August field notes: A month of reptile sightings

bull snake

Photo by Susan Ballinger A gopher (bull) snake.

For me, late summer  turned into a season of surprising reptile sightings.  Here’s a snapshot of my close-up encounters with several of our native snakes and lizards.

Many of us are accustomed to seeing a western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) in the shrub-steppe habitat in our valley. However, it was a surprise to find one at 7000’ in the upper Enchantment Basin, sunning on a granite boulder beneath a grove of Lyall’s larch. At home, I checked the range map and learned  that the species’ habitat extends from the Columbia basin to the crest of our eastside Cascades.

While moving a woodpile under a grove of ponderosa pines near Winthrop, I disturbed a group of Northern alligator lizards (Elgaria coerulea). As one climbed up a trunk, it used the furrowed bark as a pathway.  Viewed from the side, the crytic color pattern on lizard scales enabled it to blend in and disappear from view on the trunk.

On a hot Saturday afternoon, I joined in on a hike to Colchuck Lake, near Leavenworth.  We got a great look at a constrictor rubber boa (Charina bottae) along the shady trail next to Mountaineer Creek.  This smooth brown snake with a yellow belly has loose-looking skin and a very blunt tail and head. Some people say it looks like a garden hose at first glance.  Unlike most snakes in our area, it prefers moist, cool forest habitats and is active throughout the night, hunting rodents.

Down along the muddy shoreline near the boat launch at Confluence State Park, a valley garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi)  slinked  by in a fast series of wonderful “S” curves, quickly moving out of the water, 20 feet up into the shrubby underbrush.  This species is widespread throughout the U.S., almost always found near water or wetlands.  They are fast swimmers too!

At home, while emptying my kitchen compost into my backyard bin, I found a young Pacific gopher (also called “bull”) snake (Pituophis catenifer) stretched out on top of our prior day’s dinner scraps. My husband quickly built a snare with a PVC pipe and twine and we successfully lifted it into a bucket, and put the lid on.  I walked to the nearby CDLT Jacobson Preserve and released it under a big sagebrush, amazed to watch it basically disappear, blending in to the dappled sunlight on the soil.  Gopher snakes are not venomous, but they often mimic a rattlesnake by hissing, puffing out their body, coiling, flattening their head, vibrating their tail, and striking.  They stretch out and bask in the sun along roads, making them vulnerable to being run over by vehicles.

All of our native snakes play an important role in the natural food chain, preying mostly on small rodents.  Of  Washington’s 15 native species, only the rattlesnake (Croatus viridis) has a poisonous bite.  We all need to encourage our neighbors not to needlessly kill snakes.   To see photos and read more about our native reptiles and snakes, visit the Washington Department of Natural Resource Herpitology Atlas at

Photo by Susan Ballinger A gopher (bull) snake, stretched out on a cement floor.

Photo by Susan Ballinger
A gopher (bull) snake, stretched out on a cement floor.

Photo by Susan Ballinger The head of a gopher (bull) snake close-up.

Photo by Susan Ballinger
The head of a gopher (bull) snake close-up.

northern alligator lizard

A northern alligator lizard in a bark furrow of ponderosa pine.

Photo by Susan Ballinger A rubber boa.

Photo by Susan Ballinger
A rubber boa.

valley garter snake

Photo by Susan Ballinger
A valley garter snake.

western fence lizard

A western fence lizard sunning on a granite rock.

Register now for Susan’s next 12-week Wenatchee Naturalist course, offered through Wenatchee Valley College Continuing Education.  Both daytime and evening classes are available,  Sept. 17-Dec. 10.  The course includes four all-day field trips.

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