Going snake hunting in Philly—and finding snails

This week in North Philly Notes, urban herper Billy Brown, author of Exploring Philadelphia Nature, recounts his adventures in the concrete jungle and how enjoying the beauty of the natural world can be full of delights and surprises.

I couldn’t find a brown snake (Storeria dekayi) right away, and it was starting to stress me out. The railroad embankment by the Northeast Water Pollution Control Plant looked perfect: waist-high mugwort and other weeds with the usual assortment of trash that gets dumped in out-of-mind corners of the city. I was planning to return later in the day with a group that had signed up for a nature-themed bike ride. My M.O. for guiding nature excursions is to capture common critters like brown snakes (small, tan, harmless snakes that eat worms and slugs) along the route ahead of time. If the participants don’t manage to find anything themselves, at least I can show them the one I found and then release it. Brown snakes are the most widespread and abundant snake in urban Philadelphia, easily found in gardens, vacant lots, cemeteries—basically anywhere you’ve got more than a couple square yards of vegetation. Everywhere, that was, except where I needed to find them that morning.

I waded through the weeds and lifted everything I could find—old boards, chunks of concrete, parts of furniture. What I was finding, instead of brown snakes, were beautiful yellow and brown snails.

I didn’t recognize them. As far as their shape, there were as basic a snail as you could imagine: a round spiral shell about as wide as a quarter, but what dazzled me was their patterns. No one was like another. Some were plain brown. Others were yellow with one or more dark stripes following the spiral of the shell all the way in.

Eventually, I did find a brown snake under part of a discarded file cabinet and tucked it into a jar for later, but I made a mental note to look up the snails.

It turns out they were grove snails (a.k.a. brown lipped snails or Cepaea nemoralis), a European species that humans have spread to North America. iNaturalist records show they are not uncommon in Philadelphia, yet, somehow I had missed them. Had I just simply not crossed paths with them before? Or, had I ignored them when they weren’t what I was looking for?

The grove snails were a hit for the cyclists and a great launching point for discussing the nature of waste spaces. Too often we ignore weedy railroad embankments as sites to connect with nature the way we might in proper parks. With a little attention, though, they can become outdoor classrooms as well as places to enjoy the beauty of the natural world.

Learning about the natural world can be stimulating in a purely intellectual or academic sense, but it can also open doors to visceral experience. You learn about a new creature, like the grove snail, and you feel something special when you find it. The world isn’t just a background to the routines of your life. It becomes a little more joyful, a little more wonderful, little by little, snail by snail.

A couple years later, I dragged my daughter along on a trip to check out some five-lined skinks that had been reported on an old stone wall in a park in Northeast Philadelphia. Although five-lined skinks are native to the area, these days they seem to only live in old, overgrown industrial sites along the Delaware River. My daughter was not thrilled to be there as her dad did something boring. I told her it would just take a minute to look for the lizards.

We didn’t find any skinks, but grove snails were everywhere. We found them in damp crevices between the stones or under rocks at the base of the wall, and each one was new and beautiful in its own way. We spent much longer than the promised minute, but I wasn’t complaining.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: