“A snake lurks in the grass” ~ Virgil (70-19 BC)
With all the warm weather of late, we are starting to see wildlife show up in the yard. This past weekend with temps in the high 60s, our annual visit with the snakes was upon us. The original meaning of the phrase,”snake in the grass” meant hidden danger. And in my garden I will frequently see snakes in the grass or garden. But there is no danger here. At lease not with the snakes we see. The Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) or the Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) are snakes that are plentiful throughout North America, and the most common snake you will see in NY.
I recently discovered we have an endangered snake in our midst. The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is endangered in NY, and lives right in my backyard. The Oneida swamp area (where I live, in and around the lake here) is but 1 of 2 homes where you can find this snake in NY. If I see this snake I will give it a very wide berth.
Garter snakes are usually brown or beige with patterns along their backs and yellowish stripes running the length of the snake. Garters in NY can get 3-4 feet in length. The one we recently saw and pictured here was 3 feet long. Quite a big boy. His coloring is stunning and he is one gorgeous male snake.
Garters live in damp areas such as forests, grass, wetlands and ponds. They find my pond every year. I have a feeling they have a den nearby.
Garters are pretty easy going. Their saliva may be toxic to their prey, but it is not dangerous too humans, though it may cause some itching, burning or swelling. Garters rely primarily on sight and vibration for hunting. Take it from me they are very agile and make some incredible moves to elude predators and humans.
They encounter food while moseying along through the area they have staked out. Garters are carnivorous, and hunt during the cooler parts of the day. They really love frogs, slugs, earthworms, small birds and rodents. Another delectable delight are tadpoles. You can see the garter snake under water waiting in my pond for tadpoles. And I am quite sure a garter ate the second clutch of day old robins last year.
The garter snake is also hunted as food by large fish (such as bass and catfish), bullfrogs, snapping turtles, larger snakes, skunks, opossum, hawks, raccoons, foxes, and domestic cats and dogs.
The Garter Snake is most active in the morning and late afternoon; in cooler seasons like spring they come out only during warm afternoons like the snakes pictured here. Eastern Garter Snakes are the first snakes to show up in Spring, and love basking close to a hiding place like the rocks of my waterfall. Garter snakes can live up to 10 years.
Many garters hibernate during the winter where there is a big drop in temperatures and less hours available for basking. Hibernation is also needed to stimulate mating behaviors. Northern garters migrate to their den which is the same one they reuse year after year. Garters hibernate in large groups keeping warm and close for spring breeding.
When the early spring weather arrives, the male snakes slowly wake up first making short trips so they can stay close in case the cold weather hits. They wait for the females to wake from their slumber. There are far more males than females and most times you will see garters mating using “mating or breeding balls,” where one or two females will be overrun by many males. I have seen these mating balls and they are quite interesting. I feel like I shouldn’t be watching (they make me blush)!
Eastern Garter Snakes mate from late March to early May. Females bear their young live sometimes giving birth to as many as 30 in late summer. Baby snakes can be 6-9 inches in length. Many will not survive very long because of their many predators.
Garters are susceptible to contaminated water, and their territory (mating and hunting areas) has been diminished by suburban sprawl and residential development.
While I wasn’t expecting to post about snakes this week, I couldn’t look a gift snake in the mouth so to speak. The beautiful male at the top of the page certainly needed to be bragged about. I do love seeing snakes in my garden. I respect them all by giving them plenty of room. They don’t seem too spooked by us. They are fascinating ancient creatures that deserve our respect. I am honored when they visit although I tend to not want them to stay too long. The pond just isn’t big enough for bullfrogs and snakes. The bullfrogs get their message across because I find the garters out in the garden in a short time no longer welcome in frog territory.
Next week I will be posting about “Following Nature at Home” or observing nature and reporting the observations. I also will introduce you to our state bird in the coming weeks.
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