The Bufflehead Birder

May 11, 2009

Basking on a Log by the Creek

Water Snake4

 Most of my East Coast snake encounters have been with Garter Snakes. A few days ago I got to meet a clump of Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon), who were basking in the afternoon sun on a log along the Wissahickon Creek.

Clump on a Log

The banding and coloration of water snakes are somewhat variable, but in general, the adults are dark gray, while the younger snakes have distinct tan and dark banding.  Sometimes a water snake will have a darker upper body and lighter underside.  When wet, the snakes’ banding will be more apparent. As the snakes age, the bands will grow fainter until an older snake may take on the appearance of a dark rubber hose flopped over a log. 

Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)

 Water Snakes can grow to 4 feet or more.

The thick body and basic color of water snakes make them easily mistaken for Cottonmouths / Water Moccasins(Agkistrodon piscivorus) and for Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortix). However, the bands on the Water Snake differs from that of the Agkistrodons in that the darker bands are wider than the lighter ones, and the bands are less irregular.

Water Snakes 3

There are some other distinctions though. For instance, if you peer closely into a water snake’s eye, you will note that the pupil is round, and not at all similar to that of the venemous Cottonmouths and Copperheads. Also, while copperheads and watersnakes have loreal scales, the cottonmouth lacks one.                            I, however, just plan to rely on color pattern. 

These snakes dine on fish, frogs, salamanders, leeches, and other small animals. In turn, they are preyed upon by snapping turtles, other snakes, raccoons, otters, oppossums, and foxes. Females give live birth in August to October. No babycare is necessary for Mr. and Mrs. Sipedon, and everyone can get back to basking on that log before winter sets in. Then it’s hibernation time. A favorite place to spend the winter is in muskrat or beaver dams, even sharing the accomodations with those Copperheads.

Although water snakes are not venemous, they can deliver a nasty bite and won’t hesitate to do so if approached. If that doesn’t get your attention, they will defecate and emit an unpleasant musk.

They just like to be left alone as they bask on a sunny log or coil up in a cozy clump amidst some protective vegetation.


Can you find all four faces in this heap o’ Nerodia sipedon?


  1. Really nice series Beth. The group on log and three heads are my favorites.

    Comment by Jamie — May 12, 2009 @ 12:37 am

  2. Jamie, I like the 3 heads, too. These guys were fun to photograph and I could have done it all day. Now I want to find more reptiles to photograph.

    Comment by admin — May 12, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

  3. Nice photos and life history, Beth. I, too, really like the shot with the three heads, and also the big body with one head. Don’t think I’ll be getting closer than with binos to see those pupils….

    Comment by Lea Stewart — May 12, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  4. I agree. I think a view of the pupils is just fine with a spotting scope.

    Comment by admin — May 12, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

  5. Nice site!

    Comment by Sharingan616 — May 13, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

  6. Love the snake shots Beth! thanks for posting, I don’t think I would get close enough to see them up close so I am happy to see them here.

    Comment by Kari — May 25, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

  7. hi beth, have not seen you around in ages, but you have had some wonderful posts recently. the puzzle was great, thank you.


    Comment by Dale — June 10, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  8. I saw at least a dozen snakes yesterday laying in the sun on the rocks right outside the Valley Green Inn. I couldn’t believe it…..I’ve walked along the Wissahickon Creek so many times and never saw them. Thanks for posting your photos I didn’t have my camera with me.

    Comment by Marianne — June 21, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  9. Wow. I love hiking down that way, so now I may make it a point to head down this week with my camera and see if anything is around. Too bad you didn’t have your camera, but isn’t that how it goes?
    Thanks for letting me know.

    Comment by admin — June 22, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

  10. Beth, nice work! The photographs are amazing, especially the close ups. Long lens? Or patient reptiles? That inspires me to get out and bout and see what I can find.

    Comment by Jerda — September 7, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

  11. Hi,

    I liked your story about your encounter with a group of Water snakes. Regarding how to discriminate between Water snakes and Cottonmouth’s there is a good description at


    Comment by Anders Nielsen — January 1, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

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