Of serpentine surprises

I try to always keep snakes in mind when I walk.  No precaution is beyond me, whether it be kicking logs before stepping over them, paying attention to every footfall and what’s around it, keeping my eyes on what lurks in the understory, or intently watching for movement and listening for sounds.  Why be so mindful?

There are seven venomous snake species in the DFW metroplex, three of which I’ve seen and photographed around White Rock Lake: western cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin, black moccasin or black snake; Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma), timber rattlesnake (a.k.a. canebrake rattlesnake; Crotalus horridus), and copperhead—both the southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) and the broad-banded copperhead (a.k.a. Texas copperhead; Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus).

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener), western diamondback rattlesnake (a.k.a. Texas diamond-back; Crotalus atrox), massasauga (a.k.a. black rattler or black massasauga; Sistrurus catenatus) and pigmy rattlesnake (a.k.a. ground rattlesnake, eastern pigmy rattlesnake or bastard rattlesnake; Sistrurus miliarius)—the other four venomous species in the area—I have yet to see around the lake.  ‘Yet’ being the operative term.  (I have seen those species elsewhere.)

Before anyone panics, however, I should point out that there are more than 30 species of nonvenomous snakes in the region.  The odds of an everyman seeing a venomous snake remain small; most people will never see more than a nonvenomous serpent.  Unless you’re like me, always looking, always walking, always exploring.  Then the odds change.  Hence my care when in the wild.

Nevertheless, I’ve had close calls.  A cottonmouth sunning in a field dashed across my foot when a couple of dogs approached from the opposite direction (the canines were dragging their human pets behind them); the snake approached before I could move, so I froze in place so I’d be less of a threat.  One of the copperheads I ran into in the fish hatchery had been hiding beneath a log; I kicked the log as is my usual practice, but the snake surprised me by moving toward me rather than away from me—and we came quite close to a physical meeting.

But those experiences cover 20 years of in-depth daily exploration of the park.  I can’t imagine anyone else having the same issue or having to worry about it.  The odds simply don’t support concern, especially since the lake has no existing reports of anyone being bitten by a venomous snake.  Too much human activity keeps the snakes hidden and confined to areas where people don’t go (except people like me).

So why the serpent stats?

The other day when afternoon temperatures soared and a clear sky offered nothing but constant sunshine to bathe the earth, I strolled through the woods along Dixon Branch, flicking ticks off my legs and battling a few early mosquitoes.  Then I reached a riparian clearing and stepped to the edge of the creek.  When I shifted my weight and leaned a wee bit closer to a bramble of vines and thicket, a very large snake erupted from beneath the verdant cover.  It slid down the embankment and hit the water’s surface with a splash.

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) floating in a creek (2009_06_06_022468)

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer).  It had to be six feet/two meters long at least.  And it had been hiding in the brush not an arm’s length away from me.  Oops.

A diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer) swimming away from me (2009_06_06_022471)

The moment I swung the camera toward where it paused in the water, it took off swimming away from me.

Though nonvenomous, water snakes have a terrible disposition and a tendency to bite first and ask questions never.  Given their size and strength and the backward-angle of their teeth (evolved for catching slippery prey like fish in the water), they can do appreciable physical damage.

It goes without saying that I had been foolish.  Winter’s dearth of snakes—this year being more pronounced than any year since 1983—had lulled me into a false sense of security, or at least a stupid sense of ignorance.  My frightened serpentine friend gave me a surprise that served to remind me that the season has come for snakes, therefore it behooves me to act in accordance with that realization.

Because next time it might not be a nonvenomous reptile and it might not be so inclined to run away from such a nearby and easy mark.

21 thoughts on “Of serpentine surprises”

  1. Looks like you had a close miss! Snakes, though beautiful, do scare me…when I lived in Abu Dhabi, I would often encounter various snakes in the compound I lived in. Species like sand snakes and malpolons would slide off into the sand as soon as I approached but the sand vipers had other ideas – they would rise up and hiss – truly terrifying!

    1. Thankfully I’m not frightened by snakes, Marie-Ann, though I do respect them given we have a good diversity of venomous species. But ultimately I’m captivated by them and spend a good deal of time trying to find them (in unobtrusive ways, that is). Still, this close encounter reminded me that it’s time to be careful and mindful because they’re out there.

  2. What a gorgeous animal! Beautiful coppery eyes.

    I’m lucky here…there are no venomous snakes in my area at all. We do have water snakes (whose cantakerousness seems to be a family trait…I’ve been bit by a few) and they’re great at waiting until the last possible moment to burst out of a hiding place near the water and scaring the pants off you (also a family trait, it would appear).

    I watch for snakes, but not in the careful manner you describe. Once, while leading a class of fourth-graders on a hike in a national park, I was distracted by a lovely warbler in the bush to my right and was just about to point it out to the children…when the one beind me screamed “SNAAAAKE!”. Snake indeed! I had just stepped right over a five-foot-long black rat snake basking on the path; our largest and most threatened species in the province. They are beautiful and have nice dispositions; it allowed me to pick it up and let the kids have an up-close look before we set him back in his sunbeam.

    I was a little more cautious about watching my step after than experience.

    (I am still green with envy over all the wildlife/flora you’re getting right now…I think I’d even take the ticks!)

    1. Wow… I’m just trying to imagine living somewhere that has no venomous species, TGIQ. Were it not for those who are dangerous, I wouldn’t be as careful as I am.

      What a cool tale! Of course I laughed about someone screaming “Snake!” because that seems so universal (since most people fear them, that reaction comes easily). I’m thrilled to hear it turned into a good learning and exposure opportunity for the kids.

      I admit there are times when I don’t like living here (e.g., when it’s hot as hell in summer!), but the early start to spring and late end to autumn give us a fantastic abundance of nature to enjoy.

  3. I seem to be missing whatever gene makes people scared of snakes, so it’s probably just as well that with the exception of the adder, venomous varieties are absent from the UK.

    When my father was quite elderly he and I were walking along the ridge of a hill when my two dogs, Holly and Rugrat, very cautiously approached an adder basking on the path in the sun. The dogs, with no experience of snakes, nevertheless showed a healthy respect, though clearly they were extremely curious. I trusted their instincts to keep sufficient distance between themselves and the snake, and they did. But my father, when he saw what lay ahead, started exhibiting the most astonishing behaviour. His eyes became wide with horror and he simultaneously hopped from foot to foot while bending his body closer to the ground in order to make himself smaller. If you can imagine a nervous chimpanzee in the same circumstances then you’ll get the picture. He was distressingly agitated, making little runs and retreats at the snake trying to get the dogs away. His hands kept clutching the top of his head. His voice rose to a squeak. I called the dogs and reassured him. The snake lazily uncoiled and slid into the grass. We waited for a few minutes but there was no getting my father any further along the path. All my reassurances that there would not be battalions of adders lying in wait along it in readiness to attack, fell on deaf ears. His composure had fled and there was nothing for it but to head for home.

    Later he explained to me that when he was a boy he’d sat on the low stone ruins of a farm outbuilding, only to discover with a squirming sensation beneath the seat of his pants that he’d made himself comfortable on a nest of baby adders! The young ones have a venom just as strong as the adults, though of course their mouth parts are small. He wasn’t bitten. But he believed that he’d used up all his luck with adders on that long-ago day, and he was taking no risks with them now he was in his eighties. In all other respects he was a man at ease with and knowledgeable about the natural world. But that ease didn’t extend to snakes! No sir! He had no curiosity about them and didn’t even want to think about them.

    Yours was a beauty Jason. What luck to have been ready with your camera. Well done.

    1. Thank you, Clive! And I’m missing that gene, too. Neither of my parents fear snakes, so I’m pretty sure that helped.

      Your father’s adder story is delightful! Indeed he was lucky they were young, but I can just imagine that moment of discovery when he realized what he’d done. I wonder if that was the first step he took toward fearing snakes. (I’m no expert, but my impression is that most kids don’t fear snakes or anything else until they grow older–then the phobias set in.)

    1. Too cute, Amber! I think the weather this weekend might interfere with your plans to see a snake (looks like it’ll be too cool), but it warms up again Monday–with plenty of sunshine to boot. Just keep this in mind: it’s warming up fast and soon you’ll have to work at not seeing a snake when you’re out walking.

      1. Well, the field trip has been canceled. I can’t believe it – we have a 50% chance of snow tomorrow night. Argh! I just saw a frog in my little pond today (leopard frog, I think) – I hope he/she can get somewhere safe before the temp drops. Geeze!

        1. I’m laughing at the 50% chance, Amber! How’d that work out for you? Up to maybe six inches or so? What an interesting way to welcome the official start of spring.

          1. I just sat down at my computer after spending the morning gazing out in awe at the, yes, 6in or so. Wow – and I’m hearing a cardinal singing outside my window right now!

  4. Somehow, I think I managed to acquire everyone’s Fear-of-Snakes Gene. I’m not the type who screams “Snake!” or engages in any physical histrionics though; when I see a snake it’s a relatively quiet event. First comes the head-to-toe psychosomatic paralysis. Then I wet myself.

  5. What a wonderful specimen! And such great photos!

    Our lake level is low for maintenance this year so I’ve been missing our water snakes. In normal years, a relatively young snake swims along the lake shore, past the boat launch to the dock just on the other side. It lurks around the dock for unsuspecting prey. You can set your watch by it.

    1. Thank you, Joan! And your predictable snake sounds like a real joy, though the low lake level is worrisome. Hopefully the snake has moved to deeper waters for a spell.

  6. Magnificent creature! The cave grrl in me would recoil at the first glance, I’m sure, but I hope the naturalist in me would come back for a good look.

    There are very few genuinely dangerous creatures in my farmlands and woods; perhaps poison ivy or a mis-step off a cliff is the worst of them. When I’m in a place with truly dangerous beasts, it changes the entire experience–not being utterly safe at the top of the food chain. I kinda like it.

    1. What a beautiful sentiment, Jain. How very true: Not being secure in the food chain does change how we look at nature, though I hadn’t quite put it together like that before. I know down on the coast in the presence of alligators longer than my car that I’m always more observant, and the same is true here in Dallas with the venomous snakes and in the deserts to the west with the cougars. Amazing that the lack of safety really does make us look with different eyes.

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