Thursday, July 30, 2009

SUNBATHING QUEEN

One of the things I’m occasionally asked by visitors to the riverbank is: “You got a lot of snakes around?”
Most of the time, it’s a good bet the questioner lives in the city—or if they’re daring, and have in their own way given in to the pioneer spirit, in one of those well-manicured suburban developments with sidewalks and grass and the odd miniature tree your average countryman might consider a bush. Sure, their development may be located less than a half-mile beyond the last strip-mall, in what was once a corn or soybean field—but they consider themselves homesteaders surviving on the edge of civilization. Why, they'll report, proud of their ability to weather hardship, they have to actually get in their Beemer and drive to the nearest Starbucks!
These folks, bless their trembling souls, view my riverside home as they might a rough compound on the banks of the Amazon. The thicket of greenery along the water and the tall trees poking high into a smog-free sky is, to them, a jungle. And like any good jungle remembered from reruns of the old black-and-white Tarzan movies they watched as a kid, the dark tangles of willow and hackberry and sycamore must doubtless be crammed with slithering serpents.
Well…no. Sorry to disappoint. But we riverbankers are no more overrun with snakes than we are with frogs and toads and turtles. I do see a snake from time to time—perhaps a small garter snake in the yard, or a water snake near or in the stream. And that’s about the extent of such encounters; I don’t wade through masses of writhing snakes to check the mailbox.
Regarding water snakes, there are two species found hereabouts. The northern water snake, Nerodia sipedon, is generally the most common species seen along local lakeshores and streams. Yet I almost never find one on my section of water. Instead, I’m more apt to see a queen snake, Regina septemvittata, a fairly uncommon member of the water snake family.
Queen snakes, in spite of their name, are water snakes—though they’re far prettier than their plebian northern cousins. Neither snake is poisonous. But the northern water snake is unquestionably more cantankerous and aggressive—quick to make a threatening strike at your boot toe or reaching hand, and ready to bite if you pick them up carelessly. If that’s not enough, they’ll reiterate their hostility by releasing a squirt of malodorous feces and back it up with a shot of stinky musk from their anal gland.
The shyer queen snake, in contrast, is rather docile. You can usually capture one quite easily—though the double dose of foul smelling s
cent remains a possibility.
Queen snakes seldom grow larger than a couple of feet. They hunt by smell rather than heat detection or sight, and often capture their prey under water. They feed almost exclusively on aquatic fare—minnows, tadpoles, frogs, snails—though the bulk of their diet is newly molted crayfish, what a bait fishermen calls a “soft craw.” For this reason—because crayfish are found only in clean, unpolluted rivers and creeks—queen snakes are a good indicator species of a stream’s high water quality.
I sometimes watch a queen snake hunting around the edge of the big pool in front of the cottage. The snake will swim from rock-to-rock, then dive and investigate underwater, resurface, and repeat a time or two before moving to another location.
The other day I noted several clumps of midges milling about on a small section of slowly-backswirling water. Minnows would regularly dart up and nab a bug off the surface. All the while, a queen snake kept surfacing and diving through this same area, presumably feeding on the minnows working the midges.
The queen snakes in the photos (there are two different snakes) regularly sun themselves on the rails of the narrow deck which spans the width of the cottage and overlooks the river. I’ve allowed a wild grape vine to grow all over the water side of this deck, climbing through the lattice so it now drapes from the handrail to the edge of the water, a dozen feet below, like a thick green curtain. One day last week, I counted three queen snakes…uh…hanging around.
This is typical queen snake behavior. Queen snakes like to bask on a limb or root above the water, and usually drop off immediately at any nearby movement or the first hint of danger. However, with my deck snakes, I’ve found that if I’m careful, I can move freely around without causing them alarm.
Incidentally, this deck—while thirty feet long—is only about six feet wide. In case you’re wondering, I’ve never seen one of these queen snakes any closer to the cottage walls than this six-foot distance; they’re remain discreetly on the water side.
I suppose for most readers, this sounds like too many snakes too close to the house. But I don’t mind them being around. They’re perfectly harmless (unless you’re a soft craw) and no trouble. That’s sufficient to make them good neighbors, in my book. Plus I like the fact they keep reminding me that my beloved river is healthy.

30 comments:

Anna said...

Not many snakes around here, from time to time we see garden snakes, and once I witnessed one eating a frog. But if comes to me, I rather them stay away - something about snakes. My sister breads them, I think, ouch. Well we all like different things. Excellent and entertaining post, you write well. Anna :)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Anna…

In spite of this post, a snake is not a common sight here along the river. Aside from these queen snakes which have been sunning themselves on my deck, I don't see a snake of any sort more than a half-dozen times per summer.

I see these queen snakes only because I've learned where and when to look. But I've not spotted one at all this week, though we've had several sunny mornings.

Thank you for you nice words re. the writing and posts.

Rowan said...

Lovely photos, I'd be happy to have them living nearby too - much happier having them around than the wolf spider you found a while ago!! There are only three snakes in the UK (if you count slow worms) and only one is poisonous. There are adders up on the moors but I've never seen one yet in all the times I've been up there. That's OK though as they're the poisonous ones! My friend's two Irish Setters were bitten earlier this year and only just survived - she managed to get them to a vet straight away fortunately.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I'll have to admit that for me, snakes at a safe distance are OK.

Snakes creeping through the water-
{{{shiver}}}

Snakes dripping out of trees over my head-
#@*$&!!!
(while running away with my arms flailing)

The only snakes I've seen in the wild are garter snakes and I'm happy with that.

Rita said...

I see lots of snakes in my backyard and garden. I love to see them basking in the sun. I am not fearful of snakes, but I hate mice...Hmmm, I never thought about it before but, maybe I like snakes so much because they could be eating the mice that might scare the daylights out of me.
Your queen snake is a beauty!!
Rita

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

I'm with you on the snakes vs. spiders choice.

We have quite a number of snakes in the U.S. and a fairly long list here in Ohio, including three poisonous species. Nothing dangerous around here, though—and even in the areas of the state where the poisonous ones live, you could spend a lifetime rambling around outdoors and never see one.

I don't mind snakes, and have kept quite a few different ones overs the years. I think it's great you wouldn't have a problem with a snake neighbor.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

Now how in the world have you done all that bird watching and never seen more than a garter snake in the wild? That's amazing. (Probably because you were looking up into the trees rather than down at the ground. Gosh…who knows how many creepy, crawly snakes have been slithering about your feet?)

While I'm not afraid of snakes, I'm never at my amicable best when surprised. During fishing trips down south—and I mean South like Georgia, Florida, Louisiana—on at lest two occasions I've had cottonmouth water moccasins, poisonous and fairly serious, and mean-tempered snakes to boot, drop from limbs and land in my boat, which in one case was actually a canoe. This creates what you could call an instant situation—with no involved party very happy, and a lot of sudden activity and loud noise adding to the confusion. It does tend to perk a morning up, however.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rita…

Now there's the proper attitude! Understand their usefulness, accept them as beneficial, friend rather than foe, and admire their beauty.

(Ha! I know what some of you are thinking…and the answer is NO! The same line of reasoning cannot be applied to spiders! Not by me, anyway.)

Anyway, Rita…I'm glad you like snakes. Some species do catch mice. Lots of farmers I know treasure the black rat snakes who live in their barns. My little queen snakes prefer crayfish. But still, they ask for nothing more than a clean stream and a handy place to sunbathe. They're welcome here.

Wanda said...

We usually see a few large Black Snakes each year, so far this summer not a one...although I almost touched a small Eastern Garter Snake(I think) while picking blackberries. The texture of it's skin was very different...not at all smooth...very pebbly looking...it was brown with creamy stripes. I did manage to get a photo before it slipped away in the underbrush...without spilling the berries!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Wanda…
I don't see many snakes around here, in spite of this post. I saw one garter snake back in early spring, and nothing else except for these queen snakes—in the pool and on the deck rail.

(Actually, there was one on the rail this afternoon, after I put up my post—and that's the first one I've seen all week. Seeking more publicity, perhaps.)

No black snakes or racers ever; it's just not the right sort of place.

I do hope you run your photo one of these days. BTW, the snake might have been getting ready to shed its skin, which caused the "bumpiness."

KGMom said...

Scribe--I like to think of myself as one of the hearty sorts who does not blanch at much of anything.
But I confess to having a very healthy respect for snakes. Though I live in one of those suburban locations you describe as "well-manicured suburban developments with sidewalks and grass and the odd miniature tree" (although some of my trees are 50+ foot high evergreens that I planted myself when they were 18 inches high, bare-root stock...ahem)--I have a childhood background that gave me a different view of snakes. Snakes in Africa were the one thing you were likely to encounter--so at night you always carried a flashlight (aka torch), and you assumed a snake was poisonous until you could verify otherwise. I have a very vivid childhood memory of a snake being in the house, and crawling into my father's slippers next to his easy chair.
So, my shivers at snakes has nothing to do with being suburbanly squeamish--but a healthy fear bred in me from decades ago.

Jain said...

Great post, Scribe. Giggle-inducing, informative, well-illustrated!

I commented to my mate, just the other day, that we hadn't seen many snakes this season. I suspect this is the case because the skeeters have kept me indoors.

Sydney said...

Forgive me for not commenting lately, I have been out of town, officiated at my niece's wedding in VT then took a much needed vacation in Martha's Vineyard. But I do post on Adventures in Nature when I am gone, with things I wrote before I left... and the vulture one you wanted to know about is up.

I can't wait to get home and caught up on your posts! Love your writing! It's like a vacation in itself.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

First off, fifty-foot pines excuse you from being lumped in with those New-Wave Suburbanites whose mac-mansions sit in fields that last year grew fodder, and who dare not allow their foo-foo dogs to whiz on their "trees" for fear any such brief hosing might wash them out by their roots.

Secondly, healthy fear is fine. I got no problem with respecting snakes for their potential. When I'm in snake country—and by that I mean poisonous snake country—I watch where I put my feet and hands, I don't step over a log without knowing what's hiding under the other side, etc. But I don't freak out from fifty feet away over sight of a snake…or even a spider.

Once upon a time, while traveling through another state, a fellow remarkably similar to me—though dumber—decided to capture the largest copperhead he'd ever seen and bring it home. Lacking anything so useful as a snake bag or even a cardboard box, this serpent snatcher decided to simply toss the restrained reptile in the trunk of his new Volkswagen (air-tight, floats the car in those commercials, ought to be good temporary copperhead housing, right?) and continue on his way. It came to pass that an hour or so later, this I.Q. challenged snake kidnapper decided to check on his captive charge. The VW's trunk was opened. The snake was not in immediate view. The fellow looked closer: still no snake. The concerned pilgrim elected to dismantle his automobile on the spot, using nothing but pliers, a screwdriver, and a remarkable dose of adrenaline. He looked closer still, searching everywhere, in all nooks and crannies. Not a slithery scale was to be seen. The missing snake remained missing. The car was reassembled. The chagrined snake handler considered his options: drive the potentially lethal vehicle on home…or push it into the nearby river, claim it had been stolen, and commit insurance fraud. A knotty problem—death or incarceration? I—er, he, drove home. But even the most meager movement of air across his ankles, or what might—glimpsed from the corner of his eye—have been a coppery movement, induced immediate levitation…regardless of traffic or speed. And the effect endured until the car was traded in.

This, I believe, is a good example of unnatural snake fear. I should have known that Volkswagen was safe after the first winter.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

Nope, me neither. Few snakes have been spotted anywhere—along the river, on trails and ambles afield, around the yard; and none in the cottage.

And—not to rub it in or anything—I sat on my deck from late afternoon through twilight, until the rain began about 9:00 p.m. and swatted not a single mosquito. I do have a couple of those tabletop citronella torches/lamps going, but I can't believe they do much if anything to ward off the little bloodsuckers. Lots of bats and swifts, and a pair of bullbats (you know what they are, right?) working…but still. There's just not much standing water around, only the river.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Sydney…

I've been behind on my reading—though I kept up with many of your posts; missed the vulture, though…but not for long.

That violin music you hear in the background is to accompany my condolences to you for having to take a therapeutic vacation at Martha's Vinyard. How difficult that must have been…all that sun and sand and surf. Yet trooper that you are, you doubtless flung yourself onto the beach, sipped those sea-colored tall drinks, and browned yourself into a stupor while the rest of us were free to slave away on the riverbank. What a remarkable example of humanitarian courage! :-)

Hey, glad you'll soon be back and posting—and thank you for the nice words re. these posts.

Carolyn H said...

Griz: i can't say I've ever seen a queen snake here at Roundtop, though I have that cantankerous water snake. This year has been unusual "snake-y" around the cabin. It likely has something to do with the weather--lots of rain, little sun, etc. So far I haven't seen any poisonous ones, so I'm happy.

Carolyn H.

Gail said...

Hi Grizz-

Great pictures. And I learned a lot form your explaining about the Queen snakes, water snakes, etc. "Thank you".

We have a snake that has lived under our front stoop for years. Every year he/she sheds his skin as if to say "I am still here"... :-)

Of course, the wood pile is a whole 'nother story!!

Love you'
Gail
peace......

The Weaver of Grass said...

Beautifully descriptive post, Scribe. Those snakes eh! I know what you mean about "townies" thinking we almost live in the outback. People who come here complain it is too quiet, they don't know how I can stand it!
But I must ask a question - do you have mole, and ratty, and toad, and badger - and are there things going on along that river bank, with tiny boats and dusk goings on about which you know nothing? I am sure there are - it always sounds so magical to me.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Carolyn…

Huh. Snakes have been scarce hereabouts this summer. At least I haven't seen but a very few.

I didn't realize for years that all the watersnakes I saw along the streams weren't the same species. Most of them are, indeed, plain old common grumpy northern water snakes; but in the right place, along a fairly pristine stream with a good crawfish population (the same sort of stream which usually has a good smallmouth fishery) you might also see queen snakes. I don't about your area. They are found into s.e. Pennsylvania, but that's the opposite corner of the state from you, right?

What poisonous snakes might you see around the cabin—copperheads, I'd assume, but perhaps timber rattlers, too?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

I'd be willing to bet you have a garter snake under your stoop…and possibly more than one. Well feed, whatever it is, since it keeps needing to change "clothes."

It's a natural fact that snakes do love woodpiles! Partly because mice and similar tasty tidbits (if you're a snake) like to inhabit woodpiles—and also because a woodpile furnishes good shelter with lots of hidy-holes. Down south, more than one copperhead or rattler has been carried into the house and dumped with an armload of kindling and firewood on the hearth…which generally adds an unexpected element of family excitement to a winter's evening.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I get a kick out of some citified visitors—at how they're appalled by the isolation, unnerved at the silence, and horrified when a nuthatch comes ratcheting down a nearby tree and looks them straight in the eye. God know what they'd do if this were real wilderness—or even really rural.

Well, the nearest badger would probably be at least a dozen miles as the crow flies…but the other three WITW folks are pretty common, although Mole has to do his digging in the neighbors's yards, as mine is too rocky.

As to tiny boats and any post-dusk goings on…these are matters about which I must not speak. There is, indeed, magic afoot on many nights—and days, too—and if your faith is strong, and you believe with a pure and simple heart, then…

Ahh-h-h, I'll leave the rest up to you, Weaver.

Bernie said...

Hi Griz, just back from vacation and catching up on my favorite post....now you touched on the one thing in this beautiful world I am fearful of....snakes. You did bring me a sense of peace with your wonderful descriptions though. I love learning new things and always learn something from each of your post.....take care my friend and have a wonderful weekend and after a wonderful vacation its good to be back with my blogger friends.....:-) Hugs

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

Hey, glad to see you're back from vacation. We've missed you! Hope you had a great time and have returned rested, relaxed, and rarin' to go!

And don't worry, no more snakes here here in the riverbank…for a while, anyway…I don't think.…probably not…well………maybe just little snake.

Jain said...

Gee, Griz, good of you not to rub it in! ;~P

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

Wouldn't think of it! Would an Irishman do such a thing?

Naw…

Jain said...

Oh, sorry, Scribe, I didn't respond to your question. Yes, I know bullbats and rehabbed injured ones in the past. They're among my favorite birds. I see them flying around barns on our country road, but not so much around our densely wooded lot.

As for standing water, we have a small pond that's packed with fat fish. I honestly don't know how they make their living but I'm sure mosquito larvae don't stand a chance there.

Our bend in the river is riffleless and muddy, and I imagine little puddles along the bank are the mosquito nurseries.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

I thought you would—by whatever name. They're one of my favorite birds, and I love to watch them dive. You know, I don't believe I've ever seen this bird really close, as you would have in a rehab situation. That would be neat.

You're doubtless right about the slow and standing water being the key to your mosquito population. Here, there's a really big riffle—almost a falls—in front of the cottage, and several additional riffles just downstream. This year especially, the water moves along at a pretty good clip for an Ohio stream. Not really any good place for mosquitoes to breed. (Knock on wood!)

Kelly said...

Gorgeous! I walk the banks of the Little Miami in Warren County at the Powder Factory. I see black snakes every now and then and love them (unfortunately, sometimes they've been run over by a bike...). Next time I will know what to look for to identify it. We get garter snakes and last year we had a black snake (don't know what kind, but am learning) sunning itself in our yard on our rocks for about a week. It was also such a surprise to find him there. Your story made me laugh....I know a lot of the suburbanites you've described! :-)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Kelly…

Hey, we're all learning all the time.

I've waded creeks and rivers all my life, and Lord only knows how many water snakes I've seen—thousands, easily. How many of those were queen snakes rather than northern water snakes? No idea. Some though, I'm sure, because I was usually wading to fish for smallmouth bass, which meant I was wading the more pristine streams, with lots of rocks and gravel and a healthy crawfish population—exactly the requirements for queen snakes.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I looked really close at a particular snake and said—wait a minute, this water snake doesn't look like that other water snake I looked at an hour ago. What gives?

So I read up on the subject, keyed it down with field guides…and lo an behold, learned something. I can't begin to tell you how often I've repeated a more-or-less identical scenario with birds or flowers or insects—whatever—and come away thinking…if you were halfway as smart as you pretend you are, you'd have figured this out decades ago!

By the way, I know that stretch of the Little Miami. I've ridden the bike trail along there, and fished the stretch for flathead catfish. Haven't been down that way in several years, though.

Do you ever bird Spring Valley Lake, or the area below Caesar Creek Lake? The Little Miami State Park? I'm sure you must. Spring Valley Lake is especially good, and one of my favorite places—though more of a drive from where I live now. I used to go there once or twice a week—and have known the lake since before the state acquired it, back when it was a muskrat farm. Now that tells you something!