The majority of Washington snakes are adapted to human environments and therefore somewhat recognizable to the general public. That certainly is the case for Washington Garter snakes. Three species, along with their subspecies spend their days in the yards and gardens of residential areas across the state.
Three different subspecies of the Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans) inhabit western North America. The picture shows a typical wandering garter snake skin pattern, characterized by the light color stripes. A close up picture would show the snake’s eight upper labial scales, typical of all Thamnophis elegans subspecies.
Look for most of the population east of the Cascades.
The Common Garter Snakes pictured are the most wide ranging of Washington’s garter snake species.
Northwestern Gartersnake (Thamnophis ordinoides) are the smallest of the state’s garter snakes. When they have a red stripe running down the body they are relatively easy to identify. Identification becomes more difficult when they have a different body stripe and there are no other garter snakes in the area to use as a size comparison. Most of the population is found west of the Cascades.
Racers and Whipsnakes
Snake taxonomy tends to change over time as scientists learn more about the physical and DNA structure of snakes. When it comes to discussions of racers, whip snakes and coachwhip snakes, debate exists on whether to place some in the genus Masticophis or genus Coluber, the racers.
To clear up any potential confusion, an internet search using either genera will bring up the group of snakes presented here.
Two field identification clues, behavioral and physical based serve as good initial identification rules of thumb. Speed is one behavioral characteristic shared by both racers and whipsnakes or coachwhips. When they are spotted by people, normally the first thing they do is slither away quickly. Species in the group also tend to be relatively thin snakes.
Black Racer (Coluber constrictor) is the general name for one of the most widespread of all the snakes native to the United States. In fact eleven different subspecies inhabit almost every state in the lower 48 states, including Washington. The picture shows a Western Yellow-bellied Racer. They can be found east of the Cascades.
Striped Whipsnakes (Masticophis taeniatus) range through most of the Southwest, and never really had a large population in the Columbia Basin of Washington. The most recent surveys show dwindling populations and discussions of whether or not to list the species as threatened in the state.
Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes
A few areas along the Columbia River Gorge in Washington host the very colorful California Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata).
Snake enthusiasts will note that the black face of the snake shares that characteristic with the venomous Eastern Coral Snake. Fear not, coral snakes only live in a limited Southeast territory and kingsnakes are relatively harmless and colorful snakes.
Still More Colibrid Snakes
Gopher Snakes or Bullsnakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) grow large and bulky. Because the larger snakes somewhat resemble rattlesnakes and they tend to do a lot of basking in the sun, they can scare people.
Identifying a Gopher snake starts by approaching it with caution. They don’t startle easily, so approaching it slow will give a hiker a good look at it. If no rattle is present, think Gopher snake.
In an interesting comparison, Washington’s Gopher Snake population lies east of the Cascades. In neighboring Oregon, there are healthy populations both east and west of the Cascades.
Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus) also find homes in many of Washington’s populated areas, so the chances of seeing one in the wild is high. It’s also the only member of the genus.
Identifying Ring-necked snakes is easy. They have a dual dark and bright body color pattern, dark on the top and bright orange or yellow on the bottom. The picture highlights the snake’s characteristic orange ring around the neck.
While ring-neck snake bites are rare, touching them is not recommended. They can secrete a foul smelling chemical. Really, your hands will stink all day if you pick one up.
Fortunately, only the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) poses any potential danger to the outdoor Washington crowd.
More Washington Snakes
Three additional snakes in Washington state get less attention because they live away from population centers and are somewhat secretive in their nature.
The first picture shows a Northern Rubber Boa. It’s a Pacific Northwest specialty. They tend to be habitat generalists, so finding one under a rock or log in the forest or field is possible.
As the name suggests they have a dull color body that looks kind of rubbery. Look for it under logs and rocks during the day because they mostly hunt at night.
A fortunate few people will encounter the Sharp-tailed snake. It typically grows less than a foot in length and makes its home on the rocky slopes of a few forested areas in the southeast.
Along with a pointed tail, the black and white banding on
the underside of the snake is a good field identification clue.
Desert Nightsnake (Hypsiglena chlorophaea)