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BIRDS AND BEYOND

The season for snakes

By Claire Curry | Published Thursday, June 23, 2011

Last time in the column I talked about watching titmice at Abilene State Park. While looking for my birds in Texas and Oklahoma, I’ve seen some interesting snakes, too. I thought I’d talk about some of the snakes that I have seen and more that we have at home, too.

Rat snakes are one of the most common snakes that we see in Wise County. There are actually two species of rat snakes, the Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimerii) and the Great Plains Rat Snake (Elaphe guttata emoryi). As their name implies, rat snakes are great predators on rodents. They are constrictors, so they kill their prey by suffocating them with their muscular coils and then swallow them whole. Rat snakes are very common predators of bird nests as well.

Many of these snakes try to scare off humans, who they consider potential predators, by coiling and shaking their tails in dry grass. It makes a noise like a rattlesnake. Even the tiny snakes will sometimes try these ploys.

We recently saw a tiny Texas Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi texana). Despite barely hitting 8 inches in length (and being non-venomous to boot), the fearsome little beast made an S shape with its body and struck at our hiking boots. Then it froze and tried to blend in with the dirt. It was so still that a tiny young grasshopper sat on its head.

After we had taken its picture and were distracted by Summer Tanagers and other birds in the trees, it slithered away oh so slowly. Its movement was barely perceptible until it arrived at the edge of the grass, at which point it darted to safety from our cameras.

Water snakes, such as the Yellow-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster), often do a great cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) imitation. Several massive water snakes lived in our yard several summers ago. In the dim morning light, one coiled and puffed when cornered and was quite irritated to be swept with a broom out of the garage.

Although the water snakes will bite if handled (and are said to have a “lacerating bite”), they are non-venomous. They do not have the vertically slit pupils of a cottonmouth. Although I have never seen a cottonmouth, the cottonmouth is said to swim with its body floating near the top of the water even when stopped, while water snakes’ bodies fall below the water’s surface when they pause.

The water snakes in our yard did so well that we saw several baby water snakes, which had colorful rufous and black patches on their backs. They will eat frogs, other amphibians and small fish. Young will also eat aquatic invertebrates.

Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) are very similar to the striped Texas Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis annectans). Both of these species like to hunt for frogs, small toads, minnows and earthworms along the water’s edge. They can also swim, as can other snakes (even rat snakes will swim).

Heading up to dry ground, racers and coachwhips are very agile, fast snakes that will climb trees to eat bird eggs or race across open ground in pursuit of a lizard snack. I recently saw one zipping after a lizard. Happily for the lizard and unhappily for the snake, the lizard won that race. They will eat almost any small vertebrates (even other snakes), though, so hopefully the snake found something else to eat. They are often out in the heat of the day.

A good reference for our local snakes is “A Field Guide to Texas Snakes” (second edition) by Alan Tennant. I also like to visit local herpetology websites to learn about the distributions of our snakes and lizards, particularly “Amphibians and Reptiles of the Dallas and Fort Worth Metroplex” by Terry Hibbitts, http://www.kingsnake.com/dfw/. This website also covers frogs and toads. The Noble Foundation has a useful website for identifying venomous snakes: http://www.noble.org/ag/wildlife/snakes/index.html.

Keep your eyes peeled for our reptilian friends! They all have valuable places in our ecosystem, eating and being eaten. Watch where you step and enjoy watching them when you see them! You never know what fascinating snakes you may see.


The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be July 6 and Aug. 3. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office at (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. If you would like to contact them, email them at larksparrow@eeclaire.com.

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