Do Snakes Make Good Pillows?

My answer is: I didn’t stick around long enough to find out!!

Ok, so now you’re probably wondering what the heck I’m going on about. But bear with me. I did (inadvertantly, I must stress) put my head on a big snake while out photographing this past weekend. Ah, the joys of nature photography.

This is what I set out to photograph:

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a woodland native plant. This is what I was photographing when I discovered I had my head on top of a rather big snake!

But instead, this is what I ended up photographing:

An Eastern Gray Rat Snake (Pantherophis spiloides). This was my ‘pillow’.

Ok, so here’s my tale….

Last weekend we finally had nice, sunny, reasonably warm weather. This caused a rapid blooming of the forest wildflowers, which have been in bud for a while and I swear, have had their feet in the starting blocks, just waiting to take off when the weather warmed up a bit. And they did. They took off! So clearly, I needed to get out with my camera since the blooms will likely be short-lived this year.

I went to a place down our road where I had seen a native woodland plant, Dutchman’s Breeches, in flower. I really wanted to photograph them because, although I’ve seen them many times throughout my life, I have never had the opportunity to photograph them. So out I went.

I find one of the easiest ways to photograph wildflowers and other small things is to use a beanbag. I use an Apex bean bag. They are great for supporting your arms, head etc. when you’re in a tight spot, doing macro photography. Under those circumstances, I find a tripod way too unwieldy. They just make me grumpy because they constrain my image making too much. I either can’t get close enough to the ground or at the right angle or whatever. They make me growl. But I digress…

The flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches, a native wildflower in Ontario.

I put my bean bag in a little hollow on the ground, right beside a nice clump of flowers. The forest floor is still covered with crunchy, dead leaves from last fall. I put my bean bag on the forest floor, just on top of this hollow, filled with dead leaves, and then proceeded to lie down on the ground, on my side, and put my head on the bean bag. I then held my camera very tight and rattled off some shots of the flower heads, taken from side on. I’d rattled off about 15 shots when for some completely unknown reason (well, unknown at the time….), I jumped up like a shot! I have NO idea what cued me in to do that. I don’t remember hearing or feeling anything. I just remember concentrating very hard on holding the camera steady and getting my flower shots. And then all of a sudden, something in my mind told me to get the hell up, and fast! And so I did.

Once I was up, I stood there, scratching my head and looking at my bean bag, wondering what the heck had just happened. About 3 seconds later, a big snake poked his head out from under my bean bag and began slithering along the ground and up a nearby tree.

I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario. The most common snake we have here is the Garter Snake. They are beautiful little snakes. Little snakes. Maybe about 18 inches at most. The snake that I had apparently been inadvertently using as a pillow was one I am very familiar with from my cottage days, back in the 70’s and 80’s. Our cottage was not far from where I live now, so I know they are in the area. The snake was an Eastern Gray Rat Snake (Pantherophis spiloides). Or Black Rat Snake, as we used to call them. There are only two populations of them in Ontario. The population here, on the Frontenac Axis, is listed by COSEWIC as threatened. The Gray Rat Snake is a beautiful snake. And also one of the biggest in Ontario. Perhaps the biggest. I know there is a small, isolated population of Massassauga Rattlesnakes up around Georgian Bay, but I think the Grey Rat Snake still takes the prize as the biggest in Ontario.

An Eastern Gray Rat Snake, about 4 feet long and nearly 2 inches in diameter.

So HOW big? Well, the snake that I’d been lying on was 4 feet long and nearly 2 inches in diameter. For most Ontarians, that’s a BIG snake! Thankfully, Gray Rat Snakes are very docile (unlike Northern Water Snakes which are simply put, cantankerously inclined). So this big guy simply slithered out from under my bean bag, slithered along the ground and onto a nearby tree. Gray Rat Snakes are tree climbers. They eat bird’s eggs and baby birds, but will also eat frogs and mice and other tasty morsels that they can get their lips on.

I watched in aw as this huge snake nonchalantly slithered slowly up the tree trunk and into a cavity in the tree, where a big branch had once broken off and rotted out. Cool! He happily curled up in there, with just his head poking out occasionally, to see if I was still hanging around.

The Gray Rat Snake peering out from the safety of a tree cavity. These snakes are tree climbers and are very at home up in the branches and in tree cavities.

Of course, I was snapping shots like crazy! Once I regained my composure after what happened, it was clear I couldn’t let this moment go unphotographed. I had my macro lens on my camera and there was no time to change lenses. So I couldn’t get much of a full body shot or any perspective on how big the snake actually was. But I did get some nice shots of his head and upper body. They are truly beautiful snakes. I read that young Gray Rat Snakes have a more mottled pattern rather than being more solid black or grey in colour. All I can say is that if this snake, based on his colouring, is ‘young’, I hate to see how big he’ll be when he’s ‘old’! The literature says they can grow to be 2 meters in length, which is over 6 feet. And we have seen the grand-daddy of all Gray Rat Snakes before – back in the 70’s, when we were building our cottage. We thought it was our 3 inch black PVC pipe connected to the foot-valve down in the lake. But nooooo, it was about a 6 foot long Gray Rat Snake. It was huge! Way bigger than the guy I saw. Several people in our cottage area saw him (and screamed!). He was nicknamed “Black Joe”, after the black joe tar paper people used when building their cottages.

Gray Rat Snakes are excellent tree climbers.

I have a real soft spot for these snakes. Partly because of my history of encountering them at the cottage when I was a kid. And partly because they are a threatened species. Studies have shown that Gray Rat Snake habitat in the Frontenac Axis has actually increased in the past 100 years and yet the Frontenac Axis population is declining. It is thought that this is partly due to road kills. The snakes are so long that they often straddle the entire width of a dirt road and sadly, are run over by vehicles. So please, if you are traveling this summer in the Perth-Westport-Kingston area of Ontario. PLEASE, brake for these snakes. And well, please brake for ANY snakes you see on the road. If you don’t like snakes, you don’t have to get out of your car and pick them up to move them. But please don’t run over them. I’m appalled by the number of dead snakes and turtles I see on Ontario roads every summer. And I have personally watched people swerve to intentionally run over them. It’s disgusting and inexcusable behaviour. Snakes and turtles aren’t cute and cuddly animals. But it doesn’t mean they are any less important to our ecosystems or that they have any less right to live. So please drive carefully. You may not want to give a snake a hug. But at least….give a snake a brake. 🙂



Filed under conservation, Macro photography, nature photography, Reptiles, Snakes, Wildflowers

2 responses to “Do Snakes Make Good Pillows?

  1. Brilliant Blog Shelly! And some great pics, I’m pleased you had the composure to grab the shots of the snake….you are obviously “one cool chick!”

  2. Hahahaha! Thanks Mark. It was the most bizzare and neat experience. Funny how sometimes you don’t panic, you just think, “get the shots!”. Words of a hardcore photographer. lol
    What still astounds me is that ‘something’ (still don’t know what) told me to get up quickly! I don’t recall hearing the leaves rustle or feeling any movement under me. But for some reason I just knew I’d better move, and fast! Maybe I did hear or feel something, but was concentrating so hard on taking photos that it didn’t register consciously. I still think it’s hillarious. I’m just glad we don’t have poisonous snakes in this part of the province! :o) I think the situation would have been less funny and any snake photos would have been grossly out of focus. lol

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