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Black Racer

Jonathan Wright

I hadn't expected a Southern black racer to be so big. We were searching the edge of the Black Swamp, not far from our campsite, when Gavin came across one, sunning itself in an opening in the trees.

"Come see this snake!" he shouted.

"What is it?" I yelled back.

"It's black."

Evidently my companion, a fine outdoorsman, was stumped on this one. My first thought, given the locale, was that he had stumbled upon a Cottonmouth... only the Cottonmouths of the region, as far as I knew, were not really black.

Surprisingly for a racer, the snake had stayed put long enough for me to arrive on the scene. I must admit that, given its size, my immediate impression was of a Black ratsnake, not found in the Okeetee area. Almost as quickly, I realized two things: i) it was a racer, and ii) it was far larger than I had expected any racer to be, as it appeared to be between five and six feet (one and a half and one and three quarter meters.)

I was excited that Gavin had made this find, the first snake of the trip, even though this species was, according to Kauffeld, as common as Okeetee as garter snakes are in some parts of the north. Isn't that usually the way it is, though? Any "new" species is exciting when you find the first one, regardless of how commonly the scene gets repeated from thereon in. Actually, after what Barry Crane had told us, I was surprised to find any snake!

I decided that this racer, a very handsome, glossy brute, needed to be captured for closer perusal. Alas, the snake decided otherwise at exactly that moment. Off he went like a rocketing pheasant, at a speed that more than did justice to his name. But then he made a mistake. He plunged into a dead-end burrow, and two-thirds of his length was still exposed, thrashing like a crazed bullwhip! Then I made a mistake. I grabbed him nonchalantly at mid-body. In what experience later taught me to be a typical racer response, he lost not a second in withdrawing his forebody from the whole and launching himself straight at my face, open mouthed and eager for any extremity. He missed my face by a centimeter or so. No matter, he got my hand on the rebound, several times in succession before I could grasp him securely behind the head. Although the bites didn't amount to much, the speed of his retaliation was quite a shock!

Gavin had a similar experience later the same day. I had spotted an enormous racer, at least as large as the first, proceeding along the side of a fallen log, which lay on open sand near our campsite. Gavin just happened to be on the immediate opposite side of the same log. The snake was unaware of him, and so far he was unaware of the snake. Here was a situation ripe for action.

"Gavin," I said, "there's a huge racer coming along the side of that big log... if you crouch by the south end, he'll come around at any moment, and you can grab him.

"Alright!" he answered, getting gamely into position.

"Here she comes... almost there... o-kay... Grab her!"

He did. And she did exactly what the fist one did, causing Gavin, already in a crouch, to fall over backwards, simultaneously ridding himself of the snake, which shot towards a hole in the end of the log. Dismayed at seeing such an enormous specimen getting away before a closer examination could take place, I shouted, "Get it.. Get it!"

"You get it!" said Gavin, indignantly, "I almost got it!"

We decided not to catch any more racers after this.

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black racer snake
Text from "Innocents abroad... first adventures at Okeetee," by Jonathan Wright from Reptile Life (vol. 1, no. 5). Reprint by permission of author/publisher.

Photo: Stock