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). 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.
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.