|A Northern Watersnake basks in an Arlington, Virginia pond.
The Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) may well be the most misidentified snake in the East. Due to its living in close proximity to water, large size, variable coloration, ability to flatten its heads to appear triangular, and what some consider a feisty nature, many people confuse it for the venomous Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth) snake. This despite cottonmouths actually not living in the DC area, being limited to Southern Virginia at most.
|A Northern Watersnake eating an American Eel it has dragged out of the water. Not the dark bands thickest along the top of the body.
Northern Watersnakes are thick-bodied snakes, up to 55 inches in length (though most are 2-3 feet on average). They can have a wide range of color, and the tannins and mud in the water may also stain them. Most however have dark bands across their back that are wider than the light colored bands along their bodies. The dark bands narrow along their sides and thicken along the top of their backs. These bands tend to turn into blotches by the time they reach their tails. The bands also fade as they grow older, becoming difficult to see on the oldest and largest specimens. These snakes also have crescent-shaped marks along their bellies, but that is obviously not an easy thing to see.
|Note the crescent-shaped marks along the belly of this watersnake. The tail is almost completely dark underneath.
Watersnakes (all one word is the scientifically accepted way of spelling the name) are quite common, being found in every county in Virginia and almost all the DC area. They are almost always found in close proximity to water. They can swim completely submerged, which differs from many other types of snakes.
|Juvenile Northern Watersnakes are more boldly patterned than adults. Note that the dark bands are wider than the light colored ones and that they are widest at the top of the back. This youngster is swimming submerged underwater.
Northern (also called Common) Watersnakes are diurnal, being most active during the day. They feed primarily on fish and amphibians, which are swallowed alive. They will however sometimes pull their prey out of the water and eat it after it has died, particularly if it is putting up a good struggle. They're also one of the few snakes who will eat carrion. Here is a video taken during our Arlington Bioblitz of a watersnake that has wrestled an eel out of the water to eat: