Blacksnakes Revisted

My discussion of local snakes few people encounter in their travels stirred up a firestorm of informative comments from fellow travelers.

Hey, why not? Many folks, me included, are squeamish about snakes, especially big, colorful ones. Come to think of it, I myself have known ophidiophobes who went into crying, screeching hysterics at the very sight of a snake, or even snake illustrations in a book. But like everything else in nature, snakes play an important role in their habitats and must be respected and understood, not persecuted and killed. In fact, it’s against the law to kill many snakes these days, rattlesnakes included.

As  a quick refresher for those who missed it, my first foray into local snakes arose out of a personal sighting while making my daily rounds. For the first time in my life, I encountered a docile milk snake on a noontime walk with the dogs. Coiled in several S’s on a double-rutted farm road, it was perfectly still, its head extended  toward the opposite side of the road. Marked with bands of red, brown and black, I would guess a length of two feet or more, its narrow body probably a little more than an inch thick.

I knew milk snakes  were in my neighborhood and, according to Connecticut Valley Wildlife District manager, because they hunt rodents like mice and chipmunks, he often answers calls from concerned property owners who find them in their barn or cellar. I contacted Taylor concerning  a column about milk snakes a few years back, initiated by a neighbor’s discovery not a mile from my recent sighting. This woman had the misfortune of finding a couple of these colorful snakes hibernating in her office’s desk drawer one spring morning.

Last week, having met with a local developer and major forest landowner who identified one of her properties as a refuge for the protected black rat snake (Eastern rat snake), I looked it up, having never previously heard of the serpent. Blacksnakes? Yes, I had heard of them, and had even seen a couple in my travels over the years, both them large. After reading rat snake descriptions, I was quite certain that’s what I had encountered on my two  memorable sightings, both frightening — one fishing for trout, the other on a land-surveying detail.

The day after that column hit the street, a couple of email responses arrived in my inbox from familiar correspondents. Both agreed that indeed, in their humble opinion, I had run into black rat snakes. Accompanying their messages were links to the same Wikipedia profile I had read online.

Now for the new hook. Next came a couple of references to another large blacksnake among us that could have been the one I saw while fishing. I witnessed that snake launch itself airborne and into the water off an overhanging hemlock root system, landing with a loud, beaver-tail-like slap. The speed and agility this snake displayed sounded more like a local viper known as a black racer to my friend Killer and my brother-in-law, both of whom share a love for snakes and have seen this common black snake. It’s possible, because the other snake I poked with my rod in an effort to confirm that it was indeed a thick black hose running through marsh from a spring, was in no great hurry, displaying sluggish movement not at all like the one that flew off those roots. Then again, maybe that one had just eaten and was lazy.

Both the black rat snake and black racer are here, and they’re both large, running between three and five feet in length. The rat tops out at eight feet, the racer slightly more than six. My buddy Killer marveled at the speed of the big black racers, which he remembers finding annually as a boy picking fragrant spring mayflowers for his grandmother on the power line descending south off Catamount Hill near the old Route 2 Mohawk Drive-In Movie Theater.

“There was no catching those snakes,” Killer said. “They were big and could really move. They’d see you coming and be gone, too fast to catch.”

My brother-in-law concurred, recounting an unforgettable sighting of one particular black racer he encountered. Although this incident may have occurred on his Maine gentleman’s  farm, I can’t be sure.

All that matters is the story.

Walking through the woods, the man  heard leaves rustling high in a hardwood. When he looked up expecting to see a gray squirrel, lo, what he spotted was a large snake descending down from branch to branch. It finally dropped to the ground off a bottom limb a short distance away and, aware of human presence, raced away from him. He  took chase in an attempt to catch the snake but couldn’t gain ground before it disappeared into a hole some 100 yards away. Like the Killer, he praised the snake’s speed and agility, agreeing that there is no catching such a snake if it want to get away.

The black rat snake is also a proficient tree-climber. The woman who introduced me to this snake showed me video proof of this on her large office computer screen. YouTube video shows this endangered snake climbing a vertical tree trunk like it’s flat ground. Apparently, due to what my brother-in-law witnessed, racers are equally adept tree-climbers.

Right on the heels of my informative conversations with friend and family came an email from Mahar Regional School teacher and nature lover named Tom Randall. Identifying himself as a birder, fisherman and loyal reader who  knew a bit about rat snakes, he wrote:

“Rat snakes are a big and varied group — our local “corn snake” is officially a red or yellow rat snake, for instance. Many snakes have multiple or regional names, as I’m sure you know. The black rat snake is known to most as simply a blacksnake, but in the mid-Atlantic region it is often called a “pilot blacksnake,” no idea why. I have seen and caught them up to about the seven-foot length in Maryland and West Virginia. They have a lovely black and white checkered belly and are actually very docile. If you handle one gently for even a minute it will not try to bite. They are, as you note, powerful constrictors so never put one around your neck! Our other regionally encountered blacksnakes are thinner and faster (for instance the coachwhip and black racer group), so the large, solid blacksnake you describe seeing was almost certainly the black rat snake. Several species know how to mimic rattlers, a pretty cool adaptation!”

This week, another reader named Tom, this one with the last name of Eaton, chimed in. Introducing himself as a longtime reader, he was surprised that I harbor a fear of snakes. While  I wouldn’t say I’m terrified,  I do respect snakes and am not apt to handle them. I prefer to skirt snakes and the talus slopes where venomous vipers are known to lurk. Why tempt fate? That attitude has worked for me, including the times as a boy I passed what I now believe were copperheads along the Indian Trail to the North Sugarloaf cave overlooking South Deerfield. Likewise, it applies to the time I happened upon four or five scary rattlesnakes basking in the summer sun on a ledge overlooking the west-bound lanes of the Mass Pike just above the known rattler haunt of Woronoco. Again working as a rodman in a survey crew, I avoided them in an effort to find a safe path to the highway for detail shots of the roads and median strip. I’m not afraid to admit that from that day forward, I was always cautious and never again freewheeled through that site. Would you?

Anyway, Mr. Eaton had this to say about the two aforementioned blacksnakes we’ve discussed: “The sightings you describe are possibly the black rat snake. But in this region, we also have a more common black snake, the black racer. Their ranges overlap. You might want to contact Tom Tyning at Berkshire Community College. He has done extensive work for the state on herps. Anyway, thanks for not harming said snakes. You went your separate ways and all was well.”

Yep. Going separate ways has always worked just fine for me.

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