Snakes Aloft, Snakes Afoot

We’re running a wildlife refuge and expected there would be snakes. For the most part, that’s fine. And, because this is Texas, I even expected some of those snakes to be venomous.  I dress for the possibility of an unexpected encounter, with heavy boots on every time I step into the long grass or the woods.

The boots–worth their considerable weight in gold

I appreciate snakes for the role they play in an ecosystem, helping thwart small critters that might otherwise succeed in their plan to take over the world. I get a kick out of finding teeny tiny snakes that live in the leaf litter, or the fast and smooth extra-long Yellow-bellied Racer that lives near the pond.

Yes, that’s an almond. This is a tiny harmless snake.

When I was a very small child in New Jersey, my mother sat me on a blanket to play outside, while she raked leaves in the back yard. We had thornless Locust trees, which shed piles and piles of tiny leaves—leaves so tiny that they were hard to rake. Raking took a lot more time than it should have because of those tiny leaves. Unbeknownst to Mom, my favorite plaything for raking days was the large black snake that lived in the back yard’s  clay drainpipe. The 6 “ pipe exited the yard horizontally, just under the soil surface, right at the edge of the park we lived next to. It dripped water out onto a pad of glorious green moss. The snake would pop out for a look, see me, withdraw a bit into the shadows of the pipe, and pop back out a bit later. We played peek-a-boo for a while until the snake got used to me and decided I wasn’t a threat.

Eventually, probably the second day of raking, I was able to pet the snake’s body, but never progressed to picking it up. It was longer than I was tall, and inky black. Everyone in the neighborhood called them Black Racers, but I have no idea how correct or incorrect that name was. I tried to tell my family about my slinky new friend, but nobody believed me, so I gave up talking about it. (Years later, when the pipe needed clearing, someone stuck a tool in there and dragged out the bones of assorted small animals. Why wouldn’t a snake want to hang out in there? )

I tell the raking story to illustrate the fact that I have long been at peace with most snakes. One of my dearest family members, a beloved aunt, was so viscerally creeped out by snakes that you could watch the hairs on her neck and arms rise if anyone even talked about them. She could appreciate them on an intellectual level, but her body would not cooperate and had its own ideas about how to react. Her fear was so severe, that she adored pet hamsters with their tiny stubby tails, but could not abide pet mice because their tails set off the same physical reaction  viewing a real snake would. She was an avid gardener, but had to abandon many a garden work hour when she uncovered an earthworm in the garden.

As I got older, I developed an aversion to snakes under three special circumstances. Some of my reservations might even be rational. I am afraid of snakes in the water with me. This started when I was on my college’s water ski team briefly. We sometimes skied on large farm ponds in cow pastures, and Tarantulas, Scorpions, and Water Moccasins regularly appeared at these events. We had invaded their space with people and noise, camp fires and vibrations. One particular event near Hillsboro sticks in my mind, where there were several snakes swimming in the water near the start dock, from which skiers took off. I can swim well, but lifejackets were required for all events, and the thought of trying to outswim an irritated snake (possibly venomous), while wearing a way-too-buoyant flotation vest and dealing with a ski, made me deeply uneasy. I still don’t like to swim where I also expect swimming snakes to be. If it becomes a race, they will win every time.

The second circumstance is a mostly unreasonable dislike of snakes overhead, and since we have found some very long snakeskins in our barn, I am in the habit of glancing at the overhead light fixtures when we open the barn for the day. They can be up there. I just want to know if they are. I’ll walk around the other direction. Richard points out that snakes are pretty good at hanging on and are unlikely to fall. I agree, but the tiny voice in the back of my brain says “But what if they let go on purpose?” For all I know, snakes might think it’s amusing to make me wet my pants.

The third circumstance that can actually make me give an involuntary shudder is having a “hot” snake in a building with us. My habitat is inside, theirs should be outside. We’ve given them a great place to live out there. What’s so wrong with that logic? I can even stand the occasional Speckled King Snake or Western Rat Snake that come into the barn and work on the mice, but Copperheads and Rattlesnakes give me great pause.

Copperhead in the barn. It’s okay to shiver a bit.

It’s been a strong season for reptile sightings so far. I’ve already seen four kinds of lizards at the farm, and five at the house. Snake season though, really started for us when Richard found a duo of Copperheads lounging in the barn near the back door on April 26th.  A few weeks later, at least one of them was back in the same place. We needed the ladder it was resting near, and Richard (in his boots!), was able to gently lift the ladder and not disturb the snake much. The Copperhead waited until we weren’t paying attention to it to retreat under a pile of stuff in the barn.  Every now and then, it would poke its head out and rest it on the cool concrete floor, or throw out a section of body where we could see it.

 I must say, that it was a very placid snake, and did not seem to have causing trouble on its agenda. It stayed respectfully away from us, and we stayed respectfully away from it, just checking from time to time to verify that it was still there. I think the snake was doing the same with us. Richard and I discussed whether to try and make the snake leave, and the eventual decision was that it could and should stay. We could see one snake, but just a few weeks ago, there had been two. If we removed one it might give us a false sense of security. Nobody knew where the second snake could be, so it was safer to know for sure there was a hot snake in the barn and act like it, than to think falsely that they all had been removed. We also had some chores to do out behind the barn, and I thought a calm Copperhead where we could see it was safer than a grumpy evicted one hidden in the grass.

Vertical slit pupils? Check!

At some point I noticed that there were some new and unusual swirly patterns in the absorbent kitty litter under the tractor on the barn floor—downright serpentine patterns. We did not put them there. They had not been there the last time we were in the barn, so we could only conclude the snakes had enjoyed some lounge time under the tractor too.  

At the end of the day, we closed the door on an unknown number of resident Copperheads and walked away. We’ll be wearing boots inside the barn from now on, and making sure we don’t reach for things where we can’t see our fingers. It’s that time of year when Copperheads feast on emerging cicadas and I expect the snakes to be very well fed and fairly lazy. I’m sure they just want us to watch where we are putting our big feet, and I’ll be doing just that.

The other major reptile event happened at home at the end of May. I was home trying to get some computer work done, and heard a terrible racket in the back yard. Birds were screaming in the alarmed way reserved for the most serious threats. I wondered if the local Bobcat had showed up in the back yard and went to check. It was ridiculously loud out there in our oak tree.

When I arrived, I spotted 9 Bluejays, 1 Chickadee, 2 Cardinals and 1 Mockingbird, all shrieking as loud as they could. There was also a Crow with something white in its beak, and I assumed it was the subject of their ire and had robbed a Bluejay nest. Shortly after I showed up, the Crow took off, with five of the Bluejays in hot pursuit. The others all stayed in our oak tree and continued to yell. I thought everything would quiet down since the perpetrator had already fled with its prize, so I went back inside. I was wrong. For another ten minutes the bird frenzy went on in the back yard. At some point the already ridiculous sound volume increased when the five Bluejays returned from chasing the crow, and the distress calls continued in earnest. I decided to have another look and see if I could chase off the Crow, which I figured had returned for another egg.  The Crow had not returned, but the other birds screamed on. Watching the birds, I could see that they weren’t focused on the fence or the ground or the neighbor’s roof where a cat might sit, and they weren’t peering into a bush where there might be a predator hiding. They were all focused on one small area of our tree, agitatedly hopping from branch to branch in a small region, and yelling about it the whole time. It took me longer than it should have to realize that the unnatural bend in one of the branches about 20 feet off the ground was actually a loop of a very long Western Rat Snake. Snake aloft—not my favorite way to encounter one.

That’s no branch!

I tried a couple of different cameras and lenses in the evening light, but managed only a few lame “record shots” of the event that don’t manage to convey the intensity of the birds or even the colors of the snake.  At one point, the charming young lady next door appeared on her side of the fence, and I explained what the ruckus was about, and why I was sitting in an upstairs window with a camera. She recorded with her phone. In the end, my hands tired of trying to hold the camera up high, and I quit trying to take pictures. The birds screamed until the sun went down and then stopped suddenly–as if their official shift as sentries had abruptly ended–while the snake stayed put.

Bluejay sentry on the job
Shot through the screen with a telephoto from an upstairs window perch. Bold Bluejays!

We’ll wear our boots in the barn and keep watching for Copperheads during Cicada season and long after, but at home, there’s not much to be done about a snake that wants to hang out in our tree above the back door. I’ll have to trust the birds to keep me informed, and mostly likely, I’ll make an effort to put the trash out before dark.