Storytime 37

southern banded water snake Nerodia fasciata fasciata in staged photo
I’ve actually featured this photo here before, with perhaps a portion of the story but not all of it. It’s time to rectify that and set the record straight.

While living in Florida, there was this undeveloped sand road that was basically an access lane out to the edge of the lake, bordered on both sides by drainage channels. It wasn’t far outside the city, but the farthest I could get without serious driving and thus the spot I chose when I was doing some long-exposure night sky photography. During one exposure, probably aiming for twenty minutes or better, I had locked open the shutter and was poking around well away from the camera with a flashlight, this now being about 1 AM. Hard as it may be to believe, I wasn’t inclined to sit there and stare at the sky the entire time the exposure was progressing – I know, right?

Anyway, at the edge of one of the drainage channels I spotted a snake’s head, lifted from the water and holding perfectly still. I knew snakes were primarily night hunters but still rarely saw them at night, and while I was in Florida for a couple of years and doing a serious amount of exploring, this represented only the second snake that I’d seen the entire time – very peculiar, as far as I’m concerned, but there you go. After observing it for a few minutes and not seeing any movement, I began to gradually shift my position. I knew the light from the flashlight was largely masking my own position and outline, but I could still spook the snake if, for instance, I cast a shadow from the reeds across its eye.

Eventually, I determined that the snake hadn’t moved because it couldn’t; it was seriously ensnared in someone’s discarded casting net, having slipped through several loops and eventually caught itself as the nylon bound itself tighter around the snake’s body. I wasn’t about to let this slip by, so I carefully edged down to the water and disentangled the entire net, with the snake within, from the weeds and twigs and brought the whole ball up to the car, then set about trying to work the snake free. For its part, the snake helpfully bit me several times as I tried to slip the loops free from its scales.

It wasn’t long before I realized that, between the number of openings it had gone through and its general inability to hold still while I concentrated on each loop, I wasn’t going to accomplish a lot in this manner, especially without help, and chose a different tactic. I had a sharp knife on me as usual, but the nylon was fine enough that simply slipping the blade into a loop and pulling wouldn’t work; the nylon was tough and took a lot of pressure to cut, more than the snake’s skin did, and all I would do was pull the loops deep into the snake before they ever separated. Instead, I found a small piece of wood and used that as a cutting board on the trunk of the car, pressing the junction of numerous key loops of the net under the knife blade to cut through them. It required a lot of this and was tedious, but eventually, I freed the snake entirely from the net without injury (well, to the snake at least – I had several bites and a few nicks from my own knife as I performed this entire operation with the flashlight held in my teeth.)

This was, however, a species that I had never seen before, much less photographed, and I couldn’t let this opportunity go, though I was unprepared to exploit it at the time. This mean that I dug through the trunk of the car until I found something to secure the snake within to transport it home; not the most altruistic of actions, I admit, but hey, I’d just saved it from dying by scavengers or exposure – it could cope with a little posing. The next day, I constructed a ‘set’ of sorts in the bathtub, using palm fronds, and did a few portraits and detail shots in controlled conditions, one of which you see above; if you look closely, you’ll notice the white enamel peeking through at one point. Once I’d gotten a handful of shots (and another bite or two,) I took the snake back to where I’d found it and released it into the water, checking carefully to ensure that there was no more dangerous debris to be seen.

This is a southern banded water snake, by the way, or simply a southern water snake, but the scientific name is Nerodia fasciata fasciata – I believe, anyway. I keep finding conflicting identifications of species, and previously identified it as simply Nerodia fasciata. I’ve never seen one above Georgia, which is a shame, because I like their coloration much better than the species that I find around here. Meanwhile, cleaning out the debris from the tub was a whole lot more involved than I’d initially imagined, but I’m kinda glad that I took the opportunity, because it would be something like 12 years before I was to find another.