Eastern Garter Snakes in Whitby’s Thickson’s Woods

garter snake sits among pine needles and studies me - thicksons woods - whitby

Bob and I went to Thickson’s Woods Nature Reserve, in Whitby, Ontario, one spring, to check on the growth of the Great Horned Owl chicks, but we were treated to wildlife observations of quite a different kind.  As Ontario’s spring weather finally started to include warmer days, it was no surprise to discover a number of Eastern Garter Snakes taking advantage of the warmth where direct sunlight penetrated to the forest floor.

garter snake in leaves - thicksons woods - whitby

Bob and I were patrolling the various trails in the woods, trying to pinpoint the chosen perch of the Great Horned Owl male, as well as looking for one of the several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that have been sighted there in the past week.  Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of quick movement at my feet.

garter snake coiled up in leaves - thicksons woods - whitby

Eventually, we lost sight of the reptile, but not before Bob spotted another, smaller Garter Snake, coiled up amongst the leaf litter.

garter snake nest in rotten tree trunk - thicksons woods - whitby

It was at about that time that another bird watcher happened by, one familiar with the forest so probably a local resident, and he pointed out the fact that there were several more Eastern Garter Snakes on the opposite side of the trail from where we stood.  It became obvious to us that, there, beneath an old rotten tree stump, the Garter Snakes had a den.

garter snake entrance to its hole - thicksons woods - whitby

We could see the well-worn entrance into the hibernaculum, and three Garter Snakes were in the immediate vicinity of the golf-ball sized opening.  Snakes usually bask in the sun somewhere that provides a quick escape.  These ones also might have recently emerged from hibernation now that winter is finally retreating.

garter snake stops among leaves - thicksons woods - whitby

Now, I am not a person who is overly fond of snakes because, as a little girl, I had a bad experience with a garter snake.  Whilst playing with a ball, it rolled beneath some wooden steps at the side of my parents’ verandah.  Wanting to retrieve the ball, I turned my head sideways in order to fit it between the two steps, and there in the cool shadows was a Garter Snake staring back at me.  I panicked, being only a few years old, and didn’t figure out that, in  order to get my head back between the steps, I had to turn it sideways again.  I was trapped…and screaming like a banshee.  Of course, no harm came to me; my mother came running to my aid, but that created in me a deep-seated fear of snakes from that day onwards.

garter snake in world of leaves checks me out - thicksons woods - whitby

I guess I have tamed my fear somewhat because, there at Thickson’s Woods, I was quite intrigued by the bold yellow colours of the Garter Snake’s scales, and the fact that it seemed as curious about me as I did about it.

garter snake shows its complete red tongue - thicksons woods - whitby

garter snake sticks out its tongue - thicksons woods - whitby

Like the two other snakes that had already slithered into the shadows beneath the dry leaves, this larger one decided to move off in search of cover.  The slight breeze carried Bob’s and my scent on the air, and the Garter Snake sampled it by flicking its rich red tongue in and out.

garter snake moves among leaves at nest - thicksons woods - whitby

In this photo, the Garter Snake’s bright yellow stripes, usually three, stand out against the dark body.  A checkerboard pattern of dark spots occurs between the yellow stripes.

garter snake checks me out - thicksons woods - whitby

Garter Snakes can grow to be four feet long.  They are carnivorous creatures, and will eat almost anything that they can overpower…slugs, earthworms, lizards, amphibians, ants, frogs eggs, toads and rodents.  They swallow their prey whole.

garter snake behind an oak leaf - thicksons woods - whitby

Because Garter Snakes are cold-blooded animals, they bask in warm sunshine to raise their body temperatures, as well as to help them digest their food.

garter snake - beautiful color of eye - thicksons woods - whitby

A keen eye was required to pick this Garter Snake out amongst the pine needles and twigs.  Even knowing exactly where it lay, Bob and I kept losing track of it whenever we looked away for even a second.  Through the camera lens, it was almost impossible to locate.

garter snake sticks out its tongue from behind oak leaf - thicksons woods - whitby

Much patience was required to capture this image of the Garter Snake flicking its tongue.  The snake thought itself well hidden from view but could still smell our presence or sense our movements through vibrations in the earth.

garter snake retracks its tongue - thicksons woods - whitby

As the Garter Snake retracted its tongue, the transparency of the forked ends rendered them virtually imperceptible.

garter snake - but where is it in the leaves - thicksons woods - whitby

Bob and I wandered away from the known Garter Snake den confident that the Garter Snakes would elude the keen eye of the Great Horned Owl.  It was nowhere to be seen that afternoon, but as the days become warmer still, and the snakes more active, one of them might succumb to the talons of the owl as it struggles to feed itself, its mate and the two owlets in the nest.

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Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean


  • Absolutely beautiful photos of a beautiful creature! 🙂

  • Garter snakes will hibernate in huge numbers in Manitoba. In fact, it is the largest concentration of hibernating reptiles in the world. They are a favorite prey for wading birds. So what wading birds do you have around there? The San Francisco garter snake has been listed as an endangered species, because the loss of wetlands in San Francisco Bay.

  • I always look forward to your postings.Your patience is amazing to capture the shots you do.I have watched each of the videos times over.I have learnt so much about the Garter Snake.Thanks.

    • Thanks, Hazel. I’m glad that we are able to impart at least some knowledge to our readers. I learn a bit with each blog story, too, even if it is only about myself.

  • Amazing photos of the snake. You must have the patience of Job.

    • Thanks, Bonnie. It did take some patience, but the real challenge was in holding the camera still for long periods of time. I was determined to catch the tongue as it sampled the air.

  • Have you heard any up-dates on whether the second chick that was pushed/fell out of the nest has survived? He was put back in a tree twice apparently by humans, but as of Saturday when I was there it apparently hadn’t been spotted in over a day, nor had one of its parents who had been continuing to feed it. I’m hoping that means the missing chick and it’s missing parent are still together somewhere.

    • My goodness. We hadn’t heard the news. How sad. We will likely head out to the woods sometime over the next few days, and if we learn anything new, will update you. Thanks for keeping us in the loop.