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Redbellies slithering all around Ontario

Whitby This Week,
by Margaret Carney,
October 22 2015

I love surprises. When Tom Deschamps of Newcastle e-mailed me about a sighting he’d had while walking near the village of Claremont, I instantly clicked on the attachments he’d sent. Photos of a reddish-brown squiggle on a patch of asphalt -- what he determined, after some research, was a red-bellied snake.

These tiny, less-than-a-foot-long reptiles are the second most common snakes in Ontario, after eastern garters. They range nearly as far and wide, all the way up to Lake Superior. But they’re nocturnal, hiding under logs and stones during the day, so aren’t often found. I recall my first sighting vividly -- at the footbridge over Buttermilk Falls in Haliburton County, where three of these tiny, pencil-thin reptiles were out and about in broad daylight. I’d never even heard of them, or seen snakes so slim and dainty.

When I received Tom’s e-mail, I didn’t remember the field marks, so ran to the bookshelf for my snakes of Ontario books. His pictures showed a yellow diamond-shaped patch on the back of the reptile’s neck, behind its eyes, and that was the clincher for me. If he’d turned it over he would have seen its red or pink undersides, an even better clue. The species comes in a great variety of shades — grey, brown, chestnut and even black — but every individual has a red belly, with a streak of dark speckling along each side.

Baby redbellies, born live instead of hatching from eggs, are black with a whitish neck ring, and three to four inches long. The mothers give birth in August or September to a litter of seven or eight, and sometimes more. I wish I had a family in my garden. They feed on slugs, beetle larvae and earthworms, and this has been quite the summer for slugs on my lettuce, chard and broccoli.

You’re more likely to see redbellies abroad in daylight during warm days in autumn, apparently, than at other times of year. They like to find an open spot to bask in the sun, often on roadsides. Road fatalities are one of the greatest threats to these gentle and highly useful little snakes as a result. Loss of habitat and predation by other animals, even larger snakes, are others. Redbellies, like garter snakes, are hanging in there, apparently, the only two snakes in Ontario not a species at risk. In winter redbellies make their way down below frostline, as other snakes do.

I forwarded Tom’s e-mail and photos to wildlife expert James Kamstra, Durham’s coordinator for the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. He in turn got from Tom the date, time and precise location of his redbelly encounter, for inclusion in the atlas. All records of snakes and amphibians in Ontario are valuable data for the atlas, which helps biologists keep track of how populations are doing. To send in your own sightings contact: ontarionature.org.

Nature queries: mcarney@interlinks.net or 905-725-2116.

-- Durham outdoors writer Margaret Carney has more than 3,500 species on her life list of birds, seen in far-flung corners of the planet.

Margaret Carney is a nature-appreciation columnist for Metroland Durham newspapers. She likes to write all about her different bird sightings, most times spotted right from her own backyard.

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