Mary Lopresti put together a great article on the Northern Water Snake for us – They can often be seen in rivers and streams through Loudoun – so don’t be afraid, just watch and enjoy – they’re pretty cool snakes!
The Northern Water Snake
by Mary Lopresti
Sharing winter dens with copperheads, black rat snakes, muskrats and even beavers, water snakes emerge from their watery lairs in March or late April. As the heavy February snowfalls melt, the ponds, tidal creeks, marshes, and other bodies of water replenish and create the ideal habitat for a water snake. Water snakes are active during the day and night. When they are not hunting or hiding among plants on the water’s edge, the snake can be found basking in the sun on rocks, stumps, brush or in trees above water. Like all snakes, water snakes can climb. If startled while sunning itself in a tree, the snake will drop to the water.
Virginia’s most common water snake, found in all counties, is the Northern Water Snake. This large non-venomous snake is often mistaken for the copper head or cottonmouth snake (water moccasin), due to the similarities in their body markings. The Northern Water Snake’s colors vary from brown, gray, reddish or brownish-black with cross bands on their necks and dark blotches on the rest of their body. Their bellies can be white, yellow or gray with reddish or black irregularly shaped blotches. As a water snake matures, its markings become darker and less distinct. These snakes live only seven to eight years and typically grow up to four or five feet long.
Water snakes are live bearers, meaning that the eggs hatch inside of the female snake. After mating in April or June, anywhere from 30 to 70 baby snakes can be born at once. The mother snakes do not care for their young, so after birth in late August to early October, the baby snakes are on their own.
Water snakes are excellent swimmers whether they are on the water’s surface or submerged. They prey on fish, frogs, worms, leeches, crayfish, salamanders, turtles, small birds, and mammals. In turn, they are prey to many different types of wildlife, such as: birds, raccoons, opossums, foxes, snapping turtles, bullfrogs and other snakes.
These snakes have a bad temperament and will defend themselves viciously. If provoked, the water snake will bite its enemy; it could also release scat or musk or even regurgitate its last meal. If you encounter a water snake or any snake on an outdoor hike, do not handle it! More than 80% of snakebites occur when a person is trying to kill or handle a snake. Your best defense to avoid a bite is to stay calm and slowly back away from it.
As with any wild animal, observe them from a safe distance. Be aware of the impact that you are making on the environment, while enjoying your time outdoors.