Photo: John Howard
A black racer, Coluber constrictor, rears up to investigate the photographer. While exploring remote roads in Shawnee State Forest last Sunday, I was cruising down a lane when, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a serpentine shape rise from the roadside grass. Racer! I whacked the brakes and tossed the car to the roadside. Leaping from the vehicle, I ran back to the spot where I had seen the snake. There was no longer a snake in the grass, but I quickly heard a rustling of leaves on the steep wooded slope on the other side of the road. Somehow that racer had shot across the road and twenty feet up the hill in a matter of seconds.
Such speed isn't that surprising if you're familiar with these scaley beasts. None of our snakes move with such rapidity, and a racer at full slither is an impressive sight. I shot up the hill after the snake, in the hopes of getting photos. It was an impressive specimen; certainly over four feet in length. The snake was well aware of me, and flashed off through the understory towards a pile of downed branches. I was thinking I might get near enough to grab its tail and try to manipulate the animal out to where I could make some photos. Wasn't to be - he gave me some great looks and a fun chase, but the snake beat me to the wood pile and vanished.
Photo: John Howard
The beautiful specimen in John Howard's excellent photo shows a steely-blue wash on the sides and belly. John took this photo and the preceding one in Adams County, not far from where I encountered my racer in Scioto County. Black racers occur in southern and eastern Ohio, and north and west of their range, the so-called blue racer, Colubris constrictor foxi, is found. These weakly defined subspecies apparently intergrade where their ranges overlap.
Racers on the move electrify their surroundings. They, to me, are like the herpetological counterpart to Accipiter hawks such as the Cooper's and Sharp-shinned. Racers are fast, agile, and hyper alert. I can only imagine that potential prey items freeze in terror when one of these snakes is in the area.
Many species of snakes freeze and hunker down when a person comes into their presence, or the animal will dart into a cranny if one is close at hand. Not so the racer, necessarily. A curious racer will often rear its head and upper body well off the ground, cobralike, to better inspect the offending party. And when it decides to split the scene, whoa! These things move like you wouldn't believe. I once surprised one that was sunning on a steep hillside, and it fled downhill. With the advantage of the slope, that snake seemed like it hit 20 mph and was gone in a wink (their top speed is claimed to be about 10 mph. That would be a very fast running pace for a human).
Harmless as they are, racers can be aggressive. I'm sure that if I had managed to tug its tail, my racer of last Sunday would have given me a good bite for my troubles. Several times I've heard tales from people who have apparently ventured into the proximity of a racer nest with eggs. The racer first vibrates its tail loudly in the leaf litter, invoking thoughts of a rattlesnake. My friends claimed that the apparently protective racers they encountered reared their head and upper body well off the ground, and advanced towards them. These are good-sized snakes - up to five feet - and even though the people that I have heard such stories from were snake people, they admitted that the snakes were rather intimidating. I don't know if racers really guard their nests, or if these folks just caught their snakes on a bad day, but those encounters do make for good stories.
I've never had a racer face off with me, but I guess it doesn't surprise me that one of these edgy high-strung reptiles would stand its ground with a person. While a black racer might be the stuff of an ophidiophobe's nightmares, they are in the final analysis exciting, beautiful animals who play an important part in the habitats in which they live. Encountering a racer is always a treat.
Thanks to John Howard for letting me use his wonderful images. One of these days I'll get one of these serpent speedsters in my lens, with luck.