In early June, I woke up to another foggy morning. "When is summer coming and how will I grow tomatoes? What's the use of another cold day?", I wondered. Then I realized a cold morning is the perfect time to move snakes, especially yellow-bellied racer snakes (Coluber constrictor mormon) which can be very fast as their name indicates. For several days, I had been trying to catch two racers in my springbox, but they would zip under the concrete ledge before I could snag them.
So I got up that cold foggy morning in my pajamas, put on a pair of boots, grabbed my pack and my brand new Midwest Gentle Giant snake tongs and headed to the springbox. Upon prying open and propping the springbox lid, sure enough, there was a pile of olive-green snakes curled up in the corner. As soon as the tongs descended into the vault, the largest snake charged under the outlet pipe. I gently clamped the tongs on a scaly coil sticking out from underneath the pipe and pulled upwards. There was resistance as if the snake was somehow gripping the underside of the pipe but he came loose with steady pressure and I plopped him into the waiting pillowcase. The other two snakes were still sleepy and cold and I was able to scoop up both at the same time with the tongs.
I walked that full pillowcase about 1/4 of a mile to a grassy pasture, perfect racer habitat. As I pulled them out of the pillowcase, they started to wake up and one even struck at my gloved hand. They had dark olive backs contrasting with creamy yellow bellies and big round eyes. I pinched the three snakes between the fingers of my left hand and retrieved my camera from my pack with my right hand. As I was focusing the camera, all three turned to face their capturer with looks of wide-eyed curiosity. Yes, I was an odd sight taking photos of a handful of snakes at 6 AM in my pajamas.
After getting an eyeful of each other, I released the racers in the grassland, expecting them to race off. Instead, they curled up in a pile and hid their heads beneath each other. Since I had heard a red-tailed hawk calling from a nearby hillside, I covered the racers with the nearest cow patty. Later that day, I rechecked the cow patty and the curious racers were gone.
Racers are described as having brown, green or grey backs and yellow or off-white bellies. The Dipper racers are an attractive deep olive color with a hint of blue. Racers often hold their heads erect, even hunting that way. The juvenile racers look quite different than the adults and this can lead to misidentification because almost all other reptile species have adults and immature forms that look very similar except for size. Juvenile racers have brown blotches on their backs, however, they still have the big round eyes, hold their heads erect and are as fast as their mommas.
Racers are harmless to humans, so don't mix them up with the brown-blotched rattlesnakes. Instead, give these fast snakes a moment to contemplate your human face before they streak back to their snake world.
Gayle Pickwell, (late professor of Zoology, San Jose State College), Amphibians & Reptiles of the Pacific States, Dover Publications, 1972.
Alan St. John, Reptiles of the Northwest, Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.