A Guide to Photographing Adders

Male adder scenting the air

I’ve encountered this male adder every year since 2002 – each Spring I use locate him to within 3 metres from where this photograph was taken. Though by mid-June he can appear anywhere along a 2-mile concessionary path that crosses the moor.

For 40-years, British reptiles and in particular snakes have always held a special fascination. They are rarely photographed in-depth and in general remain elusive. With only three native species consisting of the adder or northern viper as it sometimes referred to, the grass snake and the rare and elusive smooth snake, they required a different set of photographic rules and disciplines if success is to be consistent or not just an occasional and fleeting experience. Without doubt a pre-requisite to successful snake photography, is good knowledge of their behaviour, ecology and location (where to find them).

Adder

Despite traditional prejudices towards adders, they are shy and timid creatures preferring to avoid contact with man. The adder (Vipera berus) is Britain’s only venomous snake, although bites to humans rarely cause death. They can however, as I know from an experience, be very painful and stressful. It’s one thing being bitten by the reptile bug and quite another actually being bitten by the reptile itself. In the event that you are bitten it is imperative that you seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

Female adder basking

The actual bite was so quick and painless I hardly gave it second thought until some two hours later, when I gradually became very ill as the poison injected into my thumb began to slowly take effect. Dizziness, vomiting and a painful and badly swollen hand and two distinct, if somewhat small puncture marks were not my idea of fun. Over confidence and carelessness in obtaining a series of close-up portraits, had resulted in the large female adder striking with lightning speed and accuracy. A painful lesson learnt. In the future I’ll show more caution toward adders, or better still wear gloves – it’s a simple case of “once bitten, twice shy”.

Female Adder

Adders occur in a variety of habitats throughout Britain including dry and damp heathland, where the purple heather and ling is the dominant flora, woodlands, coastal dunes and unused railway cuttings to the large expanses of moorland and bogs in the north also provide refuge. They are absent from much of central England due primarily to habitat loss and human persecution. For reasons as yet unknown, they are comparatively scarce throughout most of Scotland.

From my own experience in relation to locating adders, they nearly always occupy gently sloping south to south-westerly aspects where a body of water, be it a pond a lake or stream is in close proximity to their basking sites. The factors that determine the existence of adders is nearly always the same, topology and the abundance of food, ample amounts of sunlight and a safe place for refuge. In Britain, the adders’ year begins in mid-February or early March if climatic conditions are less favourable. Males are awakened from winter hibernation by a rise in temperature (8C to be precise) with the onset of spring. However, females do not normally appear from hibernation until late March usually 3 to 6 weeks after the males. Groups of males basking at known sites are commonplace and will provide the observant photographer with some of the best opportunities to photograph this strikingly beautifully snake.

Adder in search of prey

Male and female adders differ considerably in appearance in what is commonly known as sexual dimorphism. Adult males are smaller than the female and are normally grey-greenish in colour with distinctive black zigzag markings from head to tail. The female has similar marking but has an overall brown-yellowish appearance. Although males can easily be confused with females when they are about to shed their skins in a process known as “sloughing” or by herpetologist’s as “ecdysis” which occurs twice a year, in late spring and late summer, though the number of times may be greater in juvenile specimens as they grow rapidly depending upon the availability of food. The amount of exposure to sunlight is also an important factor in growth rate as Vitamin D3 aids bone development to some degree though it’s not as crucial a factor as in lizards, due primarily to the a snakes calcium intake from their prey, other reptiles, avian and mammal prey.

The dance of the adders

Depending upon the ratio of males to females, the male adder will compete with other males for the right to mate with a receptive female. I say receptive as it is a known fact that adult female adders usually only breed every other year. They do not feed during the gestation period of 5 to 6 months and give birth in early September to between 6 and 12 perfectly formed 10cm replicas of their parents. Because of the delicate nature of the adder, male adders do not actually fight. Instead, they engage in behaviour known as “the dance of the adders” where two or more males rear up and push each other in rapid movements. The adder population in the Peak District National Park where I live is confined to just three or four sites. This springtime rivalry behaviour I have yet to witness, though research has shown that in the Peak District, females out number males by a 4:1 ratio, therefore eliminating the need for males to compete for a chance to mate, which may account for why this behaviour has rarely been observed in the Derbyshire population.

The keeled scales of an adder

Calm, warm and slightly overcast days are best for locating adders. Windy days are usually unproductive as cannot detect what is prey and what is danger and tend to hide away in their burrows or seek very sheltered spots. Your stalking skills will be put to the test, in order to obtain close-up images of adders, as they don’t take to kindly to having photographers pointing their lenses in their direction. In keeping with all snakes, they are deaf and rely primarily on ground vibration as a means of detecting both prey, predator and you. Due to this hearing handicap, they possess other senses, which are highly developed, especially a keen sense of smell, their tongues are capable of scenting the air every few seconds. In common with all vipers they have developed a special sensory organ known as the “Jacobson’s Organ” located at the top of their palette, it enables the adder to detect pheromones for sexual recognition, prey and familiarisation of the general surroundings.

Adders are somewhat catholic in their diet, which mainly consists of bank voles, shrews and the viviparious lizard. Less often the young of ground nesting birds such as the meadow pipit and skylark are included and in times of food shortages earth worms and amphibians will be added to their already varied menu.

Sexual dimorphism in adders

Sexual dimorphism in adders – digitally manipulated image

When searching for suitable sites, look for bare patches amongst the vegetation, which are traditionally used as basking sites. Your approach needs to be slow and deliberate and preferably down wind, adders have a great sense of smell and detected vibrations with ease. Keep your profile low as adders have excellent eyesight and will disappear rapidly if you fail to observe these simple but essential rules. It is equally important to have a good knowledge of your equipment and experience has taught me to preset your camera’s settings rather than alter them while also trying to compose your shot, you may not have time before your adder flees. ADDERS & SNAKES IN GENERAL DO NOT OCCUR COILED ON LICHEN ENCRUSTED ROCKS and yet the amount of images and manipulation, interference from photographers moving specimens to facilitate a more attractive background is clearly apparent on web forums is evident for all to see.

Adders are surprising good at camouflage and a female adder lying among dead bracken fonds can be difficult to see, let alone photograph. Early morning usually produces the best results when adders, being cold-blooded creatures, bask in the sun to raise their body temperatures so they can become mobile. The further north you travel, early afternoon and early evening produce the same opportunities. Should you disturb an adder, be patient and do not move, for they normally return to the same basking spot within 30 minutes. The most productive months for adder photography are March, April, September and early October when the vegetation is low and when adders are most sluggish.

Male adder showing distinctive zigzag markings

In terms of equipment and techniques used, I have resorted to using several methods with varying degrees of success. I tend to use of a tripod for overhead images and a beanbag for low to the ground perspective images, an angle-finder is a great item of photographic equipment that will save cricking your neck. Though most modern IS (image-stabilising) lenses do allow for hand-held images and this offers greater speed and flexibility.

Having located an adder, do not panic, stay calm and slowly move into position, use of a tripod will allow you to compose more thoughtfully and easier to control depth-of-field. With experience, a beanbag can be used to close in on your adder for those eye level close-up portraits. At such close distances to the adder, focal length and control of depth of field will be important aspects to consider. Lenses in the 70-300mm range with close focusing facility or a macro in the region of 180mm or 200m will allow a safe working distance. From personal experience, I can inform you that a 100mm macro usually means that the adder will be within striking distance of your lens front element. Great care needs to be observed at these close distances to prevent being bitten and thick gardening gloves are highly recommended together with a cable release.

Above all, treat reptiles with respect. They have suffered a great deal over the decades and are generally in decline. The adder is one of Britain’s most strikingly beautiful creatures and a species I never tire of photographing at any given opportunity.

Best of luck and remember adders really are shy creatures and only bite if you invade their space. Keep a safe distance and enjoy.

Dance of the Adders

Well after a long wait 14-years in fact I have finally captured the holy grail of adder behavioural images one amazingly razor-sharp shot of a pair of adders performing this much sort after pre-mating ritual.

A day spent at Wem Moss NNR, Shropshire, one of Britain’s most impressive lowland heath reserves and a location I’ll be frequenting many times over the next couple of months due to it’s incredibly rich biodiversity of specialist species including several important national rarities. In a single day I observed 37- male and 6-female adders and countless numbers of viviparous lizards including many of last autumns new-born.

I had watched 3 males adders and a single female adder in close proximity to each other. Within a matter of seconds all 3 male adders started to become noticeably restless and in an instance all 3 started to raise their bodies and rapidly twist and coil. Instantly the largest male a specimen of approximately 22 inches ceased in the activity and left the 2 smaller and more colourful males to battle it out. Male adders only perform this “Dance” the right to mate with a female only after they have sloughed (shed their skin). It was at this point I managed to align my Canon 5D Mk2 and 300mm f/4 lens to eye-level and with a clear background managed to secure a number of highly desirable images. One in particular was simply outstanding even by my own standards.

I also managed to capture a 3-minute long HD video sequence of the “Dance”…… which will undoubtedly find its way into one of my digital audio-visual presentations. I think all my Christmases have come at once!

The image will be entered into several forthcoming major photographic competitions. However, in order to preserve its anonymity I reserve the right not to publish the image on either on my blog or website gallery. After all I don’t want my nemesis copying this image also and provide him with more fresh ideas for his latest venture.

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