Thursday, June 30, 2005

I went back out the next evening. This time Jen came with me. I parked the car, we got out of it, and I walked to the same log. I crouched down, and rolled it over. There, in almost the same spot, was a garter snake that looked almost identical to the one I had found the day before, maybe with darker checkers. I grabbed it, and after a stunned moment (it was probably asleep) it came to life in my hand, squirming, defecating, and puffing up to flash that amazing pale blue/green. I got some pictures of it looking all angry and tough (though that blue/green color didn't come through well), which is so cute in a twelve inch garter snake. I took a moment to brag – two trips in a row to find snakes under the first log.

I set the little guy down in the tall grass, and we tried a few more logs. We saw the same shed skin as I had seen on Monday, but about five logs later we found the second snake of the night, a little brown snake. It too puffed up to look all tough, and struck at my other hand like a little viper. I think brown snakes are much prettier than garter snakes. They are never strikingly beautiful, but they are gentle, subtly patterned little gems, with delicate little lines drawn on soft fawn skin. Since most of the brown snakes I see are flattened on asphalt, it was a pleasure to hold a live one in my hand. [This is a West Philly brown snake.]

We continued on, laughing at the bullfrog rumbling away proudly from the weeds along the creek. We watched a raccoon and one of her babies climb a tree. The baby, maybe half grown, got up the tree okay, but took some stretching to reach the branch its mother had chosen as the perfect haven from the two humans staring at it. I collected some night crawlers to feed Shorty, and we headed back to the car. Jen wanted to know why we drive all the way out to the pine barrens to look for snakes when they’re so easy to find in the neighborhood, and I had no good answer.

What put a sour note on the end of the trip was the huge, dead garter snake Jen saw in the mowed grass. Jen’s always better at spotting herps than I am. This is a point of both pride and embarrassment for me. On the one hand, how cool is it to have a fiancée who is good at finding critters? On the other, I’m the one who’s been looking for snakes his whole life, and here she’s the one always pointing them out on the herping trips I insist we take. I sort of wish she hadn’t seen this one.

The snake was pretty fresh – not totally stiff and not stinking. Maybe she had been killed that morning. She had big squished spots along her body, and her guts were hanging out of her mouth. This was not the work of little kids with sticks or a feral cat; something big ran over this snake. Maybe it was a lawnmower, maybe it was one of the maintenance vehicles, maybe it was some punk on an ATV, I don’t know; the result’s the same.

I think she was one of the big garters I’ve been trying to catch. She was about thirty inches long and as thick as the base of my thumb. I’m pretty sure she was a she, and it’s hard to tell, but I think (or I want to think – it gives me more reason to be pissed off) she was gravid.

Snakes get killed all the time, and that population of garter snakes can absorb the occasional crushing death. God knows how many are carried off by birds of prey and snatched up by raccoons and cats. Still, I am still sad and angry, and I feel even more justified in taking the occasional snake to be part of my own collection, temporarily or permanently. If I had caught her the night before and held her till she gave birth, she wouldn’t have been there for a tire to crush the life out of her, and she and her litter would have lived happily ever after, at least until they died their own deaths in the jaws of raccoons or under tires.


Anonymous said...

HI there!
I keep finding these little guys in my backyard (every year around this time (late march/ early April). I am referring to the one curled up in the second pic of june 30th '05. I was wondering what it is. I love them and my kids love them but I don't know what they are and since I have always loved but been ignorant (and thus a bit frightened) of snakes, I wonder if you can enlighten me to this breed.
Many many thanks!

Bernard Brown said...

Thanks for the comment,

What you're finding are brown snakes (Storeria dekayi), sometimes also called Dekay's snake (named after a guy named Dekay).

They are harmless little snakes that eat worms, slugs, and snails, and they seem to do better than other snakes around urban and suburban settings.