North Carolina is a strange place. Its on the list of the top ten most biologically diverse places in the United States. On the western side of the state there is the Smoky Mountains which harbors more species of trees than the entire continent of Europe and is literally the salamander capital of the world. Moving east you then find the long leaf pine savannas such as the biogem known as the Green Swamp that harbors more species of carnivorous plants than anyplace else in the world. This is a truly extraordinary place.
The thing about North Carolina though is that it does not give up its secrets so easily. Unlike states like Florida with it’s mind blowing opportunities for bird photography, or Wyoming with its unrivaled access to the largest diversity of large mammals in North America, those things that make North Carolina really stand out (biologically speaking) tend to be small, allusive, hard as hell to get to, or less romantic than a bugling elk set before a backdrop of golden aspen leaves and snow capped mountains.
For me though, this is one of the things I love about photographing in North Carolina. I mean, I get more than my fix of big charismatic mega-fauna in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and when I want to over dose on birds, Florida and a litany of great friends there are just a plane ride away. But for the smaller, peculiar, strange, and curious, It’s tough to find a better place than North Carolina outside of the tropics.
One such species that I recently had the opportunity to photograph, is the red pygmy rattlesnake. Pygmy rattlesnakes are, well, pygmy. Few ever grow much more than a foot in length these little guys are technically all over the South. However, out on the Albemarle – Pamlico peninsula of North Carolina, there is one peculiar trait that you will find nowhere else. This trait is a strikingly beautiful red coloration. Elsewhere, these snakes tend toward a slate gray coloration. But here, on this peninsula where the definitions of land and water become one in the same, pygmy rattlesnakes take on a rich blood red hue.
With a striking distance of only about a foot, these snakes can be pretty easy to work with in the wild. For this photograph, I used a Nikon D4 and 200-400mm lens. I used my D4 for this, even though its a static image and the D800 would have produced a far superior image, because of the low light. At 3200 ISO the D800 falls apart and the D4 with its massive pixel size and legendary light gathering capabilities is the real King. With heavy overcast skies, and the dark nature of these swamps and forests there was really no question as to which camera this was a job for.
Using the 200-400 was a bit of an overkill here. I could have easily gotten away with a 70-200mm lens, or even better, a Sigma 150 macro lens (this would have been about perfect). However, with the possibility of the much larger canebrake rattlesnakes, I opted for the 200-400 with its minimum focusing distance of 6 feet – which offered more than enough safe working distance in case we would be photographing something significantly larger than these little pygmys.
This was my first time photographing these guys and I can honestly say that I will be doing it again, and again, and again in the future!