Recently I was rambling around in back of my house, on Oventop Mountain. In navigating the many fallen logs and piles of stones up there, I kept my eye out for snakes, although I thought it was still a bit early for them to be out. As much as I love them, I have no desire to step on them, for both our sakes.
A sunny afternoon, the temperature was in the low 60s, but a breeze made it seem cooler. I found a trail that led me to a forest glade with a brook running along its edge. With the trees not yet leafed out above, sunlight flooded the glade, and the brook was so inviting that I looked for a downed tree to sit on and relax for a while.
On such occasions, I try to find a tree with enough clearance between it and the ground that I can see under it, or one lying on the ground with no holes under it that could shelter a snake, such as the venomous timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Although not aggressive, this species, like most snakes, can defend itself when startled or threatened.
I saw the perfect tree — plenty of clearance between it and the ground, and no underbrush around it. It and another downed tree formed a “v” pointing away from the brook. As I made my way over to it, however, I noticed a large (about four-foot-long), thick-bodied, brown snake right in the center of the “v,” basking in the sunlight.
I froze, quickly checking for characteristics (points) to identify the species. I was thrilled to see such a large snake, but I’ve also learned from my snake-hunting days as a kid to be careful around them. The northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) was the only venomous one in the “wilds” of Fairfax County, where I grew up, and it is the only venomous snake, other than the timber rattler, up around where I live now. Like the rattler, it’s also not aggressive and will usually retreat if given the opportunity but can be dangerous if disturbed.
Both of these venomous species are thick-bodied and brown, but so is the harmless northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), which is easily confused as both and often pays a deadly price for the resemblance.
While Virginia’s endangered snake species are protected under the commonwealth’s Endangered Species Act, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ booklet, “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia,” none of the three species discussed in this column are endangered. However, the booklet says, “by state regulation, non-endangered snakes cannot be killed unless they are a nuisance or health hazard.” It acknowledges the important role snakes play in our ecosystems and agriculture, particularly in keeping rodent populations under control, adding “unless you have no reasonable alternative but to kill a snake, it should be left alone.” I totally agree.
The basking snake didn’t appear to have a rattle on its tail, and I heard no rattling. The cool temperature could have made the snake sluggish enough that it was just slow to respond and the tip of its tail was hidden under some dead leaves, so I couldn’t be sure it didn’t have one when I first saw it. And on occasion, rattlesnakes lose, or are born without, a rattle.
While color patterns vary among the three species, sometimes these patterns are often not distinct enough to rely on for ID, especially from a distance. With all wildlife, but especially potentially dangerous species, I try to figure out how close I can comfortably get to adequately observe and photograph them without disturbing them. With this snake, I carefully made my way around it, staying about 10 feet away, trying to get a better look and take photos.
I had recently bought a 100-millimeter macro lens, which was on my camera. While I would have preferred getting closer, or having a longer lens, to get the snake’s details, the macro’s focal length helped in getting good enough shots to confirm the snake’s species later.
In observing the snake, I briefly checked out the color pattern on the body, then looked closely at its head, which in most snakes have more telling ID points. The watersnake does not have the very broad, triangular head with heat-sensing pits behind the nostrils that marks the rattler and copperhead, both members of the venomous pit-viper subfamily of snakes. The northern watersnake’s nose is also rounder, while the nose of the other two snakes is flatter on top. And the watersnake has vertical stripes running across its mouth, which is lacking in the other two species.
Without getting too anthropomorphic, I have to say that the rattler has what I’d characterize as a fiercer look than the watersnake or, to a lesser extent the copperhead, because of the ridges above its eyes. The vertical pupils of the two venomous snakes also look scarier — more alien — perhaps because we primates have round ones.
Overall, I was pretty sure the snake I was looking at was a northern watersnake. But, as I normally do when I want to be sure of an amphibian or reptile ID, I headed online to the Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS) (virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com) when I got home. The site has some good snake-identification tools, which confirmed that the snake was indeed the northern watersnake.
I highly recommend learning about our local snakes, especially the two venomous ones in our area, to avoid interactions that can be dangerous on both sides. And knowing more about these ancient reptiles also helps in appreciating the vital role they play in our local ecosystems.
© 2016 Pam Owen
Pam Owen is a writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You may reach her at email@example.com
Resources for identifying Virginia’s snakes
VHS website tools: These include a list of snake species (“Snakes of Virginia”), with photos and other information, and the “Snake Identification Key.” The key walks the user through selecting ID points, including pupil shape; scale size, shape, and location; and color pattern. The key also has lots of photos, some comparing similar snakes side by side. To access either tool, click on the “Animals” tab at the top of any page and choose from the list that comes up.
“The Reptiles of Virginia,” by Joe Mitchell (includes a key on which the VHS key is based)
“Snakes of Virginia,” by Donald W. Linzey and Michael J. Clifford
“A Guide to Snakes of Virginia,” Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, available from VDGIF’s shopping website, shopdgif.com
“Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern/Central North America” (Peterson Field Guides), by Roger Conant and Joseph Collins
“A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles” (Stokes Nature Guides), by Thomas F. Tyning, which includes extensive information on the three snakes featured in this column
“The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians,” by John L. Behler