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Family has encounter with rare green snake

A smooth green snake Greenbelt Forest Preserve North Chicago. The snake is being bred Lincoln Park Zoo being released forest

A smooth green snake at the Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago. The snake is being bred at the Lincoln Park Zoo and being released at forest preserves. | Special to Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 25, 2012 1:54AM

Snakes alive.

This is the season for coming upon snakes in the outdoors sunning themselves on rocks, logs or the Lake County Forest Preserves’ crushed limestone pathways.

That’s what happened to Claire Kim, 43, of North Chicago after hauling her camera and her daughter, Bethany, 14, and her friend, Esmerelda Zamudio, 13, and their dog, Coco, to the Greenbelt Forest Preserve by way of Dugdale Road.

It was even more remarkable that the explorers came upon a rare smooth green snake that is on the Species of Special Concern watch list and has only been spotted at that North Chicago forest preserve a few times in the past.

It was Sept. 11 when Kim gathered up the girls because it was nice out and headed to the forest preserve for a walk and some nature photography. She was looking for milkweed pods that had opened and the fluffy seeds were starting to spill out.

Usually, she said she takes the pathway to the retention pond pier and not to the left, but this time she took the path less traveled. As they came around the bend, she ordered everyone to stop.

“There was a green snake in the middle of the path basking in the sun,” she said. The dog didn’t pay much attention.

“The only other snake I have ever seen is the corn snake, I never heard of it until I started researching it,” she said.

“They have this sheen to them, they’re so bright and the bottom was white and yellow. It’s so pretty,” she said. Her daughter wanted to pick it up. “She started toward it and it started to go toward the grass, but it stayed.”

“She wanted to pick it up,” said Kim, and so did she, but they instead just stood still and watched it. “When you’re just out walking and you see a snake, you don’t know if it’s going to bite,” she said of the bright green one-and-a-half-foot long snake.

“It was cool,” she declared.

Smooth green snakes are actually making a comeback in Lake County through a cooperative effort between the forest preserve and Lincoln Park Zoo, according to Gary Glowicki, wildlife biologist for the forest preserve district. This year, they released 18 snakes that had been raised at the zoo; last year they had the same amount.

They put them in areas where the snake hasn’t been found, even though there is good habitat. The snakes prefer prairie grasses and wetlands where they hunt insects and spiders. The district harvests some snakes for the breeding program and then do what is called a “soft release” where the snakes are in an enclosure so they acclimate to their surroundings.

While habitat destruction and pesticide use have taken its toll, because it is a non-aggressive and very beautiful snake, sometimes they are captured for resale, but they don’t survive well in captivity. They are only found in the northern states, while a similar snake, a rough green snake, lives in the southern states and southern Illinois.

The list of natural predators is long, including red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, raccoons, foxes and the common house cat.

“This is the time of year they like to soak up the sun,” said Glowacki. “It’s a pretty neat snake. It’s on the watch list, it’s at the cusp of being threatened or endangered,” he said, which is why they are trying to keep it from going over the brink.

He said they have used tiny transmitters to try and see where the snakes are going to gain insights into their behavior, but the tiny transmitters with tiny batteries don’t last very long. “And what we found is they really only moved a matter of feet,” he said, before the batteries die. “They really didn’t move very much.”

The snakes soon will start looking for hibernating spots, and if you are afraid of snakes, you won’t have to worry coming across them while hiking the trails. For those like Kim, enjoy them now while you can and remember to look and not touch.

“It was so cool,” she said of her experience.

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