I have had a passion for amphibians and reptiles for many years and I was a founder member of the Sussex Amphibian & Reptile Group way back in 1986. At one time I was called upon to remove over 300 Grass Snake eggs from a garden which I then incubated and hatched at home. The resultant wriggling black mass of juvenile snakes was subsequently released back into the countryside.
I was also involved in monitoring a relic colony of Natterjack Toads to calculate the number of breeding females present at the site. This involved a hundred mile round trip, sometimes twice a week, to count every new spawn string that had appeared in the breeding pond since my last visit. In a similar vein and under licence, I have recorded smooth snake populations at various locations by photographing their heads. Like human fingerprints each individual snake’s head pattern is unique.
That passion and enthusiasm is just as strong today and when I go abroad I am always keen to find reptiles especially snakes. Last year in Portugal I found this venomous back-fanged Montpellier Snake making its way down to a lake. This very attractive individual M/F? was about a metre long but they can grow to over 2 metres.
Well we don’t have any of these in Britain; in fact, in total we only have three native snakes although there are always captive releases or escapes finding their way into the countryside. Actually there is little known colony of non-native grass snakes breeding on the outskirts of London which are believed to have escaped from London Zoo many years ago. They are now well established and hopefully I will get over there to see them some day.
Of our native snakes it is the Adder that I find the most interesting, so much so, that in October 2016 along with fellow enthusiast Tony Stevens I attended a two day conference in Somerset on adder conservation. Not surprisingly it is the Adder that is my main target species for my workshops and I can usually find them without too much difficulty. However Grass Snakes and Smooth Snakes tend to be loners and are normally found by chance and so I cannot guarantee these two species.
Now my British Reptile Workshops are a bit different from most of my others as in that I teach you a great deal about all the UK subjects but especially our adders, Vipera berus. They occur over much of Britain mainly on dry land and in a variety of habitats including woodland, open sandy heathland and grassy Downland especially south facing slopes. Normally I will have located their whereabouts in the days before you are due to attend the workshop but if I don’t find one for you on the day you don’t pay a penny.
All the snakes and the three lizards are notoriously shy creatures and consequently are not easy to find, let alone photograph. On this workshop I will teach you how to look for them. I will teach you where to look for them and, most importantly, I will show you the best way of photographing them. Remember the best images are those where your subject is behaving naturally and oblivious to your presence.
I will do my best to find you both males and females and in a range of colours as they do vary quite a bit. If we are very lucky I might locate a black adder but don’t count on it. These are rare, melanistic forms and can be either male or female. How do you determine the sex of an adder? Easier than you think and I will show you on the day.
On one occasion on the North Downs near Dorking in Surrey I came across a large female with a male in attendance at the base of an oak tree. It was an area that I knew very well as I recorded the reps there for Surrey Wildlife Trust and I knew many areas where the adders hung out during early spring. This male was paying a lot of attention to her, his tongue flicking over her body and quite clearly they were engaged in courtship behaviour; would I get them mating was my first thought?
The female was just lying there in the grass with the male moving over her and she seemed quite oblivious to his attentions when, suddenly and quite slowly, she started to climb up the tree using the fissures in the bark for purchase. Why she did not just go round the tree into the bramble bushes behind it I will never know. I had often seen both grass snakes and adders climb up into bushes but never one going up the side of a mature oak tree. What happened next was truly amazing because the male quickly joined her and they began to move, their heads side by side, in perfect synchronicity. Eventually they did move around the back of the tree and out of view and I realised I had witnessed something really special.
On returning home I checked my reference books and then went online but did not find any mention of this incredible behaviour. What I do know for certain is that two other people also witnessed this behaviour and have also photographed it. They were the two lucky clients with me on the day having a 2-1 British Reptile Workshop. Next time it might be you!
I only run 1-1 and 2-1 workshops on these creatures and the days for actually seeing and being able to photograph them in the open are limited. So I have a waiting folder and right now I already have three names in it. If you would like to join me please let me know well in advance and I will then contact you nearer the time when they are emerging from hibernation and the action begins.