There are no poisonous snakes on Long Island. For these under-appreciated and often-maligned creatures, it is best to start with this simple fact. From 1990 through 1999, scientists and volunteers searched for the presence of various snakes throughout New York as part of the New York State Amphibian & Reptile Atlas Project. Their efforts documented 11 snake species on Long Island, none of which are poisonous.
In fact, one must consult records from a much earlier time to find any reference to poisonous snakes. A 1915 entry in the scientific journal Copeia explains that timber rattlesnakes were “formerly not uncommon in swamps and pine barrens of Long Island, but [are] now doubtless very rare. A fine specimen, collected about 30 years ago, is in the collection of the Long Island Historical Society. Another specimen, upon authentic information, was killed at Centre Islip in 1903 … There are no recent records.” It is safe to say that no poisonous snakes reside on Long Island anymore. Hopefully, this point will ease your worries the next time you come upon one of these animals.
Because it doesn’t happen too often, I am always thrilled to encounter a snake. In the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of chance meetings. On April 29 at the Arshamomaque Preserve in Southold, I heard some soft shuffling among the leaf litter as I walked the trails. Ground shuffling could be evidence of any variety of small creatures nearby, from box turtle to Eastern towhee to white-footed mouse to short-tailed shrew. In this instance, with some patience I was able to catch a few quick glimpses of a small striped snake, along with some unidentified flesh-colored “thing” thrashing about among the leaves. Creeping closer to figure out what I was looking at, it became clear that a common garter snake was struggling to capture and eat an earthworm. Here was a live example of a predator-prey interaction, something I do not stumble upon too often in nature.
The majority of snake encounters on Long Island are with garter snakes. While the species can reach lengths of 2 ½ feet or more, this individual was much smaller – perhaps 15 inches long. ’s education staff has had a number of exciting experiences with small snakes as part of our Summer Field Ecology Program. My strong preference, when observing any form of wildlife, is to view them through binoculars at a distance. I simply don’t want to disturb the animals. But it is difficult to pass up the chance to allow a child to gently handle a small snake. A child’s experience of seeing a snake up close, touching its scales, and watching its tongue flick back and forth could be the spark for a life-long interest in nature. So, over the past three years, when the infrequent opportunity came along, we have allowed for the gentle handling of small snakes – Northern ringneck, Eastern milk, and common garter snakes in the Long Pond Greenbelt in Sag Harbor, and an Eastern ribbon snake at the Grace Estate in East Hampton.
My second recent encounter, on May 7 in Calverton, was with a much larger snake. At least 3 feet long and beautifully banded, this Northern water snake was intent on catching the sun’s rays from the middle of River Road. Here again, my preference is to observe wildlife from afar, but in this case the animal was clearly in harm’s way. I stopped my car and tried to coax it to the side of the road; the snake was not interested. So I attempted to herd the creature to the roadside with a stick, which merely caused it to strike at the object. When two cars from the opposite direction passed within inches of the animal, I decided to take more drastic actions. With a large branch I swept the angry reptile off the road and continued it on its way into the adjacent woods. The snake clearly wasn’t pleased with me, but at least I gave it the opportunity to continue being displeased on future days.
In sharing these experiences, it is hard not to gain some appreciation for snakes. They are fascinating animals that play important roles in their natural environments. And lest you forget: there are no poisonous snakes on Long Island.