by Dr. Wayne Lynch
June 13, 2015
It was March 11, some twenty years ago, and I was in Sweetwater Texas for the annual rattlesnake roundup - the largest such event in the world. It wasn’t the snakes I wanted to see, but the snake catchers. Could it be that sensible folks still celebrated the senseless slaughter of wildlife in our age of environmental sensitivity? You bet they do, and Bubba, Buck and Billy Bob were only too happy to tell me about it. Periodically they would interrupt their stories to freshen the chewing tobacco tucked behind their lower lip after which they would continue to regale me with tales of machismo. In brief, they flush sluggish snakes from their winter dens with gasoline, mostly western diamondback rattlesnakes, throw them into a sack and bring them to a check point where they are proudly counted and weighed, then dumped into a holding pit of writhing rattlers. Eventually, each snake is recaptured and decapitated with great ceremony. Many are then deep-fried and eaten with a dash of Tabasco and a cold brew. Haute cuisine, Texas style. Ah, life doesn’t get much better. In the crowning event that year, Miss Rattlesnake, with a Pepsodent smile and wearing an angelic white gown and a tiara, demonstrated to the audience how well she could eviscerate a rattlesnake and not stain her dress or break a manicured nail.
Puff Adder, Namibia
I’m not sure when, or how, my fascination with snakes began. Over the years, I’ve started a couple of different book projects about snakes but never finished any of them. Let’s face it, snake photographs don’t sell. They’re not warm and fuzzy like a black bear cub, most are not very colourful, and they don’t warble like songbirds and make our spirits soar. Even so, I’m still drawn to the biology and linear elegance of snakes, and I photograph them whenever I get a chance. Maybe I just have a soft spot for the underdog? No matter. The pursuit of snake photographs has given me some memorable moments in the field.
Sidewinder, Mojave Desert
One time I was in the Pantanal of Brazil and I caught a large yellow anaconda. My wife Aubrey, who doesn’t particularly like snakes, and our Brazilian friend Paulo helped me bag the three-meter snake. We stowed it on the floor of our rental van with a plan to drive to a better photo location, and afterwards return the snake where we had captured it. Well, you know how plans can go? The snake escaped from the bag and promptly wedged itself up under the dashboard of the van. No amount of coaxing could make the snake budge. Finally, we parked the van in the midday sun, left the doors open, and kept our fingers crossed that the snake would flee from the heat. Of course, our other option was to return the van and forget to mention to the rental company that there was a short-tempered constrictor now living behind the steering wheel. But soon enough when the dashboard began to cook, the snake crawled out, and we nabbed it.
Another time in Baja, Mexico I was part of a three-person team collecting rattlesnakes for the University of Arizona. On our way back to the United States we got pulled over at a police roadblock by the Mexican authorities. At least I think they were police but I never asked for their I.D. (Pro Photo Tip #127. Never question anyone who’s wielding a machine gun.) My two companions and I had just spent a week camping and crawling around the Sonoran Desert. None of us had showered or shaved so the police may have pulled us over because they had caught wind of us wafting down the highway. The good news, from our point of view, was that we had caught a number of rattlesnakes for the university and we had the live snakes in a Styrofoam cooler sitting on the back seat of the car. The snakes shared the cooler with a block of stale cheese, some mouldy bread, and a few wrinkled sticks of pepperoni. The bad news was that we had no permit and had collected the snakes illegally. The police were probably looking for drug smugglers and we perfectly fit the description of pot-smoking, drug-running gringos. Normally, stories involving agitated Mexican police, automatic weapons, grubby biologists, and deadly venomous snakes do not end well. As it turned out, the police checked every part of the car, but mysteriously ignored the cooler and its contents. As we drove away I joked to my buddies that we had escaped because the police probably thought the food in our cooler would smell worse than we did.
Emerald Tree Boa, Guyana
Aubrey and I have spent many winters in Florida and we’re always on the lookout for snakes. One night we went cruising on a quiet rural road looking for a water moccasin. Snakes often haul themselves onto highways at night to absorb the heat from the pavement. This irritable viper is also called a cottonmouth because of the way the snake gapes menacingly when threatened, exposing the white lining of its fang-filled mouth. After two hours of driving, we had found a lovely corn snake, a couple of brown water snakes, but no cottonmouth. Then, in the lights of an oncoming car, we saw the shadow of a thick-bodied snake on the opposite edge of the highway. I jumped from the car with a long-handled snake stick in one hand, and a metal collecting can in the other. "Bring the spotlight" I shouted to Aubrey excitedly, and I disappeared into the Florida darkness. Aubrey had no sooner parked the car and located the spotlight when a state trooper, no doubt the pride of the local constabulary, pulled up behind her with his dome lights flashing, and his hand on his holster. Meanwhile, I was in the shadows across the road with a large cottonmouth cornered against the buttressed base of a cypress tree. "Do you need some help, Mam?" the trooper offered in a strong southern drawl. Aubrey answered. "No, officer, everything is fine." The suspicious man continued to question. "What are you doing way out here at night? You know, it's not very safe." Aubrey, with her best French-Canadian charm, answered sheepishly. "I'm with my husband. He's over on the other side of the road, trying to catch a snake." The trooper had never heard this story before, and he started to get a little nervous with the unfamiliarity of the situation. He yelled at me. "Hey fella, would you come back to your car please?" Reluctantly, I abandonned the only cottonmouth we saw that night, and returned to the car empty-handed. Ten minutes later, after a check of our drivers' licenses, and the trunk of our car, Florida's finest left, shaking his head. No doubt he was thinking. "Damn Canadians, why don't they stay home and look for snakes in their own country."
Madagascar Tree Boa
A few years ago I was in Morocco and had another unforgettable snake experience. I was leading a photo tour and we were wandering around the colourful market in Marrakech where many snake charmers mesmerize the crowds with their daring exploits. I decided to hire one of them for a private photo session on the outskirts of the city the next day but I wasn’t sure how I would coordinate the pickup of the bearded charmer and his venomous partners. Well, how else would you expect to do it, but the modern way? The next morning, we called the guy on his cell phone, and he boarded our bus with a bag full of cobras and vipers tucked under his flowing robes. We drove into the desert where he and his snakes performed with flare and theatrics, and we photographed it all. It turned out that Mohammed, despite his studied appearance as an uneducated desert nomad, was a shrewd business man, fluent in French, English, and Arabic who had entertained audiences in Montreal, Paris, and Disney World in Florida. So, the next time you take a trip, consider including snakes in your photo coverage. As Mohammed from Marrakech might say “Only Allah knows what excitement you may discover”.
Left: Yellow-bellied Racer, Saskatchewan Right: Cottonmouth, Florida
Peringuey's Sand Adder, Namibia
Venomous Coral Snake, Florida
Wagler's Pit Viper, Borneo
My most frightening snake adventure happened in Australia. The Land Down Under is home to 172 species of snakes, of which two-thirds are venomous, and six are among the mostly deadly in the world. The story begins in our motel room in Cairns. I was in the shower trying to wash away the jet-lag from an 18-hour flight when Aubrey screamed from the bedroom. I leaped from the shower and ran out naked, and dripping. Under the edge of the bed I spotted a large black snake. I instantly recognized it as a deadly taipan. "Don't move, and watch where it goes," I hollered. As I dug desperately in our duffle bag for my heavy Gitzo tripod, Aubrey shrieked. "It's moved under the bed". "Stand on a chair," I shouted. "You'll be safer there." With the tripod legs fully extended, I prodded the shiny body of the taipan intending to pummel its head as soon as it became visible. After two blows, the snake still didn't move. Perhaps it was the unresponsiveness of the deadly snake, or the stifled giggles from Aubrey that signalled something wasn't quite right. A final heavy blow and I triumphantly dragged the large rubber snake from beneath the bed. Aubrey laughed hysterically at her naked Rambo. It was the ultimate revenge to repay the many practical jokes I had played on her.
Mexican Parrot Snake
Western Rattelsnake, Okanagan Valley, BC
Spear-nosed Snake, Madagascar
Cape Cobra, South Africa
Spring is a good time to look for snakes. Most have just surfaced from winter hibernation, and all of them are hungry for sex and sustenance, and moving about. As with every wildlife subject, you need to begin with knowledge. I’ve listed my favourite snake books at the end of the article and these will yield lots of information about which species live in your area, and tips on where you can find them. I’ve learned most about snakes by going out with professional and amateur herpetologists. There are amphibian and reptile clubs in many areas of the country, and the members often run field trips in the warm months of the year. If you think birdwatchers are passionate about sharing their hobby, hang out with some “herpers”. They set a whole new standard for enthusiasm, and I’ve had some wonderful times searching for snakes with such kindred spirits. Your local library is likely to have contact information for such clubs, or nowadays, you can search the web.
Rubber Boa, BC
Prairie Rattlesnake, Alberta
Courting Red-sided Garter Snakes
Hunting Gopher snake, BC
I suppose you're impatient for me to finally get talking about shooting snakes with your camera. Well, I could give you a big song and dance about which camera I use, the lenses I prefer, and the secrets of my flash photography, but all of that is pretty boring to read and even more boring for me to write about. Most of you already have all the right equipment and know how to use it. You just need to get out there and shoot. What I want to achieve most with this article is to get you thinking about snakes as a desirable subject to photograph. Often, when I go hunting for snakes, I explore new locations I’ve previously ignored, and sometimes I discover exciting hideaways in the process. Successful photography is as much about visualizing a subject in your mind, as it is about manipulating equipment and mastering technique. The next time a snake slithers across the path in front of you, I hope you'll remember my words, grab your camera, and have some fun.
#1 Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, 3rd Edition, Roger Conant & Joseph Collins, Peterson Field Guides, 1991
#2 Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians, Robert Stebbins, Peterson Field Guides, 1966
#3 A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles, Thomas F. Tyning, Stokes Nature Guide, 1990 (This is a personal favorite of ours.)
Serious Science for Nature Nerds
#1 Snakes - Ecology and Behavior, Richard A. Siegel & Joseph Collins, McGraw Hill, 1993
#2 Snakes of Eastern North America, Carl H. Ernst & Roger Barbour, George Mason University Press, 1989
#3 Snakes - The Evolution of Mystery in Nature, Harry W. Greene, University of California Press, 1997 (Visually stunning, with beautiful photographs by Michael & Patricia Fogden)