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The Snakes in Our Gardens. Toads and Salamanders Too
Common Snakes in the New England Countryside
Our home in central Connecticut is surrounded by acres of mature woodlands and hillsides, with granite outcroppings that were carved sculptured by the retreating glacier of the last ice age. Filled with fallen timber and decaying logs, rocky ledges and loose stones, the woods are the perfect environment for snakes, toads, salamanders and lots of other birds and animals.
Shortly after moving into our home, we discovered a box turtle searching for slugs under some of the native blueberry bushes in the backyard. Since this initial visit, we've learned that box turtles are not very common in Connecticut, and the low population numbers continue to decline. Box turtles still make occasional appearances (one seemed to like our rain garden) but sightings are becoming fewer every year. I haven't seen a box turtle since last summer, and I'm hoping that there is still a remnant population of turtles in the area.
Wood turtles are another terrestrial turtle in our area, and we've found a few wood turtles over the years. "Old Red Legs" populations are also in decline, and though sightings of these interesting turtles are not very common, last spring we found a juvenile turtle trying to cross the road. We stopped and carefully helped him across the road and put him down on the other side.
We also found a baby snapping turtle in our driveway. The little turtle was no larger than a 50 cent coin, and quite a distance from the local pond. We carried it back to the pond, and watched as the turtle slowly swam off.
My favorite visitors to our backyard are the snakes. The are several species of snakes that are indigenous to the Northeastern US including the ubiquitous garter snake, the large and fast-moving black racer and the colorful milk snake. With a little searching, I can usually find all three of these types of snakes under the rocks and fallen trees around my property. Sometimes I don't even have to look very hard: the milk snake in the lead photo is resting comfortably in the rock wall leading up to my front walkway. The snake was a regular visitor in this spot for several weeks, and measuring the shed skin that it left behind, it was almost four feet long.
How Do You Feel About Snakes?
Common Garden Snakes of Connecticut
The garter snake is one of the most recognizable snakes of Connecticut, and one of the most common. Garter snakes have a dark green back with rows of bright yellow stripes running down the length of its body, and can grow to about 30 inches long. They feed on slugs, earthworms, cricket and other bugs, along with small rodents.
Garter snakes are often seen basking in the sun, and will slink away quickly if disturbed. They seldom bite, but release a strongly scented musk if handled. The snake in the large photo (below) was basking on a rock a the edge of our small koi pond. When we go too close for its comfort, the snake slid off the rock and glided across the surface of the pond.
Black Racer Snakes
The black racer is a frequent visitor, and this large one likes to hang around a stacked stone planting bed. This particular snake is over five feet long; I found a complete and intact shed snakeskin that is now dried and framed along with several other shed snake skins that I've found around the property.
Black racers are non-venomous snakes, but they have a nasty temperament and can be aggressive if cornered. They move very quickly when disturbed, streaking away into the underbrush or disappearing between the cracks in the stonewalls. They are active snakes, and I have often seen black racers moving through the lawn, garden and woodland areas. Unlike most snakes, black racers can travel with their heads held high in search of prey.
From the largest snake to the smallest: this little ringneck snake is less than six inches long. Shy and reclusive, these harmless little snakes hide under rocks and logs where they feed on bugs and slugs. With their appetite for insects, ringneck snakes are welcomed visitors to our yard!
This little guy was under a rock, and just wants to slither off to a dark and quiet hiding place. Ringneck snakes do not bite, but they release a foul smelling musk when handled. Like any other snake, view the ringneck snake from a comfortable distance and then let them go on their way.
Commonly mistaken for the poisonous copperhead, the snake in the photo is a harmless and non-venomous milk snake. The mottled, checkerboard pattern on the underside that is visible in the photo clearly identifies this as a milk snake (the underside of a copperhead is creamy-white).
Unfortunately, milk snakes are often mistaken for copperhead snakes and killed out of fear. Feeding on small rodent and other snakes, milk snakes are very beneficial and play an important role in the environment.
Milk snakes are very common in our yard. Docile and secretive, they usually do not move when discovered hiding under a rock or log. When they are disturbed, the milk snake looks for a quick escape. If the snake is cornered, it vibrates its tail vigorously to make a sound that resembles a rattlesnake. If the noise is not enough to scare you off, the snake will coil and strike. But the display is all show: the milk snake is quite harmless.
With their colorful markings, milk snakes are quite striking in appearance. The body of the snake is typically tan to light gray. The blotches on its back and sides are reddish-brown in color, and bordered by black bands. The milk snake's head is also boldly patterned, with a distinctive light colored "Y" or "V" shaped blotch. The patterned markings are especially bright right after the snake sheds its skin.
A Snake in the Grass
This rather large milk snake often comes out in the morning to bask in the early morning sun. Snakes and other reptiles are cold blooded and cannot regulate their body temperature. After the cool summer night, they seek the warmth of the morning sunshine.
As the daytime temperature raise, the snakes retreat to the cooler shadows in the rock walls around our yard.
The sun heats the capstones at tops of the walls, and the rocks retain the heat even after the sun sets. As the evening approaches, snakes often seek out a comfortable spot under the capstones. Sometimes, I can lift a rock to find several snakes coiled up together to share the warmth.
Milk Snakes on a Fieldstone Wall
Friend or Foe?
These two little snakes where found hiding together under the same rock in our backyard. The charcoal colored snake is an adult ringneck snake. The other snake is a young milk snake. Both of these small snakes are less than 12 inches long.
The little ringneck snake had better be on its guard: milk snakes eat other snakes. If the milk snake was slightly larger, the little ringneck could easily end up on the milk snake's menu.
In this case, both snakes scooted off in different directions after I disturbed them for their cameo photo session.
Differences Between Milk Snakes and Copperheads
Milk snakes and copperheads resemble each other, but there are several easy ways to tell the harmless milk snake from the venomous copperhead. Granted, you have to be pretty close to the snake to tell the difference. But if you are close enough to try catching it (or to kill it), then you are close enough to determine the difference.
- Copperheads have a triangular shaped head with two prominent pits halfway between its nostrils and its eyes. The milk snake has a rounded head.
- The pupils in the eyes of the milk snake are round. The pupils of the copperhead head resemble vertical slits.
- The belly of the milk snake is a checkerboard of black and white. The underside of the copperhead is a solid creamy-white color.
Remember, snakes are beneficial and earn their keep by preying on rodents, insects and even other snakes. Even if you don't like snakes or if you are afraid of them, should you encounter a snake, just move away slowly and you'll both be just fine.
Can You Identify This Snake?
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Never Pick Up A Snake!
Most snakebites occur when people try to catch and handle snakes.
Unless you are very experienced in handling snakes -- and you can clearly identify the different species of snakes -- just leave it alone.
Searching For Snakes - And finding a Milk Snake and a Garter Snake
We Find Frogs, Toads and Salamanders too!
We found this little guy hopping through the grass in our backyard. Spring peepers and wood frogs are frequent visitors, and we occasionally find a gray tree frog that climbed down from the branches. Toads are also often seen foraging through the garden mulch or sitting under the porch light in the evening.
Roll over a decaying log in the woods surrounding our yard, and you might find a salamander or two. The red backs are common and if you are lucky, sometimes you can find the little blue-ish gray Jeffersons salamander.
© 2012 Anthony Altorenna