Grass Snakes Galore

May 09, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Like a box of chocolates, this time of year offers a bit of everything when it comes to wildlife. Spring migration has really kicked in with new birds arriving all over the place including Wheatears, Cuckoos, Swallows, Warblers and most recently Hobbies. Add to these the first butterflies of the year which have been on the wing for a few weeks along with the first dragonflies emerging and it really is a case of too much choice!

As a wannabe wildlife photographer, and an indecisive one at that, I've found myself spending most of the time wondering just where to go and what to focus on. During the winter months I opted for a project approach, which worked really well. Over recent months I've been doing a fair bit of macro work, in particular focusing on a local population of Grass Snakes (latin name 'Natrix natrix).  I'm a huge admirer of snakes, having got a Corn Snake as a pet some 20 years ago. Believe it or not, the scaled superstar is still going strong today! Back to the wild variety though, after finding a freshly emerged individual at a site a while back I've put down some additional refugia (felt and tin sheeting) at that location and have been monitoring it a few times a week. I have now found a minimum of 7 different individuals during the last month or so, of varying sizes and colouration but most tending to be younger snakes. It's been great to see the refugia working and providing a safe haven for these great reptiles and I've enjoyed getting to know them. There have been a number of occasions where the nettles and grass in front of me have burst into life as as a retreating snake has moved off at haste as well as the odd tail disappearing into darkness at the edge of cover, with each moment an indicator of a thriving population.

For those not familiar with Grass Snakes, they are one of the three resident species of snake here in the UK (Adder and Smooth Snake being the other two) and are the most common of the three. They tend to favour wetland areas but can be found in a range of habitats including heathland. My first memory of seeing a Grass Snake in the wild was when one swam across a local canal we were walking along. It wasn't a prolonged sighting but was nevertheless exciting. I can't remember the first time I held one but I can remember the smell! When threatened, these reptiles have two defence mechanisms. The first is to play dead, with the body turned upside down and the mouth gaping open capped off with the tongue hanging out. The smellier defence tactic is the excretion of a rancid smelling substance (almost like faeces) which absolutely reeks. I've found out first hand that the smell is stubborn and takes a fair bit of washing to get rid of!!

Over the last month or so, I've managed to get a variety of shots of a few individuals and have always had success on cooler days with intermittent sunny spells, which tempts the snakes out of cover for some basking action.

Grass SnakeGrass Snake

When shooting these gorgeous creatures I've tried a number of things to get images that capture their beauty. The coiled shots above are my personal favourites, and  I've tired to capture that air-tasting moment when the forked tongue is flicked out. Depth of field has proved tricky, and I've more often than not found I've had to compromise on extra detail in order to keep the background as clutter free as possible. Light has also been a pivotal factor in the overall appearance of the final image, with duller days giving a softer feel. One consistent method employed during this mini-project has been getting down as low as possible for that eye-level perspective that is so crucial for intimate shots. This has often resulted in going face to face with an inquisitive chap, as shown below....

It won't be long before the breeding season gets going so this project has now come to an end until the autumn to avoid any disturbance to mating pairs and pregnant females. I'm hopeful of a successful summer in terms of eggs as the area has plenty of excellent compost heaps consisting of grass cuttings and other waste vegetation, perfect for generating and holding heat which effectively incubates the eggs. I won't be looking for these but will certainly keep an eye open for youngsters, though I doubt I'll ever repeat last years uber lucky moment of finding a tiny little snake (no longer than a pencil) coiled up in a fairly open spot. A very slow, patient and uncomfortable approach resulted in a few good frames including my favourite reptile image I've taken to date.

Grass SnakeGrass Snake If you're interested in taking photos of snakes, please be VERY careful. Handling them is allowed by law but given their fragile bone structure this should be avoided unless you know what you're doing. Good field craft will get you as close as you need to be without unnecessary disturbance. You should also be certain that your subject is not an Adder as they are venomous and can give a nasty bite if cornered. They'll only strike if evasion isn't an option and will more than likely make for cover as soon as they detect disturbance but if you are fortunate to find one keep a safe distance. Another key thing to be aware of is that Adders are really struggling at the moment due to habitat loss and persecution so photography should be as respectful as possible. A great blog post covering this can be found here, written by Brett Lewis and frequently tweeted by ARGS UK, a conservation group dedicated to looking out for reptiles and amphibians.

As always, thanks for reading and if you have any comments then please get in touch below.



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