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries. On the peninsula, the bulk of the population is believed to be around the nature park at Sandy Bottom.

Before approaching the snake, biologists or park rangers put on snake chaps to cover their legs, said Arthur W. Mertz, chief park ranger at Sandy Bottom. A rod with a golf-clublike handle is used to hoist the snake into a breathable, rip-stop nylon bag. The bag is put in a plastic, 5-gallon bucket specifically designated for canebrake retrieval, Mr. Mertz said. The snakes are then taken back to the park and released.

Canebrakes have a distinctive black tail and rattle, are usually pinkish, gray, yellow or light brown with brown-to-black chevron patterns down the spine. They can grow up to 5 feet long.

They feed on rodents, mainly gray squirrels, and eat once or twice a year. Occasionally, they eat birds and frogs. Canebrakes are an important part of the ecosystem, and they help control the rodent population, said Mr. Mertz, the Sandy Bottom chief ranger.

The biggest challenge facing the reptiles is loss of habitat, according to researchers at Old Dominion University and state game officials.

In 2000, researchers tracked canebrakes by placing small radio transmitters underneath the scales. They found canebrakes in areas that underwent rapid development.

Last year, canebrake habitat was cited as one of the reasons Hampton had to wait years to get state and federal permits to extend Commander Shepard Boulevard, which will cut a 200-foot-wide path through the woods, about 1.8 miles long.

Canebrakes need a large area to roam for food, and have been tracked wandering as much as 757 acres in a year, according to the ODU researchers.

For people interested in seeing a canebrake behind the safety of Plexiglas, Sandy Bottom Nature Center has one in a terrarium as part of an educational display.

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