A Spring Snake Find

By Robert J. Korpella

First posted on 03-23-2012

I don’t have a fear of snakes. But I won’t be the first one in line to hold one either. In fact, I may not get in line at all. If I see one in the wild, I am curious enough to get within a safe distance to study it. That’s what happened with this watersnake I found at Capps Creek Conservation Area in southwest Missouri.

Granted I might sing a different tune if I found a snake curled up in my tent or, like Woody from Toy Story, in my boot. But this three-foot long snake was stretched out along a bank on a warm spring day.

My first thought was that I had come across a water moccasin, or maybe a copperhead. Missouri only has five species of venomous snakes compared to the forty-one species that are non-venomous, but first thoughts always seem to center around snakes that are dangerous. I moved in closer to see if I could snap a shot with my camera, but the snake slithered into a hole in the bank to hide from me. Maybe he thought I was a venomous person.

I moved to a different area to photograph something else, suddenly wary of my surroundings and where I stepped. After a while, I returned to the bank and, sure enough, the snake had emerged from his hidy hole and was lying in the sun. I eased in close enough to get a few photos.

When I zoomed in on them, I saw banded markings which again made me wonder about cottonmouths and copperheads. But this guy’s head lacked that arrowhead shape and his eyes didn’t look very menacing—traits associated with most venomous species.

I compared the images I took with those in my snake identification book once I got home. I was pretty sure I had come across a northern watersnake, so I emailed the pictures to the Missouri Department of Conservation for a positive ID. Jay Barber and John Miller, two wildlife experts there, verified the find as a northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon), most likely of the midland sub-species prevalent in the Ozarks area.

While non-venomous, northern watersnakes have powerful jaws and rows of teeth that can inflict a nasty bite, but only if the snake is handled by a human or other animal.

A milky gray color, often from mud and dirt particles clinging to the snake’s scales, conceals the reptile’s reddish-brown banding and makes identification more difficult. I learned that this snake’s belly is a colorful mosaic with a cream-colored background and reddish to black half-moons. Of course, I would had to have flipped the snake over to discover the pattern and, like I said, I wasn’t in line to handle this creature.

These northern watersnakes also change color as they grow older, and aged specimens may even be entirely black, although they maintain their striking belly pattern.

They like to hang out near ponds, marshes, rivers and streams where they can hunt for food or lounge and rest. When not in the water, northern watersnakes often hide in shrubs near shore, or hang from tree branches that extend over the water. Their diet is varied and consists of frogs, small fish, crayfish, worms, leeches, salamanders, young turtles, and even a bird or two.

They are active both day and night, surprising minnows and other small fish sleeping in the shallows at night and feasting on amphibians and other food sources during daylight hours.

Predators include birds, foxes, snapping turtles, raccoons and other snakes.

Northern watersnakes seek shelter in holes and crevices along the shore and likely winter curled among the sticks and twigs that make up beaver and otter dens. Northern watersnakes have even been known to sleep with the enemy in winter, joining copperheads and water moccasins in their lairs.

Northern watersnakes breed from April through June, beginning shortly after emerging from winter dormancy. Young are born live from August through October, with female snakes giving birth to as many as thirty 6- to 12-inch long babies.

Squeamish about snakes or not, these creatures play a vital role in nature. They help keep down populations of other critters that could go unchecked without them. Any snake deserves a healthy dose of respect because, like any animal, they’ll defend themselves if threatened.

I still wouldn’t like to share my sleeping quarters or footwear with one, but I’ll keep my distance if they will.