Here in south Arkansas we are blessed with an abundance of public land to explore and recreate on. Some of these areas, such as Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, contain large areas of bottomland hardwood forest that stay wet most of the time. This provides excellent habitat for herpetofauna (snakes and amphibians), who can be seen and heard throughout most of the year in these areas.
One of the most commonly observed (and misunderstood) snakes in this area is the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous leucostoma). These snakes are indeed venomous, but like most wild animals, prefer to be left alone to carry out their daily duties. Reports of cottonmouth chasing humans to kill them abound, and most folks kill cottonmouth upon sighting. Many times non-venomous water snakes are mistaken for cottonmouth, and killed in the name of human protection. Just yesterday I saw a young specimen attempting to cross a road who fled when I attempted to lie prone and photograph him. Vicious indeed!!
Most folks associate this snake with water-and rightfully so. They thrive in areas of slow-moving water, and are often encountered while boating or fishing, leading to this association. While this is generally accurate, they are also regularly observed in upland areas that border their more common aquatic habitats. I spend a good bit of time traveling gravel roads while working, and often encounter specimens basking in roads or attempting to cross them.
Oddly enough, they are becoming one of my favorite snakes to study and photograph. Loathed by many, I find them to be fascinating to observe (as with many other things in nature!), and generally experience a bit of a mutual respect when I encounter them. If they allow, I photograph them for a few minutes, then let them get on their way. I only wish they enjoyed their encounter with me as much I enjoy each encounter with them….