Wally Vait has a good eye for such things, so I'm not surprised that during a hike Saturday on the North Central Railroad Trail in Freeland, he spotted an Eastern garter snake on a sun-splashed rock. The question: What was it doing there, after one of the coldest Novembers on record, and with the winter solstice two weeks away?
Did a snake aboveground portend doom for us all, as in the purported Mayan prophecy for Dec. 21, 2012?
Was this a sign of the Almighty's unhappiness with Maryland's same-sex marriage law?
Or was this more evidence of climate change — a confused Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis on a rock when he should be underneath it?
Maryland certainly has had mild Decembers in the past, but from what I've observed over the years and read in the last few days, snakes are usually out of sight by this time of year.
That's why the garter snake caught Vait's eye. He's a one-time fishing guide and shop owner who works at Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills. A Minnesota native who grew up in Oregon, he's one of those fortunate people who've managed to spend many of their minutes on Earth in the natural world. "I haven't seen many snakes in December," Vait says.
I contacted a mutual friend about this matter, someone I've turned to often for help identifying reptiles, amphibians, birds and plant life — Charlie Davis, a biologist, volunteer with the Maryland Naturalist Center and one of the passionate organizers who keep the 83-year-old Natural History Society of Maryland going. He confirmed that Vait's snake was the Eastern garter and that a December sighting is unusual.
"It's unusual," Davis said, "because the weather has been unusual. Snakes are poikilothermic [cold-blooded], so much of their activity relates to temperature conditions."
The onset of cold weather usually makes garter snakes head for cover to survive. They don't hibernate so much as brumate (another fine word you'll pick up from today's column).
Brumation, triggered by cold weather and reduced sunlight, is a state of dormancy, distinct from hibernation, usually starting in fall. Reptiles find a hole or crevice, somewhere below the frost line, and their metabolisms slow way down. They can go without water, and they eat little to nothing for months.
There are a couple of reasons for that, according to an informative website maintained by Jonathan Crowe, a garter snake aficionado in Canada: There's nothing for them to eat.
"Imagine a garter snake, magically able to withstand the cold, trying to find food in the winter," Crowe posted on gartersnake.info. "The ground is frozen, so there are no earthworms. The ponds are frozen, so fish and frogs aren't available either. And even if it could eat, because it's so cold out, a reptile's cold-blooded metabolism is so low that its digestive system has shut down."
I'm guessing the garter snake Vait spotted had been roused from brumation. That is, with Maryland's Nov. 18 the coldest in more than a century of record-keeping, I'm assuming this snake headed for cover by Thanksgiving, and hadn't quite settled in for the winter when December's unusual warmth tempted him to resurface. And he wasn't alone.
On Saturday, the Natural History Society of Maryland sponsored a hike through Oregon Ridge Park and found a wood frog and redbacked salamander. Participants in the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas — a five-year joint project of the Natural History Society and Maryland Department of Natural Resources — have been seeing snakes elsewhere in Maryland this month. Some copperheads were seen along the Gunpowder River on Saturday, according to Charlie Davis.
What does it all mean?
In the age before climate change was confirmed, snakes aboveground in December might have meant nothing — just "one of those things" that happens from time to time to fire the superstitious imagination.
But those of us who respect science, or who spend time outdoors, or who acknowledge the extreme weather patterns of the last decade — we know things are different. We've moved into a new and disturbing normal. We see it at the micro level, and we hear about it on the macro level.
Last month, a report commissioned by the World Bank described the horrendous consequences for a planet that grows warmer by 7 degrees Farenheit by the end of the century, something considered likely at our present rate of carbon emissions.
We've already seen more frequent droughts and floods, and federal scientists reported last week record melting of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet. The National Climatic Data Center expects 2012 to be the warmest overall on record for the contiguous states in the 118 years of record-keeping.
The Climate Prediction Center in College Park expects above-normal temperatures across Maryland this month, which might mean we could see snakes, frogs and salamanders on Christmas Day: the new and disturbing normal.