Yesterday some friends and I saw a shocking sight that I will not soon
forget. I was hiking and birding at the Great Sand Dunes with some friends
when we spotted bird activity at eye level in an aspen tree on the side of
the trail 15 feet ahead. Flitting around the tree was a pair of alarmed
Dusky Flycatchers. Soon, we spotted a small nest in the tree, about 4 feet
up, with something odd sticking out of the nest. My friend said “It’s a
snake!” Sure enough there was a 14 inch Western Garter Snake coiled around
the nest and in its mouth was one of the three nestlings! What a shocking
sight to see! It was quite disturbing to watch but then again, this goes on
all the time in nature, and is rarely witnessed. We had to swallow hard,
and watch the drama unfold. The snake stayed on the nest for a good 20
minutes and continued to grapple with the nestling which was long since
deceased. The bird seemed so much bigger than this small snake could
handle. We left the scene after watching this disturbing yet amazing event
and headed up the Mosca Pass Trail.
Upon our return 45 minutes later, we saw the snake at the base of the tree
with the bird nearly devoured. We left the scene under the mixed emotions
of grief, sadness and amazement all chaotically working inside us as we
strolled down the trail to the vehicle.
The event sparked a number of questions. First, I never knew Western
Garter Snakes could climb a tree so well and skillfully. I had always
pictured them as ground-hunting predators, slinking through the grasses and
brush. To see one in a tree definitely shattered my long-held belief.
Secondly, how did the snake know there was food in that direction? Was it a
keen sense of smell? Or was it the sound of chirping babies on the nest? I
am not exactly sure.
Thirdly, the snake was not large, being about 14 inches in length…not big
as garter snakes go. But this snake successfully devoured the chick which
was the size of a ping pong ball! It did take considerable time for the act
to be completed, but I never knew snakes had such an extreme ability to
accomplish such a feat.