Last weekend, Evan and I camped out at Northmoreland Park with his Royal Rangers outpost. One of our Saturday activities was going down to the lake to fish. As soon as we got close to the water we spotted a snake swimming by the bank. While everyone else got started fishing, I stalked the Northern Water Snake from the shore, determined to catch it to show the kids. After a few misses, i thought I’d lost him, so I went to check on Evan. All of a sudden the serpent popped it’s head out of the water right in front of us. I got down on the ground and started to army crawl towards it as it neared the bank. When it’s head ducked around a curve in the bank, I made my move, grabbing its tail and hoisting it to shore. As I worked to corral the reptile it began striking at me and a crowd began to gather.
For such a harmless creature, they sure like to act tough! They have several ways of deterring predators. First is to flatten its body out to make itself look big and intimidating. When it does this, the head takes on the familiar diamond shape of it’s venomous relatives. The second line of defense is to strike. I know, I know, but Greg, you said they are harmless. I suppose it should be said that they are not venomous, but that doesn’t mean they can’t bite. They have small teeth and a bite can be a bit painful, but are mere flesh-wounds. The snake’s third route to ward off predators is pretty crappy, literally; they poop on you, and it smells awesome! That is it, that’s all the more danger a water snake poses to humans.
After showing off the snake, I decided it had been stressed enough for one day so I placed it back in the water and off it swam. I enjoy observing wild animals up close, but you always need to be aware of the animal’s stress level. Many animals can basically be scared to death so it is usually wise to keep your encounters brief.
The next day, while the rest of our group left the park, Evan and I returned to the lake to explore some more. When we got there the lake was packed with people and we soon found out there was a fishing derby going on. I was a little bummed because I figured surely all these people would scare any wildlife away; Boy was I wrong.
We decided to walk all the way around the lake since the near side was very crowded. Once we got to the other side, Evan began to notice frogs by the bank. Several attempts at capture proved futile and only resulted in a muddy shoe. We walked through a beautiful wooded area and watched chipmunks scurry across the trail. When we got out of the woods we returned to the lake’s edge and were greeted by a family of geese. The young goslings were very rowdy and splashed about; it was rather entertaining.
As we scanned the shoreline I noticed a frog and as I bent down to make my move, something else caught my eye. There, lying in the mud was the cutest baby snapping turtle! I decided that the turtle was easier pickins and a rarer find. With a precise grab, and to the delight of Evan and a little girl fishing with her family nearby, I lifted the turtle out of the water by its rigid tail. As far as snapping turtles go, this little guy was very well behaved.
Remember how I told you that I am not a Zoologist, well it showed in my knowledge of handling snapping turtles. While holding the turtle by it’s tail may be the safest option for us, it can do serious damage to the turtle’s tail and/or vertebral column. The safest way to handle a snapping turtle is to hold it by its shell just above the hind legs. Hopefully this little guy is ok and we didn’t do too much harm. :-/
After putting the turtle back in the water and watching him disappear into the mud, we moved on down the bank. As we peered into the shallows we came across a father and daughter fishing who inquired about our mission. They informed us that they had encountered a snake up on the trail nearby. After discussing our other findings, we headed over to the last known location of the snake. We walked through the tall grass alongside the trail and Evan spotted a cool snail.
As we walked, his snail was soon forgotten when a pretty little garter snake went slithering through the grass by our feet. I carefully picked up the snake and handed it to Evan. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen him smile so big!
Normally I try to catch and release the critters that we find, however garter snakes are beneficial to gardens and I have a slug problem in ours, so we brought it home with us.
As we continued our walk around the lake we came across a drake(male) mallard duck letting people come get extremely close. I thought this odd so I took a closer look, and down by the water’s edge was a mama mallard and her 8 little babies.
As we came back around to the front side of the lake we began encountering more fishermen. We also spotted lots of frogs sunning themselves along the shore. After missing a mammoth brown bullfrog I managed to snag a slightly smaller but equally beautiful green bullfrog.
We continued walking along the shore back towards the car, Evan insisting on showing off our catches to anyone who seemed interested. He played on the playground for a few minutes and we snapped a few pictures before letting the frog go.
As we left the park we both had huge grins plastered on our faces, knowing we had experienced some of nature’s treasures up close and personal. We talked about all the things we saw and looked forward to our next trip to Northmoreland Park.
If you live in Western PA and love critters and much as we do, I highly recommend checking out Northmoreland Park! Until next time, happy herping, ya’ll!