Snakes and lizards share many characteristics. Like all reptiles, they are cold-blooded, with scaly skin and lungs. Most lay eggs. In addition to the small matter of legs, lizards also have eyelids and external ears, which snakes do not. Snakes can unhinge their jaws to accommodate large prey, while lizards cannot. Snakes are true carnivores, but lizards will eat plant matter on occasion.
North American snake eggs look like bird eggs, but they have a leathery feel. Lizard eggs look very similar, but tend to be smaller. Both will bury their eggs to provide some protection from predators but play no role in caring for the nest or the young.
Common Garter Snake
Chances are, if you’ve found a snake in suburban Westchester, it’s likely a garter snake. They are typically black/brown and yellow/white striped, though sometimes the stripes are light brown with black spots, giving more of a checkerboard pattern.
Common garters can be found in a wide variety of habitats, and are the most cold-tolerant of our local species, so out and about for more of the year. They start breeding as soon as they emerge from hibernation in the spring, with females giving birth to 10-40 live young between July and October.
They eat insects, slugs, amphibians, worms and small mammals (if the snake is large enough), making them great additions to the garden.
Eastern Ribbon Snake
The ribbon snake appears very similar to the garter snake, but they are far less common. They are thinner, with a narrower head, longer tail, and a white lip with a white spot in front of their eye.
They prefer wet meadows and other areas near water. They eat fish, amphibians and insects. Like the garter snake, they give birth to live young.
Northern Ring-necked Snake
Diadophis punctatus edwardsii
Ring-necked Snakes are a rare treat in Westchester County. Tiny black/gray snakes with a yellow/orange collar and belly, they aren’t much more than a foot long when full grown. They prefer rocky woodland habitat.
Ring-necked snakes eat a lot of worms and salamanders, but may also consume insects and even other small snakes. They are nocturnal, but may be found warming themselves under sunny rocks during the day. Females lay 3-10 eggs in June or July, which hatch in August or September.
Black Rat Snake
Elaphe o. obsoleta
The black rat snake is a large constrictor, commonly found not only in fields and woodlands, but around buildings. It gets its name because it does eat a lot of rodents, as well as amphibians and birds.
They typically have a black body with a white belly. Juvenile rat snakes are pale grey with black squares down their backs, a pattern which recedes as they age.
I have yet to encounter the sight in Westchester, but be advised, these guys like to climb trees. They are not aggressive or dangerous, just potentially surprising!
Northern Black Racer
Coluber c. constrictor
Racers are fairly large, and as they name suggests, they can move quickly. They inhabit the edges of wetlands, open forests or fields. They eat amphibians, mammals, insects, birds and their eggs. Females lay 5-40 eggs each year.
They are similar in appearance to the much more common black rat snake, but their jet black coloring is glossier and their head is more narrow, in line with the the body width. The black rat snake’s head is more triangular or arrow-shaped, and its scales are ridged, unlike the racer’s smooth scales.
Dekay’s Brown Snake
Storeria d. dekayi
Brown snakes are another of our small and less common snakes, typically around a foot long. They are grey-brown with darker spots along the body, leaving a paler stripe down the back. They are diurnal, but often spend the day hiding under cover.
Brown snakes mate in spring and have 3-30 live young in the summer. They eat worms, insects and amphibians.
Northern Water Snake
Nerodia s. sipedon
Northern water snakes like to hang out near ponds, lakes, vernal pools and streams, as the name suggests. Their coloring is highly variable, and the juveniles in particular can be brightly colored and banded. Typically their colors fade as they age, with many having a dull brown to black coloring, with vestiges of reddish or tannish markings along the side. This variability can lead them to be confused with other snakes, particularly copperheads and cottonmouths (the former are not common and the latter do not live here).
Water snakes eat primarily fish and amphibians. They mate in the spring and give birth to live babies in late summer.
Eastern Milk Snake
Lampropeltis t. triangulum
Milk snakes have a banded pattern on a light background, but colors can vary from the striking red/white/black combo to a less recognizable range of browns. They have a marking on the back of their head that resembles a V or Y. They do well in a wide range of areas, and can be found in urban areas and under all kinds of cover. Milk snakes are usually active at dusk and during the night.
They are medium-sized constrictors, eating rodents and other reptiles. Milk snakes lay eggs in a warm, moist place in early summer, and they will hatch in August or September. Juvenile milk snakes have more vivid red blotches.
Eastern Hognose Snake
Species of Special Concern in New York
The Eastern Hognose is a thick-bodied snake with a short, upturned snout. Their coloration can vary quite a bit, but is generally blotchy and brown. Along with their funny face, a good identifier is their dramatic reaction to your presence. A disturbed hognose will puff up, hiss and flatten its neck to make you think its a cobra. If it’s really threatened, it may also keel over on its back and play dead. They put on a good show, but don’t be fooled–they are extremely unlikely to bite.
Hognose snakes prefer areas with dry, loose soil, the better for digging in with that spade-like face. They are often underground, except when basking or foraging for food. Their diet consists of a lot of toads, though they will eat other amphibians, small reptiles, mammals or birds.
Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen
While there are timber rattlesnakes in the Hudson Highlands, for the majority of Westchester County, copperheads are the only venomous snakes you could encounter. Their bites are very rarely fatal. As always, snakes are harmless if you do not engage with them. If you see one, walk away.
Copperheads have a brown on brown hourglass pattern on their bodies. Their heads are frequently a coppery orange; hence the name. As a member of the pit viper family, they have small holes or pits in front of their eyes for sensing heat, which often indicates prey.
They can thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including mountains, rocky forests, streamsides, canyons and even populated areas.
Eastern Fence Lizard
Species Threatened in New York
Eastern fence lizards are brown to gray with darker bands along the back, legs and tail. They like to spend their days basking on rocks, trees, posts or other structures, and retreat under cover at night. They eat insects and other invertebrates.
These lizards have five cream to yellow lines running from their snout to their tail, set against a dark background that fades as they age. Similarly, the bright blue tail of the juvenile five-lined skink tends to dull, particularly for males. They prefer wooded habitat with plenty of places to bask and hide.
Five-lined skinks lay eggs in summer, in moist soil or decaying logs.