Category Archives: Snakes

Photo of the Week – Year of the Snake

Tomorrow is Chinese New Year and this year, is the Year of the Snake. Let’s use this year of the snake to help promote education and conservation about these wonderful animals.

Click on the thumbnail below to read about this week’s Photo of the Week from 44th Parallel Photography.

9 February 2013

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Filed under conservation, Conservation & Environment, Creative Photography, Digital Photography, Macro photography, Nature, nature photography, Opinion, Photo of the Week, photography, Reptiles, Snakes, Wildlife Photography

Do Snakes Make Good Pillows?

My answer is: I didn’t stick around long enough to find out!!

Ok, so now you’re probably wondering what the heck I’m going on about. But bear with me. I did (inadvertantly, I must stress) put my head on a big snake while out photographing this past weekend. Ah, the joys of nature photography.

This is what I set out to photograph:

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a woodland native plant. This is what I was photographing when I discovered I had my head on top of a rather big snake!

But instead, this is what I ended up photographing:

An Eastern Gray Rat Snake (Pantherophis spiloides). This was my ‘pillow’.

Ok, so here’s my tale….

Last weekend we finally had nice, sunny, reasonably warm weather. This caused a rapid blooming of the forest wildflowers, which have been in bud for a while and I swear, have had their feet in the starting blocks, just waiting to take off when the weather warmed up a bit. And they did. They took off! So clearly, I needed to get out with my camera since the blooms will likely be short-lived this year.

I went to a place down our road where I had seen a native woodland plant, Dutchman’s Breeches, in flower. I really wanted to photograph them because, although I’ve seen them many times throughout my life, I have never had the opportunity to photograph them. So out I went.

I find one of the easiest ways to photograph wildflowers and other small things is to use a beanbag. I use an Apex bean bag. They are great for supporting your arms, head etc. when you’re in a tight spot, doing macro photography. Under those circumstances, I find a tripod way too unwieldy. They just make me grumpy because they constrain my image making too much. I either can’t get close enough to the ground or at the right angle or whatever. They make me growl. But I digress…

The flowers of Dutchman’s Breeches, a native wildflower in Ontario.

I put my bean bag in a little hollow on the ground, right beside a nice clump of flowers. The forest floor is still covered with crunchy, dead leaves from last fall. I put my bean bag on the forest floor, just on top of this hollow, filled with dead leaves, and then proceeded to lie down on the ground, on my side, and put my head on the bean bag. I then held my camera very tight and rattled off some shots of the flower heads, taken from side on. I’d rattled off about 15 shots when for some completely unknown reason (well, unknown at the time….), I jumped up like a shot! I have NO idea what cued me in to do that. I don’t remember hearing or feeling anything. I just remember concentrating very hard on holding the camera steady and getting my flower shots. And then all of a sudden, something in my mind told me to get the hell up, and fast! And so I did.

Once I was up, I stood there, scratching my head and looking at my bean bag, wondering what the heck had just happened. About 3 seconds later, a big snake poked his head out from under my bean bag and began slithering along the ground and up a nearby tree.

I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario. The most common snake we have here is the Garter Snake. They are beautiful little snakes. Little snakes. Maybe about 18 inches at most. The snake that I had apparently been inadvertently using as a pillow was one I am very familiar with from my cottage days, back in the 70’s and 80’s. Our cottage was not far from where I live now, so I know they are in the area. The snake was an Eastern Gray Rat Snake (Pantherophis spiloides). Or Black Rat Snake, as we used to call them. There are only two populations of them in Ontario. The population here, on the Frontenac Axis, is listed by COSEWIC as threatened. The Gray Rat Snake is a beautiful snake. And also one of the biggest in Ontario. Perhaps the biggest. I know there is a small, isolated population of Massassauga Rattlesnakes up around Georgian Bay, but I think the Grey Rat Snake still takes the prize as the biggest in Ontario.

An Eastern Gray Rat Snake, about 4 feet long and nearly 2 inches in diameter.

So HOW big? Well, the snake that I’d been lying on was 4 feet long and nearly 2 inches in diameter. For most Ontarians, that’s a BIG snake! Thankfully, Gray Rat Snakes are very docile (unlike Northern Water Snakes which are simply put, cantankerously inclined). So this big guy simply slithered out from under my bean bag, slithered along the ground and onto a nearby tree. Gray Rat Snakes are tree climbers. They eat bird’s eggs and baby birds, but will also eat frogs and mice and other tasty morsels that they can get their lips on.

I watched in aw as this huge snake nonchalantly slithered slowly up the tree trunk and into a cavity in the tree, where a big branch had once broken off and rotted out. Cool! He happily curled up in there, with just his head poking out occasionally, to see if I was still hanging around.

The Gray Rat Snake peering out from the safety of a tree cavity. These snakes are tree climbers and are very at home up in the branches and in tree cavities.

Of course, I was snapping shots like crazy! Once I regained my composure after what happened, it was clear I couldn’t let this moment go unphotographed. I had my macro lens on my camera and there was no time to change lenses. So I couldn’t get much of a full body shot or any perspective on how big the snake actually was. But I did get some nice shots of his head and upper body. They are truly beautiful snakes. I read that young Gray Rat Snakes have a more mottled pattern rather than being more solid black or grey in colour. All I can say is that if this snake, based on his colouring, is ‘young’, I hate to see how big he’ll be when he’s ‘old’! The literature says they can grow to be 2 meters in length, which is over 6 feet. And we have seen the grand-daddy of all Gray Rat Snakes before – back in the 70’s, when we were building our cottage. We thought it was our 3 inch black PVC pipe connected to the foot-valve down in the lake. But nooooo, it was about a 6 foot long Gray Rat Snake. It was huge! Way bigger than the guy I saw. Several people in our cottage area saw him (and screamed!). He was nicknamed “Black Joe”, after the black joe tar paper people used when building their cottages.

Gray Rat Snakes are excellent tree climbers.

I have a real soft spot for these snakes. Partly because of my history of encountering them at the cottage when I was a kid. And partly because they are a threatened species. Studies have shown that Gray Rat Snake habitat in the Frontenac Axis has actually increased in the past 100 years and yet the Frontenac Axis population is declining. It is thought that this is partly due to road kills. The snakes are so long that they often straddle the entire width of a dirt road and sadly, are run over by vehicles. So please, if you are traveling this summer in the Perth-Westport-Kingston area of Ontario. PLEASE, brake for these snakes. And well, please brake for ANY snakes you see on the road. If you don’t like snakes, you don’t have to get out of your car and pick them up to move them. But please don’t run over them. I’m appalled by the number of dead snakes and turtles I see on Ontario roads every summer. And I have personally watched people swerve to intentionally run over them. It’s disgusting and inexcusable behaviour. Snakes and turtles aren’t cute and cuddly animals. But it doesn’t mean they are any less important to our ecosystems or that they have any less right to live. So please drive carefully. You may not want to give a snake a hug. But at least….give a snake a brake. 🙂


Filed under conservation, Macro photography, nature photography, Reptiles, Snakes, Wildflowers

Photo of the Week

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Filed under Fall, nature photography, Photo of the Week, Snakes

More Photographic Fun for August

Recently, I wrote about the abundance of wildflowers in August and the incredible photographic opportunities it presents. I’d like to continue on that theme here. It’s been a long time (several years, in fact) since I last had the opportunity to wander around the countryside in August with my camera. I spent nearly 6 years in New Zealand (which was great but August is COLD there) and for the past two years that I’ve been back in the Ottawa area, my time was (very willingingly) consumed with being with my Mum, who was very ill. So, in essence, this is really my first August back home, where I’ve had the opportunity to stop and look around me. And I must say, that looking around me puts a big smile on my face.

I love August! What a great month! And so much to photograph! So what’s so great about August? Well, the weather is beginning to change, in a good way. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t handle the heat and humidity well. Although we still get hot days in August, the humidity tends to be lower. And as the month progresses, we tend to get more of those days (what I always called the quintessential August day) where the temperature hovers around the low to mid 20’s, but the humidity is low and there’s a cool breeze in the air. The skies are blue and filled with puffy, white cottonball clouds. Now that’s an August day, to me. I love it!

The other thing about August is that it is a month of transition – where we go from the relentless heat of summer to a cool breeze and a hint of what is just around the corner – fall. Animal activity increases as well. I always find July to be a ‘quiet’ month. You don’t see much animal activity in daytime because everything is hunkered down to avoid the heat of the day. In August, the cooler temperatures and knowledge that fall is not that far away, brings the animals back out. Squirrels and chipmunks start foraging actively, preparing for the long winter ahead. Birds become more active and I’ve already started to see some mixed species flocks as the birds begin their migration back south to warmer places.  I’ve seen more snakes on the dirt roads around here than I have all summer. They’re out to soak up the warmth of the late summer sun and to fill their bellies before they start their long winter sleep (so be careful when you’re driving. Be sure to brake for snakes and turtles). Basically, August is a busy month for animals. Time to prepare for the approach of the chilly, rainy weather and eventually the cold, snowy days of winter.

A Red-bellied Brown Snake sunning himself in the middle of the road.

As I mentioned in a previous post, fields are filled with beautiful wildflowers. If you stop to have a closer look, you’ll see that those wildflowers are a-buzz with insects of every kind! The yellow-orange Goldenrods are literally buzzing with bees, wasps and flies, all eager to collect the copious pollen these plants produce. Spiders, such as the cryptic Crab Spider as well as an assortment of species of Daddy Longlegs are very abundant this time of year. If you’re careful to creep up on them quietly, they don’t move much and so make excellent subjects for great macro shots.

A Daddly Longlegs spider on Goldenrod.

If you check carefully on the undersides of leaves, you’ll be amazed what you’ll find! I turned over a leaf only to find two Stink Bugs hiding. I managed to coax them out for a photo. And on the underside of an Oak leaf, was an aggregation of caterpillars. I still have to look these guys up in my bug book to see what these brightly coloured caterpillars are, but they are pretty cool! How did I find them? I noticed that several leaves on the young tree were eaten – some were skeletonized while others looked like they were made of mesh – evidence of something that had been chewing the cells out from between the upper and lower surface of the leaf. So I began turning over leaves until I happened to find the one with the caterpillars.

A stink bug (Pentatomidae) on a leaf. One of the many insects out and about in August.

An aggregation of aposematically-coloured caterpillars. Aposematism refers to the bright colours which are usually warning colours to tell birds and other potential predators that they are poisonous and not to bother trying to taste them.

Wolf spider (Lycosidae) on a fern.

The ‘backyard’ right behind our house used to be forest. But the pervious owner (unfortunately) cut most of the trees down. But the remnants of the forest are still evinced by the abundance of ferns in our backyard. It’s been a dry summer and so many of the ferns have already started to turn brown and die off. The variations of green and brown are wonderful and the patterns they create are a lot of fun to photograph. I particularly like putting on the macro lens and getting in tight for a more abstract shot. One of my favourite things to do with subjects like this, is to use image overlay. Nikon cameras have this as a menu option and it’s great! I’m not sure if Canon has it, but I’m definitely glad Nikon does. To get a beautiful soft, ethereal effects with image overlay, take a shot of the subject in full focus. The image should be sharp. Then throw the scene out of focus and take another shot. Go to the shooting menu of your camera and choose Image Overlay. You will then get a window that lets you choose the images you want to overlay. It doesn’t work well for everything, but for certain subjects it creates a beautiful soft effect. And with digital, it is well worth the experimentation. You can always delete those images that you don’t think worked very well.

Get out the macro lens and get in close to highlight the shapes and textures.

Here's an example of image overlay - one in-focus image overlaid with an out-of-focus image, to produce a soft, ethereal feel to the image.

So grab your camera and get out there while the Goldenrods are still in flower and crawling with insects. There are lots of great images to be made by getting out and looking closely for those small things that we often overlook.

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Filed under Abstracts, Creative Photography, ferns, Insects, Macro photography, plants, Snakes, Spiders, Wildflowers