Eastern Garter Snake: An Encounter in the Sunshine

Leonard Weber

April 13, 2023

Each year, I see the first Eastern Garter Snake of the year in Eliza Howell Park on a sunny day in March or April. They emerge from winter hibernation and seek the sun to warm up from so much time in the cold earth. This year, my first sighting was on April 7.

I have seen others since then. Normally, they slither away quickly when I walk near their sunbathing location, but today’s meeting was different. It was a quite large garter snake, about 2 feet long, that I met as I walked through a grassy field as I headed to a wooded area to look for wildflowers.

After an initial startle response, it held its ground and watched me carefully. It allowed me to get closer than I usually get to a snake.

Snakes use their tongues to sense what is around them; it is often said that they “smell” with their tongues. The Eastern Garter Snake has a long tongue, red with a black split tip, that it extends frequently and rapidly.

When the one I encountered today seemed interested in keeping its spot in the sunshine, I was hopeful of getting a close-up photo of the head, possibly of the tongue. I got down low, probably about 3 feet away.

We looked each other in the eye as I took picture after picture. It extended its tongue frequently, but for only the briefest time. Finally, after about dozen shots, I got an image of the tongue.

Using its tongue to get a sense of me, it apparently decided that I was not a threat. But I needed to be watched carefully!

In order to get a better look at the tongue, including the black forked tip, I further enlarged the photo later.

Today’s meeting ended with my walking away, leaving the garter snake to resume its peaceful time in the sun. I was seeking a good photo of the fascinating tongue, but I came away impressed also by the eyes, by the way it focused on me.

It was a very satisfying close encounter for me. I can not speak for the snake.

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