Transmitters help track racer snakes in southern Maine

Posted Oct. 23, 2008, at 12:16 a.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:55 a.m.

Last week, I went to southern Maine and saw a number of beautiful shorebirds — dunlins, black-bellied plovers, ruddy turnstones — but the highlight was a snake.

I went with Trevor Persons to a property of The Nature Conservancy in Wells. He and I are both avid herpetologists — scientists specializing in amphibians and reptiles. I met Persons when he was a student at the University of Maine, and he and I went birding and “herping” back then.

Now Persons is a consultant in herpetology for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. On Maine’s list of endangered wildlife are three species of reptiles, including the eastern racer, a snake.

Persons took me on his weekly foray to find the location of six eastern racers, our largest snake. In Maine, the species is restricted to the extreme southern part of the state. It is hard to find them, and they are fast — hence their name. Persons and Jonathan Mays, wildlife biologist in the reptile, amphibian and invertebrate group within the DIF&W, have managed to catch 10 eastern racers. That was not easy.

They took each snake in turn to DIF&W’s Russel Danner, who sedated them with an inhalant. Then he inserted a very small transmitter into each. In the morning they were fine, and were let go — and that’s really GO! — the same place each was found.

Last week, Persons, holding his antenna high up, walked around following the signals of six different snakes in turn. When each snake was found, Persons carefully triangulated around it.

It was hibernation time, so he wasn’t sure I would see one; they might be all underground by now, he warned me.

I was lucky — the very first one was up and visible. At least, a foot-long piece of it was showing; the rest was covered by grass and blueberry bushes. The snake was thicker than a garden hose, and I admired its large, slate-gray scales outlined with russet. This was a beautiful snake — I was thrilled to see it.

Persons took a GPS reading to plot the snake’s location. The snake blended beautifully with the dark ground and the tiny dead leaves from the blueberry shrubs. Then it raced away.

Several snakes were underground. Others were under the blueberry shrubs and somewhat visible. I got to see one very well. I admired its head and neck, and the snake’s cream-colored underbelly. The snake had a shiny reddish-brown eye and tongue. I looked at every detail through my binoculars for a long time. What a spectacular snake.

Thank you, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, for protecting this beautiful species.

For information on Fields Pond Audubon Center, call 989-2591.

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