Plainbelly water snake (a.k.a. plain-bellied water snake; Nerodia erythrogaster)
Maligned and despised. Capable of eliciting schoolgirl screams and wild dances of avoidance from the manliest of men. Misunderstood, vilified, abused and even killed simply for being what it is. Nothing enlivens primal fear in Western cultures like a serpent.
Nature photography in the true wilds provides opportunity to sit, to watch and listen, to study, to capture imagery of the world’s full splendor. For that reason alone, walking around White Rock Lake demands I avoid crowds in order to see that which others miss. Yet doing so is as much a prerequisite for getting beyond the ubiquitous as it is a mechanism by which I protect the wonders that abound. Standing too long taking pictures of something draws attention to the subject; people see me and become curious, approach, gawk and ultimately disturb—or worse, hurt.
Those concerns are never truer than when it comes to snakes. Always poisonous. Always dangerous. Always villainous. So the masses believe anyway, at least those heavily influenced by Judaism and Christianity. These legless reptiles carry the burden of millennia painted with fear and hate.
Yet I share none of the terror that seethes and roils from the darkest reaches of Western mentality. To me, snakes embody profound beauty, patience, wisdom and enchantment. And not only because predators in general captivate me more than other creatures. No, snakes hold their own charm and power that I can scarcely explain.
Outside the purview of misguided civilizations I’m free to stop, to admire, to enjoy the encounter—even to seek guidance on how to locate such beasts. Within the confines of “informed” human habitation, though, I learned quickly many years ago that pausing near and focusing on a snake too often meant the snake’s demise—or at least its harassment. Nothing in nature deserves such treatment, so now when others are present I note the meeting, perhaps take a few quick pictures, then move on with haste. The animals deserve as much.
Humid, sunny and hot, the weather last Saturday offered a good variety of snakes at White Rock Lake. I walked for about five hours and came across seven different species, three of them venomous. In order of discovery (bold = venomous): plainbelly water snake (a.k.a. plain-bellied water snake; Nerodia erythrogaster), southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix), diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer), Texas garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis annectens), blotched water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster transversa), timber rattlesnake (a.k.a. canebrake rattlesnake; Crotalus horridus) and western cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma).
Regrettably, only two of them offered the opportunity for some photos; the others hid within impenetrable brush or scampered off too quickly, and in one case I refused to acknowledge the snake for fear of drawing the attention of a group of teenagers romping and playing nearby. (Not that I thought they’d pester or hurt it, but why tempt fate? The odds were not in the snake’s favor.)
All of these pictures came from the first snake I saw, the plainbelly water snake, and that encounter happened before the sun rose over the trees. I felt gifted for a moment free of meddlesome intervention and possible threats to the serpent’s life. If it understood its circumstances, it too would be thankful to have encountered nothing more threatening than me and my camera.