As a photographic subject, a grass snake has been on my bucket list for ever. Many local naturalists I had spoken to had had an encounter or two so I was beginning to get impatient. What was I doing wrong? I had made several trips out to known locations in the right conditions but had drawn a blank, and had come to the conclusion that this was just one of those animals that you happen across rarely, probably when you least expect it and most definitely when you don’t have your camera to hand.
On 8th July 2016 down in the southeast it was a lovely summers day. Fluffy white clouds gently rolling across the blue sky on a gentle breeze, the thrumming sound of a lawnmower coming from somewhere in the distance, and swifts darting back and forth. An unusually carefree kind of day in a world that seems recently to have come off the rails. A good day for a family bike ride though, so I dusted down the mountainbikes, pumped up soft tyres and we prepared to set off.
So was the camera coming with me? Hmm, it’s a heavy thing to lug around. I’ll have to carry a rucsac. My significant other told me to leave it behind for once. Another voice in my head said ‘yeah but you’ll regret it if you do’. So, I secretly stowed it away under the sandwich box and the rain coats, and off we set.
We headed for Copped Hall, my local wildlife haunt on the edge of Epping Forest. There was an open garden day there and my wife wanted to have a look round the Edwardian walled garden, which was fine by me because there’s a terrific pond in the centre of it which plays host to many species of dragonfly and I particularly wanted to see if my AF technique was good enough to get some in-flight shots.
No sooner had we arrived than a couple of little old ladies sitting on a bench by the pond let out a shriek and pointed to the edge of the lily pads.
‘ A SNAKE……OOOOOHH…………EEEEEEK!’
‘Calm down ladies, it’s only a grass snake’ I duly informed them, although truth be told I was anything but calm, desperately trying to extricate my camera from the bowels of the rucsac, whilst simultaneously reassuring them that it wasn’t poisonous, wasn’t going to bite them and that most likely it would only be able to gum them to death (that didn’t go down well).
The snake, a beautiful adult, was making a quick getaway across the pond, and in a feverish rush of adrenaline I began by firing off a few starter shots using whatever settings I had left on the camera last time. Over-confident and under-prepared as usual, that's me. So now I had a few images that looked reasonably in focus and with the snake somewhere in the frame, so now it was time to calm down, watch the snake, see where it goes, and THINK ABOUT WHAT I AM DOING!
I got down and contemplated getting a bit wet. Meanwhile behind me the bench is filling up with more little old ladies more interested in finding out what all the commotion is down by the pond than in discussing the merits of clematis and agapanthus. Dammit, I have an audience.
I had seen the snake disappear under a clump of lily pads so I focused on that spot, after checking my ISO and aperture for the shutter speed I wanted. I was lying on the bank by the waters edge trying not to trip up anybody in the gathering crowd with my feet that were sticking out onto the path.
Lo and behold out the snake popped out and we all watched, mesmerised by how gracefully it slid through the water. The tongue was flicking in and out too, and I noticed how it was letting the very tips of the tongue caress the surface. Was it sensing for movement of prey beneath?
I watched in astonished pleasure as the snake then turned back and actually started swimming towards me. Then stopped, allowing the bow wave to disperse in front of it, and properly posing for a reflection shot. It doesn't get better than this.
I was not completely sure now whether the little old ladies now were more interested in the snake or the lycra clad young (!) man on the ground taking pictures. The snake then headed for some marginal reeds and it was time to change position.
'What's the young man doing now?'.....
The coach party (by now) of little old ladies were duly shown the images on the back of my camera in order to satisfy their curiosity.
Meanwhile the snake stayed where it was, almost waiting for me to come back to the job, or so it seemed.
I must have taken about 250 shots during this encounter. But I couldn't possibly end without really pushing the boat out and getting wet. So, elbows went in and the back of my focusing hand was touching the water. It was a bit of a backbreaker because the bank sloped steeply upwards but it was worth a few painful moments because of the resulting last few shots where the snake was clearly aware of my presence yet seemed intrigued with me and held its ground. I actually had to back off a little as I was too close for focusing (and my 100-400 zoom can focus close). I hardly dared breathe as I fired off the last shots before he decided that he had had enough of me and he was gone for good.
So that was my first wild grass snake encounter, and perhaps it will not be bettered. I think the moral of the story is always pack your camera because you never know what you might see. Can you imagine the regret if I had left it at home? Oh, and also beware of little old ladies - they can be dangerous.