Focus on Nature: Seeing eye to eye with a black snake

08/10/2011 1:05 PM |

We were surprised the other night when Lou called from Southold to say he had found a four-foot black snake badly tangled in some plastic deer fencing he had around his tomatoes. He wasn’t afraid that the snake was poisonous; he was just concerned about how to set it free without harming it. I suggested he snip the plastic with scissors or just leave it, in the hope it would make its way out. We talked about it for a while and decided perhaps the snake could untangle itself overnight and he said he would call in the morning to let me know how it all worked out.

It was just minutes later when an excited Lou called back! He had taken scissors out and spent a little time cutting the fencing around the snake’s head; the plastic was tangled so tightly around its neck Lou was afraid the snake wouldn’t be able to get free without some help. The fencing had tangled close to the snake’s eye, and Lou said, “We were eye to eye as I cut the last of the plastic.” It probably took a minute for the snake to realize it was free, but with a little time it moved away under some tomato plants where it rested a bit before it eventually slipped away. We don’t know who was more relieved, the snake or Lou.

It was nice to hear that, with so few snakes actually seen around the North Fork today, Lou was interested enough to take the time and effort to help out this black snake, which found itself in an embarrassing situation in his garden. Most people never get to see a huge black snake.

We haven’t seen any snakes around our place in a long time. We miss them. There used to be garter snakes in our garden or resting in the warm sun in our driveway, but it’s been a long time since we have seen a single snake around. Snakes are beneficial; they eat rodents of all types — rats, mice, voles — and should not be killed.
Some people are a bit apprehensive when it comes to snakes. Our good neighbor Winnie Billard, not being too fond of snakes, told us years ago that one had found a home under her back porch. She put up with it for years, each respecting the other. If that philosophy could reign with most of our wildlife, we’d have a better world by far.

What we are seeing every day now — and perhaps you are, as well — are the beautiful butterflies drifting through the air and visiting our flowering blossoms. Yellow swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails and monarchs are all passing through. Our great-grandkids are busy with their butterfly nets trying to catch any that come near.

The spicebush swallowtail was the first to appear, sitting on some impatiens blossoms near our pond. It returned time and again to fill up on nectar from the colorful flowers. This swallowtail is a strikingly beautiful butterfly, with its forewing mostly black, with ivory spots along the margin. The upper surface of the hind wing is bluish (female) or bluish-green (male). While spicebush swallowtails can be seen flying and feeding low to the ground, they also enjoy trees, such as the tulip tree.

Speaking of tulip trees, our son lost one in a recent thunder and lightning storm when it was struck and debarked by a lightning bolt. He remembers hearing a sizzling sound in the back of his house during the storm but never realized how close it hit until he saw the tulip tree in his backyard. The lightning strike stripped one whole side of the tree, leaving it dried and wrapped like a cinnamon stick. Now all the leaves are brown and dying and the tree is gone.

Back to our butterflies — the bright colored yellow tiger swallowtail stands out among the foliage. One day we noticed two flying in unison among the branches of one of our hickory trees — what a beautiful sight! It is native to North America.

Probably the most popular butterfly seen in our area is the monarch, which passes through on its annual migration. We often see these in our garden, where the main attraction is the butterfly bush. We have them in all colors and the butterflies congregate on them.

The monarch is famous for its long southward migration and its northward return in the spring, which spans the life of three to four generations of the butterfly. These long flights have been documented by actually putting lightweight stickers on the butterflies’ wings to tag them along the route they follow, which are later checked when they arrive some 3,000 miles away in Mexico, where they congregate on the trees by the thousands. Checking the stickers must be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Some 2,000 schools in the country are involved in this study following the amazing monarch migration south. Butterflies in the last generation to leave our area do not die right away but migrate south and live six to eight months in Mexico until they awake from hibernation in the spring, mate and lay eggs; then, withered and tattered from their migration and hibernation, they finally die.

The next generation that starts its flight northward lives for only six to eight weeks and goes through the life cycle again. This cycle continues through the months until they finally leave here in September or October to head out on their long journey south. The whole cycle of the monarch butterfly seems almost impossible.