Wild Ideas: Slithery visitors  

In between torrential rain storms, reptiles have been out to hunt and bask around my yard, including an eastern ratsnake and a tailless five-lined skink.

After having a woodland box turtle visit recently (see my June 14 column), the snake showed up in my yard, much to the consternation of my dog, Mollie. She cued me to the reptile’s presence with her fierce barking. Going outside, I found her a few feet from from the kitchen porch, yapping away at the snake, which was less than a yard away. The eastern ratsnake is Virginia’s largest snake, measuring up to six feet long, but the snake in my yard was only about four feet long.

By Pam Owen
The eastern ratsnake, calm but coiled and ready to defend itself if needed, intently watches the photographer.

The snake seemed calm, considering a big dog was excitedly bouncing around and barking at it from just a few feet away. It looked like a coiled spring, ready to strike if necessary, with its head about a foot off the ground. It watched Mollie but didn’t move, ignoring some flies that were crawling around on its head that apparently were attracted to what looked like dried mud there.

By Pam Owe
Even flies can’t distract the snake.

I called off Mollie, put her inside, and grabbed my camera, intending to photograph the snake. But when I went back out, the snake had disappeared. I looked under the porch, and found that, like eastern ratsnakes that had visited before, it had crawled up into a gap between my brick chimney and the side of the house. The last few inches of its tail were disappearing into it, so no photo opp this time. Disappointed, I went back inside, hoping the snake would return so I’d have another chance to take some shots.

A few days later, it did. Once again I heard Mollie barking near the porch. This time, I grabbed my camera as I headed to out the door. The tableau of snake and dog was almost identical to the previous time, and in the same general location. I put Mollie inside, then quickly returned to the snake, camera in hand, to photograph it before it could disappear again.

The snake was still frozen in its defensive posture, looking as unperturbed as before, its eyes fixed on me. I took a bunch of shots, then went up on the porch to give the snake some room, curious to see where it would go.

As before, it headed toward the house. But this time it started to try to go up the electrical and phone cables running up the back of it. Then the snake changed its mind, perhaps seeing me on the porch, and pulled back down onto the ground. I went down near it to get a few more shots as it played hide and seek behind garden stuff along the wall.

After I’d gotten all the shots I wanted, I stepped back and watched the snake go on its way along down toward the garden where I’d seen the box turtle. There are a few gardens down there, which should offer good hunting options. After having a mouse invasion this spring, the house could use a little control of the rodent control.

The snake wasn’t the only reptile to visit that week. The frequent rains had apparently daunted the five-lined skinks that usually hunt and bask on my walls and deck, but one morning I spotted a husky one basking on a large rock among those ringing a small garden. The rock, a favorite basking spot for skinks and dragonflies, is just a few feet from where the dog-snake encounter occurred.

This skink was a male, as I could tell by the orange breeding colors on his face and undersides. He was also missing most of his tail, probably from an encounter with a predator. This species has evolved to have a tail that regenerates if it is detached. Young five-lined skinks have bright-blue tails when they hatch out, which fades as the skink ages. This blue coloration is to distract predators, giving the young lizards a chance to escape predators while they learn how to avoid them.

By Pam Owen
A male five-lined skink in full breeding color but missing his tail, basks on a rare sunny day recently.

The predator is more likely to pounce on the bright tail, letting the rest of the skink get away to live another day. Although this adaptation can keep the skink from getting eaten, it takes a lot of energy to regrow the tail, which can make the skink more vulnerable, so it’s a defense of last resort. The tail also has toxins in it that can deter predators, including cats and dogs, from attacking more than once.

I got my camera and took a few shots of the skink. As I was walking away, the lizard darted behind the rock, but soon came out to bask again. I’m hoping it, too, will stick around and help with insect control.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 322 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.”