Photo: Pair of male Northern Pacific (Western) rattlesnakes Pair of male Northern Pacific (Western) rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) wrestling in a mating combat dance in Briones Regional Park, Contra Costa County, California

Photo: Pair of male Northern Pacific (Western) rattlesnakes Pair of male Northern Pacific (Western) rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) wrestling in a mating combat dance in Briones Regional Park, Contra Costa County, CaliforniaPurchase Prints or License Usage.ID# 180207s_BA3-0093

File Under: I’m not a wildlife photographer… except when I am.

I’m a landscape, outdoor recreation, travel and destination photographer. I don’t consider myself a wildlife photographer any more than I’d call myself a fashion photographer… except when I am; in other words, when an opportunity readily presents itself. I’ve openly stated that I don’t have the patience or the passion to be a dedicated wildlife photographer. However, that doesn’t mean I’d ignore an opportunity when something wanders in front of my camera lens.

Such was the case during a recent hike in my local Briones Regional Park. This is where I go to do my exercise hikes, often without a camera. However, on this particularly warm (nearly record-breaking) February day, I did pack my hiking cameras (A Sony Rx100mIII & A6300) and tripod with the intent of shooting a sunset from a distant ridge. As I was coming across the top of the hill and heading down toward a neighboring Valley, I saw a woman standing alone just at the corner of a trail. I could instantly see some movement in front of her.

To my surprise were these two rattlesnakes engaged in what I first thought to be actual mating. Due to the relatively small size at about 3-feet long each, I assumed they were both relatively young juveniles. But with a closer look, it was easy to see each had quite a number of rattles already well-established on their tail. In doing a little bit of research on the web, I learned that rather than being a male and female in a courtship ritual, these are actually two male Northern Pacific Western rattlesnakes — not to be confused with the western diamondback rattlesnake — doing a combat dance to prove seniority and dominance prior to mating. During this ‘dance’, one male tries to prove that it is larger by reaching higher than the other male and forcing it down onto the ground. Experts believe this is done within sight of a female rattlesnake prior to breeding courtship, although a female does not always need to be evident for this behavior to occur. Eventually, the more dominant snake would win out, and the loser would simply move along.

The woman I met on the trail said she had been watching the snakes for at least five minutes and was a little bit afraid to try and move past them. Typically, when I see a single rattlesnake on the trail, I usually stamp my feet on the ground quite hard in an effort to create vibrations that will encourage it to move along off the trail. These snakes seemed to have no real interest in us bystanders other than an occasional momentary pause and glance in our direction combined with a few extra flicks of their tongue before they resumed the combat dance.

I first used my tiny RX100 to grab some quick snapshots. I then decided pretty quickly that this opportunity was so good and special it warranted me backing off a few feet and digging out the larger Sony A6300 with its 18-105mm Power Zoom lens to try and grab some better photos and even snag some quick video clips. I shot a number of still frames and a few video segments while hand-holding the camera at about knee level looking down at the LCD panel.

Now if I was a ‘real’ wildlife photographer, I would have had a nice long wide aperture lens like a 300mm F4 or perhaps my Nikon 80-400 Zoom and I would have been brave enough to get down on my belly and look through the viewfinder to really work the scene and get as many keeper shots as I could. However, these snakes could move and twist pretty quickly and I wasn’t that committed to getting down on the ground next to a few hissing rattlesnakes. Yes, I know… no ‘real wildlife photographer’ badge for me. But then again, also no rattlesnake bites either. 🙂

Although I didn’t take the time or have the equipment to really work this seen the way a true wildlife photographer would, I was delighted to get these few special shots of what is apparently a fairly rare sight to witness, especially in my local park.

Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.


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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Interesting photo Gary – I didn’t know they had this behaviour! Very cool to have happened upon this while you were carrying a camera. Like you I am a wildlife opportunist and will photograph animals when they wander nearby, but rarely look for them specifically. I’ve heard rattlesnakes near me but have only actually photographed Garter snakes, which are a bit more relaxing to be around!

    • Gary Crabbe says:

      Thanks, Michael. Personally I prefer the Gopher Snake or King Snake encounters but after the adrenaline wears off, the rattlesnake encounters are always the most memorable. I can point out any spot on any trail where I’ve seen one.

  • Brenda Tharp says:

    Holy cow, Gary! What a special opportunity to witness this behavior!! You did great with your coverage. I too would not be on the ground at eye level, lol. Good thinking to do the video along with the stills; sometimes the movie tells the full story while the still captures a moment in the story – and they both work in this case. Thanks for sharing it here.

    • Gary Crabbe says:

      Thanks, Brenda. I really appreciate that. Yeah, video isn’t my first instinct, so I feel glad I took the time to get the couple clips as I don’t really expect to see something like this again.

  • Susan Andrews says:

    Nice! Wish I had been there. I just may have gotten down on my belly…tempting. Thanks for the explanation of the behavior. I must say the video conjured up memories of teenage boys sparing over just about anything.

    • Gary Crabbe says:

      Susan, Yup, teenage boys and writhing rattlesnakes: Both two things I prefer not to tangle with… each can be a bit venomous in their own way. – Give them both a wide berth whenever possible, or wear thick gloves when trying to corral them. 🙂

  • Great story and photos, especially for a non-wildlife photographer, whatever that is. I wonder if a female was nearby. Yikes.

    • Gary Crabbe says:

      Thanks, David. According to the California Herps website, the answer about the female is Often… usually, but not always within sight of this sort of behavior display.

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