Photo of the Week – March 22, 2019

Last week, I posted a bunch of cute baby bison photos. This week, I’m posting a bunch of charming snake photos. I recognize that not everyone thinks snakes are cute or charming, and if you’re really triggered by images of snakes, you can scroll quickly down to find last week’s bison babies and counteract this post. However, I encourage you to give snakes a chance. I promise these photos won’t hurt you. Most of the snakes won’t either, as far as that goes.

There is tremendous variety and beauty among the snakes found in Nebraska and the Great Plains of North America. Many species are small – pencil-sized or so – and even most of the bigger ones are harmless. I’ve spent about 25 years exploring and studying prairies as an adult and have never been bitten or attacked by a snake in any way. Most are incredibly hard to photograph because they slip away quickly when they spot me.

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), also known as the red-sided garter. Perhaps the most beautiful snake in the state, but that’s just my opinion, and there’s a lot of competition for that title. They are pleasantly common in our Platte River Prairies.

For most of us, seeing a snake causes an initial instinctive reaction in which we jump – or at least flinch – backward. That includes me, but I’ve trained the logical part of my brain to quickly overrule that instinct, allowing me enjoy the few opportunities I get to see and appreciate snakes in the wild. If you look at snakes from an artistic standpoint, they really are gorgeous creatures, and they live fascinating lives. For those of you still reading this, here are some images of Nebraska snakes that have allowed me to photograph them over the years.

Ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus). Usually found near trees around here and small (usually 14 inches or less in Nebraska). The tightly coiled tail is a defensive mechanism. You can see hints of how brightly colored the belly of this snake is.
A juvenile eastern racer (Coluber constrictor). Adults are solid colored, olive green to greenish blue on top. This little cutie was about the size of a pencil.
Western hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus). This species has an adorable little turned-up nose, eats lots of frogs and toads, and is a champion actor – playing a dead snake with hilarious exaggeration when threatened.
Redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata). In Nebraska, this tiny snake is found only along the central Platte River. I’ve only seen it a few times in my nearly 25 years of working along the river.
Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer). These big snakes feed on mammals (including rabbits) and birds (including eggs). They’d like you to think they are dangerous, and they reinforce that idea by flattening their heads to look like vipers when they feel threatened. They can also exhale loudly in a way that sounds nearly exactly like the rattle of a rattlesnake.
Brown snake (Storeria dekayi). Rarely as long as 12 inches, this little snake is nondescript in coloration and innocuous in habit. They primarily eat snails, slugs, and earthworms in wooded areas.
Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). This venomous snake is the most common rattlesnake in Nebraska – found mainly in the western half of the state. They are often found in prairie dog towns and feed almost exclusively on small mammals. I appreciated this one from a comfortable distance, using a long telephoto lens to photograph it.
A plains garter snake (Thamnophis radix). A common and definitely harmless prairie snake.

(If you live in or near Nebraska, you can’t beat Dan Fogell’s book A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Nebraska for identifying snakes and other scaly creatures. It lives in my truck always.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

20 thoughts on “Photo of the Week – March 22, 2019

  1. Beautiful and amazing photos! You have incredible reflexes to catch them in action! They’re usually gone from sight before I even realize what just crossed my path!

  2. Beautiful! I’m now wondering if the red/orange coloring on garter snakes is more of a western thing. I grew up with garters in NYS, and I always think of their colors as green, yellow and brown – don’t recall any red or oranges at all. You’ve got me curious about this now…will have to investigate.

    • You got it, Ellen. Red is more expressed in common garter snakes west of the Mississippi. This cluminates in the gaudy red and blue striped version known as the San Francisco garter snake of the north central California coast. (Worth googling for pictures.)

  3. My Father taught me at a very early age (4-5) to appreciate snakes in the garden. Used to freak out my husband when we came across snakes while camping. He would jump and back away quickly, I move close to get an identification. Great Pictures Chris.

  4. Hi Chris! I enjoyed your photos and descriptions of the snakes. We live in Lincoln, near a cemetery. When we first moved in, we had mating balls of garter snakes in our shrub in front of the house, and in the compost pile, and saw individuals on their rounds for a number of years. It was amazing to witness! The number of them reduced to the point that I don’t think we saw any at all the last couple of years. I am so sad about that!

  5. Thank you for giving snakes their due! They are fascinating and beautiful creatures, and your photos show that so well.

  6. Whaaaat? No One Screaming “SNAAAAAKE!”
    Very good to hear the silence and a great group of pics. Might get some to look at the snakes in a different way. Such an amazing creature to say the least.
    thanks

  7. Fantastic photos. I love snakes and have the opposite reaction to most. I have to catch myself from reaching out to pick them up. I always want to pick them up and take a good luck up close and personal. I don’t have rattlesnakes around though.

  8. I found your comment about “most of us” having a reaction to seeing snakes rather odd. Never experienced that myself. I usually feel a thrill and then move in closer to look. Same thrill I feel when seeing lizards, turtles, frogs, toads…

  9. Hooray for snakes and thank you for all of the fantastic photos. We are lucky to have breeding Dekay’s Brownsnakes right around our house. We also have lots of garters and have even come across one Eastern Hognose. I’ve not yet seen a live Bullsnake, though I keep hoping. We’re also in the range of the Timber Rattlesnake and Massassauga, but have yet to see them.

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