Serpents, waders and the wrath of hunters in the French countryside


Walking along the edge of a freshly mown corn field, suddenly the dogs got up and backed up a bit.

Right behind them was a snake, head and body raised, crawling through the stubble, clearly alarmed by the canine presence.

Dogs are instinctively afraid of snakes, but just to be sure, I called them and the snake disappeared.

My sight was just a glimpse, but I’m pretty sure it was an Aesculapian snake, gray green in color with a smooth head, quite large, they can be up to two meters long.

No doubt he was out in the field chasing mice and rats, and even though I searched I couldn’t find him, he probably found a rat hole to creep in and hide in. Below is an image a friend took of a mating pair.

Photo: Adrian Henderson

Aesculapian Serpents (Aesculapian Snake) are diurnal, non-venomous, rarely aggressive (although the name derives from the Greek for short-tempered, irritable) quite capable of climbing trees, preferring to hide in contact with humans.

Note the round pupil of the eye, this is usually, but not always, a sign that it is not a poisonous snake; a viper (asp viper) having a more cleft appearance, which is useful for identifying the different species of snakes that we have in France.

Read more: Body of a 1.5 meter python found on the side of a road in northwestern France

Snake population decline

A friend who, as a young man 50 years ago, collected vipers in the wild in order to send them to the Marie Curie Institute to produce anti-venom (this is no longer done, it is rather a population of snakes which is kept in captivity and regularly ‘milked’), says that snakes are much less common than they used to be.

He wonders if this is linked to the increase in raptor populations, but there are doubtless other factors involved, the danger of roads being one, habitat destruction another.

Read more: How to report a driver in France who knocked over a snake?

The best time to see the snakes is in the morning, as they need to bask on hot rocks in the sun to thermoregulate themselves, in order to become active and help them digest the prey they have swallowed.

A symbol of healing

Historically, Aesculapian serpents are associated with the classical god of healing (Greek Asclepius and later Roman Aesculapius) and are symbolically depicted entwined around his staff to signify healing and medicine.

Why this seems obscure, however, it is known that the species was encouraged near temples dedicated to the gods; being non-venomous, there was no danger to worshipers or the sick who gathered there.

Meeting with the lizard

As I sat quietly watching to see if there was an eaglet in a golden eagle nest I was visiting, I was happy to see a lizard crawling up my leg.

It’s a wall lizard (wall lizard), just using me as a perch for a while.

Wall lizard on my knee; Photo: Jonathan Kemp

The end of another breeding season

As the breeding season draws to a close, the songs and cries that greet me every morning on waking become less urgent, more casual.

We were thrilled this year with Golden Orioles (golden oriole) nesting very close to the mill, and their pretty fluted whistle continued long into the summer.

Golden Oriole; Photo: Claude Ruchet

A hard-to-see bird, even the brilliantly colored yellow males hide all too well among the sun-dappled leaves on the tops of the trees where they prefer to roost.

Soon they will return to tropical Africa where they will spend the winter.

A stilt walker’s paradise

At the border of the departments of Aude and Hérault is the best wetland for several kilometers around.

A vast low basin of interlocking lagoons, divided by reedbeds, a few dirt roads crossing it, small villages around the circumference; it is a paradise for wading birds.

The aptly named Black-winged Stilt, prancing on its absurd bright red “stilts”; Photo: Jonathan Kemp

The water level drops slowly throughout the summer, exposing more mudflats before they dry out. Becoming shallower, they give compensatory access to the shorter legs and beaks of some of the species that choose to nest there.

Undoubtedly, in very dry years, when the young have been raised to independence, the number of birds will dwindle to match the limited food supply that remains, the rest will fly off in search less populated habitats for feeding.

The exotic glossy ibis (Ibis falcinelle), looking more like an African lake bird than a European one; note dark velvety luster of adult summer plumage, right; Photo Jonathan Kemp

Humans also mark their territory

About 20 years ago, a friend who lives nearby contacted me and a few others to report a rare raptor hunting on the wetland at the time, rarely seen in France, a black-winged kite (white kite).

We drove down and got a good view of this hobby-sized raptor as it hovered in search of the insects and lizards that are its main prey.

As I was driving, I discovered that I had a slow puncture; arriving home an hour later, it was clear that all four tires were slowly deflating; they had been pricked with a needle and in fact they all had to be changed.

I had learned the hard way that this wonderful wetland was controlled by a hunting association (Syndicat de Chasse) who had no intention of sharing the area with anyone else, and would go to such dangerous lengths to maintain exclusive control.

As a result, it is little visited outside of hunting season and only the most intrepid birdwatchers visit, being careful not to endanger any vehicles.

I was advised by the LPO that it was best to stay away, hostility was so entrenched that there was a danger of non-game species being shot to discourage visitors.

But there are signs that things have improved over the past two decades.

Hope for the future

I happened to be nearby recently, so I had lunch and drove to a suitable spot near the lagoons.

The birds were amazing, not shy of me, which they would be if the hunt was still fierce, there was a group of kids picnicking nearby, and there was a group of walkers walking along one of the tracks in the distance.

So fingers crossed the next generation of birdwatchers will be allowed to share the wealth with those who wish to exploit it for sport.

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