The Quintessential North American Reptile

Article and photos by Wayne Ferrier

Northern Michigan I had that unmistakable feeling of being watched. It was a sunny autumn afternoon, and I was helping my father dig up an old drainage ditch at their Central Pennsylvania home. I was pretty far down in the ditch, pitching gravel over my shoulder onto the bank above me. I paused and looked around.

It didn’t take long to find out who was spying on me. A common garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, lay curled up on the bank, watching me with an intensity that I would have to say bordered on fascination.

A curious thing about the encounter was that the snake was half buried in gravel. She was too enchanted watching me work to worry much about being buried in stones.

No doubt I was excavating a favorite hunting ground. Digging up and replacing the old drainage system, I was uncovering a lot of salamanders (Eurycea bislineata), most certainly a staple in this particular garter snake’s diet.

I do not know how long she had been there, inches from my head. For a moment we remained motionless, eyeing one another, but eventually she lost her nerve and darted off towards the stone wall. Slick yellow and brown lateral stripes proved to be excellent camouflage gliding through a background of burnt grass and autumn leaves, and she quickly disappeared from view.

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