Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Caring for the not-so-cuddly creatures

Frog populations are dwindling all around the globe, while amphibian and reptilian populations in general are under serious threat as more and more wooded and wetland habitat is lost every year. It’s harder to encourage concern for these creatures who creep, crawl, slither and slide. Most humans seem to have a preternatural revulsion to them. Of course, they can’t be cuddled, and they have faces that clearly only their mothers can love. Our snapping turtle is downright ugly, if truth be told. But there is beauty in that creature, if you take the time to really look. Remember that when you are gazing at that carapace and observing that thick tail, you are getting a privileged glimpse at our prehistoric past. It’s actually a real gift and a blessing that these creatures still live among us.

Now consider the much-reviled snake. As a child, I was terrified of them. As an adult, having learned about the web of life and the delicate balance that the natural world must maintain, I have come to respect these creatures for what they are, and in doing so, I have lost my fear and lost my distaste. It is an extraordinary rush to feel empathy for something that you once loathed. It is cathartic - an emotional release.

Last week while filming at White’s Wetland, I caught sight of a lovely little snake. Of course, he vanished into the tall grass before I could see his head, but I did see the length of him: he bore yellow striping down his dark back. Once home, I tried to identify him by using Ministry of Natural Resources information.

(Here’s a good link, by the way, for Ontario residents interested in amphibians and reptiles: http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/subsite/glfc-amphibians/study)

Judging from the description, the photo and the habitat, I believe I saw a Northern Ribbon Snake.

But was it really?

I recalled another snake sighting, a few years ago, not fifty yards from where I spotted this fellow. He too disappeared very quickly into the grasses, but I saw a very long snake with an entirely black back, two characteristics of a now rare snake, the Black Rat Snake. If this was so, then it was indeed a privilege, as this snake’s numbers have declined considerable in southwestern Ontario due to loss of forest cover.

But seeing the striped snake last week so close to where I saw the black snake puts my identification in question because lo and behold there is another snake that fits both the profile and the habitat: Butler’s Garter Snake. According to the profile of this snake, found only in southwestern Ontario, some individuals lack striping and may be entirely black!

So what did I see?

I am just an amateur naturalist and these shy creatures slip away so fast, so I cannot claim any scientific certainty. But the good news is that White’s Wetlands is evidently home to a snake or two … or maybe three or four … or five or six…

This is a good thing. A very good thing. It means there is a healthy ecosystem present, one that can sustain both large four-footed creatures as well as amphibians, reptiles and insects.

It was a thrill to see the snake last week and it is a thrill to know that, hidden from us, they are there, living out their own lives with their own agendas completely and blissfully separate from ours, until we casually cross paths on a sunny summer’s day.

While it does matter what kind of snake I observed – stats need to be gathered to monitor populations – I am just glad at this point that they are there at all. A sense of balance has been restored. I am grateful for their presence because I have come to understand how precious and crucial they are. I feel protective of them because, as with all the wild things, they are vulnerable.

Whether evidence will ever confirm that a Black Rat Snake, or a Butler’s Garter Snake, or a Northern Ribbon Snake resides along the southeast rim of the wetlands where the flat, open stretch of field meets the creek, I will continue to watch for him, eager to catch sight of a flash of movement near my feet and happy in the knowledge that we share this space. Named or not, he exists. Therein lies the real joy.

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