Snake Season!

It’s a great time of year to see snakes.  As the weather cools in the fall, snakes are especially drawn to places where they can soak up warm sunlight during the middle part of the day.  That makes it fairly likely to see snakes (alive and dead) along roads.  In addition, many snake species overwinter together in communal winter dens – particularly in higher latitudes.  As they move from their summer feeding areas to those winter dens, they often have to cross roads and other open areas.  This puts snakes at risk from cars and predators but provides even more opportunities for interested people to see snakes that can be difficult to find during the rest of the year.

Yesterday, we spotted this beautiful young bull snake on a gravel road along the edge of one of our Platte River Prairies.  It was only about 16 or so inches long, but it did a great job of making itself look menacing when we stopped to take a closer look.

Young bull snake on gravel road along the boundary of the TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This little bull snake was doing its very best to scare me off, but it didn’t work.  Instead it got its portrait taken.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

As we approached it, the snake coiled up and flattened its head, making it look very much like a viper.  It was also wiggling the tip of its tail back and forth very quickly – a move that would have made a sound like a rattlesnake rattle in dry leaves (a great scare tactic) but wasn’t incredibly effective on the gravel.  As I moved in with my camera, the snake struck at me several times, but never came anywhere close to biting me.  Being a biologist, my response to all this was to lie down on the gravel and photograph the snake.  However, if I hadn’t known that bull snakes are basically harmless – unless you’re a small mammal or bird – I probably would have headed quickly in another direction.  The snake probably would have preferred that…

I felt badly that the snake was putting on such a great show to no avail.  Maybe I should have acted a little more frightened.  Instead, I photographed the poor snake for a few minutes and then left it alone – hopefully before I completely destroyed its self esteem.

Photo of the Week – March 19, 2015

Proof that I’m a biologist:  While driving along a gravel road near our shop this week, I stopped and backed up to see if I’d seen a small snake or just a piece of debris in the road…

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

I’m glad I stopped.  It turned out to be a redbelly snake, a species found in only a few counties in Nebraska.  I think it’s the third one I’ve found in our Platte River Prairies, dating all the way back to when I was working out here as a graduate student in the early 1990’s.

Not a lot is known about the habits or habitats of redbelly snakes in Nebraska.  When I got home with some photos, I contacted herpetologist Dan Fogell to confirm the identity of the snake and learn more about it.  Rather than getting a lot of information from Dan, he instead peppered me with questions about where and when I found the snake because he’s trying hard to gather data and better understand the species.


This was a big snake (for a redbelly). It was close to 11 inches in length, which is about the maximum size for this species.


Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

This particular snake was on a gravel road between two crop fields when I happened upon it.  The road ditches were full of old matted-down smooth brome grass.  It didn’t seem like particularly friendly habitat for wildlife.  Was the snake living in those ditches?  Or traveling to other habitat?  There was a small woodlot a couple hundred yards away, and a stream across the cornfield to the north…  We released the snake where we found her, so whatever habitat she’s looking for, I hope she finds it.


There are a lot of species we just don’t know much about – not just tiny invertebrates, but also relatively large (and beautiful!) vertebrates.  It’s another reminder of how important the collection of basic natural history information is.  Conservation is difficult, but even more so when we don’t even know much about the species and natural systems we’re working to conserve.

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see and admire this snake.  I hope my kids get the same chance.