This was the first time that I’ve seen a water snake lingering by my Dollar Lake dock. The creature just seemed to appear. I walked by the spot once and when I turned around, it was just there – lounging in the weed-choked waters under the glare of the mid-day sun. A nearby green frog, only a few feet away, also apparently saw it and froze like a fawn trembling in the presence of a hungry wolf. The wolf, or snake in this case, was not in a hunting mood but rather in a lazy sunshine basking mood. The frog was not in a discriminating mood, however, and chose to react as if the situation were potentially deadly. Frogs don’t have the luxury of mistakes. So, there next to my dock was a still life consisting of a very rigid snake and a stone-like frog set among gobs of submerged plant life.
My first pictures were tentative and quick in the event the creature – the snake, that is – decided to dart away. Water snakes can be notoriously shy and flighty. But, after a dozen more shots I finally realized that this one was either dead or in a hypnotic basking state. It was equally oblivious both to me and the frog. It moved once, so I determined that it was not dead.
As a species, the Northern Water Snake is a variable creature of color. You may recall the pale sub-species I introduced to you last year from the Bass Islands of Lake Erie. Some can be nearly black in shade, while still others sport a stunningly beautiful red-brown and cream combination. My Dollar Lake snake was average in all respects. One pattern aspect worth noting is that the markings on the first third of the body are bands running across the width of the snake and these bands eventually take on a broken rectangular design with alternating side blotches at the tail end. There is pattern to their pattern, you could say, but that would be a relatively meaningless statement akin to saying “all you need is love”. But, since I’ve already said it, we need to move on and trust our short-term memory to erase the whole thing.
The creature did appear to be smiling as if it were enjoying its sun-induced stupor. The curved jaw angle implied a somewhat sinister, if not menacing, look to the face. Combined with a relatively flat head and forward placed eyes, the look of a water snake is one of unintentional slyness. Of course, you can’t judge a book or a snake by its cover. There are no mean or sly animals in nature – they just are what they are. True, water snakes tend to be more “bitey” than other snakes and possess anti-coagulant saliva to induce heavy bleeding, but not all of them choose to exhibit this trait. This one, for instance, made no move to strike at, or escape from, the inquisitive naturalist hovering around it.
Another detail easily observable on such a still snake, are the keeled scales (see detail above). In other words the individual scales each have a ridge running down their centers like an over-turned boat. One needs to pay attention to such things when identifying snakes because some have keeled scales while other do not. Scales without keels are called smooth scales. I’ve just blurted out another meaningless statement, didn’t I? Sorry, that was almost like saying that water snakes live in the water.
Thanks to a paper by some Rutgers University researchers, I can now say something meaningful about basking water snakes. Through their research, it has been determined that New Jersey Northern Water Snakes will engage in basking when the air temperature is between 53 and 86 degrees F. and the water temperature is cooler than the air. The greater the difference between the two temperatures, the greater the chance that basking will occur. They do not generally bask on really warm days over 89 degrees F. According to this group, the snakes typically choose a dead cattail clump or a low-hanging clump of willow branches as their basking site. Oddly enough, my snake was simply lying exposed on a bed of vegetation on a very hot day where the water was about as warm as the air. So, this proves that Northern Michigan Water Snakes don’t read and New Jersey Water Snakes do.
I did not share any of this with the terrified Green Frog for it would only fall as meaningless vibrations upon his quivering little ear drums.