Winter Landscape with Snakes

You might think that at this time of year that all snakes are safely tucked away for the winter, not so. Although I haven’t personally seen any snakes slithering across the landscape here at the Museum (I did see one on New Year’s Day along the Eno River), our resident Red-shouldered Hawk has seen them, at least three that I know of, probably more.

While talking with the Explore the Wild Team of Animal Keepers and Volunteer here at the Museum, Kimberly, Marilyn, and Ashlyn respectively, Kimberly spotted a hawk in a tree some fifty yards or so from where we were standing. The hawk looked to be eating something. I had to get a closer look.

I walked over to where I could get a better view of the bird, took out my camera and started clicking away. It looked to me, through the camera viewfinder, that the hawk was eating a frog. I’d seen a pickerel frog earlier in the day in the pool in front of the Black Bear Enclosure, so maybe it was a Pickerel Frog that the hawk was tearing at with its sharp, hooked bill.

A Red-shouldered Hawk with what I thought was a Pickerel Frog (2/15/12).
A garter snake in the talons of the hawk.

It wasn’t until a few minutes later after the hawk had departed and I was reviewing the images on the camera that I realize that it was a snake being torn apart by the hawk, a small garter snake.

If you remember from a recent post, there had been at least two other snakes caught by what I assume is this same hawk. This capture makes three.

It seems that garter snakes have been active all winter, at least so far. When they should be brumating these snakes have been crawling around the landscape.

Yesterday was a particularly mild winter day in the mid-sixties. I saw two species of butterfly, many ground beetles, spiders, and of course at least one Pickerel Frog, so there were probably many other prey items around for the snakes to eat, if indeed they could move fast enough for them to catch anything.

Remember, the colder it is, the slower these cold blooded animals move. And although the mid-sixties is pretty warm for the middle of February I’ll bet that it wasn’t that warm on the moist floor of the forest. Everything slows down in a reptile’s body in winter. A slow metabolism means that they probably don’t need to eat, so the matter of finding prey may not be an issue for them.

I can’t wait to see what turns up tomorrow!

5 responses to Winter Landscape with Snakes

  1. peter yarrington says:

    Thanks for the interesting post and picture of the hawk with a garter snake. I sat down to do a search on :hawk snake winter” b/c yesterday afternoon here in MD in was high 20’s and we saw a red-shouldered or young red-tail on the ground tearing up and eating something… binoculars revealed it to be a snake!! I could not, cannot figure it out. I confirmed it was a snake by going to the spot later and finding several pieces of snake skin, and a lot of stink like when you pick up some snakes like water snakes and they poop on you. Still cannot figure out where the bird found the snake! We are a suburban area, and maybe right next to a heated house foundation? or a dconstruction site? ***I have seen a juv black snake halfway out of a hole on a pine tree, altost completely comatose, this time of year. I thought it must eave started to come out of hibernation and then the sun disappeared and it just got stuck there – – disadvantage of being a cold-blooded animal. Anyway, thanks for the great post. I will read more of your stuff. Pete Yarrington, Silver Spring, MD

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Thanks for the comments Pete.
      I’ve seen reports this year of rat snakes, water snakes, and even a Rough Green Snake out and about during Christmas Bird counts here in North Carolina. Those bird counts are typically held during the two weeks on either side of December 25 so it would seem that few snakes are encountered during that time. This year we had some exceptionally warm periods and exceptionally cold periods during that time, so it seems some snakes were caught out in the cold, so to speak.
      The one snake that I do find with any regularity in winter is the Garter Snake. I’ve seen them in every month of the year here in North Carolina.
      Thanks again.

  2. Sherry says:

    Well, not really eyes like a hawk Wendy. If Greg had eyes like a hawk he would have known it was a snake.

    • Greg Dodge says:

      You’re absolutely correct Sherry, I would have known it was a snake right away, had I eyes like that hawk. And, it was Kimberly who spotted the hawk in the first place, she’s the hawkeye around here.

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