Searching for Snakes

Post by Elizabeth Thompson (LizardLiz)

We are beginning to enjoy warm weather for hiking, biking, and water fun. Being outdoors allows us to interact with nature and view exciting wildlife. Many people enjoy fishing, bird watching, and viewing squirrels and deer. Sometimes, however,  people feel uncomfortable when they see one of our snake neighbors. What do you do when you see a snake outdoors? Do you take a picture? Do you call your family to share the experience? Do you run away screaming?

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Harmless Eastern Rat Snake

In addition to my career as a Wildlife Educator and Animal Keeper, I often spend free time engaging in an activity which some people might find disconcerting. I love to spend warm days walking through the woods, deliberately searching for native reptiles and amphibians. This activity is known as “herping” because the study of reptiles and amphibians is called herpetology. I find herping to be quite rewarding and you can too! The key to enjoying herping is knowledge and a desire to learn more. Here are some basic tips to help you get started.

When enjoying wildlife viewing, remember to give animals space. We all love watching birds in flight and deer grazing in a field. But reptiles and amphibians also deserve to be observed without being disturbed. Often times, when we encounter reptiles and amphibians, they are sitting still, basking in the sun. While I am always tempted to see them move, it is best to watch from a distance. Snakes will bite to defend themselves from potential predators – and they perceive humans as predators we try to touch them. The only dangerous snake is the one you try to mess with.

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Harmless Eastern Garter Snake acting fierce

While hiking around the Northern Virginia and Washington DC area, the most common reptile that I find are garter snakes. These are small, harmless snakes that prefer to eat worms and slugs. Many snakes in our area have distinctive colors and patterns that allow a practiced observer to identify them without getting too close. For example, garter snakes tend to have long stripes going from their head to their tail and a checker pattern in between the stripes.

Copperhead snakes, our only native venomous snake in the Washington DC metro area, are often described as having Hershey Kiss shaped patterns down their sides. It is always a good idea to bring a herpetological field guide while you are herping to better help you in identifying the reptiles and amphibians that you encounter. However, just like people, snakes can be extremely variable and may not look at all like what your field guide describes. The best way to stay safe is to leave all snakes alone.

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Venomous copperhead – note the bright yellow tail they have when juveniles

I like to maintain a mental list of the animals I have seen in my life, which makes certain moments extremely special when I observe something new. This month, I saw my very first queen snake. In fact there were two! I was especially proud because I was able to share this sighting with my family and friends who were herping for the first time. If you find yourself herping, whether deliberately or a snake just happened to cross your path, use it as an opportunity to educate yourself and anyone around you. Snakes are not the scary monsters that our culture sometimes makes them out to be. Snakes would much rather continue with their daily lives than have to defend themselves against the big, scary Godzilla monster (you). They are also very beneficial to the environment, as natural rodent, pest, and disease control. I strongly recommend taking pictures or even videos of any reptile or amphibian you find. This way you can share the experience with friends and family!

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A pair of harmless Queen Snakes

My favorite thing about herping is expanding my knowledge base. Any time I notice new behavior or a species I haven’t seen before, I learn everything I can by reading books and asking other professionals lots of questions. Everyone is capable of being a scientist in this way!

Before heading out,  challenge yourself to our “Common Snake Myths- BUSTED!” online quiz to see how much snake knowledge you already have.

To learn more about snakes, and safely get up close with live snakes, book our “Snakes Alive!” live animal program. You will meet a variety of snakes from different habitats and learn about their natural behavior. You will also learn about threats to these really unique animals and how you can help our snake neighbors.

Now it’s time to enjoy the warm weather and all that nature has to offer!

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Harmless mole king snake


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