The Pine Ridge Association at Henry W. Coe State Park

Garter Snakes


It Really Doesn't Matter

by Marlene Testaguzza


gartersnakeIt's a narrow creek, sided by gravel bars and steep rock walls.  Green plants interrupt the slight, bubbly current, and occasional thickets and trees grow along the creek banks.

There's a snake (gender unknown, but I'll refer to her as female), about three feet long, black with a distinct orange-yellow stripe down her back and one cream-yellow stripe low on each side of her body.  She's searching for food, in and out of the creek, investigating burrows in the creek sides, crawling up rock walls.  Every now and then she disappears into adjacent thickets, reappears on nearby gravel bars, and then travels down the center of the creek.

I walked with her, a few feet from her.  She hunted above water, in water, and on land.  There seemed to be borders, defined ends of the creek that she wouldn't venture beyond.  Side limits seemed absent.
After I learned the end boundaries, I sat down on a small creek bank and waited.  Soon, she came undulating by, angling out of the creek towards me.  I slowly straightened up; she lifted her head, then froze, and I saw that she had yellow eyes.  While stationary, she didn't flick her red tongue (which I'd watched her do when she was hunting).  This statuelike pose contrasted sharply with her almost frantic movements when she resumed searching.  For the next hour she disappeared and reappeared.  Finally she vanished into the grassland beyond a thicket.

Time to identify her.

I took two appropriate field guides out of my daypack and opened one of them.  Let's see . . . Common Garter Snake, Western Terrestrial Garter Snake, Western Aquatic Garter Snake.  She looked like a Ribbon Snake (her behavior and coloration fit), but the map said it couldn't be so.  Back to the Common Garter Snake, the most widely distributed snake in North America.  Its coloration is highly variable (helpful information!).  There are two pages of subspecies descriptions, small print.  Then there's overlapping of similarly colored subspecies and differently colored same species!  Something about the number of scale rows, the number of upper labials, eye size, stripe margins, ventral color suffusion, round spots, squarish spots, well-separated spots, no spots!

Incredulous, I stared at the second guidebook, and my choices became clear . . . open it or sit on it!  With a deliberateness I hadn't known I possessed, I chose the latter option.

After a while, a certain peace flowed through me, and I thought, "It really doesn't matter.  I'm grateful for this afternoon, glad she didn't dash away or hide from me.  I'm happy that she let me watch how graceful and beautiful she is, how she hunts, darting here and there.  And how for one brief moment she had stopped by and we had both stood still . . . ."