~ Written by Kenny Rueland, Gabriel Evans-Cook, and Delaney Griffiths

The blue racer is Ontario’s fastest snake and the province’s second largest snake. Unfortunately, they are also endangered. As blue racer researchers for WPC, it is our job to observe, monitor, and protect this remarkable species as we estimate the size of their Canadian population. Being a part of the research team is incredibly rewarding, but can nevertheless be a challenging job.

During surveys on Pelee Island, ON, we found this adult blue racer basking. Photo: Gabriel Evans-Cook

We start our day early by checking the weather. The weather on Pelee Island can be unpredictable and deciding whether or not to survey is often determined the same morning of our potential outing. Blue racers don’t enjoy the rain, so we’re typically only out when the sun is shining. After breakfast on a good weather day, we prepare ourselves for the field. Field work on Pelee Island is challenging, as the island is infamous for its plentiful amounts of poison ivy, thorn-bearing plants and chiggers (a tiny mite with an intensely irritating bite). We try our best to dress appropriately to address these challenges with long pants and shirts, but this can make it difficult not to overheat on Canada’s most southern island!

Our surveys start by recording environmental data, such as cloud cover, wind direction, and temperature. We then set off to find the snakes, in areas that are favourable for blue racers. While we survey we will also record any other snakes we come across, which include eastern foxsnakes, Lake Erie watersnakes, eastern gartersnakes, and Dekay’s brownsnakes.

Blue racers are hard to spot and even more difficult to catch! As their name implies, blue racers can move extremely quickly. Our teams are typically composed of two researchers who walk relatively close to one another. This close proximity is essential because when a snake is spotted the researcher will yell out “RACER!” and a coordinated chase begins! Blue racers are very intelligent snakes and can sometimes see the researchers before the researchers see the snake. Many blue racers are first detected by the sound of them already moving away through the grass and unfortunately losing blue racers amongst dense brush or down holes is not uncommon.

An adult blue racer basking on Pelee Island, ON. Photo: Gabriel Evans-Cook

It is also not uncommon for us to get tricked by adult gartersnakes, which are often of the melanistic (black) phase on Pelee Island. Sometimes we can only see serpentine movement in thick grass and it is not unheard of for a team member to mistakenly catch a gartersnake, but hey it’s better to be safe than sorry.

When a blue racer is captured, we process them on site. Our processing includes taking the measurements and weight of the snake, and taking note of any scars or unique features the individual possesses. They also receive a PIT-tag (micro-chip) so that they can be identified with a unique code if they’re ever recaptured on a different survey. The number of unique snakes captured during each survey is important information that is used to estimate the total number of individuals in the population. Once all the data has been collected the snake is released in the same spot it was first found and quickly disappears from sight.

During surveys on Pelee Island, we found this neonate (baby) blue racer basking. Photo: Gabriel Evans-Cook

Some surveys can produce a large quantity of snake observations and some surveys produce no snake observations at all. Regardless of the day’s success rate we survey only for the allotted time period and then return to our base of operations. As we wash off the poison ivy and pull out the thorns we collected in the field, we consistently regale each other with both the exhilarating and disappointing moments from each of our surveys. The team is always happy to celebrate difficult blue racer catches and provide words of encouragement when necessary. Exhausted from all the running around, we sleep deeply and start the cycle all over again in the morning.

The fall blue racer researcher team from University of Toronto, Scales Nature Park, and Wildlife Preservation Canada. From left to right: Delaney Griffiths, Kenny Ruelland, Meg Britt, Taylor Kennedy, Ryan Wolfe, and Gabriel Evans-Cook.