Baby snakes

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(Host) This year we’ve had quite a bit of cold, wet weather – conditions that commentator Ted Levin says can be hard on some of our more reclusive wild neighbors.

(Levin) I wince when I recall the cool, rainy days of May and August. Of how my family traveled to Virginia in mid-May, ever so hopeful for a break from Vermont’s meteorological tongue-lashing. We dressed in shorts and short-sleeves; jackets idling in our mudroom. We arrived in Virginia and shivered for three days, then returned to weather so out of sorts I wondered if I needed to put the snowtires back on the van.

August was no better than May and perhaps even worse because it came on the heels of a lovely July – “your summer” as southern friends mercilessly say. Then, of course, there was September, purely and simply a gift from the weather Gods. Warm days, cool, starry nights, the incandescence of Mars burning a path across the heavens.

It was the warmth of late September that made me recall May and August. Annie was weed-eating, cutting around our front-yard maple. Inadvertently and with great remorse, she uncovered two clutches of milk snake eggs that lay incubating under a blanket of dark, warm mulch. Baby snakes scattered. Others, in the midst of slitting through their leathery egg-shells, continued their slow outward progress. The snakes represented the reproductive efforts of two female milk snakes, one per clutch. A sticky substance that had long ago dried, held the oblong eggs together, and gave each clutch the appearance of a batch of puffballs. We caught nine snakelets and put them in a terrarium, along with several scoops of mulch and all of the eggs, now mostly empty, for a brief viewing in our boys respective classrooms and then released them in the late September sunshine.

What struck me about the hatching snakes was that it was so late in the season. The cool temperatures of May and August must have prolonged incubation, because cold-blooded animals, like snakes, depend on the benevolence of the weather to drive their metabolic engines.

The point was reinforced two days later, when Annie and I joined Alcott Smith on the snake ledges in western Vermont. The sky was blue. By mid-afternoon, the temperature reached the low 70s, warming up the jumble of scree that the snakes call home.

Although we counted five new born timber rattlesnakes, Alcott speculated that some ripe females may enter hibernation without giving birth; by all herpetological accounts, spring birthing is an unusual occurrence.

In the oak and hickory woods above the ledge Alcott spotted a shiny, dark rattlesnake, etched with thin, yellow bands. The snake, which was en route to the ledges, lay coiled in a fractured beam of sunlight, luxuriating in the warmth of late September. Two days later, when Alcott went back. The rattlesnake had progressed a mere twenty feet, slowed by a hard, cool rain – its world slowed to a tick.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in hatural history. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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