Those Sudden Surprises In The Great Outdoors

Tom LounsburyConservation & Wildlife Management

Seeing a snake, such as this garter snake, in the yard or garden is nothing to fear, because it is nature’s way of controlling harmful rodents and insects

Last summer, I was feeding my horses in an outside manger and a leaf of hay fell on the ground. I bent down to pick it up, and yellow jackets suddenly came swarming out from underneath the manger and began stinging the left side of my face. Well, folks, that will wake you right up! One even zapped me near my left eye. When I looked in the mirror the following morning with my right eye, it wasn’t a pretty sight at all. The left side of my face was swollen, the left eye sealed shut, and all would remain so for a few days. Creates quite a conversation piece for a while whenever you run into folks you know.

What stung me were the small Eastern Yellow Jackets which aren’t much bigger than a housefly, but despite their diminutive size, they can pack a punch. My being outdoors a lot, getting stung on occasion seems to be my lot in life, and I just roll with the punches.

Honeybees can only sting you once, and soon die after their barbed stinger is ripped out of their abdomen. The rest, including hornets, wasps and bumblebees which don’t have barbed stingers, can keep right on stinging. I will never forget when I was using a harrow on some ground just before planting matters and hit a bumblebee nest, and the bees were none too happy. I had never pulled that harrow in “road-gear” before, but it was soon clanging and bouncing behind me with a large swarm of angry bumblebees in hot pursuit. My vintage Oliver tractor has a top speed of 12 mph, and I soon discovered those bumblebees could go 15 mph – so matters got a bit interesting in a slow-motion sort of way! With the steering wheel in one hand and my hat swatting away in the other, I soon made good my escape, but not before I got a few lumps.

 I will also never forget when I bent over to pull a low lying weed up from near a steppingstone and something came out of nowhere and plopped down directly on the back of my hand. This of course caused some rather instinctive reflexes on my part, including an unmanly shriek. I’ve been in wild places where reflexes aren’t always a bad thing. It turned out to be the largest toad I have ever seen, with the outstanding coloration of green and rusty brown. I like toads because they play a helpful role in nature.

Snakes often get a bad rap, even though they are a very important ingredient in nature’s master plan by controlling many rodents and other harmful pests. There seems to be two types of folks; those who are fascinated by and love snakes and those who are very uncomfortable anywhere around them. I’m in the middle of those two factions as I respect snakes, understand their importance and try to use a live and let live attitude. You will never see me handling or cuddling a snake, and I give them a wide berth whenever possible.

Of course, being outdoors a lot, I have had my share of snake encounters, including a few surprises. I will never forget my only rattlesnake encounter in Michigan which occurred over five decades ago on a sunny, mid-September afternoon while squirrel hunting. I found a handy oak to sit against and reached down to remove a stick just as my bottom was almost on the ground. The “stick” suddenly coiled and started buzzing. I doubt if I could ever duplicate the physical feat of going from a nearly sitting position to being airborne! Even if you have never heard it before, that buzzing sound is very unmistakable.

The small Massasauga rattlesnake was only letting me know it didn’t appreciate my sitting on it. Although not a common occurrence in Michigan, folks do occasionally get bitten by Massasauga rattlesnakes, which are typically shy and on the passive side. Yep, folks, I was glad that little rattler wasn’t overly quick about biting my rearend!

I have been in wild places, including the Florida everglades, where venomous snakes might be encountered more often. It can be an environment where it is wise to know what is on the other side of a log before stepping over it. I guess that is one of the many things I like about Michigan, the fact that you can generally wander around in the brush without worrying too much about something venomous ruining your day.

There was the time I decided to teach my three young sons how to locate and catch night crawlers in the dark while using flashlights. I let the boys know I preferred to do this in my bare feet, as it allows a more stealthy approach in the lawn to grab the worms before they can snap back into their holes. I was homed in on a dandy night crawler and slowly bringing my barefoot down, when a small snake started squirming out from underneath it before I could put my full weight on matters. Yep, folks, it was time for an unmanly shriek which had three little boys running as fast as they could go for the house to get shoes!

One interesting snake encounter occurred while my wife Ginny and I were hiking and the woods were full of wildflowers, which we were admiring when we spotted something quite unique in the undergrowth. A very large snake was in the process of swallowing a large toad, headfirst, with its legs and webbed feet still protruding out. I’ve seen a lot of Eastern garter snakes in my day, but this one was a dandy for the record books because it was clearly on the beefy and lengthy side. The snake was actually quite beautiful as colors go because in the sunlight it had bright yellow jaws and its dorsal stripe, which had widened as the snake expanded its body to swallow its prey, was a very distinct powder blue and the normal dark side-stripes had been stretched into black and white spots. 

Due to its large size and darker body coloration, I’m pretty certain this was a very old snake. Other than easing in close enough for a picture I let the snake dine on its prey in peace. I had no urge whatsoever to hold it, and besides, it was in a rather vulnerable and all swollen up position. Admittedly, I was a bit fascinated by witnessing this fact of nature, because I had never seen a snake swallow something before. Ginny, on the other hand, was far more interested in viewing the wildflowers a bit further down the trail and doing it at a rather fast pace!

I do respect and appreciate snakes as an important part of nature, but I must admit I like to do my admiring from afar.

Live and let live has always been my motto in this regard. However, dealing with stinging insects in unwanted places is another matter entirely.

Tom Lounsbury