Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 30, 2010

Snakes on a Lane

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:43 pm

While the cinematic reference of this piece may be a bit obscure, the subject is directly entertainment related. Should you ever find yourself in northern Michigan and at a lack for things to do, then I have a suggestion. There are many different things to do up in these parts and most of them involve off-roading and engines of some sort. So, wanting to fit in somewhat, we decided to spend a few hours on-roading for snakes. Yes, you read right – driving on the backroads looking for linear reptiles.

If you found “Snakes on a Plane” creepy then you will not appreciate my entertainment suggestion so you are free to skip this entry entirely. The cool early fall weather provides a great incentive for lane snaking. The snakes come out onto the roads in order to soak up some of the morning sun. This past week the evening temperatures have been dipping down into the low 40’s so the reptiles are needful of all the extra solar heating they can get during the day.

Road basking is a hazardous task for late season snakes, especially given the number of vengeful drivers out there who delight in running the poor things over. The trick to snake laning is to detect the snakes long before you accidently run them over, pull off the road without alerting your quarry, and getting out to grab them, observe them, or simply photograph them. You’ll need to drive with one eye on the road ahead, and one on the road itself with your third eye scanning the rear view mirror for traffic. If you do not have a third eye, then a wife will do. Oh, by the way, the Michigan Department of Traffic Safety requests that this activity shouldn’t be done on a busy road – it must be a back road with no real traffic.

Our chosen snake laning morning took us along a dirt road that had not seen a vehicle since the previous night (I know this due to the night rain, Sherlock) and onto a blacktop that served only the local cottage crowd. We came upon several snakes on that round. Three of them were unlucky enough to have already found themselves between the rubber and the road, but two were alive and well.

Since I’ve presented Northern Water Snakes to you before, I will only briefly exhibit a few shots of the first snake. It was a young water snake lounging in mid lane like a stick. This fellow, a crisply marked young individual, was only about a foot long and was in full stretch when first encountered. Upon my approach it recoiled a bit and took on a slight attitude. Because the morning was still cool, however, his actual movement was slow as if to say “Haaaaay, I Seeeeee Yooooooou.” Here is it for you to see (above) and to admire the banding and dark background color of this species. The young ones have an especially bold pattern.

I made sure to shuffle this guy off the road before moving on to the next discovery. This is another primary rule of snake laning, by the way. You must make sure your snake is out of harm’s way before the next car comes by. It is very probable that the next passer by will be Alice Cooper. You can’t do anything about the snake’s probable return to the open road, but at least you can leave the scene with a free conscious.

The second snake was a Ribbon Snake. These very slender members of the garter snake tribe are common enough, but I have never before seen one in the wild and I’m banking that you may not have either (if you have, then you have permission to leave the room and watch “Snakes on a Plane”).

At first glance this serpent appeared from a distance to be a common Garter Snake (see beginning picture) but the combination of three very clear lines and a very skinny frame marked him for what he was. This individual, having the advantage of an extra half hour of solar heating, was a bit more on the ball than the earlier water snake. He tried to make a break for the shoulder as soon as it realized I wasn’t a car, so I had to grab him for some close examination (remembering the old adage that a snake in hand is better than two on the tarmac).

There are two more very specific traits, beyond the aforementioned items, which serve as identifiers for the Ribbon Snake. The upper set of scales on the lip are unmarked and appear to be solid white (see above) whereas the Common Garter has patterning on these scales. A second feature, less obvious but equally important, is that the lateral lines are located on the 3rd and 4th line of scales as opposed to  the Garter whose lines adorn the 2nd and 3rd row.

Now, not having held a Ribbon Snake before, the one trait that really caught my eye was the beautiful brown color of the sides which contrasts so nicely with the light belly (see above). It was such a rich brown shade that to simply call it “brown” seems less than adequate. I’d like to call it Burnt Chestnut or German Chocolate, even if those terms are not scientific. But, hey, since lane snaking is not a purely scientific pursuit, I feel fully justified. Afterall, lane snaking as a sport needs some emotionally descriptive language in order to catch on.

Next week: the downriver sport of Raccoon Canning.


  1. OH, that ribbon snake is absolutely gorgeous! Around us it’s mostly been frogs on the road these days (or, rather, nights) – and a few red efts. It’s been so dry this year, but Sept. is trying to make up for it. I think we had a total of four rainless days all month.

    Comment by Ellen — October 1, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  2. Oh, but I have seen a Ribbon Snake in the wild, if you can call the area in front of the goat barn “wild.” It was eating a tiny frog, and it was one of those miraculous events that I actually got to observe with a camera in hand.

    Comment by Joy K. — October 2, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

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