Redbelly Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster)

By way of a few muscular breast stokes, and tennis shoe-pushes
off the sand bottom, I enter the main channel of a great stream, the Altamaha
River. Pronounced “All-ta-mahaw” — 137 snaky miles of emerald water.

As far as I can see, only the slow-flowing river, fringed by
massive cypress and hardwoods. Yellow-white sandbars shimmer in the sun. No
sign of our fellow species, no boats, no tents, no buildings or powerlines.

Only the river, endless.

I’m at home. I melt into the cool water.

A colleague had e-mailed and requested a dozen specimens of
brown watersnakes (Nerodia taxispilota) and redbelly watersnakes (Nerodia
erythrogaster)
for a food habits study that will include laboratory trials.
I was happy to oblige. These species, both nonvenomous,
are common along the Altamaha, the fish-eating brownies favoring the moving
waters of the mainstem, with the salmon-ventered redbellies partial to oxbow
swamps and soggy bottoms adjacent to the river — where their frog-prey
abounds. I was joined by Dr. Josh Parker of Clayton State University.

The first leaning tree, a crooked water elm — with trunk extending
horizontal over the river — holds two brown watersnakes, or as I like to call
them, “water taxis.” Peering hard to make out the scales, the dark chevrons running
the body, we admire the snakes. Stretched long, their
bellies hug the same branch. Anoles and skinks hustle about in the vegetation,
jumping for insects. When a basking watersnake senses danger it doesn’t hiss or
strike. It doesn’t tarry. In an instant the snake slips with elegance from its
perch into the water below, not to be seen again. A subtle, diagnostic splash.

  Enlarge PhotoThe Altamaha River

By sound alone, the swamp-wise naturalist knows when a
watersnake has dropped from a limb (less cannonball “ker-plunk” and wave-noise,
compared to the awkward flop of a basking turtle).

Immersed to our ears, swimming like crocodiles with prey in
mind, Josh and I work the edge of the river. Our eyes devour each and every root-wad
and “hurricane,” “leaner” and logjam. To spot basking snakes. We brave waters thick with
spiny softshell turtles the size of washtubs, as well as “Appaloosas” (flathead
catfish) — brutish leviathans often to 50 pounds, with power-vacuums for
mouths. Leaping mullet remind us that “big water” like the Altamaha is kin to
the sea.

“DIRK! DIRK! LOOK, IS THAT ONE SNAKE OR TWO?” Such a query is
sweet music to the ears of a herpetologist. In fact, it proved to be three
snakes, all massive female taxis, each over four feet long. Josh spotted the snakes curled on a spidery
mass of exposed roots — a good five feet above us. Did I mention they were very
big water taxis? Shaking, we hatch a plan.

“Josh, since we can’t reach them we need to startle them. I
am going to softly toss this mussel shell to make them jump. Do you think you
can catch the left-most snake? I will try for the other two. Get the bags ready.”
We catch two of the three — catching them in mid-air as they dive toward the
river!

Later, Josh will vault himself off the bottom to grab a
stout willow limb. Pulling himself skyward with one arm, he deftly snatches a sleeping
brownie from an even higher limb. I had bet him supper he couldn’t do it.  Josh
hadn’t told me he was a former NBA all-star.

Upon grabbing snakes we briefly submerge them while feeling
for a safe grip behind the head, hoping their lunges would find swim trunks — and
not exposed flesh. We take extreme care not to hurt or unduly stress any of the
snakes. When snake teeth hang up on our skin, we gingerly remove the offender
so as not to injure his/her mouth.

We are bitten about two dozen times. I should say “nipped,”
since most of these bites leave but faint superficial scratches. Interestingly,
a few of my watersnake bites itch intensely for a few minutes. I am unsure whether
this is due to something in the water, or in the snake’s mouth. One bite will
be memorable: I espy a strapping female resting in the river close to me, with
only her head above the water. Taking in her hefty form, muscled jowls and vacant
eyes, you might have thought she was doing her best impression of an anaconda.
I tremble just looking at her.

Awaiting courage, I watch a meter-long gar sink into the
depths with the methodical control of a submarine.

I strike rapidly, catching the snake underwater a foot
behind her head. She responds with repeated bite-and-chews to my wrist (yes, it
hurts). Dripping adrenalin and sporting shoelaces strewn green with tadpole
chow, I emerge from the river with the snake’s body looped in my right hand (a
rough greensnake in my left). An onlooker at the boat landing familiar with
snake identification holsters his libation and exclaims, “Oh-ho, good-gracious
son, why that ain’t no moccasin, that’s a water rattler!”
(I’ve heard it
before, but I don’t often hear this colloquialism, a local name for the brown
watersnake, its origin related to the species’ superficial resemblance — with
respect to its dorsal markings — to the timber rattlesnake).  

All in a day’s work

  Enlarge PhotoThe day’s catch: Brown Watersnakes (Nerodia taxispilota)

In 18 person hours of searching over two days, Josh and I
observe 66 snakes (65 brown watersnakes and one rough greensnake).  We capture
around 22 “brownies,” releasing all but six soon after capture (these snakes will
be liberated at their capture sites immediately following the feeding trials).

“Water taxis” favor the succulent flesh of catfishes.
Camping on an Altamaha sandbar, my wife and I were once awakened
in the middle of the night to a violent thrashing on our stringer to find a substantial
specimen attempting to fit a two-pound channel catfish into its mouth. We carried
the whole mess, snake attached like a lamprey to the right flank of the cat, a
short distance downstream before shaking the brownie free. Over a gritty catfish
breakfast, I told my wife that such catfish prey are usually swallowed
head-first so that the stout spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins “fold back”
during consumption (rarely, they “unfold” after ingestion, causing serious
injury to the snake).

Over the last 12 years, I have surveyed the herpetofauna of
the wonderful Altahama, documenting in detail the distribution of fauna
reptilian and amphibian. Remarkably, cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
are rare along the Altamaha River mainstem and in the 170,000 acres of hardwood
swamps lying in the floodplain of this magnificent alluvial stream. Only near Darien, where the river braids and spills into rich marshes and brackish estuaries, can
one commonly admire the lackadaisical swim of an undisturbed “trapjaw”. 

This intriguing mystery will be the subject of a future
article. Stay tuned.

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