Monday, September 20, 2010

Rattle and Kink

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."  Rachel Carson
Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta)
 The heat of a mid September sun was firmly clamped on the Walden Preserve in Salem, Connecticut. It was mid day and it was quite warm for the date. I had been feeling a bit beaten down by life recently, and not without good reason. I had also been ridiculously busy. The prior weekend I had taken my daughter and her friend Emily camping on Selden Island on the Connecticut River in Lyme. In order to do that, I had rebuilt a canoe the week before, designed and built a boat rack for my pickup truck (which I finished at 12:30 am the night before the trip), organized all the gear needed, loaded all the gear and three boats in the truck, paddled all the gear to Selden Island, set up camp, cooked all the girls meals, broke camp down afterward, loaded all the gear back into the canoe, paddled the gear laden canoe upriver to the boat launch (while the girls flitted by in agile kayaks), Loaded the truck back up, drove home, and unpacked,  cleaned, and put away all the gear at home. All this after working a full work week. Admittedly I love doing things for kids, but it had been a tough week. So today, with my daughter spending the day with her friend Rachel, I knew my psychological state was low and needed an immersion in the woods. So here I was, looking for Black Rat Snakes. That was why I was here at mid day, to increase my chances of finding these inky serpents soaking up the warmth of the sun.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). One of the beauties of Walden Preserve.

I had been walking the meadows and forest of the preserve for an hour or so, and I had been looking under rocks and logs for snakes of any sort, while singing Mark Knopfler songs to myself. This is the sort of behavior that can guarantee odd looks from passersby and the suspicious attention of law enforcement officials. This endeavor allowed me time to think about my trials and tribulations and to lose them in the forest, at least temporarily. However, my log and rock flipping would prove fruitless this day, well serpent-less anyway. I did unearth numerous Red-backed Salamanders, which I had to remove before replacing the rocks and logs, to avoid turning them into ex-salamanders. So, tiring of flipping things over, and liberally covered with the fecund earth of the forest floor, I decided instead to start walking hard and fast for the exercise. It wasn’t long before I was sweating liberally as well. It was at this point that I spotted a Black Rat Snake draped across a fallen log off the side of the trail. These beautiful black snakes are usually fairly slow and approachable. So slowing to a casual walk, I approached the snake with the expectation of simply picking it up. Apparently this individual fancied itself a track star however, and shot off at a pace that took me totally by surprise. Not one to be outdone, I sprinted after it. The snake was in its element and shot down a steep slope while winding through a maze of saplings and brush. As I ran through the undergrowth after it, and by “ran” I mean stumbled clumsily, I lunged repeatedly at its fast disappearing tail. Just when I thought it was mine, it was gone. I stood there, heart pounding, breathing hard, beaten in a race through the woods by a creature which had exactly no legs. Oh the indignation of it all.

Green Darner (Anax junius) Female. A common fall migrant dragonfly hawking prey over the meadows.
Accepting inglorious defeat, I continued on. I then happened upon a colleague from work who was walking with his two sons. They were admiring the recent gnawings of beavers on the local flora. I spent a few minutes talking with them and learning about air-soft guns and ferrets from the two boys. I think every boy should have air-soft guns and ferrets. Surely nothing could ever go wrong in a household with air-soft guns and ferrets? Well time was pushing on, as it is wont to do, so I said adieu and walked on. I was heading back to the parking area when I noticed a long black stick on the path ahead. It was an odd looking stick, it looked quite like another Black Rat Snake! A few years ago, my friend Hank Golet had sent me a picture of a Black Rat Snake he found in Old Lyme, which was doing an odd defensive/camouflage posture. It can only be described as “kinked.” I personally had never seen any of the numerous Black Rat Snakes I had come across do this, till today. There was this guy on the path ahead of me, and he was “kinked.” It was a nice sized adult, right around 5 feet in length, maybe an inch or two short of that.

Odd "kinked" behavior of Black Rat Snake.

Prepared for another possible dash, I approached the snake. This one however, remained motionless in its odd posture. I reached down, and as my hand approached the snake, the tail started to rattle among the leaf litter. This is another defensive bluff that several snakes perform, attempting to appear a Rattlesnake. Being just bright enough to know the difference, I was undeterred. I picked up the long ribbon of muscle that was the snake and felt its strength as it wrapped itself around my hand. The serpent made no attempt to bite me. Indeed, as I have experienced with Black Rat Snakes before, holding the snake’s head required just the lightest pressure. This species is generally quite easy and pleasant to handle. If I had relaxed my grip on a Northern Water Snake this much I would have been bitten in a heart-beat. Less than a heart-beat, actually. I draped the snake over my arm and as it wrapped itself tightly around my forearm, I felt the tail tip continue to vibrate against my skin, an odd feeling indeed.

The Black Rat Snake often offers little resistance to being held. My grip is very light. Try this relaxed soft touch with a Northern Water Snake and it will hurt your feelings!
The snake was still doing the false rattle with its tail while it was on my arm.
 The snake’s black tongue flicked in and out rapidly as it assessed its predicament. Contrary to popular belief, a snake’s tongue does not detect smells. The tongue is used to drag minute airborne particles to an organ in the roof of the snake’s mouth, called a “vomeronasal” organ, or "Jacobson's organ." This organ does the “smelling” and the tongue simply acts to bring the olfactory evidence to it. Much like how mammal’s use lungs to drag air to their olfactory organs.

Gathering data on its environment. The snakes tongue drags air particles to an organ in the roof of its mouth.
The scales around the snake's mouth have evolved to allow at least partial extension of the tongue without having to open the mouth.

I took a few minutes to photograph this denizen of the southern New England woodlands, and to appreciate its simple yet elegant beauty. I never tire of the silken feel of a large snake's skin. When I released it, it moved purposely, but not hurriedly, off into a trail side bush. It showed none of the speed of the previous snake that had left me in its dust. I wonder if that one has some Black Racer in it? I'd feel better if that were true!

Freedom. The Black Rat Snake heads for the hills.

It was time to head home. I had solved none of my worldly problems. But I was refreshed by my time in the woods. Feeling the snake constrict on my arm was like feeling the handshake of an old and dear friend. And of course, I now knew more about air-soft guns and ferrets. I wonder which of these I should get first?

To learn which snakes are present in southern New England, and some salient facts, download the Connecticut DEP publication "Snakes in Connecticut," at:

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