Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.
Our home in central Connecticut is surrounded by acres of mature woodlands and hillsides, with granite outcroppings that were carved and sculptured by the retreating glacier from the last ice age. The landscape varies from well drained and shaded areas of oaks, beech and other trees to deep thickets, open fields (and neighboring yards) and a nearby stream with boggy areas. There are numerous fallen trees, decaying logs, rocky ledges and loose stones, providing the perfect environment for snakes, toads, salamanders, and lots of other birds and animals.
Over the years, we've seen many different species of animals in our yard. We strive to create a wildlife friendly environment that attracts the local wildlife, and encourages them to stay -- or at least to keep returning -- by providing food, shelter and places to raise their young. We offer a wide range of native and ornamental shrubs, berries, perennial and annual flowers and herbs. We hang birdhouses and feeders filled with different types of a seeds, suet and nectar. Our small pond supplies drinking water all year long.
Some of our favorite visitors are reptiles and amphibians, and following is the list of snakes and others that we've actually found on our property. Where possible, I've included a photo that we've taken. For some others, I've had to rely on stock images.
My favorite visitors to our backyard are the snakes. The are several species of snakes that are indigenous to the Northeastern US including the common garter snake, the large and fast-moving black racer, the colorful milk snake and the diminutive ring-neck snake. With a little searching, I can usually find at least one of these snakes under the rocks and fallen trees around our property.
According to the Connecticut DEEP, 14 different species can be found within the state. Most are harmless, though there are two poisonous snakes: the timber rattler and the copperhead. So far, I haven't seen either of these on our property, though there are reports of both in the area.
The garter snake is one of the most recognizable snakes of Connecticut and it is also one of the most common. Garter snakes have a dark green back with rows of bright yellow stripes running down the length of its body and can grow to about 30 inches long. They feed on slugs, earthworms, crickets, and other bugs, along with small rodents.
Garter snakes are often seen basking in the sun and will slink away quickly if disturbed. They seldom bite but they will release a strongly scented musk if handled. The little snake in the photo (above) was found slinking along the the foundation of our house.
Northern Black Racer
The black racer is a frequent visitor, and this large one likes to hang around a stacked stone planting bed. This particular snake is over five feet long; I found a complete and intact shed snakeskin that is now dried and framed along with several other shed snake skins that I've found around the property.
Black racers are non-venomous snakes, but they have a nasty temperament and can be aggressive if cornered. They move very quickly when disturbed, streaking away into the underbrush or disappearing between the cracks in the stonewalls. They are active snakes, and I have often seen black racers moving through the lawn, garden, and woodland areas. Unlike most snakes, black racers can travel with their heads held high in search of prey.
With their colorful markings, milk snakes are quite striking in appearance. The body of the snake is typically tan to light gray. The blotches on its back and sides are reddish-brown in color and bordered by black bands. The milk snake's head is also boldly patterned, with a distinctive light-colored "Y" or "V" shaped blotch. The patterned markings are especially bright right after the snake sheds its skin.
Milk snakes are very common in our yard. Docile and secretive, they usually do not move when discovered hiding under a rock or log. When they are disturbed, the milk snake looks for a quick escape. If the snake is cornered, it vibrates its tail vigorously to make a sound that resembles a rattlesnake. If the noise is not enough to scare you off, the snake will coil and strike. But the display is all show: the milk snake is quite harmless.
The rather large milk snake above often comes out in the morning to bask in the early morning sun. Snakes and other reptiles are cold-blooded and cannot regulate their body temperature. After the cool summer night, they seek the warmth of the morning sunshine.
As the daytime temperature rises, snakes retreat to the cooler shadows in the rock walls around our yard.
The sun heats the capstones at top of the walls, and the rocks retain the heat even after the sun sets. As the evening approaches, snakes often seek out a comfortable spot under the capstones. Sometimes, I can lift a rock to find several snakes coiled up together to share the warmth.
Commonly mistaken for the poisonous copperhead, the snake in the photo is a harmless and non-venomous milk snake. The mottled, checkerboard pattern on the underside that is visible in the photo clearly identifies this as a milk snake (the underside of a copperhead is creamy-white).
Unfortunately, milk snakes are often mistaken for copperhead snakes and killed out of fear. Feeding on small rodents and other snakes, milk snakes are very beneficial and play an important role in the environment.
Differences Between Milk Snakes and Copperheads
Milk snakes and copperheads resemble each other, but there are several easy ways to tell the harmless milk snake from the venomous copperhead. Granted, you have to be pretty close to the snake to tell the difference. But if you are close enough to try catching it (or to kill it), then you are close enough to determine the difference.
- Copperheads have a triangular-shaped head with two prominent pits halfway between its nostrils and its eyes. The milk snake has a rounded head.
- The pupils in the eyes of the milk snake are round. The pupils of the copperhead head resemble vertical slits.
- The belly of the milk snake is a checkerboard of black and white. The underside of the copperhead is a solid creamy-white color.
Remember, snakes are beneficial and earn their keep by preying on rodents, insects, and even other snakes. Even if you don't like snakes or if you are afraid of them, should you encounter a snake, just move away slowly, and you'll both be just fine.
Northern Ring-Neck Snake
This little ring-neck snake is less than six inches long. Shy and reclusive, these harmless little snakes hide under rocks and logs where they feed on bugs and slugs. With their appetite for insects, ringneck snakes are welcomed visitors to our yard!
This little guy was under a rock and just wants to slither off to a dark and quiet hiding place. Ring-neck snakes do not bite, but they release a foul-smelling musk when handled. Like any other snake, view the ring-neck snake from a comfortable distance and then let them go on their way.
The ribbon snake closely resembles the more common garter snake. Thinner than its cousin, the ribbon snake has three distinctive yellow stripes that run the length of its body. By comparison, the garter snake's stripes appear more muted and mottled. The lower portion of the ribbon snake's head is creamy white, and there are two white blotchy patches on the top of its head.
Though relatively uncommon in Connecticut, we must have at least a breeding pair of ribbon snakes in our yard. In two separate years, we've found a group of young snakes in and around our pond.
The smooth green snake is seldom seen in Connecticut, but we were fortunate to have one spend some time in the shrubs near our stone wall. I only saw it a couple of times, and I wasn't able to get a photo. By the time I got out my phone, the snake slipped through the branches of the junipers and disappeared. But the snake's bright green coloration is unmistakeable -- and unforgetable.
Friend or Foe?
These two little snakes were found hiding together under the same rock in our backyard. The charcoal-colored snake is an adult ring-neck snake. The other snake is a young milk snake. Both of these small snakes are less than 12 inches long.
The little ring-neck snake had better be on its guard: milk snakes eat other snakes. If the milk snake was slightly larger, the little ring-neck could easily end up on the milk snake's menu.
In this case, both snakes scooted off in different directions after I disturbed them for their cameo photo session.
Eastern Box Turtles
Shortly after moving into our home, we discovered a box turtle searching for slugs under some of the native blueberry bushes in the backyard. Since this initial visit, we've learned that box turtles are not very common in Connecticut, and the low population numbers continue to decline. Box turtles still make occasional appearances (one seemed to like our rain garden), but sightings are becoming fewer every year. I haven't seen a box turtle since the summer of 2018, and I'm hoping that there is still a remnant population of box turtles in the area.
Wood turtles are another terrestrial turtle in our area, and we've found a few wood turtles over the years. "Old Red Legs" populations are also in decline, and though sightings of these interesting turtles are not very common, last spring we found a juvenile turtle trying to cross the road. We stopped and carefully helped him across the road and put him down on the other side.
One of our most unusual finds was a baby snapping turtle in our driveway. The little turtle was no larger than a 50 cent coin, and quite a distance from the local pond. We carried it back to the pond and watched as the turtle slowly swam off.
We Find Frogs, Toads, and Salamanders too!
We found this little guy hopping through the grass in our backyard. Spring peepers wood frogs and bull frogs are frequent visitors, and we occasionally find a gray tree frog that climbed down from the branches. Toads are also often seen foraging through the garden mulch or sitting under the porch light in the evening.
Roll over a decaying log in the woods surrounding our yard, and you might find a salamander or two. The redbacks are common and if you are lucky, sometimes you can find the little blue-ish gray Jeffersons salamander.
Eastern Spadefoot Toad
The Eastern Spadefoot toad is a regular visitor to our yard, and it's not uncommon to find several of them hiding under the hosta plants or in the damp mulch at the base of shrubs. In late summer, hordes of tiny juvenile toads move through the grass. One exceptionally large toad (we affectionately named Mega Toad) hangs around the spotlight near or driveway, dining on the bugs attracted by the light.
Eastern Redback Salamander
The Eastern Redback salamander is commonly found in the woodlands throughout Connecticut, and our backyard is no exception. In early spring, it's easy to find these little salamanders in the damp soil under rotting logs.
Interestingly, redback salamanders are completely terrestrial. They are one of the few species of amphibian that do not need to return to the water to breed, and they do not have a larval stage. Female redbacks lay their eggs under rotting logs, and the young hatch into fully developed little salamanders.
Secretive and seldom seen, the spotted salamander is a rare find. In all of the years that we've lived on our property, we've only found two specimens. Large with bright yellow spots down its sides, the spotted salamander is an impressive sight.
Anytime we are lucky enough to find a salamander (or a turtle, toad or snake), we are careful to leave it alone. Most of these wonderful animals are protected by law and cannot be collected or disturbed, and many populations are declining or already critically endangered. Each and every individual is important to the ongoing success of its population. Enjoy from a distance, take a photo, and then leave them alone.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Anthony Altorenna
Tell Us About the Snakes, Toads and Other Critters In Your Garden
Lorelei Cohen from Canada on June 28, 2012:
I grew up around an abundance of garter snakes but snakes are really not one of my favorite creatures. "I don't like spiders and snakes...."
Aleayah on June 25, 2012:
This is interesting article to read. But the pictures I have seen are so creepy.
Beverly Rodriguez from Albany New York on June 24, 2012:
Great photos and good information. We have a few snakes in Florida, too.
gradientcat on June 22, 2012:
Nice photos of the snakes in your backyard. We got lots of snakes at the cottage, but not too many at home.
Country Sunshine from Texas on June 21, 2012:
Great article! A good job on distinguishing between a milk snake and copperhead. I find quite a few snakes on or near my property. They are rattlesnakes, copper heads and rat snakes. I usually let them be, unless they are swallowing a chick!