Spring is truly here when the garter snakes emerge. First the snow melts. Then the sun shines until there are days when one might venture outside without a coat. Blades of new grass poke up, red-winged blackbirds trill in the marsh, killdeers flit noisily about the open fields. When conditions are balmy enough, little heads appear at the bottom of a certain ancient fence post. The garter snakes are coming out of hibernation, or brumation, as it known for reptiles. During brumation, the snakes can go months without food, though they wake up now and then for a drink of water.
First, only a brave little scout comes out to test the warmth and slither back down the hole when evening chill stiffens it. If rain sets in, the heads all vanish back into the underground lair where they spent the winter. Perhaps the party is still going on down there and they don’t want to leave.
When the warming sun does come out, they emerge in numbers. But before they can slither away for a summer of basking and carnivorous buffets, they have to make sure they can reproduce. So when a female coils up on the grass, a crowd of suitors come racing, all hoping to be her lucky choice. The result is a wriggling mass in a kind of reptile ecstasy after which they leave smiling.
In recent years these gatherings nowhere near match the size of the vigorous heaps that used to take place in the long grass on the other side of the post. Indeed, the number of garter snakes seems to be diminishing and this is not helped by the casualties suffered when trying to cross the road running past their hibernation exit. Let’s hope many may have found a better place to spend the winter, a snake condo in the limestone crevices with several storeys to accommodate the winter congregations.
The newly awakened snakes, providing they survive the road, likely head for the marsh as they like to hang around bodies of water where they can feast on unwary frogs as well as slugs, lizards, earthworms, field mice and about anything else they can overpower.
They don’t lay eggs but give birth live to up to 40 little garter snakes who then have to evade larger predators and immediately fend for themselves. These will spend the summer growing as fast as they can. Best of luck to the new generation. May they become road savvy, hunt fiercely and multiply with vigorous enthusiasm so they can keep on showing us when spring is here.