As I mentioned in my previous post, I am concerned about snakes checking out the kayaks and I have good reason to be concerned. We had some friends visiting last year and were sitting peacefully on the dock, enjoying the view, when I looked up in the tree that is growing out of the dock and noticed something hanging out of the hole in the tree.
My friend, who was sitting closest to the tree, decided she was no longer enjoying sitting there and we switched places while we watched the snake slowly emerge. It was a huge Gray Ratsnake!
Gray Ratsnakes frequently climbs trees to eat birds’ eggs or nestlings. They also eat small mammals, lizards and frogs. The Gray Ratsnake is also known as the Black Ratsnake or Eastern Ratsnake. It is a constrictor, so non-venomous and harmless, but often feared because of its size. It can grow up to 2 meters in length.
The snake might have found something to eat in the hole. They dislocate their jaws when they swallow food. After eating they reset their lower jaw and open their mouths in the way this one did when it came out of the hole. I didn’t see any lump in the snake, so I am not sure if it did find something to eat or not.
Gray Ratsnakes are a threatened species in our area, so we certainly need to protect them and learn to live along side each other. Adults are strongly attached to their home ranges and will return to the same nesting and hibernation sites. They hibernate underground in groups, so destroying these sites can have a large impact on the local population. There can be as many as 100 snakes sharing a single hibernaculum. Apparently they often lay their eggs in logs or compost piles that serve as incubators. Hopefully they don’t decide our new composter is a good place for them to try out!
We saw several Gray Ratsnakes last year – different sizes, so different snakes.
Grey Ratsnakes can be confused with Northern Watersnakes. These can grow up to 135 cm in length, so not as long as the Ratsnakes. We have seen several of these snakes too, mostly swimming in the lake, but this one was exploring our deck and basking in the sun.
Northern Watersnakes hunt along the water’s edge and feed on small fish, frogs, worms, leeches, crayfish, salamanders and small birds and mammals. They are good news in the lake because they eat diseased fish, which are easier to catch and that helps to keep fish populations healthy. The snakes we have seen swim past our dock following the water’s edge.
They are live-bearers, so they do not lay eggs like the Grey Ratsnake. Their young are born between August and October and as soon as they are born they are on their own and not cared for by their mothers. These snakes are a little more of a threat because they will bite repeatedly if they are threatened. Their saliva contains a mild anticoagulant, so it can cause the bite to bleed more and a bite requires medical attention. They are not a risk as long as they are left alone. They are solitary creatures and live alone, apart from during the mating season and hibernation. Apparently they will share winter dens with Grey Ratsnakes.
Humans are the main threat to our snakes. The major threat is habitat destruction, but many snakes also get killed because they like to bask on roads and are killed by cars. They are prey for some animals. Racoons prey on the eggs of the Grey Ratsnakes and red-tailed hawks, osprey, raccoons and fishers prey on young snakes.
We came across a very wet looking red-tailed hawk close to the cottage one time. It was after a storm and I guess it was waiting to dry out, because it didn’t seem camera shy. This one seems to be a juvenile. It took me ages to decide it is a Red-tailed hawk because they have many colour phases until the age of three, when they get their red tail and reach breeding age. They are the commonest large soaring hawk in eastern North America and have a beautiful cry. Their cry is often used in any movie featuring a bald eagle, which doesn’t have such a lovely cry.
Whilst we are thrilled to see a hawk, we should also be thrilled to see snakes. They too provide a similar service to us, keeping the rodent population under control. They keep the lake’s fish healthy and are really not threats to us. Whilst I am not keen to snuggle up with one in the kayak, I did enjoy our adventure, watching the snake emerge from the tree. The sign along the road as we drive up to the cottage, Brake for Snakes, is certainly to be heeded. Over half our snake species are at risk, so it is vitally important that we pay attention to this misunderstood creature.