A month or so ago, I glanced into the thick growth of wild grapevine creeping its way up and around the lattice and rail of my stream-facing deck, and noticed something that didn't quite look like a vine tendril curled among the leaves. A closer look revealed a small queen snake sunning itself in the dappled shade—a visitor neither unwelcome nor unexpected.
I was pleased to find queen snakes along my home water when I initially moved to this riverside cottage. Since then I've had the opportunity of getting to observe and appreciate these gentle little snakes firsthand and quite often, and now count them valuable and delightful neighbors. [I posted about them here last year.]
Queen snakes are a non-poisonous species of water snake. They look something like a garter snake, their topside color ranging from olive-green to gray to a sort of medium red-tinged brown. A creamy-yellow stripe runs lengthways low on either side. The belly may be further striped—again, lengthways—with dark lines, though these stripes are most prominent in juveniles and tend to fade as the snake matures.
Like all water snakes, queen snakes have "keeled" scales—a tiny lengthways-running ridge on each scale. This ridge, much like the keel on a boat, helps keep the snake moving on course through the water by minimizing side-to-side slippage, which wastes motion and energy. This makes hunting and capturing prey much easier.
The queen snake's diet is almost exclusively fresh-water crayfish, with perhaps the occasion minnow or small frog. The crawfish are in the recently-molted stage—what bait fishermen refer to as being "soft craws." Because crawfish are numerous only in clean-running streams with lots of rocks along the bottom, queen snakes are thus indicators of a good quality watershed. As water quality declines, queen snakes disappear. Not every stream around can boast a resident population of queen snakes. Therefore, I view my slithering vistors as good omens.
A few days their initial reappearance, I found a small, foot-long queen snake partially hidden among the grape leaves. The skin looked vaguely different than normal. When I lifted the leaf that allowed me to see the queen snake's head, the skin's appearance was explained the moment I saw the creature's milky bluish eyes…my deckside queen snake was getting ready to shed its skin. All snakes shed their skins—at least the top layer of their skins, in a process known as ecdysis—throughout their lives as they grow. How often depends on their size. Older, larger snakes maybe several times per year; young, rapidly-growing juveniles, as often as every couple of weeks. I've since noted several other queen snakes sporting milky-blue pre-shed eyes.
Queen snakes seldom grow much over a couple of feet in length. On the day when I spotted the first queen snake of the season, I carefully scrutinized the tangle of vines and leaves hanging on the streamside of the deck. Queen snakes are docile and generally pretty tolerant of my close-up looks and photo fussing. But they have their limits. Disturb them too much and they'll promptly drop off the vine into the water. Eventually, I managed to count a total of eight queen snakes sequestered within the vegetation. They ranged in size from two feet long and the diameter of my thumb, to maybe six or seven inches and no bigger around than a pencil.
Obviously, I had a healthy population of queen snakes here along the riverbank—a fact which I found inordinately pleasing. I like my queen snakes and was glad to see they'd returned to their favorite sunbathing spot.
Since this initial return day, my resident queen snakes have put in a appearance every day when it wasn't cold or pouring the rain. In fact, I've just come back from giving the deck, rail, and what of the now thickly-leaved hanging grapevine I can still peer into, a quick look…and counted three queen snakes ensconced therein; about average for any given check. Sometimes I see them in the stream below, nosing along the pool's rocks as they search for crawfish—though not today because the water's up a bit and muddy due to rain yesterday.
While other folks might be appalled at the notion sunbathing snakes so close to their house, I enjoy having them around. Even Myladylove sees them as a good sign and is willing to tolerate them so long as they don't decide to move into the cottage. Even a gentle, retiring queen snake can't ask for more than that.