SEARCHING FOR SNAKES
by Gene Ott
It was a pleasant evening. October 1st. The summer had been hot and dry. Snakes had been fairly active in the spring. Rainfall during April had been higher than normal, but rains were scarce after then. The heat came with June and had relented little with the coming of September. With the heat and drought, the snakes seemed to disappear. Even small garden snakes seemed to be absent. Usually, if you rake through leaves or turn over boards you can count on finding a worm snake or brown snake. But not this summer. I am not sure this is purely a seasonal weather response.
It seems to me that snake populations have been decreasing in recent years. This is purely an anecdotal observation based on my personal experience. I live on a farm in rural Laurens County and have plenty of opportunity to encounter snakes. Also, I drive about 25,000 miles a year and diligently observe road surfaces for living or dead snakes. If I can, I make positive identification of the species. I have a suspicion that wild turkeys have made significant predations into populations of reptiles and amphibians. Re-population programs for wild turkeys into the South Carolina Piedmont have been exceptionally successful. Large herds of wild turkeys can be seen most every day browsing local pastures. I am sure that many small snakes, lizards, frogs and baby turtles are devoured daily by these turkeys. Another potential predator which seems to be increasing in numbers is the common crow. The crow population also seems to have exploded. And they seem to be larger, more like ravens.
But this evening a cool front was moving in. Temperatures were predicted to dip into the 50s in the predawn hours. Hurricane Georges had been predicted to bring heavy rains yesterday, but the local area received substantially less than an inch. Nevertheless, the wetting of the vegetation and ground surface was refreshing. It appeared to be a good evening to go snake hunting.
As the sky darkened I popped an audio book-on-tape into my F-150's player and turned into the roadway. My strategy is to slowly cruise rural roads looking for snakes exposed while traversing the pavement. Many prey animals are attracted to roadways. They are attracted to the early evening warmth of the pavement and the natural and human-discarded foods which accumulate on the roadsides. And prey animals attract predators, including snakes. Most snakes surprised on the roadway will momentarily freeze, relying upon being unseen as their first line of defense. Unfortunately this is not a very good strategy when the principal danger is a moving vehicle. Snakes instinctively know they are in danger crossing pavement. In danger because they have no covering structure. A snake's linear body makes it highly vulnerable while moving and nowhere is it more vulnerable than stretched out perpendicularly on a road. Many snakes are killed on roadways. Many more than may be obvious to the drivers passing by. Roads attract scavengers such as vultures, crows and opossums. A small to medium-sized snake makes quick meal for the scavengers. Many killed snakes do not remain on the roads for long. Those that do end up getting masticated into pulp.
Searching for snakes on roads at night offers several advantages over daytime searches. Traffic volume is usually less. Of course, this is important for the snake hunter's safety, but low traffic volume is also important if one hopes to find live specimens. Another advantage of night hunting is that it is easier to see the snakes on the pavement. During daylight, there are many visual distractions on roadways such as changes in coloration of the pavement itself. And, of course, there is much competing off-road scenery. At night, your field of vision is restricted to the roadway and color is largely limited to shades of gray. Being a three dimensional object, the snake's body reflects the vehicle's light. Under the glare of headlights, most all snakes appear white when first spotted. This is because of the intensity of the light reflected from the snake's scales. It takes a second or two for your eyes to adjust and focus so that the snake's actual coloration pattern can be discerned.
After a few miles of searching, I made my first sighting. Not a snake, but a Barred Owl. It flew up from where it had been standing on the road shoulder. I did not see any prey gripped in its talons. Perhaps it had swooped down at a mouse but missed. It disappeared into the pine forest which surrounded the road on both sides. Barred Owls are common near my home. So are Great Horned Owls and Screech Owls. But Barred Owls have the most mystique. They are not as large as the Great Horned Owls but much larger than the Screech Owls which look like diminutive Great Horned Owls. Barred Owls make a distinctive call consisting of a four syllable hoot, immediately repeated once, sounding like: hoo-hoo--who-hoo, hoo-hoo--who-hoooo. This is their usual call. They appear to use it to find one another, especially during the late winter-early spring mating season. This call is what one might describe as a "normal" owl call. However, when two or three Barred Owls meet together, their calls become something altogether different. They make a cacophony of hoots, howls and wails which sounds more like a troop of howling monkeys than owls.
When night hunting I drive slowly, usually not more than 25 miles per hour. I repeatedly check my rearview mirror so that I always know if a vehicle is following within sight. If a snake is spotted, I have to stop suddenly. If I am driving too fast, I have to swerve to avoid killing the snake and back up to find it again. None of these actions can be safely done with another car following close behind. If vehicle approaches from behind, I try to get the driver to pass as soon as can be done safely. If passing is not feasible, I pull off the road to let them by.
After about 20 minutes more of searching I spot my first snake. It is small and freezes in my headlights. There is no vehicle behind me so I stop with my headlights illuminating the snake. It is so small that I cannot identify it from the truck. I grab my flashlight and shine it on the snake as I approach. It is a Northern Brown Snake, about 11 inches long. I quickly pick it up with my hand and carry it back to the truck. I place it in a plastic box which I have bought for this purpose. I have my first specimen of the night.
In the past, I just carried collecting bags. For collecting bags, most herpetologists use pillow cases. With a snake in the bag, the bag top is tied shut with a string or a lose knot is made in the bag itself. For the past few years I have switched to using pillow liners instead of pillow cases. A pillow liner is a cloth bag used to cover the pillow before it is put inside the pillow case, a sort of pillow underwear. The advantage to pillow liners is that they have zippered ends. Pillow liners can be found which are made with as much quality as pillow cases. I find the zip closure to be more convenient than tying and just as trustworthy. However, on my last outing I found the collecting bag to be inadequate. I had found a large Copperhead. There was a convenient dirt drive. So I stopped and picked the snake off the road with my tongs and placed it in the drive clearing. I usually do not attempt to handle venomous snakes with my hands. I consider such handling to be an unnecessary risk. Because the snake was so large, at least 42 inches, I decided to bag it so that I could observe it later in a more controlled and better lighted setting. I placed the open end of the bag on the ground in front of the snake and prodded forward. The snake darted into the bag. Before I could block the open bag, the snake turned and darted back out. I tried to get the snake back into the bag for another 15 minutes with no success. The snake had learned my trick and would not enter the bag again. It knew the bag was a trap! I finally just let it crawl away. I decided that I would have a rigid container with me the next time. Unlike a bag, a rigid container can be used to trap a snake, even a large snake, by simply placing the open end over the snake. The lid can then be slide under the container and snake.
After capturing the brown snake, I continued cruising. About 20 minutes later I found a Green Tree Frog hopping across the road. I carry a small dip net (about 6 inches diameter) for catching frogs. But I had not taken the net from my utility box. Shining my flashlight beam constantly in the frog's eyes, I carefully approached it and cupped my left hand over it. Unfortunately, as I lifted my hand and attempted to grasp it, the frog slipped free and hopped into the grass on the roadside. I immediately took the net from the utility box and placed it in easy reach. About four miles down the road I spotted another frog. This time I netted the frog. It was a Gray Tree Frog. I placed the frog in the collecting box along with the brown snake.
Continued searching for another 45 minutes without finding any more live herptile specimens. I did find a small Copperhead recently dead on the road. In fact, I had passed the location about 30 minutes earlier and did not see the snake. So I figure it was killed in the interim period. I still believed that conditions were good for finding more snakes. I had seen several feral house cats foraging along the roadsides. This was a good sign that other creatures were about.
As I again passed the strip of road where I had found the brown snake, I saw a small snake scurrying across the road. It did not stop scurrying. I stopped quickly and hopped out of the truck with the flashlight. It is very difficult to identify a small snake while it is moving in a flashlight beam. I could tell it was strongly marked. The most likely candidates were a copperhead, a ratsnake, or a watersnake. When I could distinguish that it was not a copperhead, I grasp it with my hand. I held a hatchling Cornsnake! It was about 11 inches long. Cornsnakes, which are one of the ratsnakes, are usually common in the areas around my home. However, this was the first live specimen I had found in the past two years.
I placed the Cornsnake in the collection box with the Northern Brown Snake and the Gray Tree Frog and continued searching. Within another two miles I found an Eastern Garter Snake crossing the road. It was about 18 inches long. Garter snakes can move quickly. Fortunately, this one froze in my headlights and I was able to easily scoop it up with my hand. Again, I placed my new catch in the collection box with the other specimens.
I drove around for a while longer without finding any other specimens. For inspiration, I decided to stop and look over my night's collection. To my great surprise, the Cornsnake was swallowing the Brown Snake. Both snakes were about the same size. I tried not to disturb the snakes, just let nature do her thing. The Cornsnake ultimately swallowed about three-fourths of the Brown Snake, head first which is the way one snake swallows another. The Brown Snake proved to be too large a meal for the Cornsnake. The Cornsnake regurgitated the Brown Snake. Other than being covered with stomach fluids, the Brown Snake was unharmed.
This episode gave me some concern. I did not want anything to happen to the Cornsnake since I had not found one in so long a time and I currently did not have pictures of a juvenile Cornsnake on my website. Because the Garter Snake was considerably larger than the Cornsnake, I envisioned it making a meal of the baby Cornsnake. I transferred the Garter Snake to a collecting bag.
I continued searching without finding any more live specimens. I did find a small Green Snake dead on the road. After about an hour, I called it a night and returned home. It had been an exceptionally good night of searching. I had collected four live specimens, had another one escape, and had found two dead specimens. I had also finished my book on tape.
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Updated September 14, 1999