Sunday, September 18, 2011

"LIFER!" Green Snakes And Birding Trash

Opheodrys vernalis, or Smooth Green Snake to the rest of ya
"Oooooooh! I declare: this looks like a Chateau Grasshopper if I ever saw one!"

Smooth Green Snake moving on from dinner reject. Note that the snake has its tongue out. Snakes communicate by smell and tasting chemicals in the air released by other snakes. They also communicate with body language. This one may have been looking for other snakes or food.

And here, it may have found its true love!

     I just spent most of two days on Monhegan Island. Monhegan is ten miles off the coast of Maine from Port Clyde. The island is on the eastern flyway, so it's a birding hot spot. I was hoping to add to my paltry, birding life list with a new species or two. But, no such luck. It's already a touch late into migration and the weather was not on my side. The first day was socked in with pea soup fog and drizzle. The second day, though the sun was shining brightly, the wind was blowing steady at 35 MPH with gusts higher than that. My husband and I were there to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. So, additionally leaping from bed at the crack of dawn and running into the woods seemed like bad form. I lingered with him over coffee and love talk, so probably missed some really good birds in the early morning. "Good birds" are what birders say when a birder sees a rarity or a bird out of its usual range or season. I don't believe in "bad birds," though I know some who do. European starlings, Mourning doves, House sparrows, Mute swans, and other "trash birds" which have been introduced from other continents are regarded as bad birds. I like all of them. That makes me birding trash, I suppose. Monhegan feels like another continent, and I was definitely a foreign introduction.
   Another thing that makes me birding trash is that I'm a photographer. I am more interested in great photographs than I am in ticking birds off a list. Don't get me wrong: I've got enough ego that I groove on adding to my Life List (the list of species a birder tallies), but I'll sacrifice a bird tick for a photo tick every time. I am also every bit as drawn by other species of wildlife. I think ideally, we should all have wildlife life lists, not just confine ourselves to one type. After all, birds and snakes and insects and all the kids in the pool are connected to one another as food eventually.
     It was my husband who saw these snakes first. He has a major aversion to snakes, though I wouldn't call him a full blown herpetaphobe.  He knows I love snakes. Ahead of me on the trail, he motioned to come quickly. "Look! Snakes!" He hissed, pointing to the ground at his feet. There were three, Smooth Green Snakes staring each other down and circling a grasshopper. I could not have been more delighted as I had never seen one before. "That's a Lifer for me!" I declared with glee while shooting photographs.
     Green snakes are common in Maine and throughout most of the United States. They are not endangered, but for some reason, I had never seen one alive. When they are born, they are brownish to olive green. A few of them keep that coloration into adulthood, but most turn the brilliant green you see in these photos. They have a creamy yellow belly that is slightly whitish on the most underside. When they die, the yellow and green skin pigments turn to blue. I have seen dead, blue Green snakes after which I was blue, too.  
     There are two species of Green snakes, Smooth and Rough. You guessed it: the scales of the smooth are smooth and the other rough. The Green snake is the only species of green snake. They grow to around two feet long. Females are slightly larger than males, which have longer tails. If you can figure out what part of a snake qualifies as tail, you're a better herpetologist than I am. Other than the head, they look like all tail to me. Green snakes breed in the spring. They lay about 8 eggs which hatch in August and September. It takes two years for Green snakes to be old enough to mate. No one really knows how long they live. It is reported that one in captivity lived to be six years old. Don't try to keep one as a pet, though. Usually they refuse to eat and die. You wouldn't want that on your hands, would you? You and your Green snake would then be blue.
     Green snakes' preferred habitat is grassland, which their color gives away. They are most active during the day, so that's when people usually see them. If it's hot, they will be about in the mornings and evenings. Green snakes are also found in forest and rocky areas. We were on the wooded trails on the east side of Monhegan when we saw this trio.  Eventually, we tallied six of them, all in the sun on rocks. Green snakes are solitary for most of the year, so it was odd to find three together. In the winter, they hibernate in groups, sometimes with other species of snakes. Perhaps everybody was getting together to go under ground to the ant hills and empty rodent burrows where they hibernate. They might have been taking a supplies inventory for the long winter. "Larry, have you got extra flashlight batteries?" "And Joan, you were supposed to get a box of granola bars. Did you?" There would be a snake like me that made sure there were enough bottles of Merlot to go around and maybe some dark chocolate. The other snakes would look at each other and roll their eyes. But, come February, none of them would be shy about swilling my wine and nibbling my shared chocolate, either.  
  Green snakes usually eat insects - crickets, spiders and grasshoppers being tops on the list. They're general carnivores though and will eat small amphibians if they find them. They use smell and vibration to find lunch. I was sure that the snake in the top photo was going to snag that grasshopper. It did give it some consideration, but then slithered by. Maybe the grasshopper looked like a screw top or a bad vintage. Milk snakes, another Maine native, eat Green snakes. So do cats, foxes, raccoons, and birds. The Green snakes' only defenses are a musky smell emitted if the snake is handled and its camouflage color. They are not venomous. 
While you are in the natural world,
Looking for the lovely bird,
Cast your eyes from the sky
To the lowly ground.
If luck be with you,
A slithering Green snake may be found.

For more information, look here:
Green Snakes in Maine Provided by    
Maine Herpetological Society
J.D.'S Herp Page  This is an interesting web site with a load of information and great photos on assorted reptiles - snakes, frogs, turtles, salamanders and the like. The author has a herp. life list, as I think we all should to be thought well rounded.

For more Monhegan images from our trip, click here.


  1. Interesting post. I have never seen a Green Snake, didn't even know snakes of this lime green color existed. Thanks for the info. Nice shots!!

  2. Strikingly beautiful creature. Maybe the grasshopper spit tobacco juice on it.

    Matt Paust
    September 18, 2011 07:28 PM

  3. Love the shot of two snakes!
    No. No bird is a bad bird. (But there are some bad people . . . )

    September 19, 2011 06:43 AM

  4. Beautiful photos of the green snakes...especially the true love shot!

    clay ball
    September 19, 2011 07:31 AM

  5. Fantastic photos of the Green Snake(s)! They really are quite lovely. Very informative blog post. I learned something new today, thank you! How terrific that you were able to capture two of the snakes in one image. Great post!

  6. That was one lucky grasshopper, they are rather lovely snakes Robin, but I'm with your husband eeeeeeeeeeww!!

  7. Wonderful story. I must also be birding trash, lol. I take photos as reference to use and learn from for bird paintings I create. I love photographing birds and all else that catches my eye along the trails. Bugs have recently captured my attention for their intimate tiny beauty. I am enjoying your entertaining blog, thank you.

  8. Thank you for another delightful post and information I didn't know. Congratulations on your 10th anniversary. There are no "bad birds" in my books either - even the vulture has its appeal to a photographer's eye. We're not judging them on their lifestyles or looks, after all, are we?

    September 19, 2011 02:23 PM

  9. Yes Green Snakes rule...Great post..
    Algis Kemezys
    September 19, 2011 02:46 PM

  10. Like you, I care more about great photographs than ticking off some list. Currently I am waiting for the Sandhill Cranes to begin appearing overhead. I am right on the route they take from Minnesota and Montana down to Galveston and areas east and west of there.

    I put on full camo (I'm currently making a Ghillie suit cover) and stalk out on my property and my next door neighbors (many, many acres all told.) My most frustrating attempt so far is the Pileated Woodpecker (you know, the Woody Wood Pecker bird?) who has managed to get so close to me that if I moved, I would scare it away. My photos are of them much, much more distant than that.

    I also worked at a zoo for nearly seven years and took many photos of animals while inside their enclosures or through the enclosure fencing. And of course, any stray spiders, snakes, butterflies, cool looking bugs, squirrels in the trees, migrating birds were all fit to photograph.

    I used to say, "shoot" photographs or get a shot, but I began to wonder if I was sending the wrong mental imagery to my subjects? After all, I wasn't 'shooting' anything, I was only capturing images. Then I changed captureing images to recording their beauty.

    Since then I have been able to get much closer to my subjects. Is there a connection? Who can say?

    Loved this. I have green snakes out here always catching frogs at my kiddie pool watering hole by the house.


    September 19, 2011 05:50 PM

  11. Well despite the fact that I hate snakes, your pictures are wonderful! THis grasshoper was quite lucky that this snake was looking for something else than food ;-)

  12. Love the "true love" shot. ~r

    Joan H.
    September 20, 2011 06:07 AM

  13. Those beautiful critters are an amazing shade of green! I looked at your other pictures of Monhegan and that pathway reminded me of a similar one upon which we wandered in British Columbia. It also was close to the ocean. Thank you for the lovely pictures and the stroll down "memory lane".

    Chrissie Pissie
    September 19, 2011 08:50 PM

  14. I enjoyed this post on one of God's less loveable creatures. *shudder*

    Miguela Holt y Roybal
    September 20, 2011 08:43 AM

  15. Good snake identification and what a lucky sight! two snakes looking at each other. Much better than ticking off a bird for your list.

  16. as always so entertaining!!!!! happy anniversary. Love Rita

  17. Happy Anniversary Robin!

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