Wild Ideas: Ratsnake redux   

It’s been a little more than a year since I escorted a large eastern ratsnake out of my house, and I had yet to see another here — until last week.

An eastern ratsnake hangs around on some cables along the side of Pam Owen’s house. By Pam Owen

I was sitting in my living room, working on my computer, just as I was last year (see my June 2, 2016, column). Out of the corner of my eye, I was watching hummingbirds visit my feeder, which is hung under the eaves above the deck and I can see from the couch. Suddenly, I heard a thump from the direction of the feeder and, looking up, saw a hummer taking off.

My first thought was that it was about time for an eastern ratsnake to show up, and I wouldn’t put its trying to get up to the feeder via the gate below it. I went outside to check and, sure enough, on the top step leading to the gate was an eastern ratsnake, about four feet long — not as big as last year’s intruder, but big enough to go after the hummers.

I had a couple of mice show up in the house last week, which I have since trapped out, so it could be the snake was looking for them. But I was pretty sure the thump came from the snake, and these amazing, athletic climbers rarely fall unless they’re making a grab for prey and miss. With the feeder more than two feet above the gate, and the hummers flying even closer to it, I could see the snake make a bold try and miss. I’ve seen this snake species rear up so it’s almost “standing” on the tip of its tail, albeit briefly.

I stared at the predator. The snake apparently decided the jig was up and headed under the steps. I went inside to get my camera and then went to see where it had gone. I also wanted to make sure my dog, Mollie, who was outside, didn’t find the snake first, although she likely would have just barked at it.

I think Mollie was bitten by a copperhead last year, judging by her behavior at the time. She had been gingerly pushing her nose into the tangled undergrowth and downed trees in the forest edge next to my yard and then jerking back. She yelped at one point and came back with a swollen muzzle. At the time, I figured she had just stuck her nose into a wasp nest, which she is prone to do in attempting to eradicate all buzzing things on the property (bees, gas-powered trimmers, mowers, etc.). Since she was breathing fine and seemed okay otherwise, although looking a bit comical, I wasn’t too worried. It was only after the swelling went down the next day that I found what looked like snakebite marks near her nose.

The snake by this time had worked its way around to the driveway side of the house and was lying, doubled up, on cables that ran along that side. With Mollie moving closer, nose to ground, I wanted to alert her to the snake above before they got into a confrontation. I pointed to the snake and said in a very calm, reassuring voice, “Snake — it’s okay.” I do the same thing for anything I don’t want her attacking, which is pretty much all wildlife.

Although Mollie often appears deaf to this cue when it comes to bees and wasps, she’s getting better with other wild things. She rarely has engaged other wildlife physically anyway, just barks at them — loudly, and usually until they leave the property — which is more of an annoyance to all of us living here, wildlife and human, than a threat.

She tentatively barked at the snake a couple of times, then took my cue and then watched quietly while I photographed it. The snake kept its eye on the dog but didn’t seem to be bothered by my snapping away just a few feet from it. Mollie and I went inside, and the snake disappeared not too long after that.

Seeing the snake was a bit of serendipity. I was about to write about another ratsnake this week, but not where I live. I had sat down earlier in the week with Bruce Jones, to get some help identifying wildflowers in photos I’d taken at his place in spring of 2016. Bruce and his wife, Susan, started naturalizing their property decades ago, and it’s full of spring ephemeral wildflowers, among other woodland, wetland and meadow native plants. A few years ago, they turned the property into the Jones Nature Preserve.

Before we got down to sorting through my photos, Bruce wanted to show me some wildlife shots from the motion-sensor cameras he’d set up on the property for that purpose. Coyotes, bobcats and even an owl catching a meal were featured, but it was one taken in May was particularly interesting  — a red fox carrying a large eastern ratsnake in her mouth. Bruce said he’d checked with a herpetologist, who thought the snake was still alive.

A red fox is caught on camera carrying a large eastern ratsnake. By Bruce Jones

The fox was likely taking the snake to its den to feed to her cubs. While I know most canids are omnivores and opportunistic when it comes to the prey they choose, I’d never seen a fox with a snake, and taking on one this large was bold and ambitious, traits also common to the prey she was carrying.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Nature happenings

Toads, Turtles and Snakes” talk (Saturday, July 1, 10:00-10:45 a.m.): Want to learn more about amphibians and reptiles? This talk at Shenandoah River State Park, just south of Front Royal, explores the differences between the two kinds of herps and between frogs and toads. “Amaze your friends with some cool froggy facts and trivia,” the park’s website says. Attendees can also meet some of the park’s “resident critters” and watch them eat. This free talk is at the park’s visitor center, 350 Daughter of Stars Dr., Bentonville, VA 22610. For more information, contact the park at 540-622-6840 or ShenandoahRiver@dcr.virginia.gov or visit its website.

Frog or toad? Learn to tell one from the other and the difference between amphibians and reptiles this Saturday (June 30) at Shenandoah River State Park. By Pam Owen

Save the date for butterfly count (July 22): The seventh annual Washington-Rappahannock County Butterfly Count is set for Saturday, July 22. Old Rag Master Naturalists, which hosts the count, will also repeat last year’s well-received and -attended “Kids Count Butterflies” event the Saturday (July 15) at Waterpenny Farm. Look for more about on both counts in this newspaper soon or go online to ORMN’s website.


Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”