Western Diamondbacks along the Rio Grande


A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to escape what we like to call the mud season around Yellowstone. Mud season, that time of the year where the snow has melted in the valleys and now the ground is so saturated with water that mud prevails for two months or more. This is the non-season of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One day it is 55 degrees, the next its snowing.

My escape from this took me down to the Rio Grande Valley in search of South Texas birds. Technically, I am still trying to figure out what makes this place a valley. I mean, sure, there was a little variation in elevation, but coming from Montana it is hard to see the connection.

It was a bit early in the season, and western diamondback rattlesnakes were just beginning to make their way out of their hibernaculum (fancy word for den where they hibernate). I was hoping that we found one of these guys but knew that I was about a month to early. So when a couple of ranch hands came racing up to the guest house on the ranch where I was staying in the middle the day shouting SERPIENTE, I jumped at the chance to photograph one of these icons of South Texas.

One thing that is quite unique about this particular species of rattlesnake is its habit of raising its body up off the ground in classic defensive posture. I have photographed a lot of venomous and non-venomous snakes. And they have a defensive posture where they pull their heads back poised to strike. But these guys are the showiest of all in North America.

With rattle vibrating, the noise could be heard from a hundred yards away. And at 5 foot in length, this girl was really able to raise up off the ground. When we first approached, she came a solid two and half feet into the air. However, once it became obvious we were probably only a mild threat to her, she refused to pop up in full display again.

Not to worry though as I still managed to come away with some great behavioral photos of this beautiful snake.

When we first approached photographing this snake, I had opted for a 24-70mm lens. Thinking I was going to get low and close, I wanted to capture a unique perspective that emphasized the environment of the snake. Didn’t work. The background was blasé, and the environment just didn’t do anything for me in this local.

With that I switched over to the 105 macro lens. Experimenting with various angles and backgrounds, I quickly realized that what I wanted was more compression to the perspective. And thus, I settled on the 200-400mm.

The larger lens was not so much for safety as the working distance with the other lenses had been fine. It was that with the longer telephoto lens, I was able to better control the foreground and background vegetation. The snake was in the dirt. Little vegetation was ground level with her, and what I could find for a foreground element was about 10 feet from the snake. At this distance, the snake was small and the sky was burning into the frame from the background thanks to the scrubby native thorn brush that dominates this landscape. The longer telephoto lens was the perfect solution. I could shoot through the little vegetation that was available, fill the frame with the snake, and completely eliminate the sky from the background. Viola.

This is all pretty typical. We start out with a pre-visualized concept or image that we want. We set up for it, experiment and hunt for proper angles and perspectives. And like a puzzle, the pieces come together and we slowly but surely begin to refine that vision, or, we realize that it needs to be set aside as the given conditions are better suited for a different type of image or composition. The latter was the case for this diamondback rattlesnake.

These snakes are still fairly common across the southern regions of the US, but their numbers are declining. Thanks to people’s overwhelming fear of snakes, these guys are basically shot on sight out here. Locals have even taken to creating something of a sport out of killing rattlesnakes with the likes of annual Rattlesnake Roundups. Much like coyote killing contests, he who brings in the most rattlers, wins. It is so much a part of the culture in these areas that some people take killing rattlesnakes to a sort of biblical obligation. Ugh. . .  

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