The remainder of our summer adventures led us to two unexpectedly close serpentine encounters, both with my three year old son at the forefront. I either have to be grateful for the learning opportunity or terrified at what seems at the surface like reckless mothering, but my gut is leaning towards the first idea because my children are so much more snake savvy and instinctually safe than the average kid now, especially amongst their peers. And they are perhaps even a bit more compassionate and understanding in the cosmic scheme of things.
Part I – Texas Side:
Our first encounter was with my two youngest hiking on the Forked Tail Creek trail while my eldest was away at her “budding botanist” camp at the FWNC (www.fwnaturecenter.org). We had taken that branch from another trail for a little extra fun, leading us further and further down a dimly lit path lined with so many frogs.
Before we knew it, we were at a small dam in the creek where, as any boy would do, my son couldn’t help but reach in to grab a stick or two to toss in the water. I stopped him at the second stick, and meanwhile my daughter chimed in, “I think I see a snake…” which of course prompted me to pull him out quickly. And before we knew it, this critter popped out and looked us straight in the eye.
We were at least 6 feet away at this point, thank goodness! Now – I have a lifetime of experience around snakes from growing up during hikes, walks, runs and handling them with my brother. They were mostly non-venomous and some rattlers, but I had never encountered one of these, especially being a native of the Great Basin. And I had NEVER encountered this behavior. This serpent went out of its way to come to US.
In my experience snakes enjoy distance. They like to slink back and slither away. They have a body language that tells you when you are too close after they’ve backed away. This one was most definitely in a challenging stance.
So we went along our merry way a little spooked, not knowing exactly what this was. (My gut knew what it was which translates as I think I was going to vomit knowing my three year old was RIGHT THERE, but I didn’t want to frighten the kids other than “don’t ever approach a snake – always give them lots of space.”)
Further along the trail as I was briefly piggy backing my weary son, my daughter spotted this guy freshly hatched from its pupa, nonetheless.
I’d like to post the frogs and robber fly on inaturalist.org – and I’ll update this post accordingly once the community can narrow them down to a specific species. (Though I suspect the above is a Giant Green-eyed Robber Fly or Microstylum morosum. *See this reference from our same immediate area on Bugguide.net!)
Update: Thanks to the community of inaturalist.org, we now know our fly is more commonly known as the “Giant Prairie Robber Fly” (or Mycrostylum morosum). Check out their awesome library of photos here – including those with captured prey!– For all your taxonomical ID photo questions visit: www.inaturalist.org
Now the snake – if you’re a southeastern native, and especially a Texan I bet you’ve already guessed, a cottonmouth (or more commonly known as a water moccasin)!
I took that photo above to show the biologists at the Hardwicke Interpretive Center to ensure I had the ID correct (I was first told “rat snake” but I quickly sought a second and third opinion), and I wanted to be able to discuss the snake with my kiddos present.
Granted it was a blurry photo, but the distinctive characteristics we found were:
- this critter was fat at the waist
- almost black to green on top with the banded pattern on its belly (cottonmouths start out with more of a pattern on their backs in their youth, but that darkens to a blackish-green coloration as they age)
- head was not narrow like most non-venomous snakes
- it’s behavior was BOLD.
I had backed up enough that it was a bit difficult to make out the triangularity of its head, but it definitely had the look of the pit viper family. And then to note its behavior – speaking with my E.R. veterinarian friend – these snakes are known to challenge those poking around in their territory and she had seen many dogs with bites from cottonmouths sniffing around in the woods, especially by the water. I am grateful for my daughter’s excellent spotting eye. And for the teaching opportunity for my son. He was visibly frightened (though fortunately not terrified), and now knows not to poke around so aggressively in those types of “holes” – watering, rocks, or likewise. And I should have known better – so many FROGS!
For an extensive reference on North American snakes, fascinating behaviors unique to their species and MORE, check out this lit!
And here is a cute forum article from Houzz.com on how to identify cottonmouths with all their characteristics, from cheek stripe to tapered tail and color variations: ID-ing Snakes in the Garden – Cottonmouth.