An Unexpected Encounter

I don’t really expect to see many noteworthy things in mid-December.

Most of the fall color is long gone. Aside, that is, from the beech trees, which add an amazing khaki flavor to the forest at this time of year.

You may see plenty of deer, and birding opportunities abound, but my favorite critters are dormant this time of year.

The kingsnakes and copperheads are sleeping in stumps and crevices, the snapping turtles are snoozing in the muck, and the water snakes have been hiding in tight little hidden and inaccessible areas for a month by now.

Wait.

This is a midland water snake, known to biologists as Nerodia sipedon pleuralis. And she’s supposed to be brumating (roughly equivalent to hibernating) by now.

Midland water snakes and their close cousins are extraordinarily common along much of the eastern United States, and they’re especially numerous in the Atlanta metro area. And within that range, they’re particularly prevalent at Stone Mountain Park.

As it turns out, I hike around this park very frequently and have for 30 years.

You could say that I’m familiar with it.

And of all places within the park, I’m most familiar with Venabale Lake.

B. Team

It’s the smaller of the two primary lakes at the park. Really nothing more than a big pond, it used to be stocked regularly and there was a little tackle shop near the parking lot.

Point being, I don’t only hike around this lake trying to snap photos of trees and critters, I’ve also hiked around this lake chasing largemouth bass for decades.

Again, I’m familiar with this particular little plot of land and the critters living around it.

Particularly the snakes.

And most particularly the midland water snakes.

There are several individuals that I know quite well.

There’s a particularly grody-brown little fella that lives near the main drainage ditch east of the lake. There’s a geeeeoooorrrrgeeeeouuusss lady who lives in the third cove on the north side of the lake, and there’s this big ‘ol gal who lives near the stump where I’ve seen a small kingsnake hunting a time or two.

I told you I am familiar with this park.

Back to the point.

I was actually fishing with my brother today when we stumbled upon her. He actually saw her.

Normally, this would bother me, but I just never imagined we’d have seen a midland water snake today.

Yes, it was unseasonably warm, but I never see water snakes “off season.”

As common as they are in the early spring through early summer, they more-or-less disappear shortly thereafter, only to reappear the next year.

But this lady appears as though she was taking the opportunity to bask, thereby potentially giving her the chance to grab something to eat.

It’s understandable – she looks as though she dropped a very large litter of little water snakes sometime a few months ago.

This is energetically expensive for snakes, and you can see how thin she is: Note the “tented” appearance of her body – you can clearly see her spine. If you’re familiar with snakes, you may also note that the fat pads on her head are also a bit shrunken.

I only managed to get a few photos before she slid off into the water. I didn’t want to bother her, so we moved off and saw her return to the same shoreline once we were out of (her) sight.

One last little neat tidbit: I’d never noticed that she had a stump tail.

This is pretty common among water snakes. Grab one by the tail and you may see it wiggle or spin in a manner that breaks the tail off, allowing them to escape.

They don’t regenerate lost tails the way some lizards do, so it’s a permanent reminder of a close call for that snake at some point.

Anyway, let this encounter reiterate an important lesson: Mother Nature doesn’t have rules, she has tendencies.

And these tendencies can change at times.

I’d have never in a million years expected to see a midland water snake in December, but here she was.

See you on the trail.

A lifelong environmental educator and the former executive director of a 501(c)3 nature preserve, Ben has led more than 10,000 miles of guided nature hikes, authored more than 40 animal care books, and been profiled in a variety of media outlets, including local public television, Countyline Magazine, and Disney Radio. When not on the trail or in front of his computer, Ben can be found cooking for his lady or playing with his dogs.

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