Dave Welling Captures A Rare Image and Much More

Dave Welling recently captured a once-in-a-lifetime image: a rattlesnake capturing a Green Jay at a waterhole. It is a striking image rarely caught on camera and it was a surprise to him when it happened. Dave is a nature photographer from Southern California and has been photographing for over 25 years; specializing in wildlife and natural landscapes.

His photography has appeared in magazines such as National Geographic Adventure, Kids, Explorer and Travel; National Wildlife’s Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard; Nature’s Best; Outdoor Photographer; Sierra; BirdWatching; Living Bird and Birds&Blooms; in calendars and note cards from Audubon; Barnes & Noble; COMDA; Inner Reflections; National Wildlife; Northword Press; Palm Press; PlanetZoo; Pomegranate Communications; Sierra; World Wildlife Fund; and books from National Geographic; Capstone; Farcountry Press; Grand Canyon Association; Prentice Hall; Voyageurs’ Press; Cowles Creative; Holt Reinhart; Houghton Mifflin; Prentice Hall; Trident Press; Rio Nuevo Publications; Tyndale House.

Dave is the featured photographer in Texas Wildlife Portfolio from FarCountry Press and has produced a coffee table photography book, Sanctuary, on his 27 years of working with wildlife rescue animals at the Wildlife Waystation, a rescue facility in Southern California. The 120 page book features images and stories of some of the 76,000 wild animals that have found a home or been helped by the Wildlife Waystation. Wild animals from native ground squirrels to African lions, tigers. leopards chimps, wolves and brown and black bears have all called the Waystation home during Dave’s 27 year relationship with the Waystation.

We asked Dave to tell us about his rare image and many more great examples of his nature photography.

The image of the diamondback rattlesnake striking the green jay is probably my “once in a lifetime” wildlife image. It is certainly unique and I was very surprised when it happened right in front of my photo blind at a small pond on a private ranch in south Texas. I was photographing two green jays who came in to drink. They split up and one flew to the other side of the pond. As I was continuing to photograph the remaining jay I hear several loud jay screaming calls and looked over to see the diamondback with his fangs securely locked in the back of the neck of the jay. It took a few seconds to register but I did manage to swing my lens around and start photographing. The jay fought hard flapping its wings trying to get loose, but to no avail. I was shooting at 1/125 second so the wings did blur adding a dynamic feel to the image. I watched and photographed the complete sequence from just after the strike until the diamondback swallowed the jay. The last image in the sequence just shows the tip of the feet disappearing down the snake’s throat. The whole process took about 30 minutes. What I found very interesting was the snake never let go of the jay until it expired. Rattlesnakes are normally ambush predators, striking their prey and then immediately releasing the prey so they do not get injured accidentally by the prey struggling to get lose. They follow the heat trail of the prey until it succumbs and then the snake devours the animal. The rattlesnake here seemed to know that if it released the bird it would fly away and there would be no heat trail.

I am always impressed when I see these close-ups of Dragonfly’s and how close you got. What’s the trick?

Photographing dragonflies is a lot like photographing many other wild animals. It requires patience, stealth and knowledge of your animal species. Dragonflies have tremendous eyesight and can easily sense motion so moving slowly, trying not to loom over them and staying back a reasonable distance greatly improve your chances for capturing great images. I was especially pleased that the Sarracenia spiketail images came out well. This is a newly discovered species and probably less than 20 people have actually photographed it. I am also one of only four or five people that have images of the species mating. I keep a greater working distance when photographing dragonflies and damselflies, or odonates, by using a variety of long lenses, from the Nikon 200-400mmF4 to the Sigma 50-500mm to the new Nikon 80-400mmF4-5.6. I use extension tubes to focus closer than the minimum focus distance of the basic lens and usually photograph from a tripod although I am testing the vibration reduction capability on the new 80-400mm lens using it  handheld and the results to date look very promising. Eliminating the tripod will give me much greater mobility in moving around as I follow a dragonfly.

Alaska is certainly the place for Eagles. What technical requirements are needed for this type of shot?

Bald eagles are fish eaters so they spend a lot of time around rivers and streams that have salmon runs. You research when and where the salmon runs occur and plan your photo trip accordingly. You are not always able to get close to eagles so you need long lenses and you need cameras with high speed continuous shutter speeds to capture action sequences when the eagles fly in to snatch a salmon from the stream or when two eagles battle over a fish or for dominance on a perch. Alaska often has less than optimum weather conditions so you are often photographing in low light and cold conditions. You need digital cameras that offer high ISO settings without significant noise contribution and you need proper clothing for the weather conditions. Even if you are shooting from a tripod, if you are freezing and shaking from the cold you won’t capture a stable sharp image. Be prepared personally and with the right gear and tripod for the action and the conditions.

Here you have the bird positioned in front of the perfect background as many would argue. How did that happen?

I had my photo blind set up at a small pond on a private ranch in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas photographing a myriad of birds, coyotes and whitetail deer that came in to drink. There was a 10 foot mesquite tree just to the right of my blind that was a perfect distance from my lens position and I photographed 119 species of birds that perched in that tree at one time or another during the several months I was photographing there. A couple of the perches were perfect in that the background tree clutter was at least 40 feet behind the tree so it displayed as a soft greenish yellow wash when photographing with long lenses with their inherent shallow depth of field. Luckily, when this guy flew in, I had my 200-400mm Nikon lens on my camera. A Cooper’s hawk is not a large hawk but it’s much bigger than a songbird so the 200-400mm lens allowed me to frame the bird perfectly at about 320mm. He watched me for about 20 minutes until he decided to see if I looked any better from an inverted position. Normally, I spend a lot of time in a blind just watching the animals come and go, getting a feel for the place. On this day I provided the entertainment.

This could not be a cuter set of models if you will, but certainly some effort went into this image?

We were on a photo safari in Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania back when you could camp in the crater so we got an early start and kind of wandered a bit looking for likely subjects. We found a small lion pride relaxing in some tall grasses but our guide felt there was something going on because even though the lions were relaxing they were extremely alert (I cannot stress enough how a knowledgeable guide can make or break your photo opportunities). There was nothing overly exciting for us to photograph with the pride animals we could see but the guide decided to VERY slowly drive around the area and see if something might be hiding in the grasses. Sure enough, several yards away, a female lion had her “mini-pride” of three cubs in an area where she could watch over them without interference from aggressive males. We stopped and waited for about an hour while the kids roamed around and then something happened, no one knew for sure what, and the cubs made a mad dash for “mom”. Securely anchored between her front paws they grouped to survey the surroundings and the magical group photo op occurred. Again, knowledge and patience paid off.

This is a wonderful image! I could see it in a gift card or poster. Are the second and third falling asleep while on watch duty?

Prairie dogs live in communal groups with numerous burrows. They will emerge from their burrows to browse on grasses but its hard to watch for predators, especially raptors soaring overhead if you’re bent down eating grass shoots. So, individuals are “nominated” to be guards and watch while the others forage. In this case, the threesome had been on guard duty for a while – I had watched them for about an hour. It’s not exciting work and finally a couple of them couldn’t keep their eyes open. Fortunately, the one in front was awake when the other two plopped off or all three of them would have fallen over. A number of people have really enjoyed this image. It is available as a Sierra note card and has been in numerous calendars. The Utah prairie dog is a federally threatened species so that makes the image all that more important to me.

A tender moment between parent and cub. Tell us how you captured this.

I mentioned above, I have volunteered at a wildlife rescue facility near my home for almost 27 years. I have watched thousands of animals come into the facility and these tigers were a very special case. They were rescued from severe living conditions on a farm in, believe it or not, Ireland. There were five Siberian tigers on the farm living in squalid conditions when a wildlife organization in England heard about them and took custody of the tigers. Unfortunately, after considerable effort was made to find a suitable home for the animals to no avail, the time was at hand where, even though Siberian tigers are highly endangered in the wild,  these animals were going to be euthanized because a suitable home could not be found. At the last minute, the organization heard of the Wildlife Waystation and they contacted the Waystation and the organization immediately agreed to take the four remaining animals (by that time one of the cubs had perished). Arrangements were made and the Waystation spent several thousand dollars setting up caging and ponds for the animals. They arrived a few days later and took to their new enclosure immediately. There was a female tiger with two young cubs and a massive male, the largest I have ever seen. He had to be kept separate from the others or he might have killed the cubs to bring the female into heat. The mother and her cubs would explore the grounds of the enclosure and then relax together during the heat of the day. The tender relationship between this mother and her cubs was wonderful to watch. They would share intimate moments together quite often. I would spend hours on some days just watching them and this opportunity presented itself late one morning. I had to shoot all my images through heavy chain link fencing so I had to handhold my equipment and had to be very careful to make sure the use of flash did not disturb the animals. I had to get close to the chain link to photograph through the crosshatched wires and make sure wires didn’t enter into the image so I also had to always be on the alert to make sure one of the cubs did not sneak up on me and try and hook my pants through the chain link. Again, patience and knowledge of the subject helped me capture this intimate scene.

Another magic moment that you just don’t get see to see often. Did you get lucky here?

Whenever you capture a moment like this, luck is always involved. Patience, knowledge and the right equipment are critical but those elements cannot predict exactly how the animals will act, react or interact. When you find your subject and get set up, you have to be alert and ready to fire the shutter at a moment’s notice. Often these unique moments only last a few second, as was the case here. I watched this alpha male gray wolf interact with his pack mates and the pups for about a week and was getting into their routine. The adult would take the time to run and play with the pups just about every day and they would often nuzzle each other or exchange looks that were truly amazing. Here, the male and one of the pups were off to the side with three other pups a short distance away. The pup suddenly stopped bouncing around and came up to “dad” and I sensed something might be coming so I started shooting as this scene unfolded. I think if I had waited until the actual interaction I would have missed it (thank you high speed continuous!).

This is the type of lighting most of us live for.

This was my second morning of my first visit to Goblin Valley. I knew the dawn light would illuminate the complete butte from behind me but worried that I would get flat, straight on lighting that might not be flattering. Well, I need not have worried. The lighting with some cloud activity just at dawn made Wild Horse Butte explode with the warm glow of dawn light. I don’t think I have ever seen it as good. But that is why many of us go back to the same locations time after time. We keep hoping to get that ultimate image. I will never capture the ultimate image but I certainly hope I am able to continually try.

You clearly had something magical happening here. Is there a name for these ice clusters?

The ice crystals are called rime ice. Some people call this hoarfrost but, technically these crystals are different and the correct term is rime ice. I almost didn’t stop for this image. I have photographed at this location in Yosemite on numerous winter days. When I passed by and the light was dead due to thick storm clouds and I didn’t hold out much hope for new opportunities. Then I saw the rime ice, magnificent formations I have never seen there. I decided maybe it’s worth a wait. I was there about an hour and the clouds parted briefly, providing warm light on El Capitan and the clouds over Half Dome. I got into the Merced River with my tripod so I could photograph from a low angle and include the rime ice formations as the strong foreground element using my Nikon 20mm lens. I had the place to myself for most of that time but just as I finished a tour bus pulled up and disgorged about 40 people into the small parking area where I was shooting. It was time to leave – I made a loop circuit around the Valley and returned to the same spot about an hour and a half later. It had warmed up, the snow had turned to rain and the rime ice crystals were gone. Grab the opportunities when you find them – they may not be there later.

This shows a very interesting band of colored light. Is this pre-sunrise?

The Eastern Sierras run north and south down the central spine of California and the area around Lone Pine is famous for the amazing boulder formations in the valley below the mountains. This area, the Alabama Hills, is a landscape photographer’s paradise with interesting geological formations and sandstone arches everywhere. The sun rises over the White Mountains to the east of the Alabama Hills so your typical photograph is taken around dawn for the “sweet light” time. On this particular day, I was driving along the main highway just south of Lone Pine on my way to Bishop and lakes in the Sierras to test a Hasselblad X-Pan camera for a photo magazine. There were clouds to the east so dawn did not look promising. But, the low clouds over the White Mountains opened slightly and the predawn sun reflected off the high clouds and lit up the Sierras with the pink band of light you see in the image. I am driving 65 miles an hour staring at this changing scene and going berserk because I can’t find a place to pull over where I can get a view of the mountains and the valley boulders. Suddenly the nearby hillside dropped down and I pulled off the road, grabbed the X-Pan and jumped from the car in time to get about three images before the clouds thickened and the light died. That light only lasted about two or three minutes. Sometimes luck trumps skill. You just have to go for it and be prepared. Fortunately, I had loaded film in the Hasselblad so I was ready when the opportunity arose.

You can view more of Dave’s work on his stock web sites: www.strikingnatureimagesbydavewelling.com, www.agpix.com/davewelling

His fine art print web site: http://dave-welling.artistwebsites.com/

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

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