story and photos by Arthur Masloski
While exploring the breathtaking habitats within the Finger Lakes you’re bound to come across some of the wildlife that calls this place home. Most of them are admired for their grace, beauty, or mystique. The regal blue heron at the water’s edge, the mysterious white deer wandering the abandoned army depot, the scores of waterfowl that patrol the cool, deep lakes that make this place so hospitable to humans and animals alike.
There are, however, some creatures that are seen as malicious, cunning, and evil by some. It’s no secret that snakes aren’t popular; you seldom see one because you want to see one, they just seem to appear out of nowhere, streaking past your feet or dangling above your head when you least expect it. Their unblinking eyes, lithe and legless bodies, and expressionless faces make them seem alien. They’re efficient predators that eat their prey whole; subduing them with venom, constriction, or brute force. It’s easier for us to empathize with the prey than with the predator.
But snakes have a role to play; they’ve existed on the planet for over 100 million years, having evolved from subterranean lizards under the feet of dinosaurs. Now they serve as effective predators of various pests that might otherwise infiltrate our homes. Snakes in turn feed a host of other animals, from hawks and herons to raccoons and foxes. Far from evil they’re simply just animals, and while many of their characteristics make them creepy to some, those same things also make them fascinating.
The Finger Lakes Region is home to a dozen species of snake and I’ve had the good fortune to see the majority of them in the wild. It’s my goal in this article to share them and perhaps replace a little fear with some fascination.
Eastern Garter Snake
Its not garden snake it’s garter snake, named for their garter-like scale pattern. But gardens are where you’ll often see them, along with forests and wetlands. There they feed on various amphibians and soft-bodied insects, including some significant pests, like slugs. Of all the snakes out there these are surely among the least offensive and they average fairly small; about 2 feet give or take. The visually similar ribbon snake is technically a garter snake as well. These slim, fast-moving snakes prefer wetland habitats.
Northern Water Snake
Of all the snakes in the region it’s the water snake that is the most wrongly feared. They’re often mistaken for the venomous cottonmouth, a species that doesn’t occur in New York. Water snakes are large bodied fish eaters encountered along watery places. They average 2 to 4 feet and although people will tell you that they’re aggressive they really aren’t. All snakes would rather flee from than fight with a human but water snakes will defend themselves admirably if harassed. From experience I can say it’s their foul-smelling musk that should be feared more than their non-venomous bite.
Dekay Brown Snake
The drab looking brown snake is one of our most common snakes but it’s seldom seen. Often mistaken for the garter snake, it inhabits a variety of habitats, from forest clearings to suburban neighborhoods, where they live under surface cover and mostly feed on slugs and earthworms. The brown snake seldom reaches a foot long.
This is one of the most beautiful snakes in the region and it is also the smallest species in New York at only 5 to 10 inches long. They can be either gray or brown above, but all have a vibrant red underside. This is another invertebrate predator that prefers forested places where it lives within logs or under rock piles.
Similar looking to the red-belly but with a vibrant yellow belly, this is another visually striking species that inhabits forested areas where is prefers to remain underground or under logs. Seldom reaching 15 inches, the ring-neck feeds on invertebrates, amphibians, and small snakes.
Smooth Green Snake
A rare sight in the region is the aptly named smooth green snake. Primarily an insect eater, this living jewel frequents the edge habitats of forests, fields, and wetlands. This species seems to be on the decline and to see one is a special encounter that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Even where they’re common, this species is hard to differentiate from the vegetation it lives amongst. This is a small species, reaching 2 feet at most.
Eastern Milk Snake
Particularly common in farmyards is the impressive milk snake, so named because farmers once thought they sucked milk from sleeping cattle. Reaching 2 to 3 feet long, this species is actually a friend to farmers, feeding heavily on rodents. Milk snakes are also known to eat other snakes, venomous species included. When young, this species exhibits a stunning candy cane color and pattern, but with age, the red saddles along the back give way to brown. These brown blotches cause many to confuse the milk snake with the venomous copperhead, and while copperheads do occur in New York they do not live in the Finger Lakes.
Black Rat Snake
Reaching 3 to 6 feet in length this is the largest snake species native to New York. It is largely arboreal and feeds on birds and their eggs but is also a proficient rodent hunter and so a benefit to humans. A very common species in southern states, the black rat is harder to find in its northern range but occasionally takes up residence on farms, where it preys on mice, rats, and the occasional chicken egg.
Another big black snake in the region is the black racer. As the name implies it’s fast and is likely to vanish faster than your brain can register that you saw it. While many snakes are more nocturnal in habits, the racer is an active daytime hunter that feeds on birds, reptiles, rodents, and anything it can overpower. When young, both the black rat and racer have a checkerboard pattern that fades to black with age. They can be hard to distinguish from each other, too.
So far every snake on this list has been harmless to humans, but two venomous snakes do occur in the Finger Lakes, and they’re both rattlesnakes. Bounties were once placed on these species, and that, coupled with habitat loss and the building of roadways has pushed both species to the brink. As a result they’re both endangered and unlikely to be encountered. The 3 to 4-foot timber rattlesnake is the more common of the two but requires specific habitats in order to survive the brutal New York winter; basically large rocky outcrops where they can over-winter below the frost line. Such habitat is rare in the Finger Lakes. The other species is the small 2 to 3-foot eastern massasauga, which is only found in two small and isolated wetland areas in the region.
Together this group of snakes represents a diverse variety of unique reptiles that only helps to enhance the ecosystems in which they live. They’re as much a part of the Finger Lakes as the lakes and gorges, waterfowl and deer. Much of what we think we know about them has been passed down as fearful myths and old wives’ tales. To learn about snakes is a liberating experience, where you’ll find more to admire than fear.
Meet the Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s Locally Endangered Snake
About 200 years ago, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake was common in Upstate New York. But today, this beautiful snake is locally endangered due to humans destroying its wetland habitats and killing them out of fear. Eastern massasaugas actually are shy and only strike if cornered. Two small populations remain in our area, at Cicero Swamp in Onondaga County and Bergen-Byron Swamp near Rochester. You can see a female eastern massasauga named Cicero at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse. Visit rosamondgiffordzoo.org for more information.
Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester was proud to announce the birth of six Dummeril’s ground boas late last year. These were the first births of this species at the zoo in 20 years. Parents were 7-year-old Ursula, and 20-year-old Spaz. Both snakes were first time parents. This species, native to Madagascar, is ovoviviparous, meaning they produce eggs but do not lay them externally. The pregnancy was confirmed by radiography by the zoo’s animal care team. Visit senecaparkzoo.org for more information.