Close Encounters With Snakes – Memoirs of a Herpetologist
Over the years I have been blessed with some incredible animal encounters, and many of them have been with snakes. Snakes in particular hold a very special place in my heart, and there are certain encounters that I can still feel the emotion of, in some cases years after the actual events.
In a year when snake encounters have been lacking, mostly due to the inability to visit snake habitat, I have been drawn to go through my photos and reminisce about those snake encounters that particularly stick in my mind.
Here are my top 12 snake encounters (so far). The best place to start, so they say, is at the beginning. So my first ever snake encounter seems to be the one to kick this blog off with.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 1
It was 2006, and I was in Peru, my first time in the tropics. That trip was responsible for so much, and was my first experience of tropical rainforest in Southeastern Peru.
It was our first day in the forest and we had just made our survey transects and had decided to run a practice survey. About 75 meters down the transect I spotted a green snake coiled on a branch, I was barely able to speak.
Day 1 in the jungle and I had found my first wild snake ever, and it was nothing short of awesome – the bright green loro machaco stayed in the same position for 3 days before it moved off.
Still to this day I can remember the thrill of setting eyes on that snake.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 2
Coffee blind snake
Since then I have travelled to some amazing and remote parts of the world in search of snakes, but since 2012, I have been working in Guatemala, in Northern Central America, and I have seen many species here.
One of the most difficult to find can be the blind snake. Blind snakes are some of the smallest snake species on the planet, in general they barely exceed 10cm in length. They are rarely seen as they spend most of their lives underground hunting ants and termites.
This has to be one of the most memorable snake encounters I have had. I was walking across a dusty parking lot to fill up my water bottle, when I noticed something moving close to my feet. When I looked closer it was this coffee blind snake following an ant trail, consuming the ants it encountered as it went.
It was amazing to watch this tiny snake, that looks so similar to an earthworm, open its mouth and swallow an ant. I watched, mesmerised until it went down the hole that led to the ants nest – I guess it fed well that day!
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 3
From one of the smallest snakes in Guatemala, to one of the largest. Barba amarilla are considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in the Americas, if not the world. However they are amazing creatures of the lowland forests of the region.
This individual was huge, close to 3 meters in length. Once she realised that we posed no threat to her, she very calmly coiled up into the buttress of a nearby tree.
Watching a 3 meter long snake coil up is a magnificent sight in itself – a perfect singular movement, with the head kept stationary to watch us while the rest of the body moved in perfect harmony until the coil was complete.
We watched from a safe distance, gave her the space she needed to feel comfortable, and were privileged enough to spend 20 minutes or so in the presence of one of the most amazing snakes I have ever had the honour of meeting.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 4
Central American coral snake
Another infamous snake of the Americas is the coral snake. I have encountered them several times, but this is one of my favourites. I had spent the morning with some colleagues looking for reptiles in the pine-oak forests of the department of Sacatepequez, Guatemala and we had been fairly successful in locating some interesting species.
We had come to the end of our survey and were waiting under cover while it rained and the car came to pick us up. I turned round from my seat, a fallen log, to pick up my rucksack and get a drink of water. As I did so this Central American coral snake glided past my bag.
If I hadn’t turned round at that exact moment, the snake would have passed us by and we would have remained none the wiser. It was such a spontaneous encounter, and the sight of those red, black, and white bands gliding across the forest floor will stay with me for a long time. Without a doubt my favourite coral snake encounter.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 5
To my mind common boa’s are one of the most iconic snakes in the world. They scream SNAKE!
Since being a child I had dreamed of seeing a wild boa, but it was not until my first trip to Guatemala in 2012 that it actually happened. I had taken a trip up to the Mayan city of Uaxactun from Tikal to see the ruins there. My guide very quickly realised I was into snakes and lamented that the previous day he had taken a group to Uaxactun and they had found a boa on the road.
As I sat in the passenger seat of the truck careering down the road, I started repeating the mantra ‘please let there be a boa on the road,’ I kept this up for what seemed like forever (probably 15 minutes).
About 20 minutes after I stopped, I saw a large stick on the side of the road. I quickly asked my guide to stop the car and quickly jumped out and ran back up the road with my heart in my mouth – with my hands shaking with excitement I realised there it was – my first wild boa, the mantra had worked!
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 6
The black-tailed indigo snake is our namesake, and it is one of the largest snakes in Central America.
They are fast and alert, and seeing them up close is difficult as they have usually seen you way before you have set eyes on them. It took several years of survey work to finally find my first individual.
This massive individual, 2 meters long and nearly 2 kilos, was not as big as they can get! After a short while of gentle handling this indigo calmed down and behaved more akin to a captive bred snake while we took measurements as part of an ongoing conservation project. A truly magnificent animal.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 7
Moving from some of the largest snakes in Central America, my thoughts turn to one of the most unusual snakes on the planet.
Blunt-headed treesnakes seem to defy what we inherently believe snakes to be. They are long, sometimes reaching over 1 meter, very thin, graceful, calm, delicate creatures. Not descriptions we usually associate with snakes.
Their big bulging eyes give them an incredibly endearing look. They are capable of holding nearly two thirds of their length stationary in mid air for what seems like hours. They are extraordinary animals, what is there not to like about them?
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 8
Before venturing to Guatemala, I spent about 4 years travelling to and from India. I encountered many spectacled cobras during my adventures there.
They are of course very common and often turn up in peoples houses where they hunt for rats and mice. This means that contact with humans is common and as a consequence there is a network of snake catchers in most big urban areas.
These dedicated volunteers get called to remove unwanted snakes from peoples homes. One of the most memorable snake rescues I was called to, involved a spectacled cobra that was using someones washing machine as a hiding place – trying to untangle the snake from all the wire and workings of the machine was a delicate affair. But needless to say the snake was safely relocated in a woodland fairly nearby.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 9
In 2010 I was part of a team that set out to photograph the reptiles and amphibians of the Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh with is situation in a remote part of Northeast India.
We were on our way back from a mini expedition to a wildlife guard outpost to see what we could find in a bamboo forest, and although the forest was enchanting we found very little there. We were about half way through the 5 hour trek to back to the main camp when I spotted this amazing Jerdon’s pitviper coiled up at head height on the bank we were walking next to.
Not only was it a new record for the sanctuary, it meant our efforts had not been in vain. Wildlife often has a habit of showing itself when you least expect it, but also when you have put the necessary effort in to find it.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 10
Arizona is known as a mecca for snake fans. The big draw is rattlesnakes, and Arizona is home to many species.
I was lucky to spend a month in Tucson back in 2014 and while we saw many rattlers, one encounter in particular sticks in my memory.
It was a Sunday morning and we were heading into the lab to work. As we walked up the steps we heard the tell tale buzzing of a rattlesnake nearby. Next to the steps were some barrel cactus, and underneath one were two tiger rattlesnakes.
A male and a female, we know this because they were mating, there right on our office doorstep. A fantastic encounter with an amazing species.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 11
Undoubtedly one of the most striking snakes in the world, the rax bolay is native to the cloud forests of Guatemala. Very little is known about the ecology and behaviour of this secretive species.
However, with careful observation they are willing to reveal parts of their story. These green jewels undertake careful searches, often on the forest floor, using very deliberate and seemingly calculated movements whilst searching out a suitable ambush site.
Once in position they remain motionless, often for days. However, every now and then they make slow practice strikes at the spot they are aiming for. This motion is repeated about 10 minutes later but in a much slower movement. It’s like they are building up muscle memory so they can increase their chances of a successful capture when a meal does finally present itself.
Close Encounters With Snakes: Number 12
Of all the snake species I have encountered over the year, the European adder retains a very special place in my heart. These relatively small, shy, retiring creatures often get a bad wrap from the British press and members of the public, needless to say its an unfair reputation.
Over the period of a few years in Somerset I got to know a pair of adders that resided on a bank of a nature reserve. By keeping a respectful distance from them I was often able to sit on the bank 3 meters away and watch them through binoculars. They let me into their private life, I saw them thermoregulating as the clouds and winds shifted, I watched them escape into rabbit burrows as buzzards passed overhead.
On one occasion I even witnessed the male courting the female by rubbing his head over her body. Wildlife experiences that will stay with my forever.
A snake encounter always illicits some kind of emotion for people, and each encounter is different. For me one emotion that is always present is one of elation and a sense of achievement, these animals are masters of not being found. So when you do finally find one, it is a special thing indeed.
This blog is intended solely to discuss in an anecdotal fashion some of my experiences with snakes in the field.
It is not intended to be used either as an identification guide, or a guide to snake handling.
Indigo Expeditions will not be held responsible for any harm sustained by who handles snakes in an attempt to identify them.
Please ask a professional to help!