After spending 5 and 7 hours, respectively, at Snake Road over the last weekend on Friday and Saturday, I think I’ve found more snakes over those two days than I’d ever seen before in my life. 22 (Fri) and 58 (Sat) = 80 snakes! That, and a few amphibians, made for a spectacular day along the bluffs at this unique natural area.
Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) were the dominant species, representing 80% of all snakes found (64 snakes)! About half were immatures (neonates) a foot or so long.
Above is one of those neonates, demonstrating why no one jumps into leaf piles at Snake Road.
If you couldn’t find the neonate in the previous photo, the snake was successful. This other neonate on the road isn’t quite as effective at blending in. Neonate Cottonmouths have a pattern of camouflage that matches fallen leaves, enabling them to hide in plain sight on the forest floor. Adults, more aquatic, have darker coloration that more closely matches the shaded waters of the swamps wherein they live. Furthermore, adult Cottonmouths, simply due to their size, have fewer predators. Both neonates and adults are quite venomous, however.
Additionally, both are remarkably good at vanishing into the thick grasses along the edge of the road. For this reason, constant vigilance and walking with a companion or two is highly recommended. That way you don’t just happen upon one of these guys:
My usual method at Snake Road, when I’m on my own, is to meet someone on the road (this time of year there’s a few dozen-safety in numbers and plenty of eyes to find everything) and I’d hang with them for a bit until they had to leave or I had to leave. This sort of thing, combined with my usual hiking/birding, probably puts me at greater risk of being murdered by a serial killer than the average person.
That was a minor factor in why I went with a buddy on the first of the two trips to Snake Road discussed in this blog. Before going to the Road itself, we stopped off along the way at a nearby “waterfall.” Points will be awarded if you know where this is, and say so in the comments.
An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) hid off to the side of the path. I’ve realized lately how often the mystery bird calls I hear are chipmunk or squirrel noises.
Another tier of the three at the “waterfall”. Yes, there’s a reason it’s in quotation marks.
So, my friend had never visited Snake Road before. Nor had he seen a genuine Cottonmouth. I showed him both. At one point, we were looking at a Cottonmouth, when another one slithered out of the grass a few feet away from his shoe and scared the crap out of both of us. The snake then dove for the water, leaving us hyperventilating on the shoreline. That’s when the third Cottonmoth chose to appear, albeit more slowly. We decided it was time to move on.
We went up to the edges of the bluffs, but these are not free of snakes…
Never stick your hand in a crevice at Snake Road, unless you really WANT it amputated. A serious Cottonmouth bite can require amputation, although usually you’d deserve the bite to provoke that serious of a defensive response from the snake. Generally, Cottonmouths are very passive and will watch you from a distance as they slowly move out of your way. Reaching into a hole with a snake that has no escape route (fight or
flight), however, is a really bad idea, almost as bad as wearing sandals here… which I also saw people doing.
More than Cottonmouths lived in the rock crevices, however. Our lifer Cave Salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) hid in a small wet grotto along the road. We got good looks at them after double-checking the grotto for small Cottonmouths. A flashlight is highly recommended here.
The following day, a bunch of Canadians from Ontario and I ended up looking for Cave Salamanders under a rock in a creek, which proved to have several. Generally, this species is found in caves, but they do belong to the brook salamander genus for a reason.
Another odd dweller in the rock crevices was this spider-hunting wasp, hauling a large wolf spider. The lighting was a bit poor to photograph the animal- in retrospect, I should’ve taken a video. I don’t like large spiders, and I also don’t like wasps. Therefore I skedaddled.
Back to the road, where Cottonmouths were… well, somewhat less abundant, actually. The majority of snakes we saw were along the edge of the bluff.
However, our only Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster) of that day lurked just off the road. A somewhat-ok, not really all that- funny joke about these: “How do you tell the difference between a Cottonmouth and a watersnake? The Cottonmouth’ll still be around a second after it sees you.” Not that funny, but Plain-bellied Watersnakes do seem to have a faster acceleration than the average Ferrari, if they realize they’ve been spotted.
The last good find of the day, just as sunset began, was the eft stage of our lifer Central Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis). The eft (immature) was about as long as its scientific name in this font size (including tail). Newts, unlike most of the rest of the salamanders, live in water as tadpoles, then turn into immature efts and go about on land, before going back to the water and becoming fully adult. This seems unnecessarily complicated to me, but it provides a newt with great variety and life experience, and builds character. That, and in the land-based eft stage a newt can travel from one pond to another, enabling dispersion.
The following day, I tried to study, and when that failed to produce much in terms of results, I decided to take a brief trip outside. Cut, to me talking to a man at the entrance of the road about the State-Threatened Mississippi Green Watersnake, found ONLY here in Illlinois. He’d seen one earlier that day, and they tend to migrate all at once from the swamps to the bluffs. People had been seeing them for the last week- my time was running out to find this lifer for me. The man also mentioned seeing a Northern Watersnake in a puddle in the middle of the road, a species I’d never seen here before. I thanked him, and it was noon. Time to go looking.
The very first snake of the day was a different “green snake”, an actual Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), in the middle of the road- the only spot where I know how to find them.
Ordinarily, Rough Green Snakes are hiding in trees, hunting insects and being incredibly stealthy. This snake proceeded to do that a few minutes later when other people showed up. However, I knew where it was, and watched it slither up the tree without rustling any leaves or generally letting its presence be known. Compared to this, a Cottonmouth’s a bull in a china shop.
I showed this snake to a mother and her daughter, (Rough Green Snakes being one of the most interesting and harmless in all of Illinois) and I hiked with them for a little bit before parting ways.
I walked right past a second Rough Green Snake somewhat later, only for a group behind me to see it. I did get a video of it as it crossed the road, demonstrating the unusual movement patterns of this species.
That’s pretty cool, I think.
Nearby was a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea), sleeping on a branch. While taking photos of it, someone again mentioned seeing the rare Mississippi Green Watersnake… the mom and daughter I’d just hiked with had seen it. Well, you can’t see them all. Reports of Black Racers, Ring-necked Snakes, Copperheads and even a Timber Rattlesnake were repeated by everyone I talked to, which, because it’s me, was everyone. I even met a bunch of unattended kids and kind of watched them for a bit, because whoever they were with was not wise. I learned later they’d gone off from their large group on their own. We all found an unphotographed Black Rat Snake.
One of the more unusual sightings I saw, and the second snake of that day, was an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) (the photo above was actually taken in Central Illinois, but put here to consolidate all snakes into one blogpost). These are not often seen here, their ecological niche taken over by the related Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus):
Note the brighter colors and lack of vertical patterning on a Western Ribbon Snake.
Here’s an even better look at the head of a Western Ribbon Snake, hiding along the bluffs. These aren’t rare, but they’re a favorite of mine in this area. Towards the end of the day, I met up with the president of the Hoosier Herpetological Society, because you meet everybody here. He mentioned finding a trampled, dying Copperhead near the bluffs- a casualty of the road’s popularity and people not being careful enough. We herped for a bit and then encountered one of the rarest sights ever seen on the road…
It’s a Plain-bellied Watersnake, sitting still. Ok, it’s not really THAT rare, but considering how much these snakes dislike people, it’s still kinda cool. Notice how it flattens out its head and puffs up its body a little to resemble a Cottonmouth. This resemblance does the watersnake no favors- they are regularly killed by people who think they’re Cottonmouths.
It was sundown- just a bit after 6:15 PM, and we were walking back to our cars. I saw another guy I know, and we joined up with them. In the middle of a puddle, where the Northern Watersnake had been reported from earlier, we found another watersnake… my lifer Mississippi Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion)! Hallalujah! Finally! Great timing!
For some reason, Green Watersnakes are a common species all the way up the Mississippi River from the South through far western Kentucky- until you get to Illinois and Missouri. In Illinois, they only survive here. In Missouri, they’ve apparently been extirpated- killed off in that state (which is odd, because Missouri would theoretically have more habitat for them than Illinois, since it has more of the lower Mississippi River floodplain than Illinois).
I departed shortly after this, though several more snakes crossed my path afterwards, including a well-curled Plain-bellied Watersnake:
I even had two more snake driving back home, at 7:00 PM- seven hours, not bad for a brief trip.
I think the following photo best sums up both why Cottonmouths are called Cottonmouths, and what Snake Road is all about- seeing cool, hard-to-love animals go about their day. While in pursuit of snakes, I got to meet people from all over- Indiana, Ohio, Ontario, and even England. I don’t think anyone who went out to Snake Road that day had a bad time- unless, of course, they dislike snakes. With happy faces like this Cottonmouth’s, how could you?:
(Sarcasm implied. I didn’t harass this snake to get it to open its mouth, it was just a little surprised by me and wanted me to back off, which I did. It then slithered away.)
Day 1- 22 snakes
1 Plain-bellied Watersnake
1 Western Ribbon Snake
2 Cave Salamanders
1 Central Newt
1 Green Treefrog
1 Bird-voiced Treefrog
1 Spring Peeper
X Cricket Frogs
X Southern Leopard Frogs
Day 2- 58 snakes
5 Plain-bellied Watersnakes
1 Mississippi Green Watersnake
5 Western Ribbon Snakes
1 Eastern Garter Snake
1 Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake
2 Rough Green Snakes
16 Cave Salamanders
3 Long-tailed Salamanders
2 Green Tree Frogs
X Cricket Frogs
2 Dwarf American Toads
X Southern Leopard Frogs