by Brady Raymond
Yes, snakes. “isn’t this a mushroom blog?” Yeah, it’s a mushroom blog but Deviating From The Norm can be a good thing once and awhile especially when you find yourself in drier regions with few mushrooms around. Snakes have certainly been on my mind lately and I hope they will be on your mind too this spring. I grew up in Michigan, (southern lower peninsula) and every summer I would catch snakes, almost exclusively Garter Snakes, but I did see a few Water Snakes, Racers, and Hog-Nosed Snakes. Once I even found a small Milk Snake. I was young but I remember being extremely excited, they are such beautiful snake and rare in at least my experience. My dream snake, however, was always Rattlesnakes. I had dreams of the South, more specifically the Southwest. The desert seemed so exotic compared to my Midwestern home and that is where as a youngster, I imagined all the Rattlers were.
Ironically, there are Rattlesnakes in Michigan. My Grandfather and other old-timers I knew would talk of the little buggers being under piles of hay around the farm and near to swamps, which is what Michigan mostly was a century ago. The Rattlers found in Michigan are the Massasauga Rattlesnakes and I have only seen the shed skin of one brought to school by a classmate. I imagine they were mostly wiped out by the farmers as more land was converted to agriculture and then to housing. If there are any in Michigan now, they are most likely confined to the thickets, marshes and swamps where folks rarely venture.
I’ve spent some time down in the Southeast and Southwest too, yet I have never stumbled across a Rattlesnake, and trust me when I say I was looking for them. I’ve turned over plenty of rocks and logs in my day (always turn them back the way you found them) but I was never lucky enough to spot one of these beauties, until now.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen three of these amazing creatures, Crotalus viridis oreganus on two separate outings. Anyone who read my article Hunting Mushrooms In The Desert has probably seen the image I captured of the first snake. Composition-wise I was happy with the photo but it was a bit grainy as I used a phone camera zoomed in to photograph the snake deep underneath brush. I was happy to see it, but I was left a little disappointed, in that I wasn’t able to get a better shot.
A week went by and we headed back to the same trail, I was hoping to see more Rattlers and I was better equipped this time too, well, kind of. I had dusted off my thirteen-year-old Fuji S-9000 with a 28-300mm lens. It’s got decent glass but only nine megapixels. I figured the extra reach of the 300mm lens would be enough to get a shot deep into any brush if I needed and a little more safely too. Now we just had to find one.
And what would you know, just a few hundred yards into the hike near to where we spotted a Rattlesnake the week prior, we took sight of yet another (pictured at top). He slithered his way through the grass and coiled up in a striking pose protected from behind by brush and in front by venomous fangs. They aren’t particularly fast moving compared to some other snakes, relying mostly on their rattle and brightly colored tails to ward off potential predators but they can strike lightening fast and are best-given space for those unfamiliar with the snake’s capabilities. I snapped a few photos then packed up and moved on to look for more.
The second Rattler we ran into was just as we were getting to the end of the trail. It slithered into a thicket, then up onto and over some small branches where I proceeded to photograph it. This specimen’s markings were more subdued, yet, had a distinctive greenish hue and was quite striking, hence their scientific name “viridis” meaning green in Latin. The creature allowed me to photograph it for a minute or so and seemed rather calm tucked away in the thick brush of safety.
So, of the three Rattlesnakes I’ve now seen, none have been aggressive and all have alerted us to their presence via their rattle. Most people’s fears are unwarranted as the snakes would prefer to be left alone and only strike if goaded to do so. The exception would be young Rattlesnakes, who are more inexperienced and liberal both in biting and venom injection. Many times if an adult Rattler strikes it’s just for show, trying to scare you away. Their venom is a valuable resource that needs to be dispensed carefully. Much like young humans, the young Rattlesnakes can be a bit reckless especially in their venom delivery.
When you’re in Rattlesnake country pay attention to where you put your hands and feet. Listen for their rattle, if you hear one keep any children close and leash your dog. Try to identify it’s location and if you don’t like snakes avoid it. If you do like snakes take a look but keep your distance. I doubt that your first encounter would soon be forgotten if you chose to push the limits and were to get tagged.
What’s that? Rattlesnakes aren’t your thing. How about the four foot Racer Snake, Coluber constrictor, also known as the Western Racer, pictured above and below? These snakes are uniformly gray, olive or tan with a bluish hue running along their lower sides and a yellowish belly. These are what we called Blue Racers back home in Michigan (subspecies, Coluber constrictor foxii) being darker in color, either way, they are fast, as their name implies. This one gave me a bit of a fright as I was walking our trails one morning at home. It was sunbathing on a brush pile and blended in so well as to be almost invisible to my eyes. As I walked by it slithered away at an incredible speed but I saw just enough of it to know what I had witnessed.
I’ve seen a couple of immature Racers in my yard, or what I was fairly certain were Racers. Young Racers have a splotchy patterning similar to a young rattlesnake, but as it grows the Western Racers becomes a more uniform color in age. Seeing this adult confirmed my identification earlier of the young snakes but now I have seen both juvenile and adult and still no photos. So I walked back to the house and grabbed my camera, I would be prepared this time. I walked right past the brush pile, I figured I’d finish my walk and then upon return, I would sneak up and see if the snake was back to bask on the sun-washed tangle of limbs.
As I got to the other end of the property I checked under an old piece of plywood to look for any snakes holed up there. As I lifted the 4×8 foot board I was greeted by a young Racer, this one being still on the small side but uniform in color like the adults. Of course, once again I was unprepared, my camera tucked away in its bag. Before I knew it the young racer was gone, and I left with just a snippet of memory, it might as well of been a ghost. Once again I had missed yet another opportunity to photograph this beautiful species of snake.
I turned around and headed back for home, disappointed in my foolishness. As I got closer to the first brush pile I slowed down and reached for my binoculars. I scanned the pile, I had a feeling the snake would be back. And there it was, the adult Racer, lolling in the warmth of the sun once again right in front of me. This time I’d be ready.
I checked all my camera settings to make sure I was set up for the shot. I approached slowly, cautiously and nervous that I’d blow it again. I got closer and closer firing off shots that I hoped could be cropped down so as to enlarge the snake in the final image. To my surprise, the snake stayed still seemingly unafraid. This encounter took place before I had broken out the Fuji with its 300mm lens. I was using my Canon with a 55mm lens and I had to close the gap, it was essential to getting the shot. I moved to within a couple feet of the serpent, but it decided that was close enough and in a gray flash, it was gone. I was pretty sure I had gotten a decent shot though, it turns out I got two.
If you’ve ever seen a snake in Washington, odds are it was some kind of Garter Snake. Garter Snakes are highly variable in both color and pattern, they are wide-ranging among the lower forty-eight states, and apparently parts of Alaska. There are a variety of Garter Snakes in the Pacific Northwest and many are isolated to more specific regions of the state. In general, however, they tend to stick near to water bodies and riparian zones often basking in the grass or on rocks and logs.
I believe the Garter Snake photographed above is a Common Garter Snake, of the Valley Garter subspecies, Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi. I see these snakes on almost a daily basis around my house however, when I went out to photograph some for this article they were nowhere to be found. My patience thankfully paid off though and the next day I was able to capture a few shots.
I knew that Garter Snakes tended to hang out at the end of my driveway where a pile of rocks is loosely assembled and a few of them being partially covered by earth. The snakes warm themselves on the rocks in the morning but will quickly dive into the crevices if disturbed, wriggling their way into the subterranean protection and out of reach or photograph. As not to spook them I used the same method as with the Racer. I slowly approached the rock pile and from a bit of a distance, I glassed the rocks with my binoculars. I scanned the pile back and forth, looking for anything scaly and that’s where I spotted the side of a freshly molted Garter Snake protruding out just enough from the rocks as to give itself away.
I photographed its side poking out and kept creeping my way closer and closer. The snake eventually took refuge and I thought I had lost him. Without giving it much thought I walked up to the rock thinking the snake had disappeared deep into the cracks. I lifted the rock and was excited to find a group of five or six Garters all snuggled up together. The smaller snakes were on to me and quickly slithered away in all different directions, all heading down deeper to safety. The larger two snakes just lay there, presumably still cool from the waning morning, the suns rays taking longer to warm their larger adult bodies. I snatched up the duller of the two snakes pictured above, turned back over the rock and carried the snake a few feet away, where I could photograph the creature some more.
Many snakes will calm down fairly quickly if handled gently, but on a hot day, it’s good to work fast as they can overheat rapidly. Handling snakes gently also reduce the chance of getting bitten, an experience that is more startling than painful at least with Garter Snakes. Also, many snakes will often musk on a would-be attacker, as a defense mechanism. Gentle handling reduces your chances of this but not always.
Sometimes though, the snake gets away, like the Gopher Snake pictured above. I attempted to photograph this snake and it probably would have been in focus if I hadn’t knocked the aperture priority setting in the kerfuffle leading up to the shot. We came across this big guy only a couple of minutes after seeing a Rattler and although I knew almost immediately what it was, Pituophis catenifer or the Gopher Snake, I wanted to be sure before grabbing it. I must confess a bit of hesitancy too, due in part to its size, of what I estimated to be around five feet. It took shelter in a large bunch of grass, it’s amazing how fast a snake of this size can disappear. I gingerly prodded the grass with a stick but he had either found a hole or escaped out of sight as quickly no doubt as it took shelter.
Will I get another chance with a Gopher Snake? I sure hope so. Of the four species of snakes featured in this article, it is my opinion that the Gopher Snake is the most striking. Rattlesnakes still have a certain allure, kind of like the bad boy in school, dangerous but misunderstood. The Racers exhibit a certain grace with their smooth uniform appearance and there is always my nostalgia for the Garter Snakes I caught as a child back in the mitten. I guess that’s why I enjoy looking for snakes still to this day, it reminds me of the carefree days of my youth. I still get a good shot of adrenaline when I spot a snake and a nice dose of endorphins when the encounters are all done. So if you’re looking for a good time, try snaking.
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If you got this far, you must find snakes interesting too. Here are some resources for more in-depth and authoritative information about snakes.
Reptiles of the Northwest by Alan St. John/Lone Pine
Burke Museum Links