Recently in Wildlife - Snakes Category

Alert Gazette readers will recall our encounter with a cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) last fall. Then, a couple of months ago we discovered a four-foot-long blotched water snake in our courtyard. The latter encounter taught me that distinguishing between the poisonous cottonmouth and the non-venomous water snake wasn't as easy as I had initially assumed.

If you google "cottonmouth vs water snake," you'll see that I'm not the only one who needs some help with this subject. There are many articles and videos that attempt to teach you how to correctly distinguish these species, something that could literally be a life-and-death skill. Unfortunately, in the real world, snakes don't carry ID cards, and making an absolute identification is hit or miss.

Case in point: a few days ago MLB and I were walking on the trail that encircles our neighborhood, and which roughly parallels Pecan Creek for about half its length. Something in the creek caught my eye and I scurried over to investigate. I'll save you a few thousand words, and substitute the following video instead.



According to "the experts," there are several factors to consider when trying to decide if the snake you're confronting will deliver a potentially fatal bite or just a very painful one (yeah, they pretty much all bite). But I think there are drawbacks to each of those factors.

Distinguishing Trait Why It Won't Work
Unique body pattern/coloring Ha. Good luck with that. They all look alike.
Cottonmouths float when they swim. Water snakes swim with only their heads above water. The truth of this is debatable. Plus, they're not always IN the water.
Cottonmouths have thicker, heavier bodies than water snakes. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten itself to appear thicker and heavier.
Cottonmouths have triangular heads and thin necks. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten its head so that it appears, well, triangular.
Cottonmouths have heat-sensing "pits" between their nostrils and their eyes. Those pits aren't readily discernible unless you're really, really close.
Cottonmouth eyes have vertical pupils. Water snakes have round pupils. This is probably the best differentiator, but you still have to get close enough to discern the shape.

So, while I lean toward identifying "our" snake as a cottonmouth, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. In any event, we're stepping more cautiously when we're out in the yard, even though the likelihood of one coming that far from the creek is pretty small. I'd hate for either of us to make a positive identification of a cottonmouth in the worst possible fashion.

Photo - snake in creek
You decide.
WoodpeckerEarlier this spring, an oak tree across the street from our house attracted the attention of a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers*. The tree's trunk has a hollowed-out place about twenty feet off the ground and the opening faces our front windows; I can see it from my usual seat in the living room.

Since April, MLB and I have watched as the woodpeckers made a home in the hollow trunk. They diligently climbed in and out of the hole in the tree, bringing out mouthfuls of dust and debris to clean out the space, presumably in preparation for a nest and young. They were constantly flying in and out and around the tree and we grew accustomed to them as neighbors.

Then, a week or so ago, I noticed an exceptionally busy flurry of activity. The birds were even more active in flying up to the hole in the trunk, stopping for a moment, then flying away. I noticed movement in the hole, and theorized that the adults were feeding a batch of newly hatched progeny in the nest.

I set up a video camera on a tripod behind a tree in our front yard, zoomed in on the hole, and started recording at around 6:00 p.m. I left it running while I went in for supper. The battery on the camera was good for only about an hour or so of recording, but I hoped that it would pick up something interesting in that short time.

Boy, did it ever!

Instead of piling several thousand words on you to describe what we viewed, here's a semi-short video (~13 minutes) distilling a couple of months' worth of action, leading to a completely unexpected climax.There are really three different storylines in the video; I hope you find it enlightening, if not entertaining.



So, if you're in the TL:DW mode, here's a quick summary:

  • Woodpeckers occupy hollow tree
  • They create a happy home
  • Said home is invaded by a rat snake
  • Outcome is negative for occupants of bird home
  • Turns out, there are actually TWO snakes in that tree
As I note in the video, we think the snakes are Texas rat snakes; their behavior and appearance are consistent with what we've been able to glean online. These snakes are non-venomous and non-aggressive. They are excellent climbers (duh) and seek out birds' nests for food. They will also eat rodents, including squirrels. As serpent neighbors go, we could do a lot worse.

The woodpeckers have relocated somewhere else in the neighborhood. I still hear their calls, but haven't seen them again. We enjoyed watching them, but also recognize that they are somewhat destructive birds so their absence is not personally devastating. We do hope, however, that what the snake dined on was eggs and not live young.

The snakes remained in the tree for a couple of days after the final video. We have additional footage of them climbing up and down the tree in search of more prey, much to the chagrin of a small bevy of tiny birds who were obviously disturbed by one of the snake's presence. However, we never spotted their nest(s) so we have no idea of the outcome of that confrontation.

For our timid neighbor's information -- that would be you, Kristi -- the snakes are now gone as well.

*For the longest time, I thought they were ladder-backed woodpeckers. But while researching the species for this article, I realized that the coloring and especially the call were wrong. So much for my career as an ornithologist.

Snake Mistake
May 2, 2018 8:33 PM | Posted in: ,

"Eric...come quick!"

I was sitting in the office late yesterday afternoon when I heard MLB's overly excited summons from somewhere in the middle of the house. I ran out to find her staring out the living room windows at something in the front courtyard. 

"Oh, man. That's a water moccasin. Keep an eye on him while I grab a hoe!" 

I scurried into the garage, found the hoe, and hurried to the courtyard where MLB was keeping an eye on the snake...albeit still through the window. It was still and stretched out in front of the window, not at all exercised about my presence.

Blotched Water Snake (in our courtyard)

I started to behead the serpent when I noticed my neighbor across the street visiting with a man who was working on the new house next door. I yelled at them to come over. "Wanna see a water moccasin?!" They hurried over.

The neighbor stayed behind the fence to observe the proceedings, but the other man rushed into the courtyard with an obvious expression of interest on his face. 

"That's a water moccasin, alright, but it's not a cottonmouth," he asserted. I was immediately confused and mentally docked points from his herpetological knowledge score. But the more he talked, the more it sounded like he did, indeed, know his snakes.

"It's not poisonous, and I wouldn't kill it," he said. I was still skeptical, but he began to lay out his supporting argument. It sounded logical, although as the snake continued to strike aggressively at the business end of the hoe blocking its path, I wasn't completely convinced. He continued, "if you won't kill it, I'll take it away."

"Uh...OK. But first...where, exactly, do you live?" I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to drive a block or two and let it go. It turns out that he lives 20+ miles down the highway, has a neighbor who works for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and the two of them often collaborate on wildlife issues.

Having established his sincerity, I agreed to try to herd the snake into a moving box that MLB had brought from inside the house. The reptile wasn't initially keen to go where we wanted it to go, but we finally managed to persuade it to crawl into the cardboard box, and the gentleman happily hauled it over to his pickup.

He was working at the new house this morning when we returned after a run, and he flagged us down. I asked him how the snake release went, and he said that it slithered into the Pedernales River and immediately vanished. He said they measured the snake at more than three feet in length. "I also identified the species," he said as he opened his pickup door and pulled out a guide to Texas snakes. "It's a blotched water snake." It took him a while to rifle through the pages (Texas is home to a LOT of snakes) but when he finally found it, it did indeed seem to be "our" snake.

In reading more about the blotched water snake -- which, by the way, seems to be a highly uncomplimentary name, but I suppose the snake has no objections -- I learned that it is often mistaken for a cottonmouth. But the latter's eyes has elliptical pupils, while the harmless water snakes all have round pupils (see photo below). I'll leave it to you to decide how close you need to get to make that distinction. There are a few other physical and behavioral differences between the "good" and "bad" snakes, and they're worth learning if you live in an area where the latter are found, AND you don't subscribe to a philosophy that the only good snake is a dead one.

Comparison of eyes of non-venomous and venomous snakes

We all agreed that there was no good reason to kill non-venomous snakes, and several good ones for having them around (rodent control being at the top of the list). Nevertheless, I still wasn't willing to concede that venomous snakes found in a neighborhood were worthy of the same consideration, a position he advocates.

Now, having said that, we're still not keen on the idea of having even the good ones lurking around in our flowerbeds and lawns. Heart attacks are generally even more fatal than snake bites!
[Part 1] [Part 2]



Trigger Warning: Here there be dragons. Or, at least, serpents. Elizabeth, you've been warned.


Having survived the Great Coax Caper and the Putrid Possum Pestilence, we were looking forward to a relaxing hike on the newly-christened Horseshoe Creek Trail with The Nephew, his wife, and their dog Sophie. (I briefly introduced the Trail in this novel-length post from last December.) So, at mid-morning on Saturday we caravanned up to the south trailhead, which is at the end of the winsomely-named Mausoleum Road.

You get to the trailhead by way of Mountain Dew Road, a steep and winding street that meanders through neighborhoods interspersed with the typical Texas Hill Country scrub woods. As we neared the Mausoleum Road turnoff, we encountered this lovely beast stretched out across the pavement:

Photo - Big honkin' rattlesnake

I jumped out of the truck and cautiously (an understatement) approached the snake, and snapped a few photos. Photo of rattlesnake rattleI estimate it was about 3-3 1/2' in length, but what was most striking (pun intended) was the thickness of its body. Rattlers tend to be this way, but some who have seen this photo suggest that this one was either pregnant or had just eaten a large meal. In any event, this was not only the first rattlesnake we've seen in the four years we've been coming to Horseshoe Bay, but also one of the largest we've encountered, period. A closeup of the non-business end of the snake clearly shows nine rattles plus a button...not a record by any means, but still a pretty good noisemaker. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, you can't judge the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles; they add one each time they shed their skin, but they might shed multiple times in a year.)

The snake paid us no mind, and didn't move until we got back in the truck. At that point, I had to make a decision regarding its fate. Had it been in an absolute wilderness with no homes or public trails around, I probably would have let it go, but in this case it was (1) moving toward the trail we were about to hike, and (2) fairly close to a number of houses. So, I chose to inflict Death by Michelin on the serpent. I'm never happy about having to kill an animal, but this one had the obvious potential to do serious harm to humans and their pets.

We proceeded to the trailhead, determined to do the planned hike, but you can bet that the thought of encountering more of these rattlers was at the forefront of all our minds. Horseshoe Creek Trail is not particularly challenging, but at this time of the year, it's covered with leaves and it passes over and through rocky terrain that provides perfect camouflage for snakes. I led the hike and didn't really see much on the first leg other than the ground immediately in front of me, trying to make sure we weren't stepping on anything hazardous to our health. Relaxing? Well, not really.

Fortunately, we didn't come across another snake, but my singleminded attention to the ground almost resulted in an even worse encounter.

We came to a rise in the trail, a section that required stepping onto some rocks, and at the last second, I looked up just in time to see a Big. Honkin'. Spider (!) drop down at eye-level. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a classic case study in arachnophobia, and this freaked me out way more than that rattlesnake. 

The spider had stretched its web completely across the trail, a distance of at least four feet, from a tree on one side to a bush on the other. Had I not seen it in time, I not only would have had a spider on my face, but I would have been wrapped in a web, and I think we all know what that leads to. 

Webbed Frodo
In my mind, every spider is named Shelob.

I may have screamed like a little girl, just the tiniest bit, but we did find an easy detour around this horror, and the rest of the hike was pleasantly uneventful. Here are a handful of photos take along the trail; click on the photos to see larger uncropped versions.

Horseshoe Creek - Not quite a stream in the desert, but close Horseshoe Creek Trail The trail winds through some semi-rugged terrain In places, you can catch a brief view of Lake LBJ The trail passes some serious boulders. Horseshoe Creek Sophie leading the rest of the intrepid band


OK, there was one stretch of dry creek bed that contained a startling reminder that perhaps the snake we encountered earlier was just an infant, a mere worm compared to what might inhabit that rough terrain through which we were traipsing:

Photo - animal skeleton

Is this the skeleton of a harmless deer...or is it more likely the remains of a prehistoric dinoserpent whose descendants still inhabit these hills? You'll have to decide for yourself; I'm still on spider watch.

Nocturnal Neighborhood Visitor
June 23, 2013 2:59 AM | Posted in:

Debbie went outside just before 10:00 p.m. last night to look at the "Supermoon" and came back to report that two women were in the street in front of our house watching what they feared might be a "baby rattlesnake."

I grabbed a flashlight - which proved unnecessary because the reptile was directly under our street lamp, and also because the moon was living up to its advanced billing - and immediately recognized that it was not a dangerous species (other than possibly causing a heart attack in the unwary night time dog walker). The snake was only about 12" long, and wasn't happy to be in our company, as it did its best to get away.

Photo - Young snake

However, I confess that I don't know for sure what kind of snake it was. My first guess was a juvenile bull snake, simply because we have so many of them in this area. The head is not as thick as I would have expected, but I really haven't seen enough young ones to know for sure. After googling it, I think it also bears a close resemblance to a king snake, but I don't know if they range into our part of the state.

Update: Our resident habitat expert, Burr Williams, says that this is a long-nosed snake. It will eat lizards, but not, unfortunately, rats.

Photo - Young snake

I took a few photos and allowed the youngster to slither down the gutter toward the park. With any luck, he'll get big enough to take care of some of the cotton rats that are coming into the neighborhood in search of water.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Wildlife - Snakes category.

Wildlife - Other is the previous category.

Wildlife - Trapping is the next category.

Archives Index