By Les Harrison, Wakulla County Extension Director
On the still days after a cold front has passed through Wakulla County, the chilly silence can be thunderous. Only the occasional puff of wind in the pine needles and the crunch of heavy frost underfoot shatters the quiet.
The appearance of lifeless tranquility is gradually withdrawn as the sun climbs in the southern sky during the middle of the day. With the exception of relatively few categorically cold days, by 2:00 p.m. north Florida’s famous mild winter weather has returned.
It is no wonder the denizens of Detroit and citizens of Chicago arrive in droves to points south, including Wakulla County. All the pleasures of out-of-doors experiences without the potential for contacting mosquitoes, gnats and snakes.
Well, almost no potential for contact with snakes. It is true these cold blooded natives find a cozy spot in which to coil up and sleep the inclement hours away.
A gopher or armadillo burrow will do nicely, with or without the original occupant still in residence. Many times a random log or board will do, even a dense bed of leaves.
Sometimes this seasonal snooze is interrupted by spring-like temperatures which rouse the reptiles into seeking a quick snack before returning to the land of nod. This is where pets and people can occasionally have a problem with the sluggish snake.
Much like Florida’s most notable reptile, the alligator, snakes must warm themselves in the sun before attaining their summertime speed and agility. Without that thermal boost, they are slow and cranky.
Exposed and impeded by low temperature lethargy, non-venomous snakes can quickly fall victim to raccoons, opossums, and domestic pets. Dogs are always curious and will sniff any interloper which enters their territory.
Tragedy can occur when the pets, or people, cross paths with a venomous species unable to avoid the encounter. The frightened and irritated viper can deliver sudden dose of problems with little to no warning.
It is unusual, but not rare, for rattlesnakes and moccasins to be encounter during winter’s warm hours. These native pit vipers can be found in close proximity to civilization as well as remote sites.
Both species have a distinctive arrow shaped head, an identifiable neck and a stout heavy body. Neither is an especially fast mover during summer, but both are sluggish and unable to move quickly out of view during winter.
Eastern diamondback and pygmy rattlesnakes have distinguishing marking which are not easily confused with other snakes. They also have rattles at the end of their tales, but may not use them when impeded by a cold body temperature.
Water moccasins are a bit more challenging to identify for the uninitiated. Brown water snakes and other similar native species are commonly confused with the moccasin, usually to the detriment of the non-venomous species.
Another north Florida pit viper feature is a dark stripe over the eye. Rarely do people having a chance encounter take the time to notice this trait.
If seen, the best advice is to leave the reptile undisturbed unless there is some exceptional reason. Like much in the landscape, it will return to its winters nap.
To learn more about Wakulla County’s winter snake activity, visit the UF/IFAS Wakulla County website at http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco or call 850-926-3931.