Eno Water Snakes
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 11/6/96

     The most frequently asked question I receive as leader of my natural history float trips at West Point Park, from the time of inquiry by telephone to the actual outing is, "Will there be any snakes on the river?'' Human phobia, curiosity and admiration for snakes is an amazing social phenomenon. I have an ongoing dialogue with biology professor Naomi Paran of N.C. State University, on the subject of snake handling at parks and zoos by children and adults who are presented with the opportunity to hold a snake.

     I have found that males are less afraid of snakes than females while Paran has found the opposite to be true. We are wondering if these differing reactions based on gender have anything to do with the gender of the presenter? Do males and females have the same fears, but females are just more openly expressive? Have culture and religion a role to play in this equation? Dr. Paran and I hope to do a study on this subject in the future.
     On my public float trips, people want to know if a snake might climb out of the water into a boat, or an even worse scenario, fall out of an overhanging tree we are paddling under and drop into their laps! My answer to the first questions is always a reassuring no. As for the second question, I can only say that it has never happened to any of my groups . . . yet!
    Often when one arrives at West Point Park a visitor will find a large snake basking on the rocks in the water below the millrace dam. Invariably someone will come running to me excitedly proclaiming that there is a cottonmouth at the mill! This pronouncement certainly makes for exciting news, but unfortunately cannot be true. There have never been an officially recorded specimen of the venomous cottonmouth snake ever taken on the Eno River in Durham or Orange Counties.

     For many people, the sight of any snake in a body of water conjures up fears associated with stories of the cottonmouth in a southern swamp. Countless people have sworn to me that they have seen cottonmouths along the Eno as far upstream as Hillsborough. But none of these have been confirmed by the record keepers at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. The museum staff informs me that the only known recent sightings in the Triangle area have been along Buffalo Creek in eastern Wake County, and from there on down towards the coast. The cottonmouth is a warm water, coastal plain water snake and will not tolerate the cooler Piedmont waters of the Eno River.

     So what are folks seeing at the West Point Millrace and in other ponds and streams in our area? Often it proves to be what is known as the northern water snake, Nerodia sipedon. Basking on a rock, on a stump at the water's edge, on a beaver lodge or occasionally, or on a low hanging branch over the water, the northern water snake does presents itself as a formidable reptile.

     Usually about a yard long as an adult, this snake has a series of brown to reddish bars on its back, giving it a banded appearance. Underneath it can be white to yellowish with brown and red, half-moon shaped spots. Occasionally juveniles may have a solid red stripe on the belly. This juvenile marking is not to be confused with the redbelly water snake which occurs in the New Hope Creek drainage in southern Durham County but not along the Eno.

     The northern water snake is quite common in our area and should be appreciated for its contribution to the aquatic habitat ecology. Its diet is composed of mainly fish, frogs and salamanders. The authors of Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia state that "contrary to popular belief, water snakes are not detrimental to fish populations. Instead, they probably contribute to better fishing by feeding largely on stunted or diseased fish. Moreover, young water snakes provide excellent food for larger game fish.''

     In my experience with northern water snakes along the Eno either wafting or wading, I find them quickly fleeing my approach, usually diving into the water and then disappearing beneath the surface completely out of sight.  If I am am quick, I can occasionally pick up a juvenile a foot or less in size and hold for closer examination. Not possessing venom-injecting fangs, they instead have a  row of tiny pointed teeth with which they will harmlessly latch onto my hand without even breaking my skin.
     But a larger water snake is different. Although not venomous, when cornered or grabbed, it will quickly give a painful bite, leaving the imprint of  a row of teeth on broken skin in my smarting hand. It will thrash about emitting a foul-smelling musk from its anal glands.  This is designed to prompt me to quickly return this protesting creature to its aquatic world. I do not encourage anyone to attempt to pick up a large water snake!

     Water snakes are mainly fishers. They lie in wait to grab fish of quite substantial sizes. While paddling along the river I will occasionally hear a rustling in the grass on the river bank. Upon moving in closer to observe, I will often find a find a fish flopping on shore by itself, a most unusual behavior for a fish!  But I have come to expect that a northern water snake is nearby, having brought a fish upon shore to allow tit to die so it can be swallowed more easily.

     I have personally seen sunfish, catfish and chubs devoured by this snake. On one occasion I found a catfish, about a foot in length, thrashing about in shallow water as a water snake was firmly grasping its head. A science teacher wading with a group of middle schoolers at West Point came across a water snake with a 6-inch aquatic salamander, the Neuse River Waterdog, hanging half out of its mouth.

     It is quite entertaining to ask a group of children or adults to tell their favorite snake stories. For those readers who don't have a recent one, our local rivers are ideal places to have an encounter. Turning over rocks in shallow water on a warm summer day will eventually lead to a northern water snake.  These snakes will give you plenty of space and quickly  swim away. For both waders and swimmers in the river, it is important to know that water snakes will not go on the offensive against humans.

     During my many years of exploring the Middle East, I was surprised to find that in the Arabic language, the word for snake and the verb to live, hayy, are the same. I inquired as to the basis for this semantic relationship and was told that to have an encounter with a snake, or to dream of one, was a sign that one is to have a long life.

     So let those of us in America, who are burdened with inordinate fears of snakes, gain some insight and solace from this ancient Arabian wisdom.

Photo by Jane Hawkey: northern water snake