My Encounter with a Nagarjuna Sagar Racer

A Picture of the Snake known as Nagarjunasagar Racer

Five years ago, I was visiting Golconda along with Vidya’s dad. We walked around and explored the place, and climbed to the top. We enjoyed the views and the breeze there before making our way down. As usual (then), I had my camera with me and shot a bunch of photographs. As we were climbing down, I spotted a snake and dashed off a few shots of it before it raced away. I thought nothing more of it, came home and backed up my photos, and went about my life.

A never-before-seen image from the set – a view of the entrance to the inner fortifications of Golconda

I accessed this set of photographs regularly over the next few years – about half a dozen of them had come out really well and went into my collection of frequently used images of Golconda. But apart from this, the rest of the images just remained backed up and not used.

A couple of days ago, I was reorganizing some of my backups, and for some reason, this collection caught my attention and I was going through all the pictures I had shot. When I got to the dozen images of the snake I had shot, I was quite amazed to see that they had come out decently well. I had been shooting with an all-purpose lens that day and did not really expect the snake images to be usable. However, as I reviewed them after a five-year gap, I could see that they were clear enough to enable positive identification. The snake itself had clear markings, and there was enough detail to attempt an identification.

My go-to field guide to identifying Indian snakes

Off I went and fetched my Snakes of India Field Guide – a beautifully produced book that also had the additional appeal of having been edited by Vidya! Now, I am fairly proficient at identifying birds, but don’t have much practice in identifying snakes. So I took some time with the book before I settled on the Coluber gracilis, or the Slender Racer, as a possible identification. But there was only one problem – its range was very narrow, and far away in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Visually, my snake looked very much like the C. gracilis. I also remember that it moved very quickly – the 12 photographs I had shot of it were within a 30-second window, within which it had paused mid-glide to turn and look at me, probably because of the sound of the camera’s shutter. So now I was fairly certain it was some type of racer or a close relative. The other racers in the book looked significantly different and did not offer any additional leads.

A Nagarjuna Sagar Racer checking me out

Now that I had enough terms to search with, I looked online, and very quickly was able to identify it as a Nagarjuna Sagar Racer (Coluber bholanathi Sharma / Platyceps bholanathi), first described in 1976 by R C Sharma, leading to the snake also being called Sharma’s Racer. As I hunted for more information about it, I was able to discover that it was a relatively rare snake with only a few records over the years. It was only in 2013 that it was definitively established as being found in Hyderabad by Seetharamaraju and Srinivasulu. It was also fascinating to note that since its first description in 1976 in Nagarjuna Hills near the present-day Nagarjunasagar dam, its range has been steadily increased by subsequent spotting. Seshachalam, Gingee, Hyderabad – all these happened within the past ten years!

The body markings are better seen in this image

Additional nerd point I cannot ignore – Platyceps is a genus within Colubridae and identifies its members as being flat (platy) headed (cep).

I realize that my spotting this snake, photographing it, and identifying it 5 years later is no big deal in the grander scheme of things. But this experience embodies the payoff in my fascination for wildlife and nature. Knowing that even within the urban sprawl of one of India’s biggest cities, spotting a rare endemic species is possible, and with present-day technology enabling its identification and looking up details of previous sightings, the payoff for being a wildlife enthusiast has never been higher.

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