How We Track Down and Very Carefully Photograph Australia’s Elusive Snakes

A mulga snake Christina N. Zdenek, CC BY-NC-ND

While most people go out of their way to avoid snakes, we are the opposite. We are crazy about snakes. As wildlife photographers, we’ve spent months in the Australian bush and overseas jungles tracking down magnificent snakes.

Photographing snakes is not an easy task. Besides the wild weather, long hours, biting insects, and lack of sleep, there’s one final hurdle to overcome: finding the elusive reptiles. Australian snakes, for example, usually run away when they hear humans, and they are very good at hiding.

But it’s worth it for those moments when we turn the corner and spot the scaly body of a species we’ve never seen before.

A juvenile King Cobra we photographed in Indonesia. Chris Hay

Why do we spend so much time looking for snakes?

Australian snakes are remarkably diverse and adaptable. We have over 200 different species across land and sea. They have carved out niches in every possible habitat, from coastal rainforests to arid deserts to alpine regions.

It’s hard to say why we love snakes so much, but we’ve both been obsessed with the beauty and mystery of snakes since childhood. This dark obsession turned into fascinating careers for both of us, it’s also how we found each other.

Although found throughout the continent, our snakes are notoriously hard to find. They are exceptionally good at hiding. When we go herping (looking for snakes), we don’t just wander through the bush hoping to come across one. We go through a whole process to increase our chances.

Snakes are hard to find. Here’s how we improve our odds.

First, we decide which species we want to photograph. To make our trips interesting, we often look for places where the ranges of several target species overlap. Once we choose an area, we dive deep into the details of each species.

Together we have over 50 years of snake knowledge to draw upon. We use it to examine the preferred habitats and microhabitats of each species and where these characteristics occur in our region.

To go further, we focus on behavior. Is it nocturnal? Is it active only during the day? Or is it twilight, only moving at dusk?

Indonesian Russell’s Viper. Chris Hay

Once we figure out the places most likely to search, we need to choose the best time of year to go.

You might think that summer is always best, since reptiles are more active in the heat. For some species we have had better luck during the colder months when they are inactive. This can make them easier to find.

Once we have chosen a departure time, we look at the local climate and weather forecasts to help predict the location and severity of storms.

Heavy rains aren’t usually good for herpes, unless you’re looking for one of Australia’s 46 species of blind snakes, which burrow underground to escape drowning in waterlogged soils. .

But for the aboveground species we are looking for, the best conditions occur when there has been recent rain or a threat of rain. This is because rain causes vegetation to grow, which in turn increases the activity of insects and animals that feed on it, and so on. It stimulates activity throughout the food chain.

Our simple camp setup. Christina N. Zdenek

Once we’ve done all of that, we plan our trip and hope to find some remarkable species to photograph. Success is of course not guaranteed. We once went looking for some species of whipsnake, spent an entire week and $3,000 in the process, and still haven’t found the snake. But we found many unusual lizards.

Herpes is not a relaxing vacation. It is a very hard job that requires early morning and late evening. To find nocturnal snakes, for example, we have to stay awake until the wee hours of the morning. (Nocturnal snakes are only active during the warmer months and absorb the radiant heat that remains after the day). We often start this early as the best natural light for photography is early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.

We are both registered snake catchers so sometimes we will be called to work and find an interesting snake that we can photograph before releasing it.

A reticulated python we caught and moved away from homes in Indonesia. Chris Hay
A common death pit adder on Magnetic Island in Queensland. Christina N. Zdenek

Safety first

When the stars align and we find one of the snakes we’ve been looking for, we have to be sure not to get too excited. Our safety is more important than any photograph.

We are often in remote parts of Australia, hundreds of miles from any help. If one of us got bitten by a snake, it would mean real trouble.

When you look through a camera’s eyepiece, you may feel like you’re further from the snake than you actually are. We had to learn how to choose the right lens for each species, to make sure we can keep a safe distance without making the snake look too small in the frame.

The authors demonstrate the level of safety required when photographing a Javan Spitting Cobra in Indonesia. Dan Mandarino

Only one of us takes the photos at a time. It’s because you need someone to monitor the situation and make sure you’re not taking any chances. As a husband and wife team, we trust each other completely. Distractions are not an option.

The little known Central Ranges Taipan. Chris Hay

We don’t want this to be a handy guide for people to find dangerous reptiles and photograph them. Snake photography is not a hobby to dive into without a lot of preparation and knowledge.

That said, it’s a rewarding profession, especially when you get a photo of a rare reptile that’s very hard to find. Getting a photo like this and seeing it used in books, field guides, and online makes all the preparation worthwhile.

A brown webbing snout snake photographed in the brigalow habitat in St George, Queensland. Christina N. Zdenek

About the Author: Chris Hay is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Queensland. Christina N. Zdenek is a lab manager/post-doc at the Venom Evolution Lab at the University of Queensland. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. This article was originally published on The conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

Leave a Comment