The Bufflehead Birder

January 4, 2009

Digiscoping Serendipity

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 12:55 am

 Before I begin my little tale about the garter snake, I want to say thanks for all  the kind comments that were sitting in my comments section of Wordpress, waiting for me to notice them. For some reason they weren’t being announced in my email and I was unaware that anyone had written anything. Finally, after one friend insisted that she had commented on my blog, I went into the comments section and found a lovely surprise; quite a few comments were there, even dating back to October! Yikes! Beginner blogger strikes again. However, I approved all the comments with great haste and they are now posted.


About a year ago I was with a friend in a park off the Wissahickon River at Valley Green. We came upon a frog halfway down the hatch of a garter snake. The frog was still alive, of course, and a look of resignment in its eyes. Garter snake jaws have small teeth that angle backwards so that prey cannot slip out while the snake works on swallowing its meal. So the frog couldn’t even struggle to escape without hurting itself. It also made us wonder how we would retrieve the frog from the snake’s mouth without hurting it.

 Snake and Frog

 Matt had his cell phone and took this shot

There was no way that I could walk on and not help the frog. I appreciate that snakes have to eat and it may have taken that snake some time and effort to capture that frog, but still….

There is the belief among wildlife biologists and other scientists that we should not interfere with animals in the wild or interrupt their interactions. Sort of like the Prime Directive from Star Trek. To a point, I agree. But not in this case. So in the choice between saving the frog from an ugly death or depriving a snake of a hardwon meal we chose in favor of the frog.

After some discussion, my friend placed his toe at the spot on the snake just behind where the frog’s partially swallowed body ended and gently pushed down. Amazingly, the snake’s jaws opened and let the frog squirt free. After an apology to the snake we took the frog down to the water and lay it on a partially submerged rock.

Then this last fall I was given a chance to make it up to garter snakes when I went over to help my mother unpack some boxes and brought my digiscoping gear with me. She and my stepfather have recently moved to a retirement village. Their place has a manmade pond behind their yard and woods beyond that. They often get some good birds in the area.

After helping Mom, I thought about taking my digiscope gear to the woods behind the pond. I will admit that I was feeling that lethargy I sometimes get and even the prospect of getting some bird shots wasn’t having its usual butt-moving effect. Yes, I know. I yap a lot on my blog about how digiscoping is The Way to Happiness. It is, actually, but sometimes I need to remind myself of that.

While I didn’t reach photo Nirvana that day, the act of going digiscoping brought about an even higher level of happiness.

The birds weren’t active, the sun was hot, and I wasn’t getting the usual digi-high I get when peering at Bird World through the Swarovski, so when I reached the halfway point around the pond, instead of continuing the loop, I turned back and retraced my path.

When there are no birds around, I then look at the ground. I’m a wannabee tracker and love to just look down and see what I see.

And see something I did. Something I hadn’t noticed when I’d first come down that path.


A green and black snake with an orange dorsal stripe lay under some leaves and forest litter. It looked dead and I went to take a closer look. I was thinking it was a garter snake of some type and gently nudged it with a stick. It moved. Barely.

I was puzzled at first, as to why it wouldn’t scoot off like snakes do, but instead lay there in a lazy ‘S’ pattern. Then it made sense when I noticed pale green netting that landscapers use to hinder erosion. It had been put down to hold the edging all around the pond, and some of the litter that covered it had washed away, exposing the mesh.

This snake had been crawling along, going its happy way then entered through one or more of the mesh openings until the snake became so tangled that it could no longer move at all without the mesh filament tightening to the point of cutting sharply into the snake’s soft body at the slightest wiggle. I don’t know how long the snake had been imprisoned like that but it would have been a bad way to go; vulnerable to any predator that happened by, unable to drink, or to capture and eat frogs.


There was no question of snapping the filament with my hands without cutting into the little snake. But it wasn’t far to run back to borrow Mom’s tiny Swiss army knife scissors which were the main tool of operation in opening boxes.

As soon as I was able to cut the snake free of all the mesh lines twisted around its torso, it was gone, so there are no photos of that happy occasion.


All events and decisions have a consequence even if you never see it. If I had not come to help with boxes, or had not brought my digiscoping gear along, or had not heaved myself from a comfy chair and gone out to digiscope there would have been a consequence. If I had continued all the way around the pond, or the birds had been active that day and distracted me from looking closely at the ground there would have been a consequence. There would have been the death of a snake and I would have never known.

But it was lucky that things worked out. I’m glad that I was able to repay a small debt to the garter snakes of the world and that digiscoping played a part in putting me in the right place at the right time.

Somewhere out there is a little snake that will agree.

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