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Monday, March 16, 2009

A Copperhead Snake

This is from two weeks ago, but as the subject of snake identifications came up today on the Canberra Ornithologists Group, I decided to process these images, and send them off to the inquirer. I have seen two Copperhead Snakes in the last two weeks, while out in the local bush. So, I decided to publish them here as well, on the basis that it is timely and topical, obviously.

I am convinced that many reported snake sightings are poorly identified. Probably because people are scared of Snakes, and do not know exactly what to look for anyway. If you keep your head, and stay calm, and have a good look, then you can learn quite a lot.

Do not ever try to block the snake from wherever it wishes to go, and do not ever attempt to pick up a snake, or try to catch it, let alone try to kill it. They are protected species, after all. And they can be dangerous if they do bite you. Most people who get bitten were trying to kill a snake. Why? The Snake does not want to eat you. It will however, defend itself if you attack it.

Both these recent sightings were in dense scrub, under tall Eucalypt forest, in Sandstone country. The first was near the Belmore Falls Road (not near the Falls). The second, was this specimen, over at Fitzroy Falls, right beside the track leading back to the main Falls from Twin Falls. The Copperhead is also the only species of Snake which I have seen in the long grass growing on the red basalt soil, at my property.

This is the Fitzroy Falls specimen. You can see immediately that it is a dull slate-grey colour. This is typical of the Highland Copperhead Snake (Austrelaps ramsayi)
Below is the head of the Copperhead - without any "copper colour". It has a light grey triangular patch from between its eyes, to the front of its head. There is a whitish colour on the throat.

"The appearance of the Copperhead is a narrow head, with a heavy build. They either have grey, brassy, copper, russet, chocolate or black on their back, with cream, yellow or red along the sides. The light scales above its lips often give a striped appearance. The belly is a yellowish cream or grey." Source:
As the Snake turned to leave me alone, the pale yellow colour of its underbelly was clearly visible, from the side.The other relatively common snake in this NSW Southern Highlands area is the Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus) These two specimens were photographed in different areas, well away from Robertson, but I am showing them here, to show the contrasting shine on the back of this species. Of road-killed Snakes I have seen in this district, most have been Red-bellied Black Snakes. Some have been very large, and very thick indeed.

The easiest distinguishing feature is the shine on the scales on the back of the Red-bellied Black Snake. The red colour of its belly is usually barely visible along the sides of the snake. This Snake was seen near Narooma, on a patch of rocky ground, beside a bush road. The bush in the district there was quite thick undergrowth. There were many dense ferns just past where the road edge ended.This specimen was seen near Mudgee, on the sandy banks of the Goulburn River. If you click to enlarge the image, you will see how very shiny this snake was, on its back. It was about 1.3 metres long, but it was not a thick specimen. It was however, near water, which is typical for this species, which is notoriously fond of frogs (as food).I often hear local people say they saw a "brown snake", but I have never seen a Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) in this area. I did once see a very small, light sandy-brown coloured snake, but I suspect it was something else, possibly one of the small, less common and less easily recognised snakes. I did not get a good look at that animal, as it did not hang around.


Anonymous said...

Hi Denis,
Good post on snakes, especially your comments re leaving them space to get away. We don't have Copperheads here but we do have some wonderfully healthy Red-bellied Blacks feasting on our huge frog population. I was amused at your comment re sightings of "brown snake" we hear unsubstantiated accounts of "aggressive Taipans" from some of the old locals here....and I always wonder why they are described so. Tyto Tony's Taipan didn't appear to be aggressive.

Cheers Barbara

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Barbara
Thanks for your comments.
With your frog population, I am not surprised that you have some fat "Red-bellies".
Glad you appreciated the advice.
Recently a footballer in Melbourne was bitten, while trying to kill a snake. I was tempted to write, "served him right". It was in his backyard, but still, it is a basic obsession with some people to try to kill all Snakes. That's why I wrote it that way. My Copperhead, clearly had a good look at me, then decided he wanted to get away. Fair enough solution - for both of us.

Tyto Tony said...

Hi Denis: Good advice and good spotting. My problem with snakes is the huge difficulty in getting decent closeups.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Tony.
Thanks. Good spotting is right, for int he first image, the snake was there, looking straight at me, long before I realised it was there at all.
As for close-ups, I am sorry, I don't do close-ups of Snakes. I stood back, put on the long lens, and did my best to capture it. The light was very poor - late afternoon, in forest.
My friend David (of "Focus on Nature") is a snake enthusiast, but he can verify that I am not so keen on them up close and personal.
I still think your swimming Taipan was a great photo.

Anonymous said...

Hi Denis
I am so glad you have these pics here. I am at Yetholme at 1150 metres and came home today to find a juvenile copperhead basking in my carport just next to where I had parked the car.
After reparking it elsewhere, I observed it stalking some garden skinks I think. I took pics on my mobile ph but think they are too far away. However, it matched your pic completely. I know we have most of the venomous snakes here and they are lagely undisturbed. I did mow extensively yesterday and may have disturbed it. It has now moved onto another part of the garden so I feel a little better for that.
I usually only have red belly blacks and large blue tongues around the house but this youngster looked very healthy and just watched us.
Thanks again, your pics enabled me to identify this fellow.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Rhonda
I had to look up a map to find Yetholme. East of Bathurst, north from Oberon. You are very high, and therefore cold. So the match-up for the "Highlands Copperhead" is pretty good.
Victorians have much more colourful Copperheads than we do. Ours are slaty grey, but dull, not shiny. That's the main difference between them and Red-bellied Black Snakes (of which the red is often not visible).
Happy to be able to help you get an ID.
That's the pleasure of Blogging.
Feel free to come back for insects and plants, especially Orchids, of which your area and mine would have a good match-up.
PS feel free to send me any photos you have of things, the ID of which are puzzling you.
deniswilson23 (at) bigpond (dot) com.

VenomousKiss said...

Hi Denis..
I have found a juvenile copperhead at my front door.. My cat kindly brought it to me, unfortunately, she had killed it. It's only about 25cm long.. so could you please tell me how venomous that would make it? I know the amount of venom it may have will depend on wether or not it had bitten something else but I am concerned for my cat.. I can't find her. I believe it's a copperhead due to the desciption you have given on your page. Please get back to me asap.. thank you :)

Denis Wilson said...

Hi VenomousKiss (cute name, by the way).
Check this post for another view of a dead one, for further comparison
My understanding is that even small snakes are poisonous. They may be limited by the size of the fangs, but snakes are equipped from hatching (birth) to kill, frogs, etc.
I would be concerned for your cat.
Look around under bushes, etc.
Get it to a vet if in doubt.
Time is important.
Best of luck.

Anonymous said...

Hi Denis,

This is Katrina McMahon and I live in Avoca NSW, down the road to Fitzroy Falls. I have been trying to find some useful information of Copperhead Snakes. I found your website useful to my family, thank you. I became frightened on the weekend after our week of rain. The sun was shining and it was hot. I went out our front door and stepped over my daughters gum boots and in the corner of my eye I spotted a black/red snake. I swung around standing still and couldn't believe my eyes. The snake felt my movement and proceeded into the rocky garden next to front door. I ran inside and grabed my camera. I came out front door again and the snake came out and lay across the walkway. I was able to take some photo's of the snake. It looked black, with red and yellow belly. It was about 1 metre long. Why was it so close to my front door? Are they territorial? Will there be more, family? We have rock wall around pool with lots of little hedges in this area, rocky garden area? Do blue tongue lizards keep them away? I have had plenty of them around but last couple weeks, none? Lots of little brown lizards running around this area all the time. I am scared, I know we live rural, I am ok with snakes but not so close to the house. My children are not quiet, as you can imagine. We are in this area alot, due to pool and gardens. Can you suggest anything for me to feel safer or to be more aware for? I would appriciate your time and be very thankful. Will they come inside my house if the kids leave the door open? My dog is fenced in just next to where the snake was lying, is she in danger?
Thank you
Kind Regards
Katrina McMahon
Avoca NSW 30th November 2011

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Katrina
Perhaps best to give me a call, tomorrow morning. 4885 - 2725.
Denis Wilson

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Katrina.
In general, my view is to make the immediate house and yard as open as possible. I don't mean to blitz the area, I mean to "think like a snake", then remove the things which give them the "element of surprise". E.G., bits of old corrugated iron and old logs especially, are the places snakes (and their food prey) hang around under.
I would also spray a strong-smelling disinfectant band around your house perimeter. Use something like a "Wheelie Bin cleaner". They used use "phenol", but now safer products are available. Smelly though. That's the point.
Use in diluted mode, not concentrate form.
The main thing is not to panic - neither yourself nor the kids.
Snakes do not feel comfortable near people. They avoid us. We are not their food. They are designed to kill their food prey, not to attack humans.
People get bitten most often when trying to kill a snake. That is un-necessary, undesirable and unsafe (as well as illegal).
Avoidance is a far better strategy.
Remove un-necessary "cover" where they can safely hang out.
I sought extra advice from an experienced woman friend.
She said:
‎* get rid of all that fresh plump snake food from around the house eg. rats and mice
* teach kids snake awareness/first aid just as you would teach them road safety
*discipline dog if it attacks a snake (it will lose the battle); but not if it barks to alert you to Snake's presence.
* NPWS/WIRES has a good snake bloke who could advise, ring National Parks office at Fitzroy Falls for advice and contact details of this bloke.
* yes it might come inside the house just out of curousity, espec. if you leave those yummy mice around.
* Mice and Snakes love the warmth of electrical appliances like an old beer fridge in a shed, etc.
* local WIRES ph no is 4862 1788. Keep that number on your fridge
* learn red-belly behaviour and not be threatened by it; but be cautious of copperheads.
* get a book from library about it.
Another friend advised:
* Mike Jupp at Wingecarribbee WIRES is a good local contact, even if only by phone if they need calming. Snake & spider expert.
He lives in Valetta St, Moss Vale.

Hope this collective wisdom helps you.
Lots of people in the Southern Highlands live with Snakes successfully, by avoiding contact with them.
Best of luck with it.
By the way, Red-bellied Blacks are easily identified but the very shiny black head and back. You might see a bit of red along the flank, but it is often hard to see.
Copperheads are a dull grey colour. They have a creamy white underside, as in my photos above.


Anonymous said...

Hi Denis,
I enjoyed reading your article.
I am currently the Reptile Coordinator of the Highlands for WIRES, specialising in venomous snake handling.
I am happy to answer questions through the WIRES contact number if your bloggers need help.
I have had 4 calls today! They are out.
Fiona O'Connell

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Fiona
I have noted your name.
Hopefully, the contact details for WIRES will lead to you.