Yesterday, the last day of March, the temperatures reached that point at which it feels like late spring or early summer herping weather. Getting out was not optional, and the destination I settled on was the area between Fort Worth and Weatherford where remnants of prairie hold out against encroaching homes and gas wells. During the last week the bluebonnets have been encouraged by the bright sunshine and have spread even further, so that several spots along the way were covered by their distinctive blue patchwork.
And then I pulled up on the familiar sight stretched across the roadway, at 8:00pm as the sun began to slip below the horizon. A dark line suggested several possibilities, among them a Texas rat snake. However, as I pulled closer, the blotched pattern along the side did not match the image I have from hundreds of sightings of Texas rat snakes. This was a bullsnake, a powerful and handsome species that I do not see often enough for my satisfaction. Although non-venomous, they can put on quite a bluffing display when threatened. Puffing up with a full breath, drawing back in a striking position with mouth hanging partly open, they emit a frightening hiss thanks to a flap of cartilage in front of the windpipe. If whatever is threatening gets close enough, the snake strikes with an explosive hiss, though a bite, if it occurs, leaves only shallow scratches. The point seems to be to scare off an enemy, not to injure it.
This snake did not engage in any of these theatrics, but began to move cautiously while flattening its head and neck to look bigger and expose more of its bold pattern. At one point I stopped video recording and slipped a hand under it at midbody, to gauge its weight and tone. The snake seemed strong but light, and even though it was very warm I was reminded that it was still March, and there had been little time for it to find prey and replace body weight lost during the brief winter inactivity. I also noticed a scar running along the right side of its face, probably from some encounter with an animal that tried to eat it. This bullsnake’s head-flattening was somewhat uneven, and it might have been from some nerve or muscle damage. However, it was an old scar, and hopefully this animal will live for years to come, out on what remains of the prairie.
I hurried it off the road to the safety of the surrounding area, watching it thread its way through the wildflowers, lifting its head up here and there to look around. What a wonderful experience to interact with this handsome snake and wish it well as it continued on wherever it was going.