Outdoor Walk, Friend Or Foe: What Do You See?

“Life in a box was unbearable.
How did humans stand it?”
– Patrick Jennings

Everyone has a snake story. Well, almost every person does.

Northern water snake, photography by Moo Dog Press Magazine.

If you saw this rather large snake sunning in a pile of leaves would you grab a hoe and chop it to bits or look on with a sense of wonder?

Meet the Northern water snake. (I think it may be one at least. Not venomous, but not a wimpy snake. Read on.)

According to Connecticut DEP, these reptiles are “widespread in Connecticut, flourishing in and near human-altered water bodies, including reservoirs and farm ponds. They are also found along streams and rivers, as well as wooded swamps and vernal pools. The only limiting factor to their distribution appears to be elevation. . . . many are killed each year in the mistaken belief that they are venomous.”

According to Yale Peabody Museum‘s online guide to reptiles and amphibians, the snake is “locally called the water moccasin and erroneously believed to be venomous. The species is not venomous, but will defend itself vigorously when cornered or captured. Defense may include defecation, spraying musk, biting repeatedly, and vomiting, but no venom. The species is generally very cautious and to avoid conflict will usually enter water on the approach of a human.”

Huh. Growing up in a neighborhood on the cusp of country (yet at the edge of suburbia), a joy of my own childhood included stories about snakes, real and imagined. The darned things were reportedly seen near springs, swimming in ponds, and “almost stepped on” while on hikes near trap rock ridges. They were always “real big.”

An old mountain where swimmers below would hear water snakes flop into the water. TW/MDP

In decades of walking, hiking, riding have encountered a few humans who were scary, but no native wildlife that wanted anything but to be left alone.

(I actually never did see a live snake in the wild until living in rural Florida. The cottonmouth snakes encountered while out riding the range were rather aggressive towards interlopers in their backwoods swamplands. They called for respect and got it.)

If you have a youngster in your life who loves the natural world and/or animals, consider encouraging that interest by visiting a nature center such as the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, a combination wildlife sanctuary, natural history museum, and educational facility in Mystic. The Connecticut Audubon Society Center at Glastonbury is another good place for field trips and programs – or just a walk among their many trail. Also wonderful, the offerings by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, or a visit to the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven.

To test your own ability to detect, say a copperhead, do an online image search. But be forewarned – when seeing a sizable serpent in real life, it’s truly something else.

During a pretty wonderful childhood in a noisy household with freedom to roam the farms and pastures and woods nearby (with dogs, rabbits, cats, a sheep, and an occasional pony or lost Holstein wandering in the yard), I lived with a passion for daily natural wonders. Anyone who has had the fortune to live in the country knows the sound of spring peepers and feel of frog jelly that turns into wriggling tadpoles. By carefully lifting stones there are salamanders of every hue and coloration patterns to see. There’s a reason that skunk cabbage is called by that name. And one memorable pretty white wildflower that had a tender stem, clasped by a single leaf – to my horror it bled red when I picked it. (Later, the flower was easy to identify by using a guidebook – it was bloodroot, an early springtime flower, native to Connecticut.)

Back to the snake. Seeing the critter was a chance encounter when my dog “pointed” it out as he marked a telephone pole (thanks Indy!) The sight jolted my senses; I thought “it’s a copperhead, a timber rattler.” Then, edging closer half in fear, more in curiosity, glad I carry a camera. (Note: This sighting was in 2012, when a cellphone camera was not the technological marvel of superb camera and video capabilities in an iPhone, 2017.)

After a trip home to upload the images and to try to truly identify the snake (have sent it off for positive ID), a return to the site was in order – with company this time. Sure enough, there the big snake, coiled and enjoying the sun and warmth near a rushing stream.

That was more than a few years ago. Though I often walk the same area, another sighting of the snake was not to be. To be fair, the site is much more popular – which may be a factor in snake sunning.

Point is, nowadays maybe prowling the swamps and fields is not such a common activity for most small fry. What a pity. There’s so much still to see (before all the land is engulfed by yards and controlled by chemicals) while out walking the landscape.

For identification search for Northern water snake or search “diamondback water snake.” Compare species to copperheads. Am still not 100 percent certain.

For salamanders, consult the wonderfully comprehensive Yale Peabody online directory for images and variations, habitats and life cycle information.

The one depicted on this page is a spotted salamander, a real gift to see in Killingworth, Connecticut – on old cement steps.

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