From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

Snakes and Lizards!

We had a snake in our living room last weekend. The kind nightmares are made of: a big, slithery blackish colored serpent that scared Doug out of a sound sleep on the couch. When you live in the country you expect to be surprised by wildlife occasionally. Deer, fox, raccoons, opossum and wild turkeys are regular visitors, and we’ve even had the occasional coyote and black bear, and of course we’ve seen snakes. But….we’ve never had any of these inside our house. Naturally, Doug did the manly thing–he screamed like a school girl for me to help.

Now, I’m no herpetologist but I do know poisonous from non-venomous snakes and I’m not alarmed when I run into a big black snake outside or in the barn. In fact, I’m delighted to have black snakes around, because they eat other snakes as well as mice and rats, both of whom are attracted to the grain I feed the horses. Having this knowledge evidently made it clear that I was the designated snake wrangler, tasked with getting rid of our uninvited guest.

For this job, I discovered that my long-handled gopher grabber, a set of long handled tongs made to help arthritics pick up objects out of reach, was a better snake handling tool than the broom I originally wielded to try to shove the serpent outside. He liked our house and retreated quickly from the door and the broom. So I grabbed the gopher tongs and firmly gripped him near his head. Unfortunately, he was five feet long and most of him was behind where I had caught him, enough to whip his slim legless body around and free himself. As he slithered rapidly toward the couch, I shoved a garbage can in his path, and he eased right in it, all five feet of him.

Doug bravely took the trash can and snake outside and was ready to shoot it, while the dogs, leaping about in a frenzy, wanted a piece of it, too. But I decided we weren’t going to kill it because it was a “good snake”, one that eats other snakes as well as the aforementioned mice and rats. Copperheads are quite common in the Blue Ridge, and we’ve never seen them here, probably because of our other snakes.

While most call this kind of snake, very common in Virginia, a black snake, that name isn’t technically correct, as we found out after posting pictures of it on Facebook. Different regions have different names for this type of snake, but around here a black snake is either a black racer, or a rat snake. Ours was a rat snake. They are longer and not as fast as the black racer, although the markings are similar: smooth dark gray or black scales in the adult. The rat snake has smaller eyes and travels with its head down, instead of high and poised to strike as the racer, and moves much slower. They do look alike from the distance you normally see them (compared to, that is, me holding one up close and personal with a set of long handled tongs). Both have white or cream colored throats and both have clearly discernable patterns as juveniles. The racer only grows to about four feet in length and has a thicker body than the rat snake, another tip that our five-foot speciman was a black rat snake. These can grow to six feet or more.

The most common snakes around this part of Virginia are garter snakes, ringnecks (both under 24″), racers, rat snakes and king snakes, occasionally hognosed snakes, corn and milk snakes, all brightly patterned, with an occasional brown Northern water snake often mistaken for a cottonmouth or water moccasin. Although the Northern water snake and the cottonmouth are both adept in water, cottonmouths have never been found north of the Dismal Swamp in SE Virginia. The only two venomous snakes found here are the copperhead and timber rattler, with the latter rarely seen outside of mountaintops. If you have rat snakes, you don’t have copperheads.

Our other scaly summer friends include little lizards that like to sunbathe on the deck and the siding of our wood house, and on the rock walls. Most of the ones we see are juveniles, about 3 or 4 inches long. They’re easily identified by their bright blue tails, which detach readily if they are captured. One of our Chesapeake Bay Retrievers is obsessed by them, ever since she pounced on one as a puppy. The tail detached, and the lizard ran off, leaving a tail that wiggled for a good 15 minutes. No matter that they are way too fast for her to catch, she’s been trying ever since. In the process she tears down our stone walls and if she’s inside and sees one, she treats the furniture like a jungle gym, knocking things over to get to the window to bark at it. These lizards, I learned, are called five lined skinks. Their tails grow back if detached (but the tail does not grow a new lizard!). Adults reach up to 8 inches and have striped coats, and little suction feet like the Geico gecko. When I am on the deck without dogs, I frequently see them lazing about. Our skinks will bolt, however, at the slightest tread of a dog paw.

Written by: Julie Reardon

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