As with most species, we have a wealth of snakes in the Monterey Bay region, and I want to help you to know them…and to encourage a young person to become a wildlife biologist.
April is Snake Month
April is usually the month that you can see the most snakes. With the weather this year, it seems the snakes waited a little while so maybe May will also be rich with snake sightings. Most people I know see snakes crossing roads and trails. Too many people see snakes that were killed by vehicles on roads. Not many people get the opportunity to walk off trail to see snakes. If you can get out off trail, you might walk with a few friends side-by-side in a line through a meadow- an efficient way to see snakes. Another place most folks aren’t afforded to look is along bodies of water. A foray along the edge of a marsh or pond will likely net a snake sighting. And yet another unusual activity is a good way to see snakes: turn over ‘cover’ – logs, boards, bark, tin roofing, or anything else that is big enough and has touched ground enough to provide a hiding place for snakes. The rule is to put that piece of cover back gently and exactly like you found it. Looking for snakes is a good way to get in touch with wild nature around here, and it is also a viable and fascinating career. There aren’t enough local wildlife biologists: can you name one? We need to encourage more children to seek careers in wildlife conservation. There are a variety of nice jobs for people who know their snake ecology.
I’ll briefly outline the places one might work as a wildlife biologist, and then I’ll get to discussing what cool snakes there are around here. Parks and other conservation lands agencies employ ecologists to help conserve wildlife. There is also an abundance of ecologists working in research around the Monterey Bay. College and University wildlife careers come with teaching and research while jobs at other research institutions might not have the same teaching roles. There are also careers just doing outreach: think folks in museums, aquaria, on whale watching boats, and leading tours on land. Because of the environmental laws in our nation and in California in particular, there are a host of jobs as consultants, either in private business or as advisors working with Resource Conservation Districts or other such entities. While wildlife ecologists might not earn as much money as engineers, doctors, or lawyers, I know many who love their work and are leaving amazing legacies for future generations: peregrine falcons or condors that would otherwise have gone extinct, restored ponds hosting rare California red-legged frogs and tiger salamanders, wildlife corridors that support the movement of badgers and cougars, and many other such things. Next time a child or young adult mentions a love of birds, mammals, reptiles, or any wildlife, I hope that you will pause a moment and tell them how amazing it would be if they sought a career in wildlife biology. Perhaps they will be the ones to help conserve our rarest local snake, the San Francisco gartersnake.
Here’s the list of the 13 local snakes:
- San Francisco gartersnake
- Santa Cruz gartersnake
- California red-sided gartersnake
- Coast gartersnake
- Gopher snake
- Northern Pacific rattlesnake
- Ring-necked snake
- California king snake
- California mountain king snake
- Forest sharp-tailed snake
- Northern rubber boa
- Wester yellow-bellied racer
- California striped racer (whipsnake)
How many of these snakes have you seen? Traveling as I do through grasslands, I see gopher snakes every week. I once had a dog that for some reason wanted to gently pick up ring necked snakes in the forest. Now, I only see forest snakes (rubber boas, ring necked, and sharp-tailed snakes) when I go with a gaggle of folks doing surveys. There used to be more rubber boas on the north coast before the 2020 fire- a lot of them and other forest snakes must have died in that conflagration.
The Most Beautiful Snake
I don’t get around water much, but when I do, I have always seen gartersnakes and then I have to remember how to tell them apart. Your location matters if you are trying to see San Francisco gartersnake. That endangered species has never been documented south of Waddell Creek, but you supposedly can find them from Año Nuevo north and east to the urbanized areas. It ought to be called the San Mateo County gartersnake at this point, but maybe someone has seen one in the many wetlands of San Francisco. I include them here because they do occur on the northern boundary of the Monterey Bay, which is around Pigeon Point. The San Francisco gartersnake with its blue, yellow, and red stripes has been called the most beautiful snake in the world.
Santa Cruz’ Garternsake
We have a namesake gartersnake which is much plainer, the Santa Cruz gartersnake. This one like most gartersnakes has a dark blackish background and a single yellow or orangish line down its back. This species overlaps a lot with the San Francisco gartersnake but its range extends south to Watsonville.
The coast gartersnake is midway in coloration between the colorful San Francisco gartersnake and the not so colorful Santa Cruz gartersnake. This one has the gold line down its back but also has a red checks down its side, mixed with browns and blacks.
I like garter snakes for their smell. When you pick them up, they emit a ‘foul musk odor’ – apparently a defense. The smell washes right off, it is water soluble.
I don’t recommend picking up snakes unless you know what you are doing. If you are older than 16, you shouldn’t handle them without a fishing permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. If you do handle a snake, even the non-venomous ones might bite you. If they bite, you have to let them stay attached to you until they let go: if you pull away, you could dislocate their jaws. It is no fun to have to watch a snake chew on you until it is done. Some snakes, like mountain king snakes, have razor sharp teeth that will then make you bleed a bunch after they chew awhile.
Remember please to encourage young people to pursue careers in wildlife conservation. If you have a place for someone to live more affordably, you might pitch in for conservation by advertising it for a wildlife expert. Whatever you do, I hope you can appreciate our area more – our amazing snake diversity is just another example of how special our region is. Let’s conserve it!
-this article originally published in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com – sign up to receive it and you won’t be sorry.