S-s-s-snap! Norfolk explorer is criss-crossing Canada to photograph native snakes

Adam Shoalts photo. Norfolk County-based “professional adventurer” Adam Shoalts has immersed himself in a years-long quest to photograph Canada’s 33 native snake species in the wild.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

Globe-trotting explorer Adam Shoalts has been called “Canada’s Indiana Jones,” but there’s a key difference — Indy famously hates snakes, while Shoalts goes looking for them.

The self-described “professional adventurer” is best known for epic solo treks, like traversing nearly 4,000 kilometres of Canada’s Arctic and following birds from Lake Erie to the Arctic in a three-month canoe trip chronicled in his book “Where the Falcon Flies.”

Now the 37-year-old is on a mission to criss-cross the country and photograph Canada’s 33 native snake species in the wild.

The “Great Canadian Snake Quest” is meant to showcase animals that are often overlooked and misunderstood, Shoalts told The Spectator from his home in St. Williams, nestled in Norfolk County’s Carolinian forest.

“When we think of our iconic wildlife, it’s always beavers and moose and polar bears. Snakes sometimes get a bad rap,” Shoalts said.

“And so many of them are already threatened or endangered. They’re losing their habitat. So I thought it was timely to bring more attention to the snakes.”

The snake quest — which is sponsored by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, where Shoalts is an explorer-in-residence — came out of his 2018 expedition to Pelee Island to track down one of Canada’s rarest animals, the endangered blue racer.

Fewer than 400 of the small, speedy snakes are thought to live in the wild, and Shoalts expected a painstaking search. To his surprise, he and fellow explorer Wes Crowe paddled to Middle Island — Canada’s southernmost land mass — on the second day of their trip and spotted the elusive blue racer near a patch of poison ivy.

“Sometimes you just get lucky,” Shoalts said. “If you’re specifically looking for something, on the other hand, you’re probably more likely to find it.”

While on Pelee, Shoalts photographed several other native snake species — including the eastern fox snake, Lake Erie watersnake, and a melanistic, or all-black, garter — and thought it would be fun to find them all.

He has a head start by living in southern Ontario, where many snake species jostle for space alongside humans.

“I was just finding snakes incidentally, because I’m always out in the woods,” said Shoalts, who racked up sightings in Norfolk and Haldimand counties, by the Grand River in Paris, and on his family’s property in Niagara.

Unexpectedly coming upon a red-sided garter snake during a July 2020 solo trip through the Hudson Bay Lowlands — a wetland hundreds of kilometres outside the snake’s previously known range — was an eye-opener for Shoalts and reptile experts — or herpetologists — alike.

“My favourite thing to do in the whole world is walk in the woods,” Shoalts said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

Making it a challenge

Adam Shoalts photo. Queen snakes are among Canada’s rarest reptiles, both in number and because they live in trees and are difficult to spot.

So far, Shoalts has photographed 12 of Canada’s 33 native snakes, but he said there are “big debates” in herpetology circles about whether certain snakes are subspecies or distinct species.

He could snap a picture of a common garter snake “and be done with it,” Shoalts explained, but that would leave out a half-dozen garter subspecies — some of which are all but indistinguishable in the wild.

“I decided to do all of them,” he said. “It might as well be a challenge.”

Shoalts tracks his progress through a website — snakequest.ca — he imagined would be primarily a resource for teachers “and maybe spark a bit of excitement among students.” But he said the site has also inspired “enthusiastic responses” from his fans and people across Canada who are passionate about, and in some cases repulsed by, the slithery creatures.

Shoalts said while most people can name a garter snake, “the average Canadian has no idea we actually have dozens of species” and is “shocked” to learn there are tree-dwelling snakes in Canada that can grow as long as eight feet.

Snakes can be found across Canada’s diverse geography — they live in forests, deserts, grasslands, mountains and wetlands — and keep ecosystems healthy by snacking on rodents and invasive fish. But snake populations, like those of other reptiles and amphibians, have “declined dramatically” as their habitat is paved over for development, Shoalts said.

Thirteen native Canadian snake species are endangered and three others are threatened, while the venomous timber rattlesnake is thought to be extinct in Canada, as it has not been seen since the early 1940s.

Shoalts hopes telling visitors to his website about the threats snakes face will inspire them to take action to promote environmental conservation.

Tread lightly, look carefully

Catching garters in the woods around his childhood home in Pelham first got Shoalts interested in snakes. He was hooked for life after spending a teenage summer studying the eastern massasauga rattlesnake — Ontario’s only remaining venomous snake — for the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources.

After a few hours searching the thick woods of the Wainfleet Bog in July 2021, Shoalts found and photographed an eastern massasauga for the snake quest — being careful not to get too close.

“One of my rules is that I never actually touch a snake,” he said.

“I believe, from an ethical point of view, that wildlife shouldn’t be disturbed. So I never pick them up or do anything with them. I just take their picture from a respectful distance.”

Shoalts, who uses an ordinary camera without a zoom lens, treads lightly and quietly, looking for “any hint of movement” on the forest floor and in the trees.

Before heading out in search of a specific snake, he researches its habitat and finds trails or provincial parks where there have been reported sightings.

To photograph the endangered queen snake, he was guided to a forested creek in southern Ontario filled with crayfish — the striped reptile’s favourite food — and came upon a half-dozen snakes lounging in tree branches over the water.

Some snakes are shy and will flee after the shutter clicks, while the more curious will boldly come up to Shoalts to investigate.

Most species, including the venomous massasauga rattler, are not aggressive.

“Yeah, they’re venomous, but they’re very unlikely to actually bite you,” Shoalts said. “Pretty much unless you step on one or try to pick it up, it’s not going to do anything to you.”

Slithering west

Shoalts still has four Ontario species to photograph — including the giant black rat snake — and he plans to head to Western Canada in June, again recruiting Crowe to help spot recalcitrant reptiles like the prairie rattlesnake, bull snake and desert night snake, a nocturnal species that only lives in one tiny area of British Columbia.

“Things are definitely going to get harder,” Shoalts said.

But he has help. Since launching the website, fellow enthusiasts have sent in tips about where to find certain snakes and invited Shoalts to stay on their properties in Western Canada and the Maritimes while he searches. Closer to home, a biologist in the Windsor area has offered to show Shoalts where to find Butler’s garter snakes.

“That’s definitely a bonus of doing all this — meeting strangers who share my interest. That’s been a lot of fun,” Shoalts said.

Unlike his more high-profile treks, Shoalts has no timeline for this hobby-turned-quest and can look for snakes whenever another expedition brings him east or west.

“There’s no end point,” he said.

“This is a bucket list. Eventually, I’d like to see them all.”