“It’s the stuff dreams are made of”
My first awareness of the San Francisco Garter Snake came in the early seventies, when I came across a first edition of Stebbins’ western field guide. Like many herpers, I’ve been thinking about that snake ever since my first glimpse. To my midwestern teenage self, San Francisco was as far away as the moon, and who names a snake after a city, anyway? The Maltese Falcon was set in Frisco, and I’ve always loved the ‘stuff’ quote uttered by Spade at the film’s conclusion. The gaudy garter from the same burg was my dream, and many times I wondered if I would ever get to see one.
In the mid-1990s I had the opportunity to spend a day looking for Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia, at a certain marsh where they were still known to occur (much of their habitat has been swallowed up by citification). It was cloudy, cool, and windy, and try as I might, I saw no snakes that day. Well, at least I took a shot at it, I thought to myself then, and many times over the years.
I wasn’t giving up. Over the years I would propose, to anyone who would listen, a herp trip that would attempt to scoop up every garter snake along the west coast. Tim Warfel, having similar crazy herp dreams, listened and agreed, and so we kicked off ThamnoPalooza in May of 2013. The more modest goal of our ten day adventure: find every species and subspecies of garter snake in central California (we did, but that’s another blog post). One day was spent looking for tetrataenia, and our first spot was the very place where I had struck out two decades earlier. The weather was better, and we did find some snakes, including a nice Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris), but not THE snake. Strike two, but I swore I was not going to start telling myself ‘well, at least you took a couple shots at it’.
Our luck changed at another place a bit further down the coast. Let me set up a minds-eye diorama that starts at our feet: a dusty path, then a thin margin of scrubby grass and weeds, followed by a brambly hedge, perhaps four feet high and full of poison oak. Beyond that, a thicket of reeds and cattails, and then a freshwater pond. In the scrubby grass and brambly hedge we observed several San Francisco Garter Snakes. Finding one tetrataenia would have been enough, finding several was incredible, but watching one forage for many minutes was just stellar. It was a young and slender male, perhaps two feet in length, and it glided up and down about a thirty foot section of the hedge, poking around for something to eat. The snake would sometimes slither into the greenery and disappear, only to pop back out several feet away. Each time it emerged, it would raise six inches of head and neck like a periscope, surveying its surroundings before exposing more of itself. Sometimes it would climb up into the hedge, and other times it would come out into the scrubby grass, always periscoping first, always making sure the coast was clear. The snake did not seem to be overly perturbed by our presence, but none of us moved in very close – I was happy to remain just a few feet away and observe.
For Sam Spade, and for Caspar Gutman and Joel Cairo and all the other ne’er-do-wells chasing it, the Maltese Falcon was the stuff dreams were made of, and never quite attained.* My dream came true, and was writ large to boot. I not only got to see Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia, I got to watch one being its garter-snakey self, which really wasn’t much different from the midwestern garters and ribbons I have observed. Except for the drop-dead-gorgeous part.
The San Francisco Garter Snake is much reduced these days, but it may have enough protected places in which to hang on, although climate change and extended drought could have the final say. I wish it well; may it outlast all of us, and may you see it for yourself someday.
*A bit of a spoiler, but if you haven’t seen the Maltese Falcon yet, well, what were you waiting for?