Yesterday after work, I followed the usual routine of letting the dog out in the yard to run. Before going too far, I stopped to empty out one of the plant saucers I have sitting near various gardens to provide water for insects and birds. As I was dumping out the water, and its collection of rotting grass clippings and dead flower heads, I glimpsed a coiled body sitting in the same spot (apparently under the saucer). At first I thought it was a large worm, but it turned out to be a small snake, one of my all-time favorite snakes: the red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata).
Like the ring-necked snake I found earlier this summer, this is a small snake, averaging 8-10" in length. It has a brilliantly red belly (hence the name) and three light-colored spots just behind its head (whereas the ring-neck has a ring around its neck).
An important feature of this snake's habitat is rocks and other such solid objects under which it can hide - thus its presence under the plant dish.
Being me, I couldn't resist picking it up. It was a little chilled, but it wasn't long before the heat from my hands gave it enough energy to move, and move it did: head thrusting forward and body following behind as it tried to zip out of my hands. After three or four "slinky" moves with my hands, tyring to keep the snake from falling, I decided to return it to the garden where it could resume its job of catching worms, slugs and snails.
Did you know that red-bellied snakes give birth to live young? It seems that so many of the "facts" we learned back when I was a kid have now been proven to be wrong. "Snakes lay eggs" - and yet so many actually have live birth. "Mammals have live birth" - except those that lay eggs (platypus, echidna). That's the great thing about science - there is always something new to learn!
Update: Reading through the red-bellied snake entry in the wonderful "new" herp book entitled Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, by Gibbs, Breisch, Ducey, Johnson, Behler and Bothner, I came across this nifty tidbit on a previous page (I was reading the entry backwards): Red-bellied snakes and DeKay's Brownsnakes both fancy snails, but snails can be difficult to get out of their shells, especially if you don't have hands. Rossman and Myer discovered how these snakes do it in 1990. Apparently the snake grabs the snail by its soft parts before it can pull itself back inside its shell. Then, the snake scoots backwards until the shell is wedged between a rock and a hard place. At this point the snake twists and pulls until the snail can no longer hang on to the inside of its shell, and slurp! the snake has a escargot snack. According to this entry, it takes a DeKay's brownsnake only 10 minutes to accomplish this. And it seems that the snakes' dental apparati are ideal for eating snails: the teeth on the upper jawbone are longer and are thus able to grasp the bulky sticky mass of snail, enabling the snake to get a good grip and pull. (This sounds similar to the green tree python, which also has long upper teeth that enable it to grasp the birds it prefers to eat - the long teeth help the snake grip the bird through all its feathers.)