Don’t go near the water

For nathalie with an h who proclaimed after my last snake post that she would never again go near the water at White Rock Lake…

A fools errand.  That’s how this morning’s walk felt.  I decided to venture to the western shores for a change of scenery.

That would only be wise in cooler weather and later in the day.  As it was, it put me at a major disadvantage considering anything on or near the lake that caught my attention required me to face into the morning sun, scorching brightness still low on the horizon and blinding me at every turn.

Now I remember why I don’t go there for morning walks…

And it’s summer.  In Texas.  Standing in direct sunshine this time of year is begging for misery.  The sweat pouring from every part of my body kept that thought at the forefront of my mind.

Yet despite the terrible conditions of being hot as hell and unable to see much of anything, let alone photograph it, I did find a nice surprise this morning that deserves attention.

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) sunning on a log (20080726_09969)

Perched atop a log trying to grab some warmth before beginning its day, this diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) never flinched when passersby thronged to my position to see what I had discovered.  Fortunately for the reptile, no one could get close enough to pose a real threat—although I doubt all the pointing and yelping about snakes and other goings on helped it to relax.

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) sunning on a log (20080726_09956)

Only a yard/a meter long yet still an adult, this species can grow to almost twice that size, although it seems more common for them to average around the size of this morning’s example.  What I would consider a small snake still caused a great deal of commotion amongst those who set eyes upon it, including the assumption that because I was photographing it, I must be an expert, something that led to the ubiquitous and expected question: “Is that a water moccasin?”[1][3]

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) sunning on a log (20080726_09997)

Had it been a cottonmouth (what most people mean when they use the term ‘water moccasin’)[4], it would have earned its name by displaying the brilliant white inside of its mouth as a warning for us to stay away (we were at least close enough for that response).  No such display was forthcoming though, for this happened to be something more common yet less dangerous than a cottonmouth.

This species has no venom, although the entire line of water snakes do have rather quarrelsome personalities.  To prove it, the diamondback water snake first resorts to emitting a foul odor with excrement.

If that doesn’t frighten you away, then it will bite.  I assure you that will hurt as their teeth are designed to grab and hold slippery prey, meaning they will tear flesh due in no small part to the backward-facing orientation of their teeth.  But once the bleeding stops, the danger has passed.

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) sunning on a log (20080726_10072)

Beautiful and enticing as all serpents are, I returned a few hours later to see if the snake could still be found.  Indeed, it had only turned around a bit so sunshine could hit the other side, but otherwise it remained right where it had been all morning.

Thankfully, I noticed few saw the creature unless someone was already there and entranced by it.  I paused only briefly to snap that photo, then I walked to the far end of the bridge and watched from a safe and discreet distance.

Of the few dozen people who passed by that spot while I stood vigil, none saw the reptile.  That made me happy for once, that no one noticed, for people generally become dangerous when confronted with a snake, especially a water snake.  Letting it be in peace so it could go on about the business of its day seemed a far better alternative to the inevitable violence that would ensue if more people had seen it.

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[1] Correct me if I’m wrong, but why is it that someone with a camera somehow becomes the available expert under such circumstances?  I’m tickled on a regular basis by those who ask me such questions, as though I obviously know since I have a camera in my hand and took notice of whatever intriguing thing begs the question.[2]

[2] Okay, I admit it’s likely under most circumstances that I know the answer, but that’s just because I’m such a nerd about these things.  I want to know.  I want to understand.  I want to appreciate.  That’s not true of everyone with a camera though, so what’s the deal?

[3] The most common misidentification of snakes stems from most people assuming any serpent in the water is a cottonmouth.  Nonvenomous water snakes are far more common yet suffer the plague of unnecessary death in no small part because people assume any swimming snake is a cottonmouth.  I wish I could change this.

[4] Ugh!  I’ve never seen a water moccasin in my life.  Know why?  They don’t technically exist.  It’s actually a colloquialism of some kind (stemming from a book published in the 19th century).  Truth be told, “water moccasin” is a generic name used for pretty much any snake in the water.  The venomous one you need to watch out for is a cottonmouth, a pit viper and the only poisonous water snake in North America.[5]

[5] Because cottonmouths are quite rare when compared to the nonvenomous water snakes that most people see, the statistical truth is that you are unlikely to see a poisonous water snake when compared to the likelihood of seeing a harmless one.  Almost all sightings in North America are of water snakes and, therefore, of harmless reptiles.

2 thoughts on “Don’t go near the water”

  1. They’ve been documented at slightly less than two meters, but really they average about a meter in length–like this one.

    The last one I photographed was almost two meters long…if that counts for anything.

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