A Glimpse of Nature -- More Reptiles

Remember the swimming garter snake that headlined our March 30th post? Since that time, readers have shared sightings of two more snake species.


April 5, Hanson

Courtesy:  Louis Vanrenen


First, we have an image of a young snake basking on a beam above a pond. According to the observer, the coiled snake was less than three inches across. It is patterned with dark bands on a lighter background. A closer look reveals keels, that is ridges, on each scale.


Several common Massachusetts snakes exhibit similar patterns when young, but this combination of bands, keels, behavior, and location points to northern water snake.   Indeed, in this location,  iNaturalist observers report twice as many water snakes as garter snakes!  

The adult northern water snake is a large, heavy-bodied animal up to four feet long. While its coloration is variable, it is typically dark with an indistinct pattern. It’s an excellent swimmer that hunts frogs and fish. Not surprisingly, people see this semi-aquatic animal most often when it basks on surfaces near the water such as banks, rocks, bridge supports, or beaver lodges. In spring, snakes bask “most of the day” according to herpetologist, Tom Tyning. They need to maintain their body temperature even when the air is still cool. Now is a fine time to look for snakes while they soak up the sun. As spring progresses, watch for mating behavior which peaks in late May/early June. Thereafter, the water snakes will feed and grow until late summer when the females give birth to live snakelings.

Our second image depicts a long, black snake moving through a dry thicket on a bright, sunny day.


April 10, Sharon

Courtesy:  Marion Wingfield


This animal is at least several feet long with smooth, matte black scales. The only snake in this area that fits this description is the black racer, also known as the North American racer. This is an active snake that reaches 3 to 5 feet and whose appearance is sometimes described as “satiny.” These diurnal animals utilize a variety of habitats including fields, hillsides, and rocky ledges where they hunt prey such as insects, bird eggs, mammals, and amphibians. MassWildlife’s Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Massachusetts explains how a black racer can hold down prey with a loop of its body, even though it is not a true constrictor.

A North Carolina Parks fact sheet describes this species as “very nervous, high-strung, and fast-moving.” The species is true to its name. In many cases, this snake will make a hasty exit when approached. If it feels threatened, however, the black racer can employ defensive strategies that frighten or offend the intruder. One of these caught our observer’s attention:  tail rattling. “Snakes of Massachusetts” notes, “Rattling their tails among dry leaves, racers can sound convincingly like rattlesnakes.” How disappointing to discover that one’s rattler was an impostor!

Black racers also mate in spring, but female racers lay eggs rather than bear live young.

As you head out in search of snakes, as I’m sure you will, keep in mind their food and habitat preferences and their habit of basking on sunny days. Websites by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and UMass Amherst provide a good overview of local species. Fourteen snakes are native to Massachusetts, though some are quite rare.  None of those you are likely to encounter will be venomous. Many are small; all seem to be shy. Once you find a snake, be mindful of its perspective: most animals don’t relish being grabbed by humans. Their first response will be to flee. Their next reaction might be to assume a hostile appearance, writhe, bite, or discharge some smelly musk. None of this is dangerous, but it may catch you off guard. If you’re not comfortable handling snakes, bring a camera. On second thought, bring a camera either way.

My goal is to see a different species this year, perhaps an eastern hognose or a ringneck snake. For those living in Easton, Borderland State Park provides suitable habitat for northern water snakes. You could also stumble upon a milk snake somewhere in town. Happy “hunting.” I’m eager for your photos!

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