Eastern Garter Snakes in Whitby’s Thickson’s Woods
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.
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.
Eventually, we lost sight of the reptile, but not before Bob spotted another, smaller Garter Snake, coiled up amongst the leaf litter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
As the Garter Snake retracted its tongue, the transparency of the forked ends rendered them virtually imperceptible.
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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