Friday, October 10, 2008

Den of Snakes

We do not have a shortage of snakes.
In fact, Black Rat Snakes are often seen cruising our property--the fields, woods and outbuildings in this rural area providing plenty of small rodents to keep them well fed.
We appreciate them for the work they do.
And know full well how quickly we’d be overcome, were they not around.

In the summer months, the long black adults are the most obvious—hanging around the yard and hunting in the tall grasses. But with the arrival of fall, so does the next generation--the little Black Rat Snake hatchlings.

In years past, I’ve encountered them on the front lawn on a warm October afternoon, spreading out from what I guessed to have been their nest in the hollow sycamore. Through the crunchy dry leaves the small gray-striped bodies scurried, finding shelter in the woods beyond or beneath the flat rocks of my garden.

I’ve uncovered clutches of empty eggs in my compost pile several times, too, in November, as we cycle the rich brown dirt onto the garden, and prepare to fill it with newly fallen leaves. Dozens of leathery shells, dry and curled.
The small snakes, long gone.

So, today, when I stumbled upon 3 in the course of sweeping porches and gathering sticks from the lawn, back to that compost pile I went—and gingerly examined the contents.

Lifting the dry top crust gently, I found a loose, damp layer below. And lots and lots of eggs.
Seven nests in all, each with 17-20. All already hatched, but one with hatchlings still present. Snuggled together in the soft dark earth directly beneath it, wrapped in each others' gray-striped tails.

Black Rat Snake eggs in nest

hatchling emerging from dirt

hatchlings in nest below eggs

I do not see a shortage of snakes in our future.

newly hatched Black Rat Snakes with their eggs

Black Rat Snake hatchling and eggs

all photos click to enlarge

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Unknown said...

Snakes and spiders have never bothered me. But pythons loose in the Everglades do. As long as we have a shortage on them ... at least in the Everglades!

Ruth said...

Your post and the amazing pictures almost want to make me like baby snakes. But I would always be wearing boots in your yard. Do you still have your wall snake? I have never forgotten that story!

Unknown said...

Nina, what fantastic photographs! I'm jealous-excuse me while I go dig up my compost pile!

Susan Gets Native said...

Wow. They are really cute when they're babies!
And snakes make good raptor food (had to put that in, of course).

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Robert--loose pythons would creep me out, too. Thankfully these constrictors never "bother" us. We've become very good neighbors.

Ruth--yes! we still have Fred--and hear him slither from time to time. If I had to wonder about any poisonous snakes, I might no be so relaxed about it. What we have here are harmless to humans, so when I discover one, there's no fear of a

Pam--go take a look, but don't use a shovel or you may end up hurting them. I dug in sideways, instead of from the top down. The crumbly matter just fell away, exposing eggs and snakes in a pocket below. (and I put it all back when I was done snooping)

Susan--yep, raptor food for sure. Which is why 100+ babies isn't sending me out for an exterminator! These guys have it hard enough just getting across a road without some bozo running them down. In our yard, they're very welcome.

KGMom said...

Nina--I went back and re-read your previous snake stories and noticed Ruth's comment on the Fred story. Also her comment on this one about how she never forgot the Fred story.
I suspect Ruth and I share a common reason for being somewhat leary about snakes. Since Ruth & I both grew up in southern Africa, we learned that you assume any snake is poisonous.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Kgmom--exactly! It's always better to err on the side of caution.
When we've traveled to other areas, my first question before trotting off into the brush is, "do you have any poisonous snakes here?" And, then I grab my boots and keep my fingers out of places I cannot see!
I might not be so bold if I lived in Julie's area!

Gemma Wiseman said...

I am afraid any snakes really creep me out! When I lived in Tasmania, we had tiger snakes and whip snakes on our property! We never walked around with sandals on our feet! Interesting post!

Rose said...

I bet you don't have a problem with mice!

Wendy said...

I love this. I am not so lucky to live in an area where I can expect to even see, let alone have little hatchling snakes around. Now Katydids, that's another story. :)

SLW said...

Nina-- wonderful post and photos! Lucky you, and smart moms; a compost pile is perfect for incubating... I like picture 3 especially, as if they're heading N-S-E-W, except E-W is only one baby...

Well done! We see occasional baby racers here, but no nests. Are these related to bull/gophers (Pituophis)?

ratmammy said...

wow!! lots of snakes for sure... i am afraid of them, moreso than spiders........

Christy said...

wonderful pictures. I have had a curiosity about the black rat snake since seeing one on display at a nature center that we visited a while back. I find snakes to be fascinating creatures. I'm not afraid of them but they do startle me when I come across one mainly because they move so fast and I only catch that glimpse of them. I might be more leary of them had I a need to worry about whether they were poisonous or not. I think that is why I don't mind them so much. Now spiders are a whole other story. I don't like any of them.

Cicero Sings said...

What a find! What a neat photo op! I'm always amazed what you unearth.

Unknown said...

This is a fascinating post! I wouldn't be worried about having snakes around but I would be worried about what my dogs would do to it if they found one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nina, Thanks for posting such a great article on the rat snake. Along with super photos of course.

As a birder and major Bluebird enthusiast (I am the Shasta County Coordinator for the California Bluebird Recovery Program) I just wanted to make people aware of the danger that Black Rat Snakes pose to bluebird and other nestlings raised in artificial nest boxes.

Anyone with nest boxes up on their property needs to have predator guards in place to protect the birds they are trying to help.

If you live in the Eastern U.S. and have birdhouses up, please read this article on predator guards and make sure you have one in place.

I love birds and I love snakes. We have rattlers here in Northern California and they help keep our rodent population down. So do the hawks and owls and other birds of prey. Even though rattle snakes are poisonous, we have a live and let live policy on our property.

Nature is a glorious and wondrous thing and it only seems to go awry when humans get in the way. I could go on and on but I just wanted to make sure that folks know about the predator guards to protect our nesting birds.

bobbie said...

Wonderful shots, Nina. Love the one of all of them twisted together.

Kelly said...

Great post! Very interesting post! I'm not a snake lover, but this was really good!

Michele said...

Wonderful post and fantastic photos.. very intriguing. That last photo is excellent!!
Mountain Retreat

Cathy said...

I don't particularly care for snakes, but your post almost made me change my tune. Thanks so much for sharing this!

Carletta said...

Hi Nina,
An amazing post! I wouldn't have been able to get these excellent shots.
Well done!

Jeanne said...

You wouldn't catch me getting as close as you to get these photos but I appreciate your efforts and found them very interesting.

Misty DawnS said...

These photos and this entire post are AMAZING!!! WOW - this is such a fantastic series of photos - I'm speechless. Thanks for sharing this!

Carole said...

Wonderful! I actually like snakes as long as they aren't poisonous and headed in my direction.

Anonymous said...

That's a first for me! Snake eggs. Who would have thought? I don't know where I thought snakes came from - actually I never thought beyond "snakes shed their skins and can be venomous". Absolutely intriguing to see all that happening.Wow.Half a century old and I never knew all that!!

Sandy Kessler said...

yes you have a few !!! sandy

Susie said...

There's just something about snakes that I can't stand. They make my skin crawl just seeing them.

magiceye said...

love the last pic! its absolutely super!!

♥ mommy author ♥ said...

this is a great entry! aren't you afraid of them?
anyways, here is mine..

Jackie said...

Wow, those baby snakes must be amazing to see in person. I've never seen a nest of snakes before, except in images.

swamp4me said...

Positively beautiful. The mortality rate is quite high for hatchlings - such tasty tidbits for other critters - so I'm delighted to know that you provided a space for so many nests.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Greyscale--sure, if you've learned a healthy respect for poisonous snakes, you'd find it difficult to see them as anything else. But I bet a few positive experiences might change that!

Rose--nope, no rat problem around here! I'd choose snakes over rats any day!

Sparverius--no snakes in Utah? I'd think rattlers!

slw--what surprised me was to find them in a pocket like this--all coiled around eachother, but separate from their eggs. I wonder how long they cluster like this as a family before heading out into the world. I do not know if it is related to western snakes you see.

ratmammy--if you saw how docile these were, I'm sure you'd feel better about them. In fact, rat snakes make great pets, taming quickly and easily handled. (I'd prefer wild animals stay "wild", though) I often keep an adult for the day, when I find them--they're so neat to observe up close.

Christy--As with anything, we're all a bit standoff-ish until we can be sure we can't be hurt--I give spiders a big berth--a bite isn't something I need to experience first hand!

Cicero sings--Isn't it amazing how a quiet day can become such an adventure?!

faye--I'd imagine they might paw it to death--I think snakes are a natural concern for many animals.

Larry--I understand your concern for nesting birds. Of course, constrictors do climb and raid nests. But, interestingly enough, my nest boxes were raided by House Sparrows (invasives) this spring--never snakes.
And although I have relocated snakes from trees where there are nestlings I'm watching, I'd rather have the natural scenario than the invasive one, any day!
Snake baffles would be a responsible setup for a bluebird nest-box program.
Just don't kill the snakes, PLEASE!

Bobbie--I wish I could have captured all as soon as I discovered them--they weren't too cooperative about staying put for the group photo!

Kelly--I know not everyone will find them as fascinating as I do--just taking the time to understand them is great!

Michele--the hatchlings have so much personality. That little guy kept his eye on me and my camera!

Cathy--they grow on you--be careful!

Carletta--managing the camera in the midst of a dirty pile of debris was the trickiest part--trying to keep camera clean and being up to my armpits in dirt!

Jeanne--I'm glad you enjoy--pictures bring closeups to those who wouldn't be able to see in person!

Misty Dawn--maybe not your typical "critter", but that's how my life is!

Carole--I'm with you--the poisonous ones deserve lots of space!

Pam--yes, eggs! For at least some--others have live young. And you're right about the skins--lots of shedding going on around here! And no venom in these--they're constrictors. Glad I got you thinking!

Sandy--yes, a few, at the very least!

Susie--I think a lot of that comes from imagination. In person, they're really very smooth and sleek--nothing slimy or gross about them. Way cool.

Magiceye--thanks--I liked that one, too.

mommyauthor--I know they can't hurt me and are a very important piece of our ecosystem. It's sort of like a mutual respect, not fear.

zhakee--me, either, until this year. I wonder now how many use this site as a nesting spot. I only looked through half of it and found 7 nests! I guess the idea of their return to the place of their birth actually is the case! I'll have to be more observant in late spring next year!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

swamp4me--I would imagine it must be high--we find many dead on the roads, too. I'm afraid many try to hit them, thinking they're killing something dangerous.
I'm hoping showing their "cute" side, changes that.

Gretchen said...

That's a great series of photos! I do not like snakes. They are perfectly welcome to live anywhere they wish as long as they are nowhere near me.

Celeste said...

What a wonderful find. I have a Black Rat Snake in my care at the Museum and she is a delightful creature. It is so refreshing to read someone who realises the worth of having such great ophidian neighbours.

A Colorful World said...

These guys are pretty cute! And I never thought I'd say that, but they6 just are! Hey, I just wish I knew more about the different kinds so I wouldn't get worried when I see a snake...if it isn't poisonous, I want to be happy he's around.

When our daughter was small we found a tiny little snake with the red black and yellow stripes and since red was touching black, we knew he was OK, and we brought him in the house to show our daughter. After handling him for about ten minutes, though, the little guy had had enough and hauled off and bit my husband on the web of his thumb. We put him outside quickly! Then started wondering...uh, what if we'd made a mistake....but of course, we hadn;t. :-)

Mary said...

Oh, Nina! I've seen many black rat snakes around my house - even on the front porch! Is this what lies in my crawlspace, perhaps? Or under my hydrangeas? Oh, my...

Shall I look for them? Maybe not...:o)

Grrrreat post!

Tootie said...

A very interesting post. I loved the photos you took of their nests. I hadn't realized that they would nest that far down in a pile like that. You must have a shortage of rats there. :-)

Lisa at Greenbow said...

This makes me want to go check my compost pile. ha... Great photos Nina.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Extremely interesting post and great photos. However, I shall be quite wary while investigating the compost pile.

Julie Zickefoose said...

Absolutely amazing. Who has ever seen, much less photographed, such a gorgeous thing? Only you, Nina. Only you.

Baffles make snakes good neighbors to bluebirds. We welcome them in our yard and garage, secure in knowing that they can't get up the bluebird box conduit thanks to the stovepipe baffles we install on every box. But they're hard on the wild birds nesting in shrubs, that's for sure.

We're enjoying little patterned babies here, too, but haven't been lucky enough to find a nest. Wait until you see what Chet Baker thinks of baby rat snakes!

Gorgeous post.

Seabrooke said...

Stunning photos, Nina! Wouldn't it be neat to have families of rat snakes hatching in the compost pile. And what a funny coincidence that we should write about it at the same time - your photos are better, though!

Kyle said...

"Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?" (In my best Indiana Jones voice.)

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Julie--I bet you've done the same, or close to it! Though, the possibility of finding copperheads makes your life a bit wilder than mine!

Seabrooke--I was surprised at the timing, too--thinking you'd be more behind our season of hatching. I think of snakes as being a more southern find, but know you must have your share in Canad, too.

Mary--yes, please do! That one that crawled across your porch last summer had to have come from somewhere! :-)

Anonymous said...

Nice shots! My very first entry is up as well. Take care!

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