Every so often I like to share stories about other viper populations, particularly those in urban landscapes, to allow us to step outside of our Ojibway Prairie “lens”, catch a glimpse of conservation action in other parts of the world, and hopefully gain some inspiration and guidance along the way.

In Sept 2014, I briefly profiled the urban population of Prairie Rattlesnakes in the coulees of Lethbridge Alberta, and more recently, in September 2018, I gave a review of my visit to the Hungarian Meadow Viper Conservation Centre, in Kiskunsag National Park.

This past July, I was lucky to “detour” a part of our summer family vacation to visit the Blue Hills Reservation, on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts. This was no random detour. I first read about the reservation in Robert Palmer’s 2004 book Landscape with Reptile and was eager for the opportunity to take a look around.

Map of the Blue Hills Reservation, on the outskirts of Boston, MA, showing its extensive trail network

The Blue Hills is a large (over 2800 ha!) protected area within the Boston metropolitan region. Designed by a visionary landscape architect, Charles Elliot, in the late 1800’s, the park system provides an astounding array of recreational opportunities from swimming to hiking to rock climbing. The park also supports a diversity of habitats including Pitch Pine forests, rocky outcrops and freshwater wetlands. Of the 22 forested hills found in the reservation, the highest – known as the Great Blue Hill – provides an astounding view of the Boston skyline from 190 m above sea level.

A spectacular view of the Boston skyline from the Elliot Tower atop the Great Blue Hill.

Most amazing of all, however, is that the hills also provide home to a population of Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). Unfortunately, my visit was much too short, and at the wrong time of year, to provide any real chance of finding one of these elusive creatures in the wild. Lucky for me, the local nature museum provided a couple of specimens readily viewable to even the laziest of field herpetologists.

The colour variations present in the Timber Rattlesnake are quite attractive. The Blue Hills Trailside Museum had both “yellow” and “black” phases on display for my herpetological enjoyment.

Visiting the landscape of another urban population of rattlesnakes, however, was consolation enough and it inspired me to reflect on some of the main parallels between the Boston and Ojibway Prairie populations of rattlesnakes:

1) The complete encirclement of the parks by urban development – The Blue Hills are surrounded by communities of the Greater Boston area, including Braintree, Quincy, and Milton, meaning this rattler population is effectively isolated from its counterparts in other parts of the state.

2) The key role of the local nature centre in providing public outreach and factual information about rattlesnakes (and having live specimens on display) – At the Blue Hills, it’s the Massachusetts Audubon Society that runs and manages the Blue Hills Trailside Museum. Check them out here: https://www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/blue-hills-trailside-museum.

3) The presence of authorities to manage human-snake conflict by translocating ‘problem’ rattlesnakes – In Boston, the Environmental Police officers respond to human-rattlesnake conflict situations. These snake wranglers – looking similar to Ontario’s Conservation Officers – capture snakes that slither into the adjacent commercial of residential developments and translocate them back into the Blue Hills. Here was an incident that occurred in August of last year: https://www.patriotledger.com/news/20180830/rattlesnake-brings-police-to-braintree-go-kart-track

4) The protection of globally rare ecosystems within park boundaries – The globally rare Pitch Pine – Scrub Oak habitat can be found at the Blue Hills Reservation. This shrub-dominant ecological community is fire-dependant and also very rare in Massachusetts.

Although the conservation of urban viper populations can be quite challenging, Boston’s Timber Rattlesnakes have imparted upon me the importance of having an established public outreach facility and a professional and prompt response to human-rattlesnake conflicts. Finally, in the face of urban encroachment and fragmentation, the many rare, beautiful, and scaly elements of the Blue Hills Reservation are sure to continue to inspire its many supporters to continue to protect and connect its habitats into the future.

Jonathan Choquette, Lead Biologist – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery

Sending love to the vipers of the Blue Hills!