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Readers Write In: We Were Trying to Enjoy The River But What’s Up With All These Snakes? —Guest Post—

While camping this week end in the Pigeon River country, mid-Michigan we encountered many snakes in the Pigeon River while the kids were swimming? We have been swimming there for many years and never seen a snake? It appeared to be a mating ritual? The water is very cold. The holiday was a week early and that may explain why we have missed this before. We were all amazed and wondered where we could find information. I googled it but it never mentioned any thing about mating habits? They were marked like rattlesnakes. We just couldn’t place them in such cold water?



    It sounds like your family was enjoying a wonderful camping trip! One of my favorite pastimes is floating down Michigan rivers and observing wildlife along the way. I know you didn’t ask me, but I will tell you in my opinion there is not a more relaxing or enjoyable thing to do on a warm sunny day. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of exploring the Pigeon River yet, but it is on my list of rivers to make time for. There are too many miles of great paddling here in Michigan for one persons’s lifetime. That being said, I spend enough hours on the water, and I have more than a slight interest in reptiles and amphibians, so I figure I should be able to try and help out by answering a few of your questions!

Baby Northern Watersnake
    Snakes can be tricky beasts for sure. Even though they are fairly common along Michigan rivers, they can be hard to see. They are secretive and very well camouflaged. If you don’t look for them, you often don’t see them! They are not the evil creatures people often take them for. They will usually remain motionless as you go by, or quickly flee the area. Both scenarios may occur without most people knowing the snake was ever in the area. I can’t tell you how many times I am out looking for reptiles, and other people in a populated place are very surprised to find out there are snakes right in the area. 

    If you know a little about snakes and their habits, they can be easier to find. The spring is probably the best time of the year to try and observe them. It sounds like your day was one of those rare days where certain factors aligned, making for ideal conditions for snakes to be out and active. I don’t need to remind you what a long and rough winter we had up here in the north. Our spring was very delayed because of this, and vegetation had a much later start than normal. The snakes were likely taking advantage of one of our first warm and sunny days after the long winter. They tend to be be active for longer periods of time basking, foraging for food and mating. The lower levels of vegetation might have made it easier for your family to notice them as well.

Northern Watersnake
    The snakes your family saw were most likely Northern Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) They are very common along and in our Michigan Rivers and are not deterred at all by the cold water. They spend much of their time basking along river banks, in over hanging bushes and shrubs, or on fallen trees and logs in the water. You may also find them hunting and swimming in the shallows. Sometimes, you may have already spooked the snake and you first noticed them swimming away in an effort to seek refuge in the water. Their diet consists of fish, frogs and insects and they pose no risk to your family. If grabbed or handled though, they will bite in defense, and often release foul smelling feces from their anal vent. It may go without saying, but catching a water snake by hand is rarely an enjoyable experience for both parties involved.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
    Northern Watersnakes are variable in pattern, but tend to have a drab brown or grey base coloration with darker bands criss-crossing along their backs. They can grow to be quite sizeable, maybe even a few feet in length, and their pattern will often fade as they age. They are one of the most common Michigan snakes confused for the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus). The two species do have similar colors and patterns. The biggest giveaway is the presence or lack of a rattle at the end of the tail, but familiarizing yourself with the different species patterns and habits also makes it pretty easy to tell them apart. Massasaugas are common in wetlands, fens, wet prairies and even sometimes woods along our Michigan rivers, but will rarely actually be found swimming in a larger river such as the Pigeon. To my knowledge, they are common along the Pigeon River.

Northern Watersnake
    Finally, you mentioned that they appeared to have been mating. Similar to humans, some species of snakes also partake in intricate and confusing mating rituals. Garter snakes and water snakes (but not Cottonmouths) are well known to form “mating balls”. Typically a female or two will be basking and she will attract the attention of a number of males. The snakes end up intertwined and almost “balled up” for a significant amount of time. The males will fight for position and the ability to mate with the females. This may sound very similar to you, as it is often also seen on a Friday or Saturday night right here in the metro Detroit area! I haven’t personally seen this in water snakes, but it is well documented in the literature. If you search google for “Northern Watersnake mating ball”,  there are a number of good Youtube videos showing this.

    Your family obviously has a wonderful interest in nature and the outdoors. If you would like more information regarding reptiles and amphibians in Michigan there are a number of wonderful local resources available to you. My favorite books would have to include, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan, by J. Alan HolmanAmphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, by James H. Harding, and the more general Peterson Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Many of the local parks with nature centers have knowledgable naturalists who often hold “herp” programs which provide you a controlled opportunity to often search for these animals on guided hikes. Lastly, there are a number of excellent reptile and amphibian enthusiasts, researchers and photographers in Michigan who are active on the web with blogs, photography websites and even twitterfeeds. Finally, if you do get more interested, I would encourage you to try and take pictures of your finds and contribute them to the Michigan Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. It is great effort to document observations of reptiles and amphibians all over the state to try and learn more about their occurrences. It also provides a chance for the casual citizen scientist to contribute their observations.

As always, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask!

About the Author, Jason Folt

I grew up in the midwest, splitting time between Ohio and Michigan, and I have not been able to leave. I fell in love with the southeastern Ohio hills, and now the northern Michigan rivers. As my night job I am an emergency physician who practices in the metropolitan Detroit area, and I am involved in the training of medical students and residents. My interests lie in airway management, envenomations and medical photography. By day, I enjoy spending my time outdoors when possible, searching for opportunities to photograph wildlife. I am a herp generalist, but in Michigan I find myself spending most of my free time searching for turtles.  I travel with my kayak when I can and am always trying to explore new sections of rivers looking for wood turtles. I keep observational herp records which are contributed to state officials, and I try to volunteer with formal surveys when invited. I also enjoy diving, and recently entered the world of underwater photography.

I try to share my various outdoor adventures on my blog, I also spend a little time on twitter: @jasonfolt. Feel free to connect with me at any time!