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Northern Red-bellied Snake

As I sit and put finger to keyboard, it used to be pen to paper (LOL), I think back to an unexpected encounter I had the other night. My friend Peter and I were in Prince Edward County, looking for night birds and watching fireflies dancing along the road edge. In the background, Whip-poor-wills were calling incessantly with their monotonous but thrilling “WHIP-poor-will WHIP-poor-will” song, as they sought a mate in the darkened landscape. The soft “peenting” of the American Woodcock punctuated the dark as well, but this sound is only heard when he is on the ground. These odd members of the sandpiper family live in upland areas and feed on soil insects and invertebrates. At this time of year males do an elaborate sky dance that involves rocketing skyward, all the while making a twittering sound, created when air passes through modified feathers in the wings. Once the apex of the flight is reached, he then spirals downward uttering a twittering sound, as he zigzags back to earth, hoping some nearby female might be impressed. It was almost fully dark, and we had fed most of the mosquitoes already, so it was somewhat peaceful. As I glanced down to the hard-packed road surface, I saw what I thought was a large worm wriggling across the surface. But it moved too fast and seemed deliberate in its actions. I normally try not to touch wildlife but this little critter intrigued me, so I stooped down and caught it. To my surprise, it was a lovely Northern Red-bellied Snake! I marveled at how dainty and fragile it seemed, but in reality knew it was a hunter. After a quick moment of reflection, I set it back down and off it went on its nightly hunt, for it is a nocturnal predator. Being non-venomous there was no risk when I picked it up. The Red-bellied Snake is a small snake, 30 cm in length, compared to many other snakes in the world. It is quite drab in appearance, being sandy to medium brown on the back with varying darker or lighter markings, sometimes appearing random. Other times defined patterns form, such as a partial ring around the neck. But when you turn it over, it has a dramatically bright red underbelly. They are relatively slow moving and feed on equally slow prey: such as slugs, insect larvae, land snails and earthworms. They are widespread in Canada and can be found from southern Saskatchewan through to PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Their preferred habitat is meadows, ravines and forest clearings. Heavy ground cover and sufficient hiding places such as fallen logs and rocks are a must for their survival, as they are preyed upon by a large variety of predators. These same habitats may be used in winter, where they hibernate in animal’s tunnels, ant hills, rock crevices and other safe places. The Northern Red-bellied Snake breeds primarily in early summer and then the female gives birth to 4 to 12 live young late in the season, August to early September. The small offspring develop slowly and take two years to reach maturity. How long they live in the wild is uncertain but in captivity they have been kept for more than 4 years. By the way, please do not catch them and keep them as pets, as wild things need to remain wild! Oh, did you ever wonder why they have a red belly? When threatened, they will roll over and expose their red underside which can shock a predator momentarily and they can escape. This is a common attribute of many prey species, they use colour or surprise to throw their pursuer off balance giving themselves a couple of moments to flee. When we are out and about, we often only see what is obvious, but take the time to look down and travel outside at different times of day, you might be surprised and delighted with what you encounter. Be respectful of nature always, so everyone can share in its bounty! Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com, on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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