Different folks have different ways of ushering in spring. For some, the simple arrival of the vernal equinox, marking the point on the calendar when days and nights are of the same approximate length, (March 20 this year) is good enough. For others, it’s tied to specific events such as Easter, the start of the Major League Baseball season or spring break for high schools and colleges.
I measure spring’s return slightly differently. In my eyes, spring begins gradually, with the arrival of wisteria in the trees and shrubs here in central South Carolina, which usually occurs in mid-March, followed by other flora and fauna, such swallowtail butterflies, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed deer.
But the one event that signifies unequivocally, at least in my world, that the seasons have changed is represented by the capture of the first snake of the year. For me, at least, spring came yesterday.
I’d had a near-brush a couple of weeks back when I took my girls to Woods Bay State Park, near Olanta, SC, where we saw a Northern water snake just inches from our path, but while I was able to get a hand on it, it proved too quick and slipped into the underbrush.
Yesterday, with a bit of free time in the afternoon, I drove up the road about 15 miles to an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail within the past few years. It rarely gets much use, so I figured that my chances for seeing some wildlife were decent.
Right off the bat I managed to catch a five-lined skink. About six inches long, this creature resembled a large, fat, short-legged lizard. Judging from its reaction – repeatedly biting me – it appeared unhappy with being disturbed. After snapping a few pictures of Plestiodon fasciatus I set the ingrate free and continued down the path.
After about a quarter mile I came across an old railroad bridge that crossed Crim’s Creek, located in Newberry County, SC. It’s a short bridge, about 30 feet in length; its rails were pulled up many years ago and wooden planking laid down to facilitate foot and bike traffic.
As I walked across watching the water flow along I caught sight of a black rat snake. It was curled around one of the bridge edgings that jutted out two feet or so over a dry part of the creek bed. I snapped a couple of pictures without startling the snake, which was about five feet in length, then walked past to find a stick.
(Having been bitten by several rat snakes, I know better than to simply try to grab at one when it’s facing me. I’m quick that way.)
Securing a branch, I attempted to get it under the snake to try to lift the reptile onto the bridge. However, at the last moment the snake slipped off the stick and fell a few feet to the grass below. I scampered around the end of the bridge to the creek bed as it slithered up under the bridge. It tried to climb into an inaccessible part of the underside of the bridge, which was low to the ground, but I was able to reach the stick in and lift the snake out.
One of the great things about snakes is if you get them in an area with a lot of weeds and grass, they’ll immediately burrow in to try to escape. This makes catching them a good deal easier than if they’re on a flat, unobstructed surface because the grass and weeds keep them from being able to whip around and bite.
Within a few moments I had the snake by the tail and slowly began working my way up, using the stick to gently keep its head from getting at my hand. Within a minute, I was able to grasp the snake by the neck, and it was soon gently coiled around my hand and wrist.
Black rat snakes are nonvenomous, but will bite and will also shake their tails in an effort to frighten potential predators. They’re excellent climbers: More than one rat snake has eluded me by climbing low-hanging branches to make their way up and out of my reach.
While many folks are petrified of snakes, species such as the black rat snake eat mice and rats, along with a wide array of other small animals, including other snakes. One rat snake can keep a pretty large area clear of vermin, which sounds like a good trade-off.
In retrospect, the pictures of me and my captive reptile came out slightly better than ones I tried to take last summer. Last July I caught another black rat snake, this one nearly six feet long, about 20 miles to the east, along a country road.
As I was holding my camera above me trying to take a photo of myself with the snake (you have your accomplishments; I have mine), a bicyclist came riding along out of nowhere, steadily pedaling past me. As is the custom in these parts, I looked up and gave him a nod and a “Howdy,” all while still holding the snake. The bicyclist responded with one of those thousand-yard stares, eyes big as saucers, as he slowly pedaled past, watching me warily without uttering a word.
After I had loosed the snake in the grass and got back in my car I had a good chuckle. I suppose one doesn’t often crest a hill in the middle of rural South Carolina to find some clown snapping pictures of himself with a writhing six-foot snake.