This snake was on our lane, not in the garden, but I am counting it as the first of 2020. My daughter and I spotted it near the creek as we were returning from a walk at dusk on Friday, March 27. It appears to be a baby northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), the first I have seen in the neighborhood.
For scale, the sweetgum seed capsule above the snake has a diameter of about one inch.
Last weekend, I finally got round to moving some of the last remaining limbs of the oak tree that fell across our lane last autumn (picture #6 here). Under one of the branches, I discovered five small eggs, each about 1.4-1.5 cm long. Since I had already disturbed them, I decided to collect them and see if they would hatch. I placed them on a layer of leafmould in a small plastic terrarium (actually an empty animal cracker container from Costco). After spraying water on the walls of the terrarium to keep humidity high without soaking the eggs, I put it in the shade on our screen porch.
All five eggs hatched yesterday, and they proved to be the eggs of a skink (Plestiodon species, formerly Eumeces).
There are three very similar Plestiodon species in our part of North Carolina: Plestiodon fasciatus (five-lined skink), Plestiodon inexpectatus (southeastern five-lined skink), and Plestiodon laticeps (broad-headed skink). The hatchlings of all three species are virtually identical, distinguished mainly by scale counts.
In the garden, I most frequently see Plestiodon skinks clinging to the foundation of our house, on the wooden deck, or at the edge of the driveway, where they patrol for insects even when the concrete is hot enough to burn bare feet . The vivid blue tails and neat yellow stripes of the juveniles are always a welcome sight.
After admiring the little hatchlings, we released them into the garden with the hope that they will grow fat on insect pests and avoid hungry birds.
For the past five or six years, a pair of eastern phoebes have built their nest on a small ledge under the roof of our front porch. Eight feet off the ground and close to humans, this would seem an excellent place to avoid predators. Most years, they successfully raise a brood of chicks who, by the time they are ready to fly away, look far too large for the little moss-lined nest.
This year, they were not so lucky. Opening the blind on our glass front door one morning last week, my wife was startled to see that a young black rat snake had located the nest. It had wedged itself into the small crevice between a support post and gutter downspout and was slowly inching towards the chicks while the parent birds fluttered frantically from perch to perch. Rat snakes, despite their name, do not specialize in preying on rodents. They are climbers par excellence and enthusiastically raid nests for eggs and chicks.
I removed the intrepid hunter and carried it to an old wood pile at the back of our house. I thought that there would be plenty of rodents or lizards there to distract the snake. It seems that the snake was determined, though. The next morning, the nest was empty. The parent birds hung around the garden for a few hours and then disappeared. I wonder if they will be back next year.