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Red-Bellied Snake and Harris’s Sparrow


I have had a couple of interesting sightings recently. A red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) and some immature Harris’s sparrows.

I recently managed a good look at a red-bellied snake.  They are one of our smaller snakes, growing to perhaps 8-10 inches long.  This one was gray, but they can also be various shades of brown to gray.  They have a stripe down the center of the back and sides that may be rather inconspicuous as well as some pale spots on the neck.  But the conspicuous characteristic is the red belly, which can also vary a bit in color.  We have no similar species, so identification is quite easy.  

Red-bellied snakes are documented in North Dakota north and east of the Missouri River, roughly from Ransom and Sargent Counties westward to Logan and McIntosh, then northwestward to McLean, McHenry, and Bottineau Counties.  They are often observed around moist wooded areas such as along rivers, streams, and other areas where they feed mainly on earthworms, snails, slugs.  

Seeing the red-bellied snake was a treat.  Plus we have recently had some rather unusual sparrows in our yard feeding on the ground as well as in platform feeders with sunflower seeds.  After checking my bird guides, I was able to identify them as immature Harris’s sparrows (Zonotrichia querula).  

The Harris’s sparrow is a large sparrow, probably our largest.  The adults are easily identified by their pink bill and showy black bib, face, and crown. They are quite impressive.  Their breeding grounds are north in the tundra, and they winter in the southern Great Plains roughly from Nebraska southward. So they pass through North Dakota during the spring and fall migrations.  I commonly see the adults during migration, but apparently I hadn’t noticed the juveniles.       

Rather than sporting the showy black bib, face, and crown, the juveniles have a brownish face, white chin and throat, with black spots below and streaks on the sides of the breast.   Those characteristics, particularly the white throat and black spots below were very helpful in identification.

The red-bellied snakes are probably getting ready to hibernate, and the Harris’s sparrows are on heading south for the winter.  They will be out of sight soon. So as you travel about, be on the lookout for these interesting animals.

-Chuck Lura

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