Thursday, February 12, 2009

Afraid of snakes and you live near The Woodlands?

Even if you do not live near The Woodlands, this is probably for you. The East Texas piney woods is not a dangerous place for snakes. Here in The Woodlands, we cautiously look for only three venomous snakes and only one is really of much concern. Not bad considering there are some seventeen snake varieties expected to be seen in this area! Learn these three and you have it made. There is possibly a fourth venomous snake that might be seen, that is on the endangered list, but I really doubt any of us will ever see it. I will also describe it here nevertheless.

First be safe outdoors. When gardening, wear gloves when working in in and among vegetation. For clothing, wear long pants and shoes. Don't allow children to play outside barefooted. These are practical safety tips for everyone irregardless of what we do outside. Stepping on a rusty nail is probably more apt to occur than running across a snake. Snakes do bite and they can hurt but most of the time, that is all there is to it. Still, be safe and if you or your child is bitten, go to the clinic. Don't panic, just casually go there to have it looked at. The staff will want to know what the snake looked like. If you know your venomous snakes, you already know whether the snake is venomous or not. Chances are even if it is venomous, there is no venom in your wound.

Speaking of risk, do you know how many fatalities we have each year in Texas as a result of a snake bite? We average less than one per year for the entire state. Those usually occur in the hill country or in West Texas or on the coast. (Be careful in the dune grasses of Galveston or Padre Island - rattle snakes there are very dangerous). I don't believe we have had any deaths in east Texas. But people do get bitten. Many times when people are bitten by a venomous snake, the snake releases zero or only a small amount of venom. They are known to conserve their venom for catching prey. They know you are not food and they need to eat! A baby snake may be more apt to hurt you, because he probably has not learned yet to conserve his venom.
Courtesy of Troy 1. Click on photo for detailed view. Copperhead.

Let's take a look at the venomous species. It behooves us to learn to identify these three common snakes. The most likely one you are to encounter is the Southern Copperhead. This one is the most populous of the venomous snakes in this area. The key identifying marks are the clear dark patterns that look like Hershey Kisses on the side of the snake, with the tip of the kiss on the top of the back, often touching the kiss on the other side. Another way to look at the markings is to envision an hour glass with the center of the hour glass on the top of the back. Hershey kisses are easy to remember. Characteristically, the snake will be light colored underneath, a light brown base on its sides and top, with fairly sizable kisses on the sides. Our first lesson - Don't kiss a Hershey Kiss snake! In fact, stay clear of it. They will not harm you unless you corner it or otherwise threaten it in some way. Let it be - all snakes have value in the forest. This snake might climb up into a bush looking for food.
Courtesy of Troy 1. Click on photo for detailed view. Adult Cottonmouth.

The next likely problem snake would be the Western Cottonmouth. This one is less populous but very wide-spread and likely to be found on or near the water. This one is a little more difficult to identify. The head is the key to this snake. At some distance, you might see a fully black snake, or a very dark snake with barely visible brown rings or if a young lad, it might have irregular dark rings around a brown body. The rings fade as the snake ages. To confirm your sighting, you would examine the head.
Courtesy of Troy 1. Click on photo for detailed view. Juvenile Cottonmouth.

It will have a dark stripe on the sides of its head, resembling the face of a raccoon. So remember, raccoons don't eat cotton; they just have in their mouth! It is dangerous. Inside the mouth of these slippery creatures are little pieces of tissue that look like cotton. This is not the only snake that has this in its mouth, so use the external head criteria to identify the snake. This snake likes to eat food near the water, such as frogs.

Courtesy of Troy 1. Click on photo for detailed view. Coral Snake.

The less likely snake to run encounter is the most dangerous but not seen very often. Its venom is the strongest. The Coral Snake has a small mouth and has more difficulty than other snakes breaking the skin and even more of a problem trying to get through your clothing. However, its teeth are sharp and given sufficient time, can and will envenom a person. Consider this snake very dangerous and do not touch it or threaten it! This one is colorful, but there are several species that can appear to be a coral snake and are not. Every other ring is yellow. There is no other snake with that attribute, but there are others with yellow rings. The rings are red, yellow, black, yellow then the ring color pattern is repeated. If you see yellow bands in the day, this is it. If you see yellow bands at night, it is another species, such as the King Snake. So remember, yellow bands in the day are dangerous. Stay clear. Just let him be. There is no need ever to harm a snake. He wants to be left alone just as you do.

The only other possible dangerous snake is the Timber Rattlesnake. If you see rattles on the end of the tail, it is dangerous. Always! And the rattlers do make noise.

Other non-dangerous snakes you may see here include: nocturnal Milk Snake (every other band is black), Buttermilk Racer (also known as the Blue Racer), Rubber Snake, Eastern Hognose, Texas Rat Snake, Rough Green Snake, Texas Brown Snake, Rough Earth Snake, Yellow Belly Water Snake (raccoon mask on head 4-4.5 ft), Blotched Water Snake (black with some white), Diamondback Water Snake (5 ft checkered pattern), very common Broad Banded Water Snake (Black and white bands), Western Mud Snake (reds on it with rectangles underneath), Speckled King Snake (looks like small white dots all over it).

Other trivia to know: all snakes can and will swim in water. They know how to survive in bogs and swamps. Mothballs are good to repel snakes from an area.


Thanks to Mike Howlett of Houston Herpetology Supply for presenting this material to us. He sells snakes and snake supplies at in Spring, Texas.

1Thanks to Troy Hobbitts for providing his 2006 copyrighted photos of the venomous species to help you visually identify snakes here in The Woodlands.

And thanks to several others who also shared their knowledge of snakes in this part of Texas.

This is an interesting video of a "land snake" swimming in water. A Rattle Snake!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"Just passing through The Woodlands, do you have to be so rude?" says the Robin

I laughed really hard at this scene. You know how obnoxious and aggressive a Mockingbird can be, especially during nesting time! How about pre-nesting time? Over the past two days, hoards of Robins have been migrating through this area. It appears they spent the night, ate breakfast and soared off further north. Perhaps, the reason was this nasty little non neighborly resident.

He tried to chase all of them off, attacking every time he could. I wanted to have a talk with this guy on how to treat beautiful guests. Anyway, he would attack one and forty would fly into the bush full of berries to replace the one chased away. Finally, I saw no Mockingbird. I think he had to go take a nap. So rude!

Anyway, I hope you heard the many Robins talking and calling outside as I did. There is nothing like seeing the yard full of migratory birds, starving hungry, going after all the Yaupon berries, worms and seeds that they can gobble up. Last year I caught a glimpse of hundreds of Waxwings passing through. After they cleaned up the worms out of the yard and the Yaupon around the house, they started into this berry-filled bush.

It was a very quiet afternoon as things returned to normal on their departure. We still have some berries though. Hope to have another wave of these birds come and stay a while. Usually we have many around here for a few weeks bop bop bopping along in the grass and trees.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Great News for Eagle Fans - Woodlands Texas

Bald Eagle fans that is. This year, we are proud to have a second nesting Eagle couple. The returning couple has nested in or near their traditional location on East Shore, and now a new couple has moved into Carlton Woods! I suspect at least one is an offshoot of The Woodlands couple. Fifteen eaglets have been born and raised here over the past few years. They mature into breeding adults at about five years of age and live to be about thirty. It is believed that we have chicks in both nests this year. They usually raise one or two chicks each year. We are now awaiting sightings of the newborns above the nests to see how many we have this year. The new couple have decided that they did not need to be very near water, as did our resident pair. We have watched the Eagles teach their offspring to fly, to fish and even to hunt. They of course soar high and distant in search of food. Each year someone gets the privilege of seeing one or more in a local park or near their home. Each December-January, they return to nest. Let's hope the newcomers return each year also. So watch and listen to the skies and see if you can spot one this Spring.

I recall one year watching the Eagles teach their two fledglings to fish. They had a nest near Woodlands Parkway and people would stop at the bridge over Lake Woodlands to watch. I saw one parent swoop out of the sky and grabbed a fish on the surface of the water. One of the babies swooped right behind following the parent. As the parent came off of the water, he dropped the fish. The youngster dived and plucked the fish out of the water, right behind the parent. Lunch was served and lesson taught.

Those days are gone. These days, the birds nest in more remote locations. It is better that way. They need their privacy and will stop nesting here if they are disturbed.

Additional reading: American Bald Eagle - nesting and young