Garter snakes

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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin’s reptilian neighbors are soaking up all the sun they can these days, before curling up to sleep underground through the long winter.

(Levin) I have been fond of snakes since boyhood. I grew up with garter snakes in the bushes around our house, in the vacant lot down the street, and in the weedy fields adjacent to Durinheim’s Nursery. Once, in urban Hempstead, while I was waiting for my mom outside a doctor’s office, a garter snake zipped across the front lawn and disappeared into an overarching sticker bush.

I caught ribbon snakes, water snakes, black snakes and milk snakes in the woods behind the synagogue. DeKay’s snakes beneath planks and signs. Across the bay at Jones Beach, where the sandy soil swarmed with Fowler’s toads, I caught hognose snakes, non-poisonous Oscar winners of the herp world: when threatened a hognose organizes itself into tight coils, flattens its neck, cobralike, and strikes with inaccurate abandon. When that ruse fails, the snake rolls over and plays dead, forked tongue lolling from it’s mouth, a sight that would impress an opossum.

To introduce my boys to the joys and mysteries of reptiles I have been catching and marking garter snakes for more than ten years. Whenever we catch a garter, we weigh it, measure it, and sex it, and then clip a belly scale, which is completely harmless to the animal and gives the snake a permanent a scar. Marking a snake is like banding a bird, except for the spilt drop or two of blood.

We log the data, which includes capture site, weather conditions at the time of capture, and unusual marks – missing tip of tail or healed wounds, a white rather than a yellow mid-dorsal stripe. We also note if the snake’s eyes have a blueish cast, which means it’s about to shed its skin.

Like bird banders, we rarely get re-captures; but when we do the boys broadcast exuberence. Then, out comes log book: How much has it grown? How far has it traveled? (According to our limited re-captures, garter snakes grow quickly and stay put.) One snake, a 30-inch male, the second largest we’ve ever caught, sunned itself on the same cluster of rocks for three days before leaving on a hunting foray somewhere beyond the wall.

I suspect there is a lot of predation in the garter snake world and that our neighborhood population turnsover rather quickly. Broad-winged hawks and barred owls, skunks and foxes dine on snakes. Infant garter snakes look a lot like worms and would appeal to worm-eaters, such as robins, crows, and grackles – even short-tailed shrews and chipmunks. (A friend once watched a chipmunk eat a
ring-necked snake, which it held in its front paws and consumed head first, piece by piece.)

There are always surprises. Recently, Jordy and William caught a plump female garter snake, 24-inches long, on the stonewall adjacent to our upper pasture, a prime, sunny location. Two days later, she gave birth to 15 snakelets, which we
released along with Mom.

As summer turns into autumn, I expect to find more garter snakes on the stonewall, sprawled on the warm rocks. Then one day, like the very season itself, they’ll disappear. They’ll spend the winter snug underground, not to emerge again until spring.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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