Monday, June 7, 2010

QUEENS AGAIN ON THEIR THRONE

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.
———————

26 comments:

bobbie said...

I love to see little water snakes. Isn't it a shame that so many people are so afraid of them?
Walking in a nearby botanical garden, an elderly couple called across a pond to warn me not to cross the bridge I was approaching because there was a snake there. They were horrified when instead of stopping, I hurried to see it.

Carolyn H said...

Great photos! And the snake is pretty cool, too!

Carolyn H

Jenn Jilks said...

Ever beautiful!

I saw a small water snake a month ago in My Muskoka !, the cat was harassing it. I sent it on its way. Very few snakes these days. An errant deer, and a feral cat (which we seem unable to trap!). Critters galore.

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

Bobbie…

Queen snakes are especially docile—especially for members of the watersnake clan. Even when I pluck one "my" snakes from the deck railing, it twists around a bit but never tries to bite. Nor are they particularly spooky. I rarely touch or move them about, but I lift covering grape leaves, bend close to see better, and stick macron lenses smack in their faces all the time, yet they put up nary a reaction. Common northern watersnakes, on he other hand—also present hereabouts—flee at the least movement, and will bite in a heartbeat if caught.

Lots of folks do fear snakes, way more by a long shot than I do spiders. It's an unwarranted fear, of course (as is my arachnophobia), since few snakes in Ohio are harmful—and even those exceptions aren't going to run you down and bite. But…it's not a fear based on logic. Personally, I like snakes, have kept lots of snakes as semi-pets over the years, and enjoy having them around.

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

Carolyn…

They are neat little snakes. Not common, and less known than most. I'm lucky to have them here.

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

Jenn…

In addition to the little queen snakes, I have an occasional garter snake show up, and now and then see a northern watersnake along the river. That's about it, so far, for my snake list hereabouts. Skunks, raccoons, beaver, muskrats, deer, four species of squirrels, rabbits, a resident groundhog or two, and plenty of wandering dogs and prowling cats are the usual furred-critter fare…not counting mice and voles, and probably the occasional fox and coyote, which I don't see.

Kay said...

What an interesting post! I love to see snakes in the yard because it seems to point to a healthy environment with everything in balance. That may be overly optimistic but a snake always lifts my spirits.
You were lucky to get so many great pictures.

Bernie said...

Grizz, I fear very little but I am frightened of snakes of all kinds. I did enjoy your post and have to admit you did ease my fears a bit with your wonderful descriptions, knowledge and explanation of this water snake, I so want to say I love your photos oh but Grizz I just can't. Doesn't mean I don't love my friends though and appreciate their wonderful words. Have a great day my friend.......:-) Hugs

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

Kay…

These queen snakes, being crawfish dependent, certainly point to a clean watershed, because you don't find crawfish in abundance otherwise. But you're also right in overall, more generalized terms—healthy populations of snakes are only present in healthy ecosystems, so in that sense, they're a sort of positive barometer.

Re. the photos…wish I could take a lot of credit, but it was plumb easy, photographically, to get these shots. If I advance slowly, these gentle little queen snakes will allow me to move in as close as I want. The shot of the one showing the milky-blue eyes, for example, was taken with the lens no more than 3-4 inches away. It's hard to tell in some of these shots, but most of the queen snakes pictured are small—no more than 8-12 inches. I probably have a hundred similar photos.

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

Bernie…

I understand completely. It's like taking a photo of a mooseflop…it may be great shot, photographically speaking, technically perfect, artistically rendered, a wonderful image rendered with astonishing talent…but it's still a photo of a mooseflop, and subject matter counts. And when it comes to fears, we each have our own. I would never think less of you for that—promise.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ_

Your pictures are so worthy of being in National Geographic. The detail, color and clarity is amazing Grizz. I really enjoyed this post and I learned so much too. And I will be honest and tell you, until this moment at a ripe ole age of ____, I never knew it was called a "garter snake", always thought the term was "garden snake". Who says ya can't teach an ole dog new tricks??!! :-)
Great post.

Love you
Gail
peace and hope.....

p.s. sent you an email a couple days ago - did it arrive?

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

Gail…

You are a very gracious photo appraiser—and I appreciate your vote. Even more, I'm glad your read and enjoyed the queen snake piece.

I think it's great you've just learned that it is a "garter" instead of "garden" snake. But then…being a mere lass still in the blush of youth, you probably never realized women once used such devices for keeping up their dressy silk stockings. Yes indeed, before nylons and pantyhose, there were real silk stockings, terribly expensive, delicate, with sewn seams down the rear which, on the right legs, were not altogether a negative feature…but stockings which lacked any sort of upkeeping elastic at their tops. (No, dang it…I'm not that old, this is all research information.) Hence, garters. Thigh-sized bands. Like grooms smirkingly remove at weddings and toss over their shoulders to waiting female wolfpacks—or dapper riverboat gamblers wear high around the sleeves of their ruffled shirts. And which, superficially, those common, laterally-striped snakes you've been seeing all your life do, indeed, resemble.

Who says blogs and blogging isn't educational!

Joking aside…yes, I did receive and read your email. I went through many similar days and times with my own mother, so I know something of what you're feeling and the effort—both physical and spiritual—involved. I didn't email you back because I didn't want you to feel obligated to respond, as I know you're exhausted. But you, your mother, and family remain in my prayers and thoughts.

Do the best you can on a given day. You can't be your mother's doctor, or change whatever is God's ultimate will—but you can be you, her beloved daughter, with a daughter's heart and emotions, shared history and memories…there to hold her hand when all else fails. Just mind your own health during this process, however it goes. And so far as I see it medically, the situation—as bad as it may at times seem—is not without hope.

Don't ever lose hope….

Rowan said...

Lovely and interesting post - I think quite a few snakes are probably in the 'don't bother me and I won't bother you' category (not all though especially mambas and puff adders!) but the queen snakes sound particularly pleasant.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

Hope is alive. :-)

ANd fascinating, really fascinating info about 'garters', which, I admit I knew about - Good LOrd - giving away my age. :-)

And as far as my writing back to you? Via email or here, I, like you....love to reply to those who take the time, ya know?? Itis a good distraction - exhausted or not.

Now, nck to those garters....you are SO well informed.....I would venture a guess that you fancy such a look!!! :-) you geezer you!!! :-) I love it and YOU

Gail
peace and hope.....

The Weaver of Grass said...

You are so lucky Scribe to have those snakes on your patch - how I envy you.

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

Rowan…

Hope you'll forgive the long delay in getting your comment up and answering. Had an early appointment this morning for a cleaning at the dentist's, which is located miles from here on the other side of town—nearly an hour's drive. Afterwards, stopped to do some shopping and browsing at the bookstore while I was on that side of the county; then lunch; then north into the next county to buy some plants; a meeting to attend afterwards; a stop at a warehouse retailer for prescriptions and some groceries—and finally, a few minutes ago, home. Wheee! A long, long day.

Anyway…yes, queen snakes are definitely in the benevolent and placid category. "Nice" snakes, though some likely consider such a notion an oxymoron.

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

Gail…

Point taken re. comments, emails, etc. I just knew you were going through an exhausting patch right now, and didn't want to add to that load. But, in the future, I'll write back.

Now, re. my view on fancying the "garter look" and its use thereof…I'm of the opinion even a nice set of camo garters wouldn't look all that good on me—especially not when I don a nice designer-label leopard-skin loincloth.

Also, is geezerhood an age or a state of mind? And either way, do you really think I qualify? Okay, I believe I see your point—a real geezer might indeed wear those garters. True geezers will wear anything, though they might use said garter to keep their cap from slipping off in a high wind. But a certified geezer certainly wouldn't remember or care about anyone else wearing garters.

Nope, I've answered my own question…I'm not a geezer!

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

Weaver…

I view them as riverbank attributes, too.

Joy K. said...

Beautiful snakes! I had a gorgeous garter snake sashay across the mulch pile I was shoveling up. Getting to see it was a like a gift for that day.

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

Joy K…

Hey, I'm glad to hear that someone besides me can see a neat little snake and count it one of the day's rewards.

Thank you…

Gail said...

HI AGAIN

And now to you. Point taken.

This forum loses so much - I meant no insult in 'light-heartedly' using the term 'geezer'. So sorry if I offended you in anyway.

Love Gail
peace......

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

Gail…

Dear, dear Gail…you didn't offend me in the least. I was just kidding around, and knew you were, too. Moreover, in point of fact, I'm probably—at the very least—indeed an apprentice geezer. I certainly hope so.

Bottom line…we're friends, and in my approach to those I like, lighthearted and near-relentless kidding around is considered de rigueur. So fear not—nary a feather has been ruffled.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

I absolutely love you!!! :-)

me <3

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

Gail…

I am indeed a most lovable geezer…

:-D

Wanda said...

Grizzled Geezer??? has a ring to it!

I think snakes are going to be abundant this year, I've already seen 3, when all of last year only 2. I just know one was 'extremely' long and went straight up my favorite tree.

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

Wanda…

I am a grizzled geezer…and becoming more grizzled and more of a geezer with each passing season. Which isn't, I might add, a complaint.

Unless I've forgotten (geezerhood does that to you, you know!) I haven't seen a single snake hereabout other than the queen snakes in my deck grapevine and one or two common northern watersnakes around the edges of the Cottage Pool. Usually I do see a garter snake or two in the yard—but none so far. Whether this will turn out to be a good year for snakes, I don't know. My guess is that it's going to be hotter than usual, and maybe more humid—so that might be a plus for snakes. But I'm only speculating. From the sound of it, I'd say that was a black rat snake going up that tree. I'd be happy to have one of those around here.