Sunday, March 05, 2006

I’ve been intrigued for a long time by urban brown snakes (Storeria dekayi).

I remember reading about them living in Central Park in New York, and I was not surprised to see them dead, flattened, and dried out on roads near Grant Park in Atlanta or near the Wissahickon. I brought one of those rigid little snake chips inside once to look at it more closely and then put it away in my dresser and forgot about it, a slip of the memory that Jen still reminds me about; she was the one who found it several months later while digging around in my dresser for socks to borrow.

I live in West Philly, a landscape of rowhouses and old three-story duplexes. Some of these have little front gardens or yards, some don’t. A lot of blocks here have alleys and parking spaces running through the middle, some have little yards out back, but when you add it all up, there is not a lot of green space around here.

Thus I was kind of shocked when a friend who lives on the 4300 block of Locust showed me a snake that her cat had dragged in. It had actually dragged in a total of five, but this was the only one that was alive, and she was nursing it back to health. It was a northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi), and a big one at that – all of fifteen inches and as thick around as my pinkie finger.

I’ve heard more reports since then of northern brown snakes in unlikely (to me at least) places. One of Jen’s coworkers spotted one in her basement in East Falls. Friends reported seeing a small snake one night at 48th and Baltimore. Another Philly herper I recently started corresponding with reported seeing them in backyards in Germantown.

While I have been surprised at finding northern brown snakes in West and Northwest Philadelphia, I am ruling out Center City, where there is next to no green space and what green space can be found (Rittenhouse Square? Logan Square?) is intensively landscaped and isolated. Back yards in Germantown and West Philly are connected to other yards and separated by streets with relatively little car traffic. The yards are less likely to be doused with pesticides, and most of the time are left alone by humans.

I have thought of a few strategies to find northern brown snakes in Philadelphia:

· The first thing that came to my mind (and the riskiest), is to walk down the pavement between yards in the middle of relatively abandoned blocks in Southwest and North Philly and look under trash in the vacant yards.
· One slightly-safer, similar plan is to look under trash and debris in vacant lots – I still run the risk of getting shot for poking around someone’s stash, but at least I don’t run the risk of getting shot for jumping into someone’s back yard.
· The safest but least exciting plan is to look in parks. I’ve found live brown snakes in Cobbs Creek, and I know they live in the Wissahickon. I’d like to spend some time looking under logs in the wooded sections of Fairmont Park northwest of and across the river from the art museum.
· Coming in at safe but unseemly is herping cemeteries. There are great slightly-neglected cemeteries all around – in West Philadelphia, Southwest, North Philly, and so on.
· Safe and maybe the richest in terms of trash and debris are abandoned industrial spaces. I checked one such area out on Saturday, and here are some photos. I saw “No Dumping” signs, which of course mean that a lot of dumping goes on. This space is also supposed to be redeveloped in June, so I’ll look forward to relocating any snakes I find.

The weather will probably be getting warmer at the end of next week. With the days getting longer too, I’m looking forward to biking all over the city after work to see where I can uncover some brown snakes.

P.S. I looked around for critters in South Jersey in western Atlantic County and near Winslow. I found nothing.

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