All text copyright  Eitan Grunwald.  All photographs copyright  Eitan or Ron Grunwald  except photographs by others are copyright per photo credits.  All rights reserved.  Terms
MIDWEST
April 2005
 3 of 6
MIDWEST
April 2005
 3 of 6
Just after dawn I cross the border into eastern Kansas feeling certain I’ll find my target for the day.  I am in search of Lampropeltis triangulum syspila, the Red Milksnake, probably the most common snake found here this time of year (not counting Ringnecks, of course, which are considered honorary worms in Kansas).  Last week people were flipping them without fail, and despite the cool, gray morning I have no doubt of success, it’s only a question of numbers.   Pull up to a promising road cut in an area known to be saturated with syspila.  I feel like a miner approaching a particularly rich vein of ore.   I quickly get started, prospecting the cut from end to end, then crossing the road to work the other side.  Methodically lifting each stone, removing the Ringnecks, carefully returning the rocks to their resting place.  Hundreds of rocks, four different cuts, hours of hunting, and here’s the sum of what I find:      A Water Snake.  A friggin’ Water Snake.  That’s it.  (Remember, Ringnecks don’t count.)  How is it possible that I can be in the right place at the right time of year, and against all odds, come up empty?  Over the course of my trip people are finding gobs of Milksnakes at the same sites I check out, but when I show up, nada.  I blame it on the weather, but deep down I know the curse of the common snake continues (for an explanation, see my trips of Arizona, April 2003 and South Carolina, March 2004). I give in to the inevitable and depart, my mood as dreary as the overcast sky.  Driving to the west, thinking of motels and where I’ll stay tonight, when just past Topeka, a transformation.  Woods give way to grasslands, and overhead the sun, surrounded by blue, reclaims the sky.  Maybe it isn’t too late, after all, to salvage something from this day. Check the clock and my map, then set a course for the Flint Hills.  I’m close enough to catch the last few hours of light, and with temperatures climbing as the clouds withdraw, my mood lifts as well.  Turn off the highway and drive the dirt roads looking for a likely spot to flip rocks. I spy a tiny little road cut, just a few feet high by maybe 25 yards long, almost too small to take seriously.  But it has rocks, so I stop and get out.     Walk the length of the cut, taking my time to survey the stones, and finally select one near the top that is large and flat, figuring it might be the warmest.  Dig my fingers under the edge, pull up and back, and Milksnake!!  On the very first flip!   Now I’m psyched.  After photos I return the snake to its hiding place and try the rock right next to it.  Bam!! Another one! This one is darker, more like the Central Plains variety which intergrades with Reds in this region.  No matter, it’s a Milksnake!  Back he goes and I scan the roadside for another likely looking rock.  I roll the dice again, and once more come up with snake eyes. This has never happened to me before.  Three rocks, three snakes. One after another, starting with my first flip.  I’m beginning to believe the stories. I decide to move around and go to the far end of the cut, planning to work it more systematically now.  Rock #4 gets turned . . .  and, yes, there’s a snake underneath it.   This is getting freaky; I’m not sure what to make of it.  I look around, feeling nervous.  Is someone watching, a prankster who’s planted these snakes . . . am I about to be punked?  Too giddy to care, I go back to the rock pile, confident of what will happen with the next turn of my hand. Rock #5:     I’m in complete control.  I can stop anytime I want to.  I swear, only one more and I quit.   Rock #6 (a two-fer) . . . . . . and then it’s over. I can’t believe what I’ve just experienced.  Six rocks in a row, each with a snake underneath; they just kept on coming.  It’s surreal, unlike any herping I’ve ever done before, almost overwhelming.  Between the Ringnecks and these back-to-back Milksnakes, I feel so . . . so . . . outnumbered.    It’s getting dark.  The prairie goes purple with the setting sun.  Somewhere unseen coyotes call to each other.  First just a few, then others answer from a different direction; soon I’m surrounded by their chorus.  I’m feeling a bit euphoric, still enjoying the rush of what just happened.  So this is Kansas herping.               
Yellow-Bellied Racer (juvenile) Coluber constrictor flaviventris
Northern Water Snake Nerodia sipedon
Red x Central Plains Milksnake intergrade L. t. syspila x  L. t. gentilis
Red-Sided Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis Still covered in mud before its first shed after a long winter underground.
Another intergrade Milksnake.  This one looks more like syspila.