Thom Smith, NatureWatch columnist.


A common garter snake seen by a NatureWatch reader in Dalton.


Q: This garden snake [in the photo accompanying this article] was in my yard a couple of weeks ago. I think it has to be an eastern garden snake, but it is much bigger than any I’ve ever seen. (About 3 1/2 to 4 feet long) Could it be something else? It was fighting with a crow over a dead baby bird when I took this.

— Pat, Dalton

A: This is indeed a common garter snake, not garden snake. I have caught a number in my early days and have caught five- and six-foot garters way back. Once, I had a female that had had 35 live babies, a small number for some that have 70 or 80. It was about to give birth, and I only thought it was overweight. In early August, I managed the live animal collection at The Berkshire Museum. I released the young in the same location the female was captured and hoped them well. Mother lasted for several years. Their lifespan is around eight years or, with luck, a bit longer. Often, I would find young hiding under tossed pieces of planks and boards.

Fighting a crow for a baby bird that it probably captured  from its nest was a great photograph to catch. In the 1960s, it was easy to find these lovely reptiles. Today, they have become less common. They were one of the easiest to tame. In the beginning, one might bite or exude a foul-smelling fluid that will often cause their immediate release. Others won’t.

Q: We saw the article in The Berkshire Eagle about melanistic black squirrels. We were wondering what the animals were that we saw. We saw four. The photo in your article looks like what we saw — although I think the tail was flatter. We were in the water, at Otis Reservoir, and we could not take a photo. They came out from an opening in the rocks on the edge of the reservoir, one at a time, until all four were looking at us. They ran along the rocks on the edge of the water. I believe I saw them in the trees the day before. Would this pattern of activity fit these squirrels?

— Regina C., Tolland

A: You very well may have seen several different species. I never saw gray squirrels near water. Nor have I seen flying squirrels near water. Gray squirrels enjoy neighborhoods, parks and more open woods. Flying squirrels prefer hardwood forests like red maple, oak, beech birch, aspen and similar species, but often near water. So they are occasionally near water, though not in. They are not aquatic, and if one falls into water, it swims poorly. The (southern) flying squirrel, our predominant species, are more likely to be seen during nighttime, though if disturbed may be encountered anytime, while gray squirrels are diurnal. My suspicion was you saw young muskrats among the rocks. And the day before was something else. I will welcome other suggestions.

Q: We have one, or it could be more, skunks that we see most evenings at dusk wandering through our large back yard, and only once did we smell it, blaming a neighbor’s dog living a few houses up the road. I don’t think either enjoyed it. The whole neighborhood didn’t. Anyway, my question is, what do they eat? I don’t see them in the vegetable garden like the cottontails.

— Richard, Hinsdale

A: Skunks are opportunists! And contrary to your thoughts about vegetables, they do eat some plants, but their favorite foods — in no special order — are insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, grubs and earthworms during the summer, but that is not all. They also go for snails, grains, nuts, sweet corn, bird eggs, leaves, grasses, wild berries, frogs, turtle eggs and especially carrion and garbage. They are often the cause of digging shallow holes in lawns after grubs.

They are not sociable, so you rarely see more than one at a time. (Unless you happen upon a young family.)


Want to help the monarch butterflies? Plant milkweed to give them a place to lay and hide their eggs

Leslie G., of Williamstown, writes: "I enjoy you column, and reading about milkweed for monarchs was great. I disagree about planting Lantana. This plant can be poisonous to small animals and even babies and toddlers. It is also not native (nor is cosmos)."

Robert S., of Readsboro, Vt., reported: "We saw our first monarch butterfly today, on July 7. 

Judith E., of Florida, writes, "Saw my first monarch butterfly while walking my dogs on Blackstone Road in Florida yesterday (July 3). Happily, several bumblebees as well."

Maureen, of Pittsfield, wrote, "You wrote about the tree frogs a couple of months ago. They were ear-deafening around our neighborhood in north Pittsfield until they quieted about [July 6 or 8] and now they are totally quieted down. The spring peepers quieted much earlier as usual. I wish we lived near water to hear other frogs."

Email Thom Smith at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.