Snake gets puffed up during an encounter

We were walking on the edge of a Tattnall County cornfield in South Georgia the other day when we spotted a grayish snake with dark blotches meandering across the dusty ground.

We walked quickly toward it to get a closer look. We halted abruptly in our tracks, though, when the 3-foot long creature coiled up, puffed out its neck like a dangerous cobra and started hissing.

Our fright, however, quickly subsided. We knew immediately that it was a harmless Eastern hognose snake, so named because of its blunt, upturned snout. Its tendency to puff up when confronted also gives it the name “puff adder.”

Its behavior was an elaborate fake to ward off perceived predators. We gently touched it with a stick, and it even made a few lunges at us. Hognose snakes, though, virtually never bite.

Then, the snake, as is its habit when feeling threatened, performed another impressive bluff. It twisted and turned, rolled over on its back, opened its mouth wide, hung out its tongue, and played dead. It even emitted a faint odor of decay.

When we tried to gently roll it back on its stomach, it immediately flopped over again and resumed its dead-snake ruse.

After a couple of minutes, we left it alone. We knew that, soon after we left, the snake probably would cautiously look around to see if the perceived danger had passed, and then crawl away.

It was only my third or fourth encounter with an Eastern hognose snake, even though it is common and found throughout Georgia in open woodlands, fields and farmland with sandy soil. (The Eastern hognose is not to be confused with its rarer, smaller cousin, the Southern hognose snake, whose declining numbers are of great concern.)

This is a prime time of year for hognose snakes and most of Georgia’s other 40 snake species. Most snake babies are born between late summer and early fall. Across the state, snake species actually reach their highest individual numbers in August and September because of the appearance of new babies, said herpetologist Whit Gibbons of the University of Georgia.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be last-quarter Saturday night, rising around midnight. Mercury is low in the west at dusk. Brightly shining Venus is low in the east just before sunrise. Mars rises out of the east an hour before sunrise. Saturn is in the southwest at dusk and sets just before midnight.