Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Learning about Texas snakes!

For our sixth Kids in the Creek class, we had a presentation from Tim Cole of Austin Reptile Service. After an extremely illuminating visit with a fellow who calls himself Spider Joe a few weeks ago, I felt inspired to create another opportunity to cast light in another area that can detract from our enjoyment of nature. I have to admit that despite all my nature-lovin' tendencies I am a bit of a freak about snakes. I'm from Oregon and we don't have too many scary snakes there. Here in Austin we have copperheads, water moccasins, coral snakes, and rattle snakes... none of whom I'd like to meet in a dark alley OR whilst tromping through the woods or whilst creek-dippin', obviously. And I can sometimes get pretty on-edge when my ankles are feeling very vulnerable and I'm out with my kids who are fearlessly stomping through fields of tall grass and leaping into undisturbed waterways and doing everything possible to startle a unsuspecting reptile. But now that I've received Tim's wisdom about the species I can relax. Tim had lots of reassuring news: he has almost never seen a water moccasin/cottonmouth around Austin. And never seen one in 28 years in the Greenbelt ( the long, long Barton Creek that wends wonderfully all through Austin, where lots of us spend lots of time soaking in natural beauty) (swimming, tubing, hiking, rock climbing, biking, and beer-guzzling are also popular activities here). If humans are around, they are going to go elsewhere. There's lots of humans down in the Greenbelt every day... they're just not going to hang out there. Almost every single supposed water moccasin encounter that Tim gets called about is actually one of two different varieties of non-venomous water snakes. He has a really fabulous snake identification guide on his website here. And you'll never believe it, but he actually brought not only a harmless water snake but a REAL. ACTUAL. WESTERN COTTONMOUTH. EEK!
That's it in the water tank there. And he's packing it away with his artificial hand in the picture below.
He had a tank of water and he showed us that it is very easy to tell the difference between the cottonmouth and other varieties of water snake. The water snake will have it's head poking up out of the water and it's body will be submerged. The cottonmouth's whole body floats on top of the water, it can even coil into striking position while in the water. Also, cottonmouths are black and white, and water snakes are brown and green with yellow bellies. And, one more difference is that water snakes want to skedaddle away from you as quickly as possible. If you just stop still they will get away from you as quickly as possible. Water mocassins use camouflage though, so if you see a water mocassin just continue on your merry way, it does not want to hurt you, it just wants you to not notice it.
Harmless and beautiful garter snake, very common around Austin.
Hognose snake. He told us that people will often call him and say that there is a cobra loose in their backyard. There are no cobras in the U.S, obviously! I'll just quote the website about this snake's interesting characteristics: "This is a very unique snake with unusual defenses. When this NON-VENOMOUS snake is first encountered, it will flare its neck and head so that it somewhat resembles a cobra's hood, and at the same time will hiss very loudly! If this doesn't scare you away, the snake may roll over on its back with its mouth open and 'play dead'. If you roll it back upright, it will flip itself back onto its back, as though insisting that it is dead! They feed almost exclusively on toads."
This is a diamond back water snake. Non-venomous, of course. Do you know the difference between something that is poisonous and something that is venomous? Poisionous: you have to eat it or touch it. Venomous: it has to inject venom into you. Thusly, there are no poisonous snakes, only venomous ones.

Texas cooter, a very common Texas turtle.

Musk turtle.

Snapping turtle!
They have loo-o-o-o-ong necks. All the better for lunging out and snapping you, my dear!
I should have video-ed this, but he was demonstrating a fake out technique that the Texas rat snake has. It makes a rattling noise and people think it's a rattlesnake.

Rat snakes have lots of great qualities and Tim really wants to help people get clear about their benefits. They eat rats, and they compete with rattlesnakes for food so they prevent rattlesnakes from setting up shop in your yard, as well. Also from the website: "These are one of the most beneficial snakes in the Austin area, because of their ability to keep the rodent population down." There's a lot of information about rat snakes on his website here.
All of Texas's most venomous snakes in one neatly-labeled little bundle! Eek!
He told us that the famous rhyme about coral snakes vs. milk snakes is actually not that important to remember, as there are no milk snakes around Austin. You could ONLY encounter a deadly coral snake! But deadly.... no need to worry about that too much, really. They have such tiny mouths and tiny fangs that it is nearly impossible for them to bite you. No one has ever died from a coral snake bite in Texas. He said that the only person he'd ever known to be bitten by a coral snake had been handling one with no caution whatsoever for over an hour, and even then, no antivenin was required because the coral snake didn't inject any venom in, just bit. Interesting. He said if you see a coral snake, just sit back and watch it and enjoy. They're pretty rare to see and it's a treat.
Rattlesnakes are indeed our most common and dangerous snake. He said if you don't want these around, don't have food from them to eat. Don't have any woodpiles or stuff like that where rodents can live. Remove the food source and they aren't going to have any reason to linger in your yard.
Copperheads are also not at all common in Austin, though you might see one out in Elgin or Bastrop. If you want to keep them away, also just get rid of the wood piles and junk piles in your yard where tasty rodents hide out.
Your friendly neighborhood Rat Snake.

It was not very expensive at all to have Tim come out and do a talk and it has put my mind at ease considerably. I think it is a great idea to have a reptile expert come out and talk to you and a group of friends (if you live in a snake-y part of the world) so you can just know the facts, stay safe, and just rock out out in nature without a care in the world.


Caitlin said...

so amazing kami!! and so sorry to miss it. next time.... :)

Zac said...

I can't help but notice in this article it mentions never seeing a western cottonmouth on the green belt. Well I've seen 2 of them in the past year at 2 different spots here in Austin, and both times they swam right up to the rock we were sitting on. One in Barton Creek west, down by a swimming hole we call catfish pond, and the other just the other day at Lost Creek right by the country club. And yes, positive they were both Western cottonmouth snakes. Got pictures of the first one.

Kami said...

Wow, catfish pond, where's that?

Maybe we're not as safe from cottonmouths as he led me to believe... eek!