Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Sniffing The Dasies

Photographing snakes is easy, right? Wrong!

You can never predict where they will emerge and this can sometimes create some tricky situations.
I heard this female grass snake before I saw her and just managed to get my camera on her in time, before she slithered off. She didn't go far though and I did manage to photograph her again, later on.
If you startle a grass snake they will sometimes rear up, a bit like a cobra, to try and intimidate the threat. If you have a 120cm snake, they can lift around 30cm of their body off the ground and if you are lying down, as I usually am, it "can" be intimidating!
I have some pics of the grass snake rearing up and will post them soon.

The sun was behind this female and with the daisy in the frame it made a nice back lit image.


Ambush Predator!

You can sometimes find snakes around log piles while walking in the forest. Their prey will use the logs and bark as protection, but where there is prey, the predator is not far away!
You can commonly see lizards basking on top of the logs, but out of sight, under the logs are newts, frogs and toads, all of which are prey species to our snakes.

The female in the photograph below has obviously already been successful in finding one the the named above as she has a full belly.
A snakes skin is elasticated and will stretch to take a hefty meal on board. You can see by this females scales that her skin has stretched considerably, meaning she is probably digesting a small frog or toad!

When I found her all I could see was a small area of body scales, so I got the camera ready and crept forward. She sensed (or probably) saw me, then poked her head out and told me to hiss off!
I took a few pics and left her to fully digest her meal in peace. This is probably where she caught her snack.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Basking Melanistic Adder

Here we have a melanistic adder, probably a male. Melanism is a condition, which means the animal has an increased amount of black pigment throughout their body. This can be slight, or in some cases it can be so severe that the whole body is completely black.
You will notice that he is resting his chin on his mid-body section and that this part of his body looks flat.
The reason for this is the fact that a snake can flatten their body to create a larger surface area. The bigger the surface area means more sun penetration and heat can be absorbed.
Its tough work getting close to a shy and elusive creature like the adder, but stealth, understanding and patience is the key to getting close without disturbing them.
This photograph was taken with a 100mm macro lens and I was probably no more than 12 inches away, but even though he could see me, he was fine as I was making no sudden movements and was at his level.

Why do I feel the need to get so close? That's simple, I love these creatures and when I see certain TV presenters tailing these beautiful reptiles, swinging them around (whilst trying not to be bitten), it makes me mad.
I could pick up every snake in my photographs if I wanted to, but for what purpose? I have no idea why these presenters feel the need to man handle the snakes they find, maybe the producers think it makes better TV?
I have hours of video, where our snakes are in their natural habitat (acting normal). Some of this footage can be slightly boring, I admit it as a basking snake is not very entertaining, but if these presenters were swung around by their legs for about 10 minuets, I'm pretty sure they would be very upset and want to punch the person doing it.
Snakes don't have hands to defend themselves, they have fangs and 9 times out of 10, all snake bites are preventable.


Basking Grass Snake

This is a photograph of a basking female grass snake. If you don't know what to look for you would have walked right past her. She has tucked herself behind a rock for extra camouflage and also for a bit of extra protection.
Sometimes snakes will stretch out to bask, this is when they are cold and need to warm up quickly. Once they have warmed up, they will then coil to regulate how much heat they need to absorb. I will address this later.
You will notice that her eye is slightly blue and clouded. This is also something I will address at a later date.

She was approx 120cm in length and quite bulky. A mature snake and grass snakes of this size and bigger are seldom seen.


Monday, 22 November 2010


The snake has always been persecuted and probably always will be. The problem comes from a lack of education, scaremongering and from the way they have been portrayed on TV and in the press.
It goes right back to the beginning of time and the serpent is seen as evil in many countries, but also worshiped in others.

Why do people have a fear of these creatures? If a young child with no understanding of the dangers of venomous creatures saw a snake, would they run away, or try and pick it up?

For many years, people have been telling their children that snakes are dangerous. This is correct as some can kill a human being in minuets, but surely we should be educating our children to respect the snake, not fear it.

The UK has one venomous snake, the adder and although this snake is venomous, its venom will only prove fatal if the victim suffers a severe allergic reaction, which is not treated.
The same allergic reaction can be caused from a bee sting, so in reality the adder is about as harmless as a bee.

The snake below is a male adder. I found him near one of my adder hot-spots and he was probably basking on the path when someone came along and decided he had to die!
Probably beaten to death with a stick, he would have suffered a great deal of pain and died a slow death.
The person who killed this snake, did so out of ignorance, as when they saw him the kill instinct kicked in and the snake didn't stand a chance.
They probably thought they had done a good deed, by removing a pest from our forest, but in fact they removed a protected species, which is in decline.

Education is the key to conservation.


Sunday, 21 November 2010

I've Got My Eye On You!

Even though I feel completely safe and in no danger when photographing the adder today, I also understand that I would be foolish to become complacent.
In the early days I did just that and was bitten by a mature female. Looking back at that incident now, I feel like an idiot for being too gung-ho and it must have been quite stressful for the snake involved!
Sometimes a snake will give a dry bite where they hold back the venom. This is just a warning bite as they have seen the target as non threatening to their life and want them to leave.
Failure to do this will invite an envenomation and as it takes a huge amount of the snakes energy to produce venom, which it will later rely on for catching a meal, this is not a good scenario for "all" involved!
It was an envenomation when I was bitten, purely because she was in the open and I was in her face. I have learnt a lot over the years and "respect" for this creature is on top of my list.

The adder in the photograph below is a young female and she decided to take a close look at me while I was photographing her older brothers and sisters.
Once again I was on my belly, using a beanbag as a support, but sometimes you have to move away from the support and hand hold if a snake is out of shot.
I had moved away from the support of the beanbag and was photographing an adult male. I was probably away from the beanbag for only 2 - 3 minuets, but I have learnt that when you are in the snakes garden, be careful where you tread and always check the area before you move.

I slowly looked back towards the beanbag and this is when I saw her head resting on top of it! As quick as a flash I took this photograph and she then moved away.

I guess I have been lucky that I have not been bitten more often, but having the utmost respect for these magnificent reptiles has helped me learn a lot about them and I will keep learning for the rest of my life.


Friday, 19 November 2010

Photo Comp - Winner!

I am very excited and chuffed to bits to have won the Wildlife Portraits Category with my female adder portrait - with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.
The pic entered is the one I am using as a header for this blog, as it is one of my favourite photographs and one of my best encounters to date.
Wildlife conservation comes in many forms and one of the best is education. I love our snakes, not just because they are one of the most efficient creatures on our planet, but also because they are gravely misunderstood and this has led to them being persecuted by many, over thousands of years.

Competition Winners

I was surveying one of my local areas for the adder back in 2007 when I saw this female making her way through a gorse bush. I watched her for a while to try and determine her path and then positioned myself where I thought she would pop out!
There were other adders in the vicinity, so I had to be careful while sitting down in the gorse bush (quite painful!)
At this point I could not see her, so I had to just sit there patiently waiting and hoping that she was coming my way.
Then I saw some movement, so I quickly, but calmly raised my camera to my eye and waited. She came through the gorse bush directly in front of me and this is when I took this shot.
She saw me almost immediately and hissed, but as I was low to the ground and very still, she stayed put. This gave me the opportunity to photograph her moving around in the gorse.

After she left, I was excited as I knew I had managed to get some good photographs of her, but at the same time I was disappointed as I knew opportunities like this are very hard to come by and it may be years before the next one arises.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Adders Mating!

As mentioned previously, I spend a lot of up close and personal time with our snakes, including the adder. Saying this, there are times when they need their space and during the mating season, I stay well back and respect the fact that they are very sensitive and secretive creatures.
While they are mating I photograph them from a distance that doesn't disturb them. The only draw back to this is that there is usually grass and reed in between them and my camera, so this inevitably ends up in the shot!

Here we have two mating adders. You can easily tell the female from the male due to her size and brown colour. She is also the same snake, which is featured in the grass snake pic below.

Female adders, like the female grass snakes grow much larger than the males and I have found some truly magnificent specimens while surveying the Forest of Dean for them.
The largest female adder I have found and photographed was approx 80cm and was very bulky, she was tucked under a small tree with gorse all around to shelter and protect her. Very beautiful snake and I will post her portrait soon.


Saturday, 13 November 2010

Grass Snake - Reproduction

Grass snakes mate in the spring, usually around April and unlike the adders, which give birth to live young, they lay eggs.
The female lays the eggs around June/July and they hatch in September as the fully developed young cut their way out of the eggs by using a specially developed egg tooth. This tooth is on the top of their mouth, but is lost soon after hatching.
The mature female finds a suitable place to lay her eggs, usually in a compost heap where she can be sure that they will be protected from the elements, predators and with a temperature ranging between 21 & 28 oC.

Grass snake eggs. You can see where the young snakes have cut their way through the egg, using their egg tooth.


Friday, 12 November 2010

Identification Part 2

Here we have two mating grass snakes and a female adder, all in the same shot. You can now see the difference between the two with the female adder standing out from the grass snakes with her zig-zag pattern and ginger brown colour.
I never disturb them and I photographed these snakes from quite a distance, hence the distracting reeds in front of them, but I would rather have a messy shot, than know I had disturbed them. Especially when they are mating!


Adder & Grass Snake Identification

Here are the sloughed skins of a female adder and a grass snake. I can tell the difference between these snakes within a millisecond, but for all the people that are unsure, these pointers will help you id a snake if you are lucky enough to see one in the wild.

Grass snake:
Dark green / olive colour with dark dotted scales running down the body.

Yellow collar around the back of the head. Vibrant in younger snakes, duller in older ones.

Orange eye with a round pupil.

No V on back of head, like the adder.

Females are brown, with a darker brown zig-zag pattern running the entire length of the body. Whereas the male adder is grey with a dark, almost black zig-zag.

Red eye with a vertical pupil.

Has a V on back of the head.

I will post a photograph soon of the adder and grass snake together.


3 is a Crowd!

This is a very old photograph of two male adders that I photographed at one of my adder hot spots. Digital cameras were not on the market back then, so I was using a Canon EOS 50e and as I could not afford a macro lens, I compromised!
Using a 400mm lens with 3 extension tubes gave me the means of being able to focus at close range.
The only draw back was that I had to manually focus and it severely reduced my shutter speed. On top of this I was lying on my belly in brambles, which meant a tripod was not suitable for these conditions. Hand holding a 400mm lens, manually focusing with a slow shutter speed = hard work, especially when inches away from two adders! But it paid off and this was the result.

As soon as our snakes emerge from hibernation, they usually head to an area where there is a good food source and good basking spots. If you are lucky enough to find one of these areas, you can see the same snakes and new arrivals there year after year, as long as they are not disturbed.
I can usually identify old snakes and it is good to see them every year.


Thursday, 11 November 2010

How it all Began!

I was 8 years old when I saw my first snake in the Forest of Dean. I was out walking in the forest with my parents one day and was approx 15 - 20 feet in front of them when I saw it.
It was stretched out from the verge, basking on the Forestry Commission path and looked enormous! I was young, so this made it look big to me, but I didn't care, I just stood there staring at it!
My mum and dad walked up and my dad said "that's an adder, don't get any closer!"
We stood there and watched as it slowly made its way back into the grass verge and I can remember it like it was yesterday. I now know that we were watching a female adder because of her colour, females are brown and males are black and grey.
It was at that precise moment when my fascination with snakes started. Every time I went out, I would be looking for snakes, nothing else.

I was a teenager when I saw my next snake, a male adder curled around some exposed tree roots. Again my dad helped me find this snake and I still monitor and survey this area for adders and grass snakes today.

You have to learn how to behave around wildlife and snakes are no different. You must treat them with the utmost respect at all times and if you are disturbing them, you must walk away.
When I photograph snakes I am usually between 6 inches and 3 feet away from them, as this is required to capture the detail. They are not restrained in any way and if they felt threatened they would disappear in a flash!
My technique has taken me a long time to perfect so that I don't disturb them. I read their body language and I have even had a male adder lick the front of my camera, another rest his chin on my trainer and another one even pursued me as I was filming him.
This was not aggression, he was just inquisitive. The trick is to get as low to the ground as possible, this way you are not casting a shadow and look less intimidating.

I thank my mum and dad for giving me the guidance to be able to care for and photograph our wildlife, including our wild snakes.

Female Adder - Early 1990's


Mature Female Grass Snake

This is a mature female grass snake (Natrix natrix), she was approx 120cm, or 4' long and quite bulky.
Grass snakes are non-venomous, but they do have a very unique way of defending themselves.
If threatened or attacked, the grass snake will roll over on its back and feign death. It will gape its mouth and the tongue will hang out. If this fails they will then squirt a liquid from their anal gland, which comprises of partly digested food and anal secretions!
I have been unfortunate to have smelt this in the past and it is one smell I never want to smell again!

It is quite difficult to sex these snakes as they have no colour variations like the adder, but as the females grow considerably larger than the males, this is one way.
The other more complicated way of telling males from females is to count the
sub-caudal scales, males have 68-72 and females have 52-56.
Of course you have to get close enough to do this and as the grass snake is "very" shy and elusive, it can prove very difficult!


Basking Female Adder

A female adder (vipera berus) basking during March 2010. She had not long emerged from hibernation and was a little sluggish as it was still pretty cold.
The adder is Britain's only venomous snake, but their venom is not that potent. However, if you are bitten you should treat it as an emergency, as an allergic reaction to the venom can cause anaphylactic shock. If this goes untreated it can prove fatal.
Young children and old people are more vulnerable to the adders venom. And don't forget dogs - If your dog is bitten, get it to the vet asap!
The adder will only release venom if hunting for food, or if it feels its life is in danger. They sometimes give a warning bite and this is called a dry bite, where they bite, but don't release venom.
It takes a lot of the snakes energy to produce venom, venom that they rely on for catching their prey.


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Juvenile Female Adder

My first post has to be of one of my favourite adder photographs!

I photographed this juvenile female adder in 2010. She was tucked under a small leaf and was quite hard to spot as she blended in with her habitat remarkably well.
Judging by her size (not much bigger than a two pound coin), she is probably one year old.

Photographed using a Canon eos 7d and Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens.