Toby Garter: A Short Video Documentary

Last year I was fortunate to observe a few Eastern Garter Snakes late in March. I had set out to track when and how life returned to Medway Creek, without expecting to find any snakes so early in the season. After stumbling upon many Garter Snakes and being amongst a few individuals that I photographed for the first time, I started following one unique fellow with a rather dark abdomen compared to the others around. His name is Toby and this is his story.

Toby is just another male Garter Snake in this vast country who spent the cold months huddled in a hibernacula with his fellow mates. Now he is out and about, exploring the dense woodland surrounding a fragment of Medway Creek – a tributary of Thames River in London, Ontario, with one important mission – to find a mate and pass on his genes.

(The script of narration is provided at the bottom)

If you watched the documentary, you may have had the same question in mind – was it really a female or just a trickster male? I was quite fascinated by the change in the behaviour of Toby and his competitor. Although the stranger looked bigger than these two, which strongly suggests that it was a female, there is a slight chance that it was a male, one of the few who can mimic female pheromones*.

All garter snakes rely heavily on the pheromones to communicate with one another. Once the females are out of the winter dens, the males are alerted by their scent and surround them in what is called a mating ball, but only one (or few) succeeds in copulating. Eastern Garter Snakes are known to produce copulatory plugs that act as a physical barrier against additional matings, but according to this study, multiple paternity was confirmed in 50% of the litters examined. The breeding season lasts until April, and the female gestates the eggs for 2-3 months. After mating, the female moves on to the summer feeding grounds, away from the frenzy of males. Interestingly, they give birth to live snakes, which can be seen hiding beneath boulders in July-August months.

Toby was one determined snake and his search was a long one. I went back the other day to find him, but couldn’t. I hope he was successful in finding his soulmate, if not last, then this year!

*This particular behaviour is extensively studied in Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis (Red-sided Garter Snake). Two excellent papers regarding this behaviour, but with rather contrasting observations can be viewed here and here. I did not find any references concerning this behaviour in Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis (Eastern Garter Snake), therefore I presume it was a female.

Here's the script for those who may not follow my accent:
"This is Toby. He is an eastern garter snake. He is out exploring around the hibernacula where many other snakes hibernated for winter. The Eastern Garter Snake is the commonest snake of Ontario. They are semi-venomous, and prefer hunting smaller prey such as spiders, frogs and fish.
Here we see two males interacting and gathering information by flicking their tongues. The males are the first to wander out as soon as spring arrives. This helps them to be ready to mate with females as they come out of the dens a little later in the season. The month of March and April is the mating season for these snakes.
He will meet many other den mates on his way, who are also his competitors.
This rather large snake suddenly appeared on the path and lead to some behavioral changes in Toby and the other male. Who is this stranger? Toby has a hint.
The rapid tongue flicking and brisk head movements mean something is up in the air. They have probably caught a scent, perhaps that of female pheromones.
Toby and the other male compete with one another to track the scent. The search is frantic, and the competition tight. He then decides to investigate the path where the stranger passed from. His curiosity is apparent from his side-to-side head movement and rapid tongue flicking. The other male as well comes down to investigate. Toby goes back, perhaps losing the scent trail – but he hasn’t given up yet.
He then proceeds to the other side of the path – closer to the creek where he searches exhaustively, from branch to branch and boulder to boulder, constantly tasting the air.
Toby’s search will go on until he finds his mate. The day has almost come to an end, but he has fierce competition to face in the future as he wanders in this small but beautiful paradise at Medway Creek."
This was my first ever try at filming wildlife as well as at narrating. Please feel free to critique or comment, and thank you for reading and watching!

How to Point-and-Shoot: Insects and Spiders

Whenever I visit any natural area, I always observe the insects that call it home. My fascination with insects grew out of my passion for butterflies. Every naturalist shares such a beginning. It is often one organism that catches the eye, and that one organism becomes the inspiration to learn about many others. As I began photographing butterflies, I was introduced to a macro-world full of wonderful creatures that I could easily observe and photograph wherever I went. And the more time I spent with them, the more I realized how complex their role in an ecosystem is. While biologists collect samples in the field to study these insects more closely, some also prefer to photograph their subjects in the wild, and although a photograph may not serve the purpose of precise identification, it is a tool to document behavioural observations that may not be seen in a glass jar. In this article, I will talk about photographing insects and spiders using a point-and-shoot camera.
A point-and-shoot camera focuses on a Praying Mantis
There are very few large insects that roam the planet today, and most that we see barely measure an inch or two, hence to be able to photograph all the details, we have to get really close. If you’re under a tight budget, the best bet to photograph insects and spiders up-close is a point-and-shoot camera with more than 5 Megapixels and a macro range of at least 5 centimeters (these two particulars are always provided in the specifications). Such cameras are no match to the DSLRs with macro lenses, but they serve a great purpose, thanks to their cheaper price, light weight, and compactness to carry anywhere without worrying about changing lenses all the time.

Photographing insects is not as easy as it seems. Although easier to approach than birds, their small size makes it difficult to get all the parameters right. Some of these were discussed in the How to point-and-shoot: Butterflies article, but not all insects are the same. Some are really small, some really shiny and some extremely shy. In order to get a perfect photograph, you might have to wait for quite some time until you find one at the right time and the right place – when the light is right and the background perfect.
1. Hoverfly (2008)
Exif: 1/2000sec F2.7 ISO400 at 5.22mm
It took me a while to capture a decent photograph of any insect. At first, my camera was just another point-and-shoot camera. But through trial-and-error, I realized a point-and-shoot camera can offer more than just a means to photograph something. Most point-and-shoots come with a variety of options, from Aperture and Shutter-speed priority to Manual setting. This enables the photographer to think and act before clicking. After countless disappointments, I realized my camera’s technical disabilities and learnt to avoid them. The basic problems with most point-and-shoot cameras are: noise – even at the ISO of 400 as in picture 1, the noise has almost distorted the image. At an ISO of 80 (and up till ISO200), the noise remains considerably minor, as seen in picture 2. Blotchy backgrounds – even at lowest F-number, the depth-of-field is always shallow. Although this can be avoided by keeping a larger distance between the subject and the background, it is not always possible as the subject might perch anywhere in the thickets. I avoid this by slightly zooming into the subject (up till 2x). I have discussed this issue in detail in How to point-and-shoot: Butterflies article.
2. Hoverfly (2009)
Exif: 10/3200sec F3.2 ISO80 at 11.00mm
3. Flash – Flash can be controlled in most point-and-shoot cameras, but the intensity of flash on shiny subjects always burn the details (as in picture 2, where some details are washed by the light from the flash). Hence always keep the intensity of the flash to a minimum, or cover it with translucent paper or a cloth to diffuse the flash.
3. Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus
Exif: 10/2000sec F6.3 ISO200 at 78.00mm
As a naturalist, I always aim to photograph the subject from all angles possible – from top, from the sides and, if possible, the head region (even the shape and colour of the antennae helps in identification!). This aids in identifying the subject as well as serves the purpose of a photographic record which might help in differentiating various morphs of the same species.

Some insects, such as wasps, for instance, are too sensitive to movement and the closer you go, the farther they fly off. To capture such insects, be a few feet farther and zoom in as much as possible. You might get a great shot, or miss the opportunity to get a better shot, but such photographs may help in identifying the insect. Always make sure to keep a higher F-number (above F5) to have maximum area in focus. Zooming into a small subject (say at 15x) at a lower F-number yields a soft image. Depending on the sunlight, keep the ISO less than 400 because a tele-photo of an insect will result in a noisy image. And the more you crop, the more prominent is the noise (as in Picture 1). I once followed the movement of a Northern Paper Wasp as it visited flowers. The wasp was very quick, spending only a few seconds on every flower. After positioning myself at a few feet, I zoomed into the wasp and followed her movements. It was a cloudy day, hence I had to make sure that there was enough light on the wasp as well as keep the image as sharp as possible (see picture 3). One can also see a yellow streak of pollens dusted just below the wings – an excellent example of how pollinators work cooperatively with plants, with the plant providing food and the wasp making cross-fertilization possible for the plant. Not all insects are so uncooperative, in fact most will allow you to approach real close. This is your opportunity to make the best out of the subject and your camera’s abilities. But there are a few points to remember before photographing some insects which are discussed below.
4. Cicindela punctulata
Exif: 1/640sec F5.6 ISO80 at 10.4mm
All shiny insects, especially beetles are a slight challenge while photographing. Their glossy exoskeleton is highly reflective, resulting in a photograph showing false colours of the beetle. This problem is more prominent during a sunny day and while using a flash. I absolutely welcome a cloudy day while photographing such subjects, because clouds act as natural light diffusers. If it is too dark, I use a two-layered translucent paper over the flash to diffuse the light. If you do find yourself with a shiny bug on a sunny day, try to cast a shadow on the subject using your hand, but if it is too sensitive to shadows, just go for the shot! I usually use flash even on a sunny day, because it helps to light up the dark shadows casted by the sun.

Let’s take the case of the picture 4. I saw this Tiger Beetle only once and that too, on a bright sunny day. Had I not used flash, the image would show high contrast between light and shadows, with shadows being too dark and the surrounding too bright. To lessen such an effect, use the flash so that the details in the shadows are visible as well.

Insects with transparent wings, such as Odonates, are also a challenge for a point-and-shoot camera. Many insects with transparent wings reflect light at certain angles. This is especially a problem if you need to capture the details of the wing venation. If you are photographing a damselfly on a sunny day, try to remain parallel to the plane of the wings, so that there is very little reflected light reaching the camera. Similarly, try the same technique while using flash. If it is not possible because of the hyperactivity of the insect, take the photograph in any-which-way possible. Once I came across a damselfly in a shaded region of the forest (picture 5). After getting satisfying close-ups, I followed it for a while in order to get the entire damselfly well in focus, but it was very sensitive to movement. I managed this photograph at a slight angle that reflected a brilliant shade of colour not visible to the naked eye.
4. Clear-winged Forest Glory, Vestalis gracilis
Exif: 1/125sec F4.5 ISO80 at 12.2mm
It is such incidents that result in accidentally beautiful photographs. Had I not used flash, the wings would have blended into the dark surrounding, and the brilliant violet sheen would have gone unnoticed. This goes to show how important the use of flash is in photographing such subjects.

Dragonflies and damselflies are among the insects that are long and slender – just like Praying Mantis and grasshoppers amongst others. Hence the plane of the angle is important in order to get the entire body in focus. I have discussed this issue in the How to point-and-shoot: Butterflies article. Although it is not a hard-and-fast rule, especially if you’re targeting only one part of the body, I find it visually appealing to photograph such subjects with their entire body in focus. And as I discussed earlier, it was always better to photograph from all the possible angles.

Since dragonflies keep their wings apart, photographing them from top is similar to photographing butterflies with wings at rest, but it’s tricky to photograph them from the sides. In such situations, focus on the body of the dragonfly instead of wing tips. This will blur the wings, and keep the body in focus.

All the insects we discussed are quite large, what’s really challenging is capturing smaller ones like ants and hoppers. Ants are probably the most difficult to photograph using a point-and-shoot camera since they are constantly on a move. If you ever come across a trail of ants, focus on any passing-by ant and keep steady, because very soon another ant will pass from the area of your focus. If they are slow or have halted, go as close as possible – without distracting them – to get the picture. While using Sony H7, I found that the closer I go to any small subject, the more difficult it becomes to photograph it – because most often the camera shadows the subject. If I decide to use flash at such a close distance, being an in-built flash, the light does not reach the subject since the lens covers the area of the flash. In such situations, I keep a distance of about 10 centimeters from the subject, and then slightly zoom in at about 2x. This gives enough area for the flashlight to reach the subject.
5. Camponotus irritans
Exif: 10/5000sec F3.2 ISO80 at 11.00mm
The above image of an ant was taken in a similar way. What was tricky about the image was to bring out as much details as possible on the ant, by keeping the Mealy bug from overexposing to the light. And although the Mealy bug was overexposed, the ant retained details as per my camera’s standards. When you come across a small insect sitting on a stick or on the edge of a leaf, you can get a bit closer. The trick is to keep the subject a little higher in the frame (about half or two thirds way up). By doing so, the flash light will not be blocked by the lens, thus illuminating the subject without casting the shadow of the lens.

Photographing spiders is very similar to what we discussed above, but there’s one point crucial for any naturalist while photograph spiders – their eyes. I always make sure to photograph the eye-pattern of any spider, because every spider family has a unique eye-pattern, which makes identification a little easier.

It is a Wandering Spider (family Ctenidae), which closely resembles a Wolf Spider (family Lycosidae). Had I photographed only from the dorsal side, I would have overlooked the different eye-pattern and assumed it to be a Wolf spider. Hence images of eye-patterns are important when it comes to spiders. But what if the spider is really small? In such cases, it is not always possible to focus straight on the eye-region of the spider (picture 6), hence photograph at an angle by focusing on the eye-region of the spider.
6. Wandering Spider, Ctenus sp.
Exif: 10/2000sec F4.5 ISO80 at 10.70mm
Although it will not provide great results, a cropped image will yield enough information to help in identifying the family to which the spider belongs. Photographing the entire body dorsally might aid in identifying the genus. The shape and structure of the web also aid in identifications. Use the same technique of keeping more distance between the subject and the background to yield a softer, less cluttered background as discussed in previous articles.

While I primarily focused on how to photograph insects and spiders from a naturalist’s perspective, there are ample of artistic opportunities while photographing insects up close. You have probably tried using a hand lens in front of the camera’s lens to get photographs of really small objects. If not, you must try it, for it works exceptionally well with any point-and-shoot cameras. This technique can be used to photograph insects, but you need a really still insect and really steady hands. I have used this technique to capture details of moth wing-scales and antennae. Although the photographs don’t turn to be exceptionally good, the details are good enough for such an inexpensive trick.

You will come across many opportunities to see insects doing various activities. This is your chance to document their behaviour. On a trip to Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, I saw this pair of Golden Dartlet damselflies mating (picture 7). The male is the colourful one resting on the leaf and the female is the one below hanging by her neck, chewing on a hopper in delight. I’m not sure if the food was a nuptial gift provided by the male, which is done by many invertebrates as well as vertebrates. The picture also depicts natural pest control in action, where the damselfly acts as a predator of the Hemipteran bug, some of which cause serious damage to vegetation. For such photographs, it is important to get the plane of angle parallel to the subjects, along with enough Depth of Field to keep both subjects in focus. There is always something happening once you step out of your house – either an Orb-weaver is weaving a new web, or a large insect has entangled itself in its web. If you look closer in the undergrowth, you may find a Jumping Spider stalking a grasshopper, or a team of ants bringing down a spider. All we have to do is look closely and cherish their tiny world. And once you’re hooked onto insect photography, you will find it hard not to notice anything!
7. Golden Dartlet, Ischnura aurora
Exif: 1/1250sec F4.0 ISO80 at 11.3mm
As the digital cameras revolutionized photography, it has also helped increase public awareness about biodiversity. It is through photography that we can reach out to people, educate them about the benefits of having beneficial arthropods such as Dragonflies and spiders around. It is a way to eradicate misconceptions that people hold such as dragonflies bite deliberately. In fact, we’re more likely to be bitten by a dengue-carrying mosquito than by a dragonfly! Photography is also tool to educate people about the beneficial and pest insects. This is especially helpful for farmers, gardeners and horticulturists, who have to deal with pest insects. It is also interesting to document insects visiting the backyards, and if you haven’t already, try to explore your backyards or balconies, for you may find really exciting bugs right under your nose. Happy exploring!

Also read: How to Point-and-Shoot Butterflies; How to Point-and-Shoot: Snakes