Thursday, May 12, 2011

BASKING QUEENS


Here on the riverbank, one of the vernal season's neatest events is the return of the queen snakes. 

Every spring—weeks before you'd think it was warm enough to see a cold-blooded reptile—queen snakes desert their hidey-holes below the cottage and climb the still-leafless grapevine tangles which twine through wood lattice along the river-facing deck. I begin watching for them on sunny days in late-March. It doesn't have to be much above freezing; just sunny. This year—in spite of various high waters—they've been making regular appearances for at least a month. 


Queen snakes are related to, and often mistaken for garter snakes. (Same family and sub-family, but different genuses.) Queens are water snakes, and sport longitudinally-running "keeled" scales, which act exactly like the keel on a boat, by increasing stability and tracking as the snake glides through the water. One of my queen snakes—likely a female—measures a bit over two feet long; about the absolute maximum for the species. The rest—I typically have 6-8 queen snakes scattered among the vines on a given day—run 12-18 inches, except for a couple which are under a foot and not much larger in diameter than a pencil.   

Presumably, my cottage queens shinny up lattice and vine to catch a better sun angle for basking. Yet this end of the cottage faces west, so the deck remains in shadow until the sun passes the overhanging end of the great-room's roof. Nevertheless, they've made their ascent by mid-morning. 

Depending on the river's level, it's maybe 10-12 feet from the water's edge to the top of the deck's rail. The little snakes usually clamber up as high as possible, sometimes ascending all the way to stretch out along the rail itself—especially after the weather warms and the grapevine is fully leafed. I usually allow a few grapevine tendrils to grow along and above the wooden rail, just so my little sunning serpents will have a bit of shade and concealment. You'd be amazed how easy it is to miss one of these basking snakes, even when it's only inches from where you've placed your hand while peering over and below, trying to spot them among the greenery.

Queen snakes are gentle and very tolerant of my close inspections. Because the queen snake's diet is almost exclusively soft-shelled crawfish, which in turn require waters free from acidification and pollution by heavy metals, their appearance indicates favorable news of a clean river and healthy ecosystem.


I can always use such good news. The basking queens are welcome.  
———————

28 comments:

Carolyn H said...

Grizz: I don't think I have those here in my neck of PA. I don't remember seeing them before. They are beautiful.

Michael Bartneck said...

Very interesting..I would not think they would be in trees , more like blow downs and river snags since crawfish don't climb trees!At least I have not seen any do it..I have seen a ground hog climb trees..so?..mighta been a tree hog!;)

Grizz………… said...

Carolyn…

I'm not quite sure of your mountain home's location…but the queen snake distribution map shows them across both the east and west ends of the state, with a band where they're missing running north and south across the middle. As keen an observer as I know you to be, I'll bet that's your home turf, and explains why you've never seen one.

They are pretty little snakes, and quite docile.

Grizz………… said...

Michael…

I never see them in bushes very high above the water. But they come right up the grapevine tangle. And, my friend, when they're thus draped out, they're sunning, catching a few rays and warming up the old innards, checkin' each other out ("Honey, do you think these stripes make my tail look too long?) not stalking tree-climbing crawfish for supper.

I've seen more than one whistle-pig up a tree—in fact, I have a groundhog right here on the riverbank that lives in a hole in the hill by the driveway, who occasionally climbs a nearby sycamore.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-
great pictures and even greater information about the queen snakes and their predictable and timed appearance each year. I love ow you are connected to their habits and that they let you knw the river is eco-friendly which is good for all of God's creatures. Have a wonderful weekend.
Love to you
Gail
peace.....

Beyond My Garden said...

lovely story - and I don't like looking at snakes much.

Bernie said...

Oh Grizz, the are not many of God's beautiful creatures I don't like but there is just something about snakes that frighten me. This one looks innocent enough and I trust your knowledge of how gentle it is but for now I am just happy to see the picture. Hope you and your family are well....:-)Hugs

Kay said...

What a beautiful snake! I enjoyed the photos and the information as well as your usual excellent way with words.
Kay

Kelly said...

Gosh, Grizz...I love this post! Your Queen Snakes are beautiful, and you're so lucky you have them in view daily! I don't know what the lifespan is on these snakes, but they must be the same snakes hanging out each year...they are like friends no doubt!

Grace said...

I'm glad they tolerate your close inspections. I'm sure they catch you by surprise when you finally notice them right there.

Julie Baumlisberger said...

For many years, our rockery was the basking site for garter snakes. There were many times I would go to pull a weed and almost shake hands with one! Like you, I took their presence as a sign of a healthy ecosystem and welcomed them to our property. Unfortunately, other visitors to our home were not as understanding and often shrieked or grimaced at the sight of a snake...

Nice pictures, again, Grizz.

Jain said...

I've been reading about Mason Bees so when I saw your "Basking Queens" title, my mind went to queen bees.
I wish we had Queen Snakes here.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your long and interesting comment on my blog, Grizz. A sad story - but I'm glad you welcomed your fisherman, despite a few initial reservations.

I'm loving all your recent posts. The pix just get better and better - and very nicely arranged with the text. Great stuff!

emilene said...

I found my way to your blog via 'The Solitary Walker' and I have to say, what a great find! I am looking forward to reading your future posts!

Kind regards from a chilly Cape Town!

Grizz………… said...

Michael Bartneck …

Very interesting..I would not think they would be in trees , more like blow downs and river snags since crawfish don't climb trees!At least I have not seen any do it..I have seen a ground hog climb trees..so?..mighta been a tree hog!;)


Michael…

I never see them in bushes very high above the water. But they come right up the grapevine tangle. And, my friend, when they're thus draped out, they're sunning, catching a few rays and warming up the old innards, checkin' each other out ("Honey, do you think these stripes make my tail look too long?) not stalking tree-climbing crawfish for supper.

I've seen more than one whistle-pig up a tree—in fact, I have a groundhog right here on the riverbank that lives in a hole in the hill by the driveway, who occasionally climbs a nearby sycamore.

Grizz………… said...

Carolyn H…

Grizz, I don't think I have those here in my neck of PA. I don't remember seeing them before.

They are beautiful.



Carolyn…

I'm not quite sure of your mountain home's location…but the queen snake distribution map shows them across both the east and west ends of the state, with a band where they're missing running north and south across the middle. As keen an observer as I know you to be, I'll bet that's your home turf, and explains why you've never seen one.

They are pretty little snakes, and quite docile.

Grizz………… said...

Gail…

My riverside deck queens are easy to photograph—quite docile, and willing to allow me to poke a lens practically on their nose. Even I can manage good, close-up photos.

Our weekend was pretty good. It's cold (41˚F) and cloudy here this morning, with rain this afternoon and more rain and cold in the forecast for the next several days Ahhhhh, spring…

Grizz………… said...

Beyond My Garden…

A writer can't ask more than that! Glad you enjoyed the post, even if it was about snakes. Thank you.

Grizz………… said...

Bernie…

I understand completely how you feel, as I'm almost the same way about spiders. Although, now in my dotage, for whatever reasons, I'm getting a bit better with my arachnophobia.

Really, these little queen snakes are quite gentle. But fear is fear and if you're afraid of 'em, a snake is a snake.

Grizz………… said...

Kay…

Thank you. Snakes aren't everyone's favorite critters, and I understand that. But these are just neat little reptiles, as harmless as can be—and I like the message they represent re. the river's overall quality.

Grizz………… said...

Kelly…

You know, I expect you're right, although I always do see a number of what have to be young-of-the-year. This spring, I'd say I have more smaller queens than the average length last year—only one large (for a queen snake) specimen; the remainder small or medium sized.

I don't have any idea of their lifespan, either. But I expect it is fairly long, providing they have food and shelter, and remain out of the clutches of the things that might eat them.

Grizz………… said...

Grace…

I've become fairly good at spotting them in the grapevine tangles…but it's amazing how I can look the same places over and over and keep adding to the count.

And I can't begin to tell you the number of times during these slow, thorough hunts that I've glanced down, focused, and found one an inch or two (and I mean that literally!) from my hand on the rail. You (or at least, in my ego, I do) would think that could simply never happen, given that I'm scrutinizing a familiar area, know exactly where and how to look, and have lots of experience. Which just goes to show you how good they are at hiding and how incompetent I am at snake spotting.

Grizz………… said...

Julie…

One man's (or woman's) nice little snake is someone else's EEEEEK OHMYGOD A SNAKE!

A few years ago, I was fishing in northern Michigan with a guy who'd spent half his life packing into and exploring some of the most remote corners of the world. A real hair-on-the-chest he-man. We were walking down a sandy trail through the jackpines to one of my favorite brook trout wallows. A hog-nosed snake, perhaps three feet long, was curled in the middle of the narrow path, warming in the morning sun. I just stepped over it and turned pointing down, and said "Nice snake."

That casual comment triggered one of the finest examples of human levitation I've ever witnessed. The fellow, who'd been in mid-stride, simply went straight up, neck craned downward, eyes bulging, arms out flung…and he stayed thus suspended in mid-air for what seemed like five minutes. When he eventually came down and landed it was spraddle-legged and in full run, and he bounded uphill over ferns and blowdowns for a surprising distance.

Nonplussed by all this commotion, the hog-nosed snake rolled over and played dead. I fell into convulsions of laughter beside it, trying to not roll over on my fly rod. My fishing partner finally exhausted himself and sat on a stump, head between his knees, gasping. "I'm kind scared of snakes," he admitted between gasps.

I've since learned to be a bit slower and more thoughtful when showing a snake to someone…uh, usually.

Grizz………… said...

Jain…

As an ardent smallmouth bass fisherman, I know the best bronzeback streams are always going to be fairly clear-to-extremely clear, have lots of rock and gravel, and support a good supply of crawfish…and that's equally true for queen snakes. You have to have the rocks and craws and not too much silt. Your river may have fairly good water quality, but just too much silt.

Hey, I hadn't thought about mason bees for some time. An old guy I used to know would drill holes in 10x10 in. blocks of wood and place the blocks in protected locations around his yard. He had a number of fruit trees and lots of flowers, and he wanted a lot of mason bees around for good pollination.

Grizz………… said...

Solitary…

Thank you…and I apologize for what was, on reflection, probably a too-long comment. I'd just learned about the man's passing, and was a bit shell-shocked when I wrote. It was quite sad and shocking, and I felt so bad about what had happened. You just never know…

I have lately been trying to do a better layout job with the posts. I hope such attempts actually improve the look and readability of things. One of these days I'm also going to get myself a newer camera body, more megapixels, as I'm increasingly getting to feel like my current gear is in the Digital Dark Ages. (Yes, I admit it's probably just my way of justifying the purchase to myself—"need" and "desire" being indistinguishable if we allow them.)

Grizz………… said...

Emilene…

Hey, welcome to the riverbank! I'm glad you found your way here and liked what you saw. Any reader of Solitary's fine blog never needs to knock—just amble in, make yourself at home, and find a comfortable seat! I hope you become a regular visitor.

It's chilly here in Ohio today, too—at least for mid-May.

Again, welcome!

Jain said...

Grizz, I only recently read about drilling blocks for mason bees. I'm going to look into it. Unlike honeybees, they're native, and I hear they are as good, if not better, pollinators.

Grizz………… said...

Jain…

Seeing as how honey bees are struggling, and often in short supply, that sounds like a good idea—especially given your garden's need for good pollination. I may just drill out a few blocks myself, if for nothing more than my own interest.

Let me know how it's going. I'm not sure whether it's too late this spring or not.