Northland Nature: Red-bellied snakes prepare for the Northland coldAs autumn unfolds from September into October, we continue to see how nature is preparing for the coming cold. Probably the most obvious are the trees that are now shedding their leaves, usually among a blaze of color that is hard to miss.
As autumn unfolds from September into October, we continue to see how nature is preparing for the coming cold. Probably the most obvious are the trees that are now shedding their leaves, usually among a blaze of color that is hard to miss.
If the trees were to retain their foliage, the same structures that provided food when it was warmer would cause the plants to dry up in the cold. Wild flowers that bloomed in past weeks — taking advantage of the active insects for pollination — now form seeds, using the winds of fall to disperse.
Animals have other ways to meet the impending chill. They basically deal with winter in four ways: migrating to a warmer climate, hibernating, dying (after laying eggs) or, simply, staying active.
There are huge variations among each group, and some do more than one. A good example of this last situation, as we may see in coming weeks, is with ladybugs. Before cold-time dormancy, they travel to a proper resting site, migrate and then hibernate.
Another example of this that I see regularly now in early October is with snakes. We have only two species of snakes common in the Northland: the common garter and red-bellied snakes (pictured). I have seen two other kinds in the region — the ring-necked snake and the smooth green snake — but they are much less common.
Both our two most-likely-seen snake groups will hibernate for winter. They choose a site, known as a “hibernaculum,” where they congregate and pass through the cold and dark. The sites are underground and in open cracks, pits or such subterranean locales where they are able to go below the frost line.
Though still cold in these places, they will survive with the help of snow acting as an insulating blanket. (A few years ago, during the winter of 2002-2003, the light snow cover and deep cold caused the death of many snakes, as the frost penetrated their safety zone.
The same winter saw the demise of huge numbers of frogs, especially spring peepers on the forest floor.)
Though we may seldom see their hibernacula at this time in autumn, we can often watch these reptiles as they travel to find their winter world. When I bike on the Willard Munger Trail during clear days in October, I not only look for traveling snakes but I expect to see them.
Garter snakes are the larger of the two; some females may reach up to 2 feet long. They are adorned with light-colored stripes on the body’s length. The smaller red-bellied snake, which is usually less than a foot long, is mostly brown above, with the name-sake reddish-orange on the underside. Many locals refer to this small snake as “copper-belly,” but I find that that term is too easy to confuse with “copperhead” — a type of poisonous snake found much further to the south.
Our snake species are all harmless and don’t need any more misconceptions or misunderstandings than already exist.
Feeding on a variety of small invertebrates, the snakes gather meals on their way to bed. Also, as they take the seasonal trek, they pause at warm places to bask. Most likely that is part of the reason that I see them on pavement now: autumn nights and mornings are chilly and it feels good to warm up a bit.
These autumn days of October have a great deal to offer, and each day we can see a new story being acted out as Northland nature copes with the coming cold in various ways.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.