When It’s Snake for Supper


Because of its size, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is easy to spot, even at a distance. When I noticed this one standing in the middle of a salt flat at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, I knew it was well beyond the reach of my camera, but I was interested in the ‘something’ it was shaking with its bill. Assuming it was a large fish, I took a closer look through my camera’s lens, and discovered the heron was dealing with a snake.

At that point, the snake seemed to be in charge, but after a few minutes of tussling it unwrapped itself and dropped to the ground. Clearly still interested, the heron took only seconds to re-enage with the reptile.

After a quick stab toward the ground, he had the snake by the tail: a situation the snake seemed to be evaluating as it raised its head for a better look at its opponent.

After getting a better grip on the situation, the heron paused, then lifted off and flew deeper into the flats, the snake still dangling from its bill. I felt some sympathy for the beautiful (as yet unidentified) snake, but was pleased that I’d been able to witness the sight. I presume that, in time, the heron overcame the snake, and enjoyed an unexpected treat for its supper.


Comments always are welcome.

68 thoughts on “When It’s Snake for Supper

  1. As so much in nature is eat or be eaten, these life-and-death dramas must play out all day long, even if we don’t see most of them. In the right place at the right time, you were privileged to witness this one.

    1. It did feel like a privilege: rather like coming across a nesting bird, or a mating ritual. When I stop to think about all of the activity going on around us — the blooming and seeding, the feeding and fighting — it’s dizzying, and so easily missed. If I’d looked to the left rather than the right, I would have been past the bird, and never known what was happening.

    1. That’s true. I console myself with the thought that I’m just part of the food chain every time the mosquitoes show up. Sometimes, of course, that’s not much consolation! Usually, I see herons tossing and swallowing fish they’ve caught; this certainly was different.

    1. I’d like to figure out the snake’s identity. I’m sure that’s its belly that we’re seeing, and most photos of snakes show only the top and the sides. The pattern is gorgeous; I was so glad to be able to catch it so clearly.

    1. So true. I almost titled this post ‘Sympathy for a Snake,’ but decided against it and looked for a more neutral title. Not everyone loves the snakes, after all!

    1. It was an amazing scene to witness. I know that birds will toss fish until they’re able to slide them down the hatch head-first, to keep their esophagus from being damaged by the fish’s fins, and I suspect that the same holds true for snake-eating. Getting control of the head would be important. Wherever the heron took the snake, there probably was some work involved in making it ‘table-ready.’ I’m also sure that, if the snake escaped, there were other offerings on the buffet.

    1. Thanks, Pit! Sometimes, there’s just no time to worry about getting things perfectly in focus. Too much messing with settings, and I would have missed this. At least I was sharp enough to turn the car off to reduce the vibration.

  2. You were in the right place at the right time to watch this. Everyone has to eat. But, some things don’t get another chance. Thanks for the photos.

    1. For some reason, it doesn’t seem quite so distressing when a robin brings an earthworm home, but the dynamic’s the same. I have a photo of a robin with a worm wrapped around its beak, just like the snake is wrapped around the heron’s beak. People I’ve shown the photo to thought it was cute. Try telling that to the earthworm!

      1. We once watched a Coopers Hawk swoop in behind a squirrel casually eating below the feeder. It grabbed the squirrel, planted its talons, and jumped into the air with the prize. The tail of the squirrel was hanging down as it flew away.

    1. I counted myself very fortunate indeed to get the details of the patterns on the snake. I’d love to know what it is. I should post it to iNaturalist and see if some of the snake experts there can identify it.

    1. The snake’s a beauty, for sure. It seems most photos of snakes show the top or sides, with only brief verbal descriptions of their bellies, but I’m sure we’re seeing the underside of this one. By the shape of its head and its tail, I’m pretty sure it’s non-venomous. Now I’m wondering whether birds like the heron can distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes. It would be helpful, that ‘s for sure!

      1. I went on the website for the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, and checked their list of snakes (which was not easy, searching for “snake” turned up over 2500 results on their species list), and then from the possibilities, I went looking for pictures on iNaturalist. I think the best matches were swampsnakes, particularly Glossy and Gulf, or maybe crayfish snakes. There were lots of pictures similar to yours, of Great Blues with snakes, but none of those matched that distinctive belly pattern that you captured. I hope you can figure out what it is.

        1. I went snooping, too. On the US Fish & Wildlife page for Brazoria, they listed only 475 species, which was easier to deal with. It sure does seem that ‘my’ snake could be the Salt Marsh Water Snake — Nerodia clarkii (Look at the middle photo. ) It’s listed for both the Brazoria and San Bernard refuges, and this little drama certainly was taking place in its favored environment. I’ll post a photo on iNaturalist, and see if anyone agrees.

          1. Yes, that is a perfect match! I should have thought of that — if there are swamp snakes there would also be marsh snakes. Once you identified it, I looked it up in the Audubon Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, and they only list it as a subspecies of Southern Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata), along with Broad-banded Watersnake which I have here on our farm, and which to me would be a very different snake. Tennant’s Texas Snakes has it as its own species. But neither book points out its very distinct belly pattern, and neither has a picture of the belly, either.

  3. I saw an egret eat a snake once. He just kept flipping and jerking it until it was fully down. The food chain in Nature. Great pictures of the heron in action!!

    1. Do you remember if your egret downed the snake head-first? Since they flip fish to slide them down head-first, I suspect the same would be true with a snake. The reason’s different, of course; with a fish, they want to avoid getting stuck by the fins. With a snake, they probably deal with the head as soon as they can, to avoid being bitten.

    1. I did wonder how he’d finally dispatch it. With that strong, spear-like bill, he might be able to just pierce it. But birds like the Shrike will beat their prey to death. Sometimes, a Shrike will impale a tidbit on something like a barbed wire fence, leaving it there for a snack later in the day!

  4. Wonderful that you caught this action. I really enjoy photos showing the birds going about the business of their lives, and you can’t get much more lively than this!

    1. I’ve seen herons capture fish, crawdads, and now a snake. If I come across one with a frog, my life will be complete. For one thing, it will mean I’ve finally seen a frog. I see tree frogs often enough, but bullfrogs and such remain only a ‘kerplunk!’ in my world!

      1. I have a recent GBH with a frog at Brazos Bend St Pk, and an older one with a siren. But I still haven’t captured any birds with snakes. And I’d love to know the secret of seeing tree frogs – I hear them often, but have never seen one!

  5. Gosh, I have almost the same shot, but with a White-faced Heron grappling a lizard in its mouth.
    I’ve never seen a bird eat a snake. Usually, it’s a fish or pond weed. I did see a Purple Swamphen eat a toad, but lost that shot in a computer crash. I’ve also got a couple of birds in Melbourne’s Zoo’s great aviary eating a mouse (or rat).

    1. I once captured one of our little Grebes with a big clam. Of course, our gulls are greedy, and they’ll often manage a fish or shrimp, although the prey often escapes while the gulls fight over it. Silly birds! Seeing a heron with a lizard would be great. Given how fast lizards can be, the heron would have to be fast: which, of course, they are.

    1. It certainly made my day, Tanja. Despite it being a weekend, the traffic at the refuge was almost non-existent, so I could stop on the road to watch the activity from my mobile bird blind. I was pleased that my camera did better than I expected, and provided even some detail of the snake.

  6. I’m surprised a few well-aimed strikes of that sharp bill didn’t settle that snake’s hash. Of course, maybe that heron’s mama didn’t tell it not to play with its food . . .

    1. I’d forgotten that old standby of cartoons until you mentioned it, but it certainly fits here. The heron was engaged in serious business, of course, but from the point of view of an observer, the situation does lend itself to humor. As for strikes from the bill, that may have come later, once the heron was dealing with the head rather than the tail.

    1. I rarely see snakes when I’m out and about, so it was especially nice to come across this one — not to mention coming across a little drama playing out. I was fairly sure the snake wasn’t venomous, and now I think it might have been a salt marsh water snake. It sure was pretty.

  7. The Great Blue Heron has to be one of the least picky eaters in the animal kingdom! We should have used one as a role model for our kids. Instead, we just beat them until they ate their veggies. (Well, Gini has a way of “encouraging your cooperation” which never did involve actual physical violence. I call it her “Mother’s Common Sense Approach To Surviving To Adulthood So Do As I Say – NOW” method.)

    You definitely found the right species. Salt Marsh Water Snakes can be quite variable in appearance. I really like the belly pattern on this one! Gorgeous.

    For snakes, we usually see the herons squeeze the head in its bull to daze the critter then lay it on the ground to stab it repeatedly.

    Keen observation and wonderful photographic drama!

    1. I’m not sure even Gini’s method could have compelled Brussels sprouts down my gullet, but I was lucky enough to have a mother who knew when she was beaten, and a father whose definitions of which foods belonged to which meal were elastic. When grade-school me decided cold meat loaf and tomato soup was the perfect breakfast, Dad convinced Mom that it probably beat raisin bran on the nutrition front.

      This was one of the prettiest snakes I’ve ever seen. Of course, I don’t see many, but water snakes do predominate. The best example of ‘carry-out’ I ever saw was a raptor of some sort flying across a rural Kansas road with a very long snake dangling from its talons. Some days, we get lucky — just like the birds.

  8. Aha! Now I know I need a blue heron in my back yard … to help me get rid of those garter snakes. I know they’re “friendly”, but walking across the grass and suddenly coming upon one doesn’t bring about any friendly feelings from me!

    1. I’m not afraid of snakes, but I’m certainly cautious around them. I can identify a few of the non-venomous ones pretty easily now, but if I’m unsure of what I’m dealing with, discretion’s called for. Even down at the shore it pays to be cautious. I never would have expected rattlesnakes to live in the dunes, but so they do. I’ve yet to see one, and that’s just fine with me.

    1. I was so pleased that I managed to capture the snake’s behavior in that third photo: raising up its head to evaluate the situation. I can only imagine what a thought bubble above it might say. “Oh, &#*$” comes to mind.

  9. Wow! That’s a sight I’ve not seen. So glad you had the opportunity to both watch and capture and share it. Interesting to see the snake’s head in the grass in the third photo. Herons usually eat fish head first to make them go down easier. I guess that’s much more difficult with something as long and curly as a snake.

    1. From what I’ve read, and from the comments of some snake-knowledgeable people, I’m assuming that the heron would have done the same: getting the snake turned before dispatching it with its bill and then swallowing it head-first. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but of course YouTube is filled with videos of snake-eating birds, like this one. It was especially interesting to see the heron dip the snake into the water before swallowing it, much like a raccoon will dip food into the water. After the heron got the snake down, I laughed at it getting a couple of swallows of water to help it go down.

    1. I wished I had been closer, for better photos, but on the other hand, I was far enough away that I didn’t disturb the heron. Besides, he was more focused on the snake than on a roaming photographer.

    1. I was astonished to see the heron dealing with a snake rather than a large fish. Everything was moving so quickly I don’t know whether the snake dropped off or was shaken off, but the heron got the upper hand (beak?) again, and off it went, dangling its supper in the air. It’s the way of the world; even if the snake managed an escape, it wouldn’t be long before it was after a meal of its own.

    1. This is the familiar robin-with-worm dynamic, but on a larger scale. I thought I had a photo of a robin with a worm wrapped around its beak in just this way, and when I found it, I laughed. The similarity was obvious, if not quite so dramatic in the case of the robin.

  10. Wow – a very cool set of photos! I wonder if a heron eating a snake is the equivalent of me eating a jalapeno? They both seem like risky propositions. Ha!

    1. I’m thinking about this. I know they put hot pepper into bird seed to keep the squirrels out — it doesn’t affect the birds, but squirrels despise it. So, maybe the heron wouldn’t mind your jalapeno one bit!

  11. That’s a handsome snake, or it was. But in nature handsome doesn’t count for much except mating and thereafter it’s of no use. This was quite a bit of good fortune to witness and even better to photograph the struggle for life. Life and death for the snake and life or hunger for the heron. I witnessed the opposite once although not with a heron. I saw a toad under a bush and when I aimed my camera I noticed jaws surrounding it. With my love of amphibians I was tempted to save the toad but decided that the snake deserved a meal as much as the toad deserved to live so let nature take its course. Sadly for the toad it is a long drawn out terrifying course.
    Yeah, there’s quite a history of people not liking snakes.

    1. I’d forgotten how amusing those comics were. I read through every one, and they went well with morning coffee. When newspapers still were delivered to the house by the kid on the bike, I always went for the comics first.

      The urge to rescue can be strong. When rescue’s not possible, it’s often difficult to watch these little dramas play out. Still, eat or be eaten is baked into the system, so to speak. Besides: if every cute little fluffy duckling in the world survived, we’d be up to our hips in ducks, etc.

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