The Santa Cruz Mountains- A Herper’s Delight

Dark gray, lichen covered rocks come into view as we trek up a dusty, old trail. Having earlier retreated to a local diner to escape the midday heat, the now cool, spring air was a welcomed relief. As we reached the afternoon sunlit rock outcropping, thoughts of which snake species we would encounter first began to form. Would it be a Racer? Would a juvenile NorPac be taking in the mid-afternoon sun? Fence lizards watched us cautiously as we began flipping, making sure to replace each rock as we found them. Reaching a flat rock resting by the larger outcrop, I firmly placed my fingers around the sun soaked stone and lifted it up from the green grass. A flash of red, black and white appeared against the dark brown soil. Making a quick grab, I yelled “Zonata!” Luke Talltree uttered an obscene word of shock, while Jared Heald looked in disbelief as I presented the prize. In my hand was a snake that is often regarded as the “gem” of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

zonatarocks

 

All photographs by the author. http://www.zacharge.tumblr.com . Instagram: @zacharge

202187-262964

 (Coast Mountain Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

The Mountains

Considered a part of the Pacific Coast Range, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range is situated along the western coast of Northern California. Beginning just south of San Francisco, the mountain range spans through San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. Due to levels of varying elevation and a micro-climate that is greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range boasts a variety of different habitat types.  Drought resistant plant life, such as the coast sage scrub, characterizes the chaparral.  Brown colored needles and bark of evergreens litter the forest floor of coastal redwoods. Often studded with rock outcroppings, rolling grasslands and pine-oak clearings offer sun loving plant life a place to thrive. It is within these various areas that reptiles and amphibians flourish.

santacruz

rocksgrass

Snakes

The diversity of snakes within the mountain range is nothing short of expansive. Various species inhabit the different habitat types within the mountains, with many of their ranges overlapping. Generally preferring open breaks from the extensive stretches of coastal redwoods, it is not uncommon to find multiple species coexisting within the same area. This is especially true with species that inhabit chaparral, pine-oak, and grassland habitats. During months of optimal temperature and weather, one can easily find Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), Western Yellow-bellied Racers (Coluber constrictor mormon), Pacific Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) and Coast Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata multifasciata) all within the same rock outcropping. During the moister, cooler portions of the year, one may easily uncover smaller, more fossorial serpents, such as Ringnecked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus), Sharp-tailed Snakes (both the Forest and Common species of Contia), Nightsnakes (Hypsiglena) and the extremely docile Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) under both natural and artificial cover. The various ponds, creeks, and bodies of water that span throughout the range offer refuge for garter snakes, such as the highly variable Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris) and the large bodied Santa Cruz Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus atratus). Other snake species, such as the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) and the lightning fast Striped Racer (Coluber lateralis) also call the Santa Cruz Mountain Range home.

scarredboa

 (Northern Rubber Boa- San Mateo County, CA)

articlerattler

(Northern Pacific Rattlesnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlelateralis

 (California Striped Racer- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articlegetula

 (California Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlescgs1

 (Santa Cruz Garter Snake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articleracer

 (Western Yellow-bellied Racer- San Mateo County, CA)

greenring

 (Pacific Ring-necked Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlecontia

(Sharp-tailed Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlenight

(California Nightsnake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

Lizards

Lizards are found in every habitat type that exists within the mountain range. Fence Lizards (Sceloporous occidentalis) are a common sight for anyone trekking along sun exposed trails and rock piles. Two endemic species of Alligator Lizard, the live-bearing San Francisco Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea coerulea) and the often colorful California Alligator Lizard (E.multicarinata) can easily be found under rocks and logs in areas that may prove too cold for other  species, such as the temperate redwood forest. One may spy the bright blue tails of juvenile Western Skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) slipping through oak leaf litter during the earlier mornings and midafternoons as they search for arthropod prey. Horned lizards (Phrynosoma blainvillii), as well as California Whiptails (Aspidoscelis tigris munda) are also found within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, often favoring chaparral in varying elevations.

articlegator

(California Alligator Lizard- San Mateo County, CA)

articleskink

(Western Skink- San Mateo County, CA)

Salamanders and Newts

The majority of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range lies within a temperature rainforest. Characterized by evergreens such as Coastal Redwoods and Douglas fir that thrive on the moisture generated by the Pacific coast, the generally cool and moist forests provide prime Caudata habitat. Year round streams and creeks that bleed into pools are home to the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus). Slender salamanders (Batrachoseps) and Ensatina are easily found under fallen evergreen bark and logs. The mountain range is also home to two species of Aneides– the large, yellow spotted Arboreal Salamander (A.lugubris) and the striking Santa Cruz Black Salamander (A.flavipunctatus niger). During the winter and early spring, it is very common to see mass congregations of both the California Newt (Taricha torosa) and the Rough-skinned Newt (T.granulosa) as they move to ponds and other bodies of water to breed. It should be noted that the aforementioned species are not restricted to the temperate forest. The more adaptable salamanders can be found during the cooler, wetter months within the grasslands, pine-oak clearings, and chaparral.

articlecreek

articletina(Yellow-eyed Ensatina- Santa Clara County, CA)

articledicamp

(California Giant Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

scblack(Santa Cruz Black Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

Frogs and Toads

Four species of native frog and toad are found within the mountain range. When the chaparral, grasslands, and pine oak forests are lush during the wetter seasons, the large bodied California Toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus) can be found under both natural and artificial cover. Sierran Tree Frogs (Pseudacris sierra) can often be seen jumping from reed to reed in almost any riparian area. Two spectacular species of Rana reside within the waterways of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The beautiful California Red-legged Frog (R.draytonii) can be found in many of the accessible ponds that exist within the grasslands, often favoring areas with thick aquatic plant life. Preferring rocky, sun exposed streams, the Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (R.boylii) can be found in certain locations within the range. While searching for these Anurans, one may spy the only native aquatic turtle that exists within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata).

articlefrog

 (California Red-legged Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

articletreef

(Sierran Tree Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

Conclusion

The Santa Cruz Mountain Range offers an excellent representation of the biodiversity found within coastal Northern California. Any enthusiast of the outdoors will find the sheer diversity of fauna and scenic habitat simply breathtaking. The vast expansion of undeveloped natural land is certainly a welcome change to the busy cities that lie waiting just outside the Range. Field herpers will enjoy knowing that such a large amount of different reptiles and amphibians call this region home. One must simply pay a visit to the mountains to truly understand the sheer wonder and amazement.

santacruz

The Art of Flipping

The Art of Flipping


A Guide to Flipping

It is a lovely fall evening, sunny skies with a few passing clouds, and the temperature is in the mid-70’s and the humidity is near 60%.  I walk into my backyard and walk over to my dog Cody’s doghouse.  You know, the doghouse he never uses but we keep around anyway.  The dog house sits just in front of the woods, right next to my garage.  I walk over and flip it, just to take a little peek.  I quickly notice lots of squirming little critters.  In my mind I quickly determine what is earthworm and what is snake.  With my cat-like reflexes, I grab one, then two, then a third snake.  Looking in my hand’s, I realize I have two rough earth snakes and a ringneck snake.  This, my friend, is the Herping art of “flipping”.

Flipping, as far as I am concerned, is one of the most fun ways to herp.  I incorporate flipping into most of my herping excursions.  When compared to walking the environment or cruising, key advantages are noticed.

When you walk up on a reptile already out and about, you are typically detected before they are.  The critter is already planning an escape in the event you spot him.  When Flipping, the animal is likely sleeping or less aware of you.  This gives you the upper hand when you capture the animal.  (Side note: Catch and Release!).  Flipping can also be more productive than cruising or hiking during times when the herps are not on the move.  There are many times when reptiles are less likely to be active.

When to Flip?

In the heat of the summer, reptiles find cool places to escape the heat.  Most people think that reptiles being “cold-blooded” means the more heat the better.  Although warmth is needed, there are times when it is even too hot for herps.  Different species avoid heat at different temperatures.  This is covered more in the species profiles.  When herps are hiding from the heat, look for cover that stays shady most of the day.  You can also try flipping cover that meets the edge of a stream, creek, swamp, or pond.

During cool snaps in fall or spring many herps settle in for a siesta.  They will find some cover that will be the first to heat up once the sun comes out.  Tin or other thin cover that will be the first in sunlight are the best places to look during times it is too cool for most herps.  These locations tend to be a bit more dry than summer time hiding spots when it comes to reptiles.  Amphibians will still need moist spots.

Flipping a Tarp for Herps By Phillip Laxton Instagram:  plaxton53
Flipping a Tarp for Herps By Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

When there has been several days of good feeding and everyone is digesting.  What do mean by several days of good feeding?  Lets say you are herping for Nerodia (water snake family).  They love frogs.  After 4 or 5 days of heavy rain (frog weather so it’s Nerodia weather), all the water snakes are full of frogs and hiding under cover to digest their meals.  Think of it like Sunday afternoon football.  All of us guys eat Sunday Diner then it is to the couch we go.  Nothing like a nap after a good meal with some NFL on in the background.

Flipping can have some con’s as well.  The biggest con, in my opinion, is they can be over used.  If you are herping on public property that other herpers know about, there is a good chance that object was moved recently.  I try to only move the cover on my property about once every 3 to 5 days.  Objects that are moved too much tend to be much less productive.  Flipping can also be back-breaking work.  I will cover this more later.  To keep my cover fresh and to save my back, I will evaluate the current environment and determine if hunting active animals or cruising will yield better results.

What is Best to Flip?

Some objects are better than others when it comes to making a good home for herps.  There are two categories of cover.  There is natural cover and artificial cover (AC).  Herps don’t look at it this way.  They will take advantage of whatever they can find.  But for the sake of discussion lets take a look…..

Natural Cover

Natural Cover By Phillip Laxton Instagram:  plaxton53
Natural Cover By Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

Natural cover like fallen trees, rocky ledges, large areas of leaf and/or bark ground cover, and area’s of dense vegetation are perfect places for critters to hide.  I always look at the object and try to decide if the size and weight of the object is worth the energy.  I have found big snakes under very light cover and heavy cover.  Generally speaking the bigger the herp the bigger the cover but this is not an absolute.  Target the cover based on what herp you are targeting.  We will give tips for likely cover in each species profile.

Artificial Cover (AC)

When it comes to artificial cover, a whole article could be (and might be soon) written on it.  AC includes anything that would not naturally be found in the habitat.  Tin, plywood, piled or layered materials, household trash, old car parts, fallen signs, and the list goes on and on and on.  The key to AC is all in location.  The same piece of tin could yield poor results in one spot and 10-20 yards away it could yield very good results.

Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton. Instagram: plaxton53
Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton. Notice the boards are not packed tightly.  Leave room for Herps to hide.
Instagram: plaxton53

I have found that tin, plywood, and cardboard all produce good results.  I try to lay some in shade, some in sun, and some in between.  I place most of the cover directly on the ground.  I do have a few AC sites where I stack 2x4s.  When stacking be sure to stack loosely.  If your pile is stacked too tight, there will not be as many hiding places for your herps.  Avoid stacking heavy cover as well.  Remember that flipping is supposed to be fun.  Keep heavy cover at a minimum and never stack it.

I avoid garbage and household trash as it is unsanitary.  Tires seldom result in much.  I don’t know why but, tires never reveal anything for me but the occasional lizard.  I would also avoid roofing shingles for a number of reasons.  First off, they are heavy.  Secondly, they melt in the heat.  Thirdly, they tend to pack tightly.

There is little besides tires and roofing shingles that can be sued to shelter herps but, I have had just as much luck with light material as I have heavy material.  Keep this in mind.

When to Put AC Out?

The best time to put cover out is dependent on where you live.  Here in the Coastal Plains of North Carolina, cover can be put out any time after the herping season has ended.  I usually start placing it out in late fall and throughout the winter.  Spring growth begins early in my area so I like to have it out before spring begins.  Areas with snow cover throughout much of the winter may want to consider placing the cover before the harsh winter sets in.  If you wait until spring you want to be quick as herps begin to become active shortly after the snow melt in most places.  The key to placing AC is to get it out before the new vegetation begins to grow.  I still find myself placing AC throughout the year but any site placed before the vegetation grows will be ready as soon as the herps start moving.  Otherwise, you will have to wait for a little while to flip AC laid after the vegetation begins growing.

Tips and Tricks

  • Flip objects that are in shade during really hot days
  • Flip objects that are in sunlight during cooler days
  • Don’t over flip objects.  Flipping the same object too much can cause herps to begin to avoid it.
  • Try to place objects back exactly where you found them.  The micro-habitats found under objects make them more inviting to the herps.
  • Use AC in strategic locations.  Some in shade, some in sun, and some in between.
  • Keep it light!  Use heavy AC sparingly.  You will regret a lot of heavy AC.
  • Place AC before spring vegetation grows.  Locations with heavy snow fall may benefit from laying out AC before winter.
  • AC laid after the herping season begins should be left alone for a while to set up the micro-habitat.
  • Cheap and even free AC can be found at land-fills and abandoned property.  I have gone to construction sites and offered to take some of their scraps off their hands with good results.

Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus

This article covers the species as a whole, to include the subspecies.  There are currently 14 recognized subspecies of Ringneck Snake.  There are many “intergrade zones” as well.  Additional articles will cover subspecies specifics.
 
Non-Venomous*
The ringneck is considered non-venomous in most text due to an extremely low risk to humans.  They are however slightly venomous, non-aggressive, rear-facing fanged snakes.
NorthernXSouthern Intergrade Ringneck Snake Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: plaxton53
NorthernXSouthern Intergrade Ringneck Snake Photographed by Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

Ringneck snakes are small species of colubrid snake found in much of the USA, central Mexico, and Southeastern Canada. These small snakes average 10-15″ in length throughout much of its range.  Some subspecies do get larger with D. p. regalis reaching 18″ in length.  Most ringnecks are easy to identify by the bright belly and dark top.  The Head and the back of ringnecks are typically divided by a ring around the neck.  The ring, although typically very visible, can in some groups be difficult to see or even absent.  There are several populations in intergrade zones were rings may be “broken.  Juveniles are identical to the adults but very small.  Most neonates are less than 7” long.  In the picture below, note the incomplete band of this NorthernXSouthern Intergrade from the Coastal Plains of North Carolina.

Ringneck by Phillip Laxton Instagram: plaxton53
Ringneck by Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

Feeding/Diet:  The diet of the ringneck snake is very dependant on the availability within the habitat in which the snake lives.  Overall, the primary diet consist of worms and slugs.  As the snake gets older, small salamanders and frogs may be eaten.  Food is overpowered by combination of constriction and envenomation.  Ringneck snakes produce a mild neurotoxin in a glad called the Duvernoy’s Gland.  All ringnecks produce this venom and most are able to administer this venom by use of rear fangs.  The last maxillary teeth are elongated and channeled.

General Activity/Behavior:  Ringnecks are nocturnal or crepuscular, meaning dawn and dusk.  In my personal experience with Ringnecks, I have always flipped them while they sleep or found them crawling around about 30 minutes prior to the sun going down until about an hour after the sun has gone down.

Ringneck Being Held by Phillip's 3 y/o Son Travis by Phillip Laxton Instagram: plaxton53
Ringneck Being Held by Phillip’s 3 y/o Son Travis by Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

This species rarely ever shows any aggression by way of biting.  Most of the time, the snake will dig its head (while mouth is closed), into the handler.  They wiggle around a great deal as well.  Although I have not observed it in the populations I am most familiar with, they are regularly observed curling their tail, displaying the bright coloration of their ventral side.

There have been a few reported bites from Ringneck snakes.  In the vast majority of these bites, it was a forced bite (putting your finger in their mouth so you can get bit) or during feeding.  Most of these reports showed no symptoms of envenomation.  There have been a couple reports of tingling, itching, and redness at the site of the bite.  Until recent study found the toxin, it was believed to have been an infection post bite.  We now know it is a result of the mild toxin in the saliva of the Ringneck causing the reaction.  No Ringneck has ever needed medical attention other than general first aid in the reports I have been able to locate.

Ringneck Photo by Jason Hellender (Instagram: @fireteguguy)
Ringneck Photo by Jason Hellender (Instagram: @fireteguguy)

Habitat/Range:  Ringnecks are very common snakes in much of the USA.  Most are found in woodlands although, some have inhabited grassy plains and even some savanna type environments.  Be sure to check out the subspecies pages for details on the subspecies specifics.

Reproduction:  Most Ringnecks mate in spring and lay 2-7 eggs during early summer.  There are a few subspecies in the northern ranges that mate in fall with the eggs being laid late spring the following year.

Ringneck Photo by Jason Hellender (Instagram: @fireteguguy)
Ringneck Photo by Jason Hellender (Instagram: @fireteguguy)

Neat Fact:  Until recently, most text listed the Ringneck snake as a Non-venomous snake without even mention of the neurotoxic venom the snake produces.  Recent research has proven this to be untrue with ringnecks as well as a few other species listed as non-venomous in the USA.

Herping Tips:

  • Spring, Summer and Fall, theses little guys can regularly be found during the day under rotten logs, heavy leaf litter, stacked 2X4’s (especially if rotten), and artificial cover.
  • Look for cover that is in sun light during the early spring and late fall otherwise, look under well shaded cover much of the Herping season.
  • On warm evenings, just before sunset, the ringneck my be spotted while on the hunt.  dusk during a heavy dew usually produces the best results.  Remember they eat worms and salamanders so look in moist places.
  • In my personal experience, I have found Ringnecks on the move but not while “targeting” this species.  In my opinion, flipping during the evening hours yielded the best results.

For More Information on Diadophis punctatus check out:

A Demographic Study of the Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus) in Kansas (Miscellaneous publication – University of Kansas, Museum of Natural History ; no. 62)


Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorous

Venomous

Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

The Cottonmouth, also known as the “Water Moccasin”, are very heavy bodied, semi-aquatic snakes who are in the pit-viper family.  This snake is the largest of the genus Agkistrodon.  These snakes regularly reach 31″ and there are a few specimen who have reached 71″, although be it rare.  These snakes can regularly be identified by dark crossbands on an olive to dark brown background.  The Eastern Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon p. piscivorous, is one of three sub-species and generally keeps the banding throughout life although it does typically fade with age.  The Florida Cottonmouth or Agkistrodon p. conanti and the Western Cottonmouth or Agkistrodon p. leucostoma, generally darken with age to the point the banding may become difficult to observe.  The only other Agkistrodon living in the USA is Agkistrodon, contortrix, the Copperhead.

Juveniles, look much like the adults except for the coloring being much more vivid.  Young, like all Agkistrodon and some other pit-vipers, have a yellow tail which is used to lure pray into strike range.

Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

*Note in the picture, the vivid markings on this juvenile A. p. piscivorous. Also note the “heat-pit” located just in front of the eye.  The eye is also “cat like”.

Feeding/Diet:

The Cottonmouth feeds on a variety of prey to include rodents, frogs, fish, and other reptiles to include other snakes.  Prey is typically ambushed near the edge of the water.  I have personally found the Eastern Cottonmouth eating large frogs that have been killed on the road.

General Activity/Behavior:

The Cottonmouth loves to bask in the sun on the edge of the water.  When spooked, they will lunge into the water.  Agkistrodon typically swim on top of the water with the head sticking up above the surface.  This is a helpful bit of knowledge, as harmless water snakes, Nerodia, a non-venomous genus of snakes, typically swim under the water.

The Cottonmouth, although considered semi-aquatic, is known to travel overland in search for amphibians at night.  These guys love to get in roads that travel near water on rainy nights, making them an easy to cruise on rainy nights.

Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

The Cottonmouth, like other semi-aquatic snakes, are known for their nasty attitudes.  In my personal experience (which I would consider frequent and knowledgeable with this species), I feel this is highly unjustified in this species.  Cottonmouth are frequently reported to lunge towards a would-be predator and even chase people.  Based on my observations of snake species, I believe this to be a combination of wrong identification and exaggerated stories.  Nerodia, like the Red Belly Watersnake, are an unrelated family of harmless water snakes.  They are known to lunge quickly towards a predator before making a quick escape.  Cottonmouth and Water Snakes are commonly confused with each other.  In my years of dealing with Cottonmouth, I have found only a few I would call aggressive, and NONE have ever chased me!  The vast majority of the hundred or so specimen I have observed were very calm and didn’t strike until prodded for some time during examinations.

Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

Cottonmouth, although generally docile snakes, do posses a very strong venom and all bites should seek medical attention immediately.  There are many documented cases of severe bite and there are reports of death from A. piscivorous bite.

Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Agkistrodon p. piscivorous; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Habitat/Range:

Although this species can be found very far from water, it is typically found near aquatic environments.  They prefer the still water of swamps, canals, and very slow moving creeks and rivers.  This species, in some populations, is regularly found in drainage ditches.

Reproduction:

Cottonmouth, like all pit-vipers, give live birth.  Adults mate in spring and give birth in the early fall to 2 to as many as 15 young.

Bear Trap of the South.  Cottonmouth Defensive Posture.  By Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Bear Trap of the South. Cottonmouth Defensive Posture. By Phillip Laxton
Instagram: @plaxton53
Neat Fact:

Cottonmouth get their name from the white coloration on the inside of the mouth.  They typically display the inside of the mouth when aggravated.  I believe this does play a part in the misconception of this species being aggressive.

Herping Tips:

1.  Spring and Fall look for them basking on the edge of water sources on nice warm days.  They love to soak up the rays.

2.  In the heat of summer, look for them on the water’s edge lying near stumps, fallen logs, or along the marsh-line.

3.  This species, like other semi-aquatic snakes, are very curious of objects floating in the water.  I have seen many swim right up to floating logs or even boats.  The act of swimming up to boats for closer inspection also add to the story of the “chasing cottonmouth”.

4.  This species can easily be cruised in populated areas at night, especially on humid rainy nights.  For best results cruise during the rain during normal showers or during the approach of a warm front.  Cold front storms typically produce much less results.


For More Information on Agkistrodon piscivorous and other North American Herps, check out:

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians (National Audubon Society Field Guides)


Redbelly Watersnake; Nerodia erythrogaster

Red Belly Watersnake


 Nerodia e. erythrogaster

The Red Belly Watersnake, or scientifically, Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster, is a sub-species of the Plain Belly Water snake.   The Plain Belly Water snake gets its name from the fact that there are no markings on the belly.

This article will be focusing on the sub-species “Red Belly Water Snake”.

Non-Venomous

Note the lack of marking on back or belly of this Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Note the lack of marking on back or belly of this Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

The Red Belly Watersnake is a stocky snake found in the southeastern USA.  These heavy snakes average 24-40″ in length.  Occasionally, this species can reach 55″ although this is very rare.  They can be easily identified by the unmarked, orange or reddish belly and the unmarked, reddish-brown to dark brown back.  The chin is usually light. Juveniles can sometimes be confused with other watersnakes, or Nerodia, due to being vividly marked.  Juvenile Red-Bellied Watersnakes are marked with dark cross-bands on the neck and three rows of alternating blotches going down it’s back.  These marking quickly fade as the animal matures.  Juveniles can be distinguished from other Nerodia by viewing the underside.  The belly is unmarked from birth.

Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

Feeding/Diet:  Nerodia erythrogaster will feed on a variety of other animals and can be quite opportunistic.  I have found them picking injured frogs off the highway many times.  Red Belly Water Snakes are big fans of frogs, toads, salamanders, and long slender fish such as eels and young gar.  I have found many young who have expelled mosquito fish after capture.

General Activity/Behavior:  Red Bellies, like most Nerodia, love to bask in the sun on the edge of the water.  When spooked, Nerodia will lunge into the water.  Nerodia typically swim under the water.  This is a helpful bit of knowledge, as Cottonmouths, Agkistrodon piscivorous, a venomous species, typically swims on top of the water.  The Plain Belly species, including the Red Belly Sub-species, is known to travel overland in search for amphibians at night.  These guys love to get in roads that travel near water on rainy nights, making them an easy to cruise on rainy nights.

Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

Red Bellies, like all Nerodia, are known for their nasty attitudes.  These snakes, like most, will attempt to get away but if they feel cornered the Nerodia will strike.  Sometimes these snakes have been known to lunge towards a would-be predator just before making a quick exit.  Based on my observations of snake species, I believe this is where the misconception of Cottonmouths chasing people come from.  If you pick up a Nerodia, you best plan to be bit.  Bites can sometimes draw blood but are superficial.  It is important to clean the wound after being bitten to avoid infection.  Simple First aid measures are really all that is needed.

Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

Habitat/Range:  Nerodia e. erythrogaster is found in a variety of aquatic environments.  Lakes, swamps, rivers, streams, and creeks are all home to the Red Belly.  The Plain Belly group as a whole, can regularly be found in drainage ditches that are frequently filled with water.  The range of the Red Belly Water Snake includes Florida in the northern peninsula and panhandle, southern Alabama and along the Atlantic coast to the most southeastern part of Virginia.

Reproduction:  Redbelly watersnakes, like all Nerodia give live birth from 6 to as many as 50 young.  Like all Nerodia, e. erythrogaster mates in mid to late spring and give birth in early fall.

Neat Fact:  Of all the water snakes in the USA, the plain belly group (which includes the red belly) travel the furthest from water.  These snakes have been found a couple hundred yards from the nearest water source.

Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53
Nerodia e. erythrogaster; Photographed by Phillip Laxton Instagram: @plaxton53

Herping Tips:

  • Like most aquatic snakes, they are a little more tolerant of temperatures.  I have found them basking on the water’s edge in the mid-60’s and I have found them sitting in a shady ditch enjoying the water when air temps were in the 90’s while the rest of the snakes are looking for a place to hide from the heat.
  • Spring and Fall look for them basking on the edge of water sources on nice warm days.  They love to soak up the rays.
  • In the heat of summer, look for them on the water’s edge by flipping rocks, wood, tin, and any other light object.  They may also be sitting in the water, under shade from vegetation.
  • This species, like other Nerodia, are very curious of objects floating in the water.  I have caught many Nerodia by simply cruising down a creek in a boat, reaching in, and grabbing the snake as they come to check out the vessel.
  • This species can easily be cruised in populated areas at night, especially on humid rainy nights.  For best results, cruise during the rain, during normal showers or during the approach of a warm front.  Cold front storms typically produce much less results.
  • Like all Nerodia, it is easy to break the tail during capture.  Many adults are found with a part of the tail deformed or even missing.  The tail does not regenerate and does not appear to cause much harm to the animal.  Try to catch the snake mid-body to avoid injuring the animal.