While we spend a lot of time writing about birds here, it is always fun to get questions about other taxa, and especially to cover some basics of groups that are overlooked or under-appreciated.

This week, let’s talk snakes!

If you have ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, this article may not be for you (if you are even still reading) but hopefully if you make it through you’ll appreciate these remarkable reptiles a bit more. A question came in from a Bowdoinham resident, Deb W., asking about the identification of a snake, and, because she thought it might be rare, if the sighting should get reported.

A good place to start is with the diversity of snakes in Maine: we currently have nine species, some with multiple subspecies occurring here, and there was historically a 10th, which has been extirpated. The “lost” species is the timber rattlesnake, which used to occur in southern Maine, but due to extreme persecution from humans hasn’t been documented here since 1860. This was the only venomous snake in Maine; all the remaining nine species are safe to be around, although some can be more aggressive when agitated. Eastern milk snakes and common water snakes often get misidentified as rattlesnakes because of their checkerboard patterning or large size.

Eastern ribbon snake. Shutterstock

This is a good place to remind everyone that venomous is toxic when they bite you, poisonous is toxic when you bite it. Ninety percent of people get this wrong and ask if we have poisonous snakes in Maine, so now you know.

The beauty of our snakes is perhaps lost on most people because of the unfounded negative perceptions of them. Milk snakes can be a stunning reddish-brown with white striping. The appropriately named red-bellied snake is small, typically reaching 8 to 12 inches as an adult, and should be a welcome addition to any garden. They’ll help keep pests, especially slugs, at bay. A similar species is ring-necked snake, showing more of a yellow-orange underside compared to red-bellied, but this species is very secretive and hard to detect. Another visually stunning species is the smooth green snake, easily overlooked as they are thin and vividly green, often blending in with the grasses they inhabit.

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Ring-necked snake.

Ring-necked snake. Shutterstock

Our most common snake, the common garter snake, is widespread and found in a variety of habitats. Yet another species you don’t need to worry about, they can act aggressively if you get too close to them, but they are more interested in feeding on earthworms than taking a bite of you. One species sometimes mistaken for a garter snake here in Maine is the much less common eastern ribbon snake. This species shows three yellow stripes along the body, similar to garter snakes, but typically with more contrast. A more diagnostic feature is a pale yellow spot that is in front of each eye. Even among garter snakes there can be wide variation in their appearance, owing to the fact that we have two subspecies present in Maine. The eastern common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) shows the three yellow stripes as mentioned on a ribbon snake, while the maritime garter snake (T.S. pallidulus) appears darker and is often lacking the middle, or ‘top,’ stripe.

Does anyone want to know about snakes you find? Yes! Similar to the site eBird (ebird.org) that I often write about, a citizen science project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there is an equivalent in Maine for reptiles and amphibians: the Maine Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project (MARAP). MARAP was started in 1984 by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, in cooperation with Maine Audubon and the University of Maine, to recruit people, beyond those few studying the species, to report what they found. Since then, more than 13,000 records have been submitted by hundreds of volunteers around the state. One outcome of this has been the beloved “Maine Amphibians and Reptiles” book (an updated third edition is due to be published within the year).

You can learn more about MARAP on the state’s website (search for MARAP on mefishwildlife.com) where there is also a form for submitting sightings. Alternatively, you can use iNaturalist to log your sightings. iNaturalist works similar to eBird, asking you to submit a photo of whatever animal (or anything living thing, rather than just the birds that eBird is designed for) you see, and report where and when. Those records are used to update distribution maps and we can also monitor phenological changes with these.

As you find yourself working outside or exploring the outdoors this summer, keep in mind that snakes are important parts of the ecosystem and are likely helping keep pests out of your gardens or away from your homes. And if you can snap a photo of them, or any amphibians or reptiles, consider adding that record to the MARAP database.

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 7 to 9 am, at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

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