GOING NOCTURNAL!

                                                                                         Phil Peak

 

This summer is on course to be one of the hottest ever. With temperatures soaring into the 90°sF practically every day, it is almost painful to even be outdoors!  Many of our native snakes routinely become active as the sun sets and the best opportunity to observe them is well after the heat of the day passes. One method that is particularly productive is to slowly drive roads at night in wooded areas. There are a number of variables that come into play and not all nights are created equal. Our most commonly encountered species in this situation is usually the Northern Copperhead. Copperheads usually emerge at dusk and can often be found throughout the night. There are nights when the copperhead is the only snake observed.

A snake that will sometimes make an appearance at dusk is the Black Kingsnake.  The kingsnake is usually one of the first snakes to become active in the evening and at times they will continue foraging until well after the night has settled in. Unlike the copperheads however they make an early exit and we have not encountered them much more than an hour after dark. The hour or so between dusk and true night can be especially interesting and often more snakes are located during this time frame than any other while driving roads in the summer months.

For those that pay close attention many interesting observations can be made. Some of the snakes that will be encountered while driving around are quite small and easy to miss. A good example of this is this Worm Snake that was found in the early morning hours gobbling up an earthworm. Life and death struggles such as this occur every night throughout the forests of Kentucky and it is a real treat to witness. Locating the smaller snakes is especially complicated by the numerous small twigs and branches that invariably find their way onto the road ways. Sorting through all of these while driving around and differentiating between what is an inanimate object and what is actually a snake takes patience and a keen eye.

One of the more spectacular sights is spotting a Timber Rattlesnake crossing a road. It should be noted that great caution should be taken while searching for snakes at night on country roads. The snakes found in this situation are active and generally alert. If you decide to remove them from the road be sure to use appropriate equipment such as a snake hook. Also, always be mindful that in addition to snakes there will most likely be other vehicles sharing the roads. Never stop your vehicle in the middle of the road where an upcoming car is likely to smash into you. Pull completely off on the shoulder and check for traffic before entering the roadway. It is easy to get tunnel vision once a nice find is made, but always keep safety in mind!

Another species that is often found from dusk until a couple of hours past night fall is the Rat Snake. This particular specimen was found on a stretch of road with heavy traffic. After determining that it was safe to do so we removed the snake from the road and posed it for photographs at a pull off a short distance away. When practical this is a good route to take and the resulting photos are usually of better quality since you are able to focus on the snake without having to look over your shoulder for approaching vehicles. It should be mentioned that a reliable flashlight is a must while searching for snakes at night. Before venturing out be sure your batteries are fresh and that you have backups just in case they are needed. While on the topic of necessities, it is advised that you have everything that you need before setting out including a full tank of gas and whatever food and drinks you may require. Nothing is worse than having to turn back due to a low fuel light flashing on your dashboard when snakes are crawling all over the roads. Also be mindful that most small town gas stations close early and re-fueling may not be an option until morning.

Milk Snakes are night active in the summer months and can be found very late. This one was found at 2:15 AM after many of the other snake species had called it a night. Even if snake activity slows down it is often worthwhile to continue driving roads since some of the best finds are often made very late at night. It is generally believed that nocturnal creatures and snakes in particular sometimes avoid venturing out on nights when the moon is full or even when the moon appears particularly large. The theory is moon lit nights will expose them to potential predators and that they sometimes shun these conditions. Cloudy nights are often productive for a variety of reasons. The cloud cover itself tends to insulate the ground and trap in warmer temperatures. The clouds also tend to filter out the moonlight and are often associated with an increase in humidity and barometric pressure, both of which are conducive to snake activity.  

There nothing like being at the right place at the right time. There is an inherit randomness to searching for snakes on roads at night and what is located is whatever happens to cross your path at a given time. For every snake that is found there is an untold number that have crossed the road in front of you minutes before you pass or entered the road that you just drove down ten minutes earlier. Timing and luck can be the difference between a great night and an average one. The photo above was one such fortunate encounter where a copperhead was found while in the process of eating a rodent on a lonely road at 3:00 AM.   

Temperature and humidity often play a key role in how successful you will be in finding snakes while road cruising. On some nights, especially when the skies are clear, the temperatures will drop rapidly as the sun sets. The black top will retain some of the heat from the sun’s rays but if the ambient air temperature becomes too low snakes are not likely to be surface active for long. Snakes also tend to prefer high humidity levels and if you are choosing a night to go out on this should be considered. The Scarlet Kingsnake in the above photo was found on a warm and muggy night at 1:00 AM when the air was thick and uncomfortable. If the night air feels good to you it is most likely not a good night to search for snakes.  Scarlet Kingsnakes are truly nocturnal and do not make their appearance until very late at night.

Aside from forested regions, wetlands are also a great location to drive roads for snakes on summer nights. This is especially true if there has been recent rain and frog activity is high. Under these conditions many water snakes such as this Diamondback Water Snake will often forage on the roads at these places. Other snakes that can be seen in these settings include both Garter Snakes and Ribbon Snakes (such as the Western Ribbon Snake below).

Western Cottonmouth also frequent these locales so be sure to keep this in mind before grabbing a snake that is moving across the road ahead of you!

In conclusion, if the summer heat has you down and you are looking for a productive way to spend a few summer nights, driving roads for snakes can be both interesting and educational.