Eddie Tate was not sure what he was seeing until he looked at it through the telephoto lens of his camera and realized "it was a fight for life."
Three colorful snakes were rolling together on the ground. Apparently, what had started as the creation of life - the mating of two of them - shifted into something even more basic, the preying upon a smaller species.
Tate had gone out early about 10 days ago for his typical weekend visit to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township to take some scenic photos, a hobby he has pursued for about 18 months. During the week, he works for the First Tee, a Somers Point nonprofit youth outreach program based on golf, he said.
On his way back to his home off Wrangleboro Road in Galloway Town-ship, he stopped by a lake in Port Republic to take a few more shots.
A small black snake moving quickly caught his eye but disappeared after just two photos. Then he noticed the entwined snakes about 20 feet away.
The red-patterned snake about 3 feet long had its head raised, and in its mouth, head first, was a 2-foot, greenish snake. Woven with them the whole time was a smaller example of the red-patterned snake.
"You could see the big snake's mouth moving and pulling the green snake more into its stomach with every movement as they fought and rolled around," Tate said.
"At one point about halfway through, the green snake broke free," he said, and he wondered if it might escape. "You can never tell, because even though it was so small compared to the other, it put up a huge fight."
Size and strength prevailed, however, as "the big one jumped on it again and started the whole swallowing process over again." In about 20 minutes, only a couple of inches of the green snake's tail hung from the big snake's mouth, and it was over.
Identifying wildlife from a photo is difficult, especially for snakes whose coloring and patterns vary greatly, but the red snakes probably were a red subspecies of the corn snake, Elaphe guttata guttata.
Corn snakes are endangered in the state, largely because southern New Jersey is the northernmost part of their range and they are illegally collected for their beautiful coloring and mild temperament.
A relative of the rat snake, the corn snake is mainly nocturnal and usually eats mice, rats or birds. The snake may have gotten its name by frequenting corn bins where rodent prey could be found, but the resemblance of belly markings to corn kernals is now thought to be the reason American Indians gave them the name.
Another possibility for the two red snakes is that they were coastal plains milk snakes (which interbreed with the scarlet kingsnake) or Eastern milk snakes. These species more commonly eat other snakes, as well as rodents and lizards. Their name comes from an absurd belief at one time that they drank milk from cows.
The victim was probably a rough green snake, which is common in the Pinelands. They feed almost exclusively on insects and spiders.
Tate said he wanted to get closer to the snake action but settled for viewing through the long lens.
"This is part of nature, and I didn't want to interfere," he said. "They were fighting for suvival of the fittest, and I had to respect that."
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