Rory champion photography


The not-so-Common European Adder

Following my first post in this series to photograph the UK's most endangered species, I have decided to change the order slightly so that my efforts coincide more with the 'seasonable availability' of species on the list.  My original plan was to move on to otters, as I had seen (and hastily photographed) them very close to my house. However, after reading about another endangered species - the European adder - I concluded that the chances of seeing these reptiles were both limited and diminishing by the day due to their changing habits as the days warm up. So, swapping my telephoto lens and DX body for my D700 and 100mm macro lens, I hightailed it already an hour later than I had hoped (party due to too much wine the night before) to a location in North Norfolk listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) to try and seek out this species in decline and the only venomous snake in the entire UK.

'V for Viper'

England is not by any means renowned for its reptiles, although if you live in the country you may remember the odd occasion out dog walking when a snake as slithered away from you into the undergrowth. The adder is quite unmistakable, largely due to its yellow and black repeated zigzag pattern all the way down its back. It is not particularly well camouflaged, but then it doesn't really have to be.
Male adder at Holt Lowes

A male adder, distinct from females which are usually browner on the back.

Just outside the North Norfolk town of Holt, a few miles from Cromer, lies Holt Country Park, an expanse of coniferous woodland. Directly adjacent to the forest is a small area of heathland, characterised by gorse bushes, flinty hillocks and deciduous bog lower down as it meets the River Glaven - the Holt Lowes. It's the combination of various habitats all in one 50 hectare site which provides the necessary requirements for adders: basking, hibernating, hunting, breeding and protecting themselves from threats. In this respect, Holt Lowes is rare, and one of only a few habitats where adders can still thrive. I knew roughly what adders looked like, as I saw one basking in a field several years ago, however I distinctly remember how frustrated I was when I returned with my camera only to find it had already fled. So, at 7.30 on a bright April morning I arrived at Holt Lowes and began following the meandering and rough paths through the gorse bushes. 8am came and went, as did 9am, and the only adder-related item I'd seen was a shedded skin hanging suspended amongst thick gorse. By 9.30am I assumed that any adders would have disappeared into the thick foliage, having reached their optimum body temperature in the warm spring sun. Was my first attempt to end with me returning home empty handed? Just on my way out though I noticed another photographer ambling about the gorse. "What are you after?" he asked. "Adders", I replied, and stopped myself continuing 'Ya'know, as in the snake?' The gentleman was dressed in camouflage head to toe, which I considered for several moments, because if he was also out for adders, then camouflage colours seemed slightly redundant compared to, say, keeping quiet. Still, I guess if you dress the part, you act the part, and I'm no expert on snakes' perception of threat proximity. The man, who was clearly very familiar with Holt Lowes, very kindly took me to several different spots, where he knew adders were in residence and what was fast becoming a 'blank' visit for me turned into a veritable bonanza as far as I was concerned, with adders, more than one in some cases, in almost every spot he took me to.
Male and female adders together

Male and female adders together

Some slithered away as we approached, whilst others, particularly when a male was preoccupied with a female, stayed put oblivious to our presence.

Spotting a pattern

Probably as a result of not seeing any by myself, I was under the impression adders would forage around large areas. However, their range is perhaps 10 metres squared, and they have favourite basking spots which are very localised and if you see one which is basking and then slithers away, returning or sitting quietly will pay dividends as the adder will return from the undergrowth back into its 'sunning' position, so long as it still wants to soak up the rays. That being said, finding adders' favourite spots is the key to photographing them. Whilst their gaudy patterns do not lend themselves particularly well to blending in with their surroundings, they are quite small and unless you happen to be looking directly at them (or within a metre or so around them) they are likely to go unnoticed. Not only that, but adders tend to position themselves quite specifically depending on which way the wind is blowing. They often prefer to lie on the lee slope or behind a natural wind break, so whilst you may be looking in the right direction, you may only spot an adder in that location by looking from all angles.

Photographing options

Photographing adders in particular provides a unique challenge. Once you've spotted an adder, you need to be very quiet and stealthy, potentially moving into position using foliage to obscure your movement. Whilst you could opt for a telephoto, I preferred the macro as it makes for more detailed close-ups, however it is more likely that the adder will be spooked. These images were shot with a macro and a teleconverter at around 500/s f5.6 (f2.8 doubled from attaching the teleconverter), as the teleconverter essentially doubles the range needed to fill the frame i.e. you can stand twice as far from the subject. Getting within a few cm of macro subjects like butterflies is great, but adders do bite with venom which can be extremely painful so doubling the shooting distance was ideal. It also meant I was less likely to disturb the adder. I'm looking forward to photographing adders again soon this spring before it gets too warm and they only pop out for short time. I would like to get some more behavioural images, and shots without bits of gorse and foliage obscuring the frame, although if I'm honest I'm very glad that I shouldn't require 15 attempts to get reasonable photos, like I did photographing hares, so long as I can find them again.

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