Ames Free Library

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A Glimpse of Nature - Common Garter Snake

See what’s happening on the grounds of the Ames Free Library or nearby areas with “A Glimpse of Nature.”  Offered by Lorraine Rubinacci, the library's resident naturalist, this weekly photo blog is a gentle reminder to enjoy the wonders that surround us.


A Glimpse of Nature - "Common Garter Snake"

Behind Queset Garden’s reflecting pool is a grassy path bordered by an inkberry hedge and a dense thicket leading down to a wet depression.  Tall grasses called Phragmites or common reeds tower over the depression.  As I reached this spot last week, I noticed something unusual through a gap in the vegetation.  It was small and stayed very still.

Although the garter snake is the most common snake in our area, I always feel lucky when our paths cross.  It is, after all, quiet and swift and somewhat camouflaged, and it would rather not be noticed by predators or prey.  I decided to do what the classic book, Sharing Nature with Children, calls “Still Hunting.” 

Though it prefers damp areas, this adaptable, small snake is frequently seen by people in backyards, forests, and fields, especially in spring when it first emerges from brumation, the reptile version of hibernation.  To become active, this cold-blooded animal must warm its body in the sun, which takes more time in the cooler spring months.  “My” snake was basking in a small clearing, soaking up the late afternoon sun. In summer, garter snakes bask in the cooler parts of the day.

Through my camera’s zoom lens, I could see some of the animal’s details:  its three yellow stripes against a dark background, the “keels” or ridges of its scales, its round pupils, and even the markings on the upper lip. It was, perhaps, 30 inches long.


After the morning bask, the “energized” snake heads out for breakfast, preferably earthworms, but it’s open to other options including insects, frogs, fish, slugs, rodents, leeches, and salamanders. It is a daytime predator that grabs small animals and, with jaws that open very wide, swallows them whole.  Queset Garden, you will recall, has a good supply of frogs and toads.

While basking is commonly observed, sometimes you will only get a glimpse of the animal retreating under leaf litter, for this species is preyed upon by larger animals including hawks, foxes, snapping turtles, herons, and domestic cats.  If caught by a predator (or a scary-looking human), the garter snake will secrete a foul-smelling musk to offend its attacker.  I can vouch for this.

Although these small reptiles are harmless to people, it might be more interesting to watch their behavior than to catch them.  With some patience and a non-threatening attitude, you will observe the animal living in its milieu, and it will notice you.  In A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles, Tom Tyning describes how a garter snake and a group of humans relaxed in each other’s company.  I, too, had the sense that this snake was curious about me.  It could easily have disappeared into the dense vegetation but instead it seemed to be observing me . . . with its scent-gathering tongue.  This 40-second video shows what you can see with a simple camera or pair of binoculars.  Yes, you need to watch the whole thing.

The garter snake’s sense of smell is important in detecting pheromones produced by other snakes and, I’ve read, in locating those earthworm meals. To learn more about this animal’s physiology and behavior, visit Animal Diversity Web or request one of the library books listed below. 

Just realize that, when you are in the field, you need to be alert to the unexpected.  I was looking for a turtle when I stumbled upon our friend.  This is what I saw when it first captured my attention:


At the Library

Massachusetts Snakes: A Guide

by Scott Jackson

Garter Snakes

by Van Wallach

A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles

by Thomas Tyning


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