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"The Tale of Three Little Snakes"

To provide the setting for this adventure, a little background history is in order.

On one of the more upland forested areas of the Tantrough Branch farm, we created a camping area many years ago. The canopy (tallest trees in a forest) consists of second growth (see Logging with Mules article - Feb. 26, 2021) red and white oaks, tulip poplar,

sweetgum, and hickory with an understory (lower trees able to survive the shade) of holly, dogwood, and serviceberry. The camp was a circle with all combustible material, shrubs, vines, fallen branches, and leaf litter removed to create a fire safe zone approximately 30 feet in diameter. Tents and benches, plus a wooden cable spool table were pitched around the circumference. In the center was the campfire scar and a brick-lined pit oven. This site was used by the Boy Scouts of America for their monthly campouts (yes, even in winter) as well as family and friends. Over the following decades the site was no longer used and naturally began to revert to forest. Tulip poplar seedlings, briars, and shrubs sprang up in the well-drained sandy soil.

Clearing the Campground

In October of 2020 our grandson wished to clean up the site and roast the traditional Thanksgiving turkey in the brick oven, a past event that he had so often heard about, but because of his youth, had never actually taken part in. So promises were made, to clean up the campground, restore the oven and roast a turkey. Before any fire was lit, all seedling trees were cut and their roots pulled. Brush, branches, and vines were hauled away and the site was leveled.

Brick Oven Repair

As the final safety step, and my point of telling you this, all of the fallen leaves including the decomposing layer called duff, was swept away down to the bare sand, using a gasoline powered leaf blower. So that brings me to the purpose of this background information.

During this operation, we uncovered several reptiles and one amphibian. They spend most of their daytime lives safely hidden beneath the cover of fallen logs, in old rodent borrows, or underneath the thick cover of fallen leaves and humus. Within the dimensions of the campfire circle, 707 square feet, we found:

1. One Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

2. Four Eastern Wormsnakes (Carphophis amoenus), including the largest @ 12 inches and the smallest @ 5 inches that we have ever seen. Likely the large snake was a female. Plus the smallest had the brightest pink belly of any that I have seen.

Eastern Wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus)

3. Two Eastern Smooth Earthsnakes (Virginia valeriae)

Eastern Smooth Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae)

****************************************************************************************************************************** I am not certain when I became acquainted with the Ring-necked Snake. At a very young age as children playing in the forest, we came across them from time to time while turning over rotten logs. With their distinctive yellow collar, they are hard to confuse with other snakes. They sometimes use the defensive tactic of exposing their brightly patterned underbelly

Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

. Although Ring-necks are harmless, they mimic some poisonous reptiles and amphibians that use this move to warn potential enemies to stay away. An example of copycat mimicry, “if you’re not dangerous you can pretend to be dangerous”. James White, Jr. co-author of the highly recommended, Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva, attests to the fact that ring-necks will, as some other snakes, emit musk when captured. A personal thing, I guess, but it works on me! It is a singularly unpleasant smell that makes me want to spit! Seems like wash as I may, it takes some time to go away.

We learned of the Wormsnake much later. Many people might confuse the Wormsnake, exactly as the name implies, with a large earthworm. A large night crawler can be bigger than a small Wormsnake.

Eastern Wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus)

However upon closer inspection, the Wormsnake has eyes, scales, and a pink belly. Most frequently these were discovered under logs or pieces of firewood at the woodpile. When captured they try to escape by pushing down between your fingers. When returned to the ground they quickly move out of sight. I have observed Wormsnakes on most of the lands of the Milford Millponds Nature Preserve and on both of our family farms here near the headwaters of the Tantrough Branch. Once while travelling at a snail’s pace along one of our trails, we suddenly noticed quite a commotion on the trail ahead. A medium sized Black Racer snake (Coluber constrictor) had a desperately struggling Eastern Wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus) in its jaws. Struggle as it might, we watched the poor victim slowly disappear to its doom down the gullet of the racer. The last of these very small snakes that I learned to know, is the Earthsnake. For my entire life I have created and maintained nature trails. A few years ago I was grooming an existing trail on a neighbor’s property, clearing off sticks, branches, and leaves when I uncovered a small brown snake. At first glance I believed it to be another Wormsnake. Upon closer inspection this snake did not have a pinkish belly, it was shaped a little differently, and had some little dark flecks scattered over its body. The underbelly was grayish, not pink.

Eastern Smooth Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae)

When I checked these features out in some of my field guides, I learned it was an Earthsnake. I suspect that many times in the past, I mistakenly identified an Earthsnake as a Wormsnake because since that enlightenment, there seem to be more Earthsnakes than before! Hopefully you will learn to appreciate these harmless little snakes. None of the three are much bigger than a large drinking straw. They spend their time under cover eating insects, grubs, worms, snails, and occasionally each other. They are part of the fabric of nature and should never be harmed or destroyed. We are privileged to have all three species represented in the Milford Millponds Nature Preserve. Purchase a good field guide to learn more of their habits and life history. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians by Roger Conant, a Peterson Field Guide Series book is good. Also, I highly recommend Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva by James, Jr. and Amy White. This guide is specific to the species that are found on Delmarva and has complete details of their lives and ecology. The wonderful photographs of snakes in this article were generously provided by James White, Jr. Footnote: At the same survey of the campground site in November 2020, we also discovered a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum). In addition in November 2019, an endangered Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) was discovered at the very same site.

Special thanks to James White, Jr. for providing the splendid photographs.

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