Garter Snakes Rise to the Lure of Spring

There is a certain grey old fence post, perhaps dug in by some  long-dead farmer, which serves as portal to the reptile palaces hidden in the layers of limestone bedrock underneath the shale. Each fall, the garter snakes of the region turn away from their above ground lives as soon as the nip of fall starts to slow their cold blood. One by one they find the secret entrances to the underground chambers and vanish for the long winter months, hived up with their fellows.  Canada is the garter snake capital of the world.  In certain  dens, they congregate in their thousands to escape the lethal frosts and storms.

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But in the spring, it only takes a fine day of sunshine, the last drips of melting snow and, deep in their rock crevices, the snakes know. Near me, they come up from the bottom of the fence post.  First one or two as scouts, then half a dozen then, if the sunshine persists, word reaches the waiting hundreds. Day after day, they come up in their numbers, all via the fence post.  They lay about, luxuriously warming themselves until they are limber enough to join the writhing knots of their comrades in spectacular mating balls before sliding away to live their solitary summer lives.  Late in the summer the females will give live birth to up to eighty baby snakes which wriggle off independently the moment they are born.

The emergence happens in late March or early April.  But snakes have been lured to the surface on particularly warm January or February days where they coil, confused on the snow.  One such misguided garter snake, bent on survival in December, made its frozen way to the house and found a way inside.  No matter often it was ejected, it determinedly crawled back in to the life-sustaining heat.  The last time, I couldn’t find it.  I fervently hope it denned up out of reach of the cats and respectfully went on its way again weeks later after the snow disappeared.

I’ll scarcely mention the black snakes that also emerge from the rock layers and lie in their numbers on the hillside warming up.   Their dusky coils are almost impossible to spot among last year’s leaf debris and the snakes are still too torpid to shoot out of the way.  They make it a season for walking very carefully.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

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