Posts Tagged ‘Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis’

On Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I stumbled upon a pair of Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). Their bodies were intertwined and were undulating. Now I do not know much about the mating practices of snakes, but I assume that was what they were doing.

I got down really low to take the first shot, which gives a close-up view of the head of one of the snakes that appears to be smiling—I believe that this one, which is clearly the smaller of the two, is the male snake.

According to an article by Sue Pike, “Garter snakes bear live young instead of laying eggs. In fact, in most live-bearing snakes, the females are considerably larger than the males. Since a larger female can carry more babies, and larger litter size mean a greater chance of survival for some of the offspring; natural selection will favor larger females. Females also tend to be more bulky and less active than males since they need to conserve their energy for reproduction. Males tend to be skinnier, more active and smaller than the females because, in the wild, their excess energy is used to chase females.”

The second shot shows the bodies of the two snakes when I came upon them—they look almost like they were braided together. I encourage you to click on the image to get a closer look at the beautiful patterns on the bodies of these snakes.

As I was making a little video of the two snakes, they were joined by a third garter snake. This snake, which I think is another male, slithered along the entire length of the intertwined bodies, looking for an opening. Somehow I thought the new snake would be more aggressive, but he was actually quite gentle. He ended up with his body stretched out as part of the intricate braid.

I have embedded the one-minute-long YouTube video at the end of this posting. In the video you can see the undulating bodies of the two snakes and the arrival and subsequent actions of the third snake. If you cannot see the embedded video, you can use this link  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgKIKLVeOVg) to access it directly on YouTube.

mating garter snakes

mating garter snakes

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.



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Be sure to check out Walter Sanford’s narrative and photos of our adventures together this past Monday trying to photograph snakes. Our photographic and writing styles are different and our posts are intended to complement each other by providing alternative points of view.

walter sanford's photoblog

Michael Powell and I met for a long photowalk at Huntley Meadows Park on 11 April 2016. We spotted (and photographed) a Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor) during the morning and an Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) in the early afternoon.

Mike’s viewpoint

The following photo shows Michael Powell shooting the snake, up close and personal, using a field-tested technique I refer to as “Sandbagging the Grinder.” Sometimes Mike uses his camera bag for support and stability in order to shoot tack-sharp photos with a Tamron 180mm macro lens. “The Grinder” is my nickname for Mike’s macro lens because you can hear the internal gears grinding when it’s autofocusing — it’s loud, but hey, it works well in the hands of a skilled photographer!

Michael Powell photographing an Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

My viewpoint

An Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

The preceding photo is the next shot I took after taking the photo of Mike. I was shooting with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 superzoom digital…

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This past Monday as I was exploring Huntley Meadows Park with fellow photographer Walter Sanford, he spotted an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). We both like to photograph snakes, so we sprung into action. Following my normal instincts, I moved in close to the snake. How close did I get? At a certain point in time I actually had to back up a little to make sure I included the snake’s entire head in the image.

Some readers of this blog may recall that Walter and I use different camera systems and approach our shots in different ways, partly because he is using a zoom lens and I am often using a macro lens with a fixed focal length. If you shoot side by side with another photographer, you’ll often get the same shots, but that’s usually not the case for Walter and me. We normally choose different angles of view and frame our shots differently—I am usually the one sprawled on the ground.

Walter and I have shot together often enough that he knows the “tricks” that I employ when shooting. From my earliest days, my photography mentor Cindy Dyer emphasized to me the importance of using a tripod. Frequently I carry a tripod with me, but for low-angle shots, I prefer to use my camera bag as a kind of improvised tripod to help steady my camera. In the past month I have used this techniques with varying subjects including a jumping spider and a beaver. Special thanks to Walter for allowing me to use one of the photos he shot of me in action with my improvised tripod.

The snake was amazingly tolerant of our presence. Unbelievably it stayed in place when I moved a stalk of grass next to its head that was getting in the way of a clear shot. The first shot below was shot with my improvised tripod and was not cropped at all. The other two shots, I believe, were handheld and cropped slightly, because the snake had changed positions and I did not have the luxury of stabilizing my camera. In all cases I tried to focus on the snake’s eye and I really like the way that I managed to capture a reflection in the eye.

Walter will soon be posting a companion post that I will reblog, so that you can contrast the images that we captured when shooting the same subject together.

Eastern Garter Snake

alternative tripod

Using my camera bag as an improvised tripod (Photo by Walter Sanford)


Eastern Garter Snake

He’s got lips like Jagger

Eastern Garter Snake

Environmental portrait of a garter snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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I don’t really expect to see snakes in mid-November. Surely they are all holed-up somewhere, waiting for spring to come.

Last week, however, when I was concluding a successful search for a Great Spreadwing damselfly with fellow odonate enthusiast Walter Sanford, I spotted portions of the body of an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) as it slithered in an out of the fallen leaves that covered the path on which we were walking. Then we spotted a second one and a third.

I felt a little like Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when he dropped his torch into the well and saw that the floor below was covered with slithering snakes. “Why did it have to be snakes?” For all I knew, we might have been standing in the midst of a massive colony of snakes.

Unlike Indiana Jones, though, I don’t suffer from a fear of snakes, so the first thought that came to my mind was figuring out how to get some shots of the snakes. Walter and I got a good look at the third snake, which froze in place for an extended period of time.

I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera, so I knew that there was no way that I was going to capture a shot of the entire body of the snake. My initial shots were taken from above, looking down at the snake. I like the way that I was able to capture a glimpse of both eyes and a sense of the environment, filled with fallen foliage.

Eastern Garter Snake

I really wanted to isolate the snake better, so I decided to move to the side a bit and closer to the snake. I tried to focus on breathing slowly in order to steady my camera better as the snake grew larger and larger in my viewfinder. I got a shot that looks like a kind of autumn still life.

Eastern Garter Snake

Most people might have figured that there was no need to get any closer, but I decided I wanted to try to get a side view of the snake. So I moved in even closer, knowing that the closer I got, the harder it was going to be to get a shot in focus as the depth of field grew increasingly more shallow. The photo below is not cropped at all and gives you an idea how low to the ground I was when I took the shot. I know that I am really close when I get a really good reflection in the snake’s eye.

Eastern Garter Snake

I have commented several times before about my bodily contortions when getting shots like this and how happy I am that nobody was around to document them. In this case, though, Walter photographed me as I was getting the last shot.

If you want to see his shot of me (and, more importantly, his take on the snake), be sure to check out Walter’s blog posting. As a bonus, you’ll also learn more about how snakes brumate during the winter—they don’t actually hibernate.

I highly recommend shooting the same subject periodically with another photographer and comparing results. It’s fascinating and instructive to get a sense of how a single situation can be interpreted and how each photographer makes a whole series of creative choices that result in very different images.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am seeing more and more wildlife as we move deeper into spring and even encountered a couple of snakes this past Monday as I was walking along some of the informal trails at my local marshland park. When I say “encountered,” I mean that I almost unwittingly stepped on them and was shocked when they made sudden movements.

The smaller of the two was a cute little Eastern Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) a pretty common species in out area. The second, much larger snake is probably an Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), formerly known as the Black Ratsnake.

According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, the Eastern Ratsnake is the only snake in Virginia that can grow to a length of more than six feet (1.8 meters).  This snake was not quite that long, but it was pretty big and rather fierce looking. Although I occasionally have photographed snakes with a macro lens, I was more than content to get this shot with my telephoto zoom lens extended to it maximum 600mm focal length.

Eastern Garter SnakeEastern Ratsnake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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