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How I got the shotWildlife

How I Got the Contest-Winning Shot

By January 4, 2023No Comments
A wild western diamondback rattlesnake crotalus atrox strikes a green jay cyanocorax yncas at a small waterhole on a private ranch in south texas - image is completely wild and not set up in any way. © Dave Welling

A wild western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) strikes a green jay (Cyanocorax yncas) at a small waterhole on a private ranch in south Texas. This image is completely wild and not set up in any way. © Dave Welling

By Dave Welling

I was photographing wildlife from a blind at a small waterhole in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, when two beautiful green jays flew in and perched. Green jays are only found in the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. I had never seen this species before so I promptly composed and started firing away as soon as they landed.

Quick reaction

When one flew to the other side of the small waterhole I concentrated on the still perched jay. Suddenly, I heard the other jay calling violently. I looked over to see the bird had been struck right behind the head by a western diamondback rattlesnake. I was stunned by what I saw but managed to swing my camera around, quickly compose and capture several images of this life and death drama.

That day I was not capturing flight shots, so I was using a shutter speed around 1/125 of a second for a little additional depth of field. The slow shutter speed caused the jay’s wings to blur adding action to the scene. The jay’s flailing wings and the stark eyes of the diamondback anchor the scene and emphasize how violent nature can be. The jay tried to get away but the diamondback never let go and, after about five minutes, the jay succumbed to the venom.

Normally pit vipers strike their prey, release, and then follow the prey heat trail until it dies. The snake seemed to know it couldn’t do this with a bird that would fly away (maybe snakes are smarter than we think!). When the jay died, the rattler released its hold and moved around the bird to swallow it headfirst.  It took about 15 minutes from initial strike to the jay’s feet and tail disappearing down the throat of the diamondback and I was able to document the entire process.

Dave Welling won the Grand Prize Nature’s Witness Award in the National Wildlife 2022 Photo Contest with this photo. You can see all of the winners on the National Wildlife Federation website.

Taken shortly after the prize-winning photo, this image shows the final moments as a rattlesnake swallows the bird. © Dave W

Once in a lifetime

I was extremely lucky to photograph this once in a lifetime event. I was also VERY lucky since I had been standing right where the diamondback was curled under a log a few minutes before I returned to the blind and the jays flew in. I never saw the five foot rattler. I guess the rattler thought I was too big to eat and didn’t threaten it so it ignored me (which I greatly appreciated – I was bitten by a diamondback a few years prior and it was not fun spending two days in a hospital getting antivenom!).

I believe this image conveys the stark challenges of living all wildlife faces on a daily basis. When people view this image I hope they will think about how they might help the environment and improve the chances for wildlife’s survival rather than continue to degrade and destroy the land, air and water that all species, including man, need to survive.

Equipment information: Nikon F5s 35mm film camera; Nikkor 500mm f4 AF-S VR lens; Nikon fill flash; Gitzo tripod; Velvia 50 film rated @ 80.

Dave Welling is a full-time professional photographer specializing in wildlife, landscape and nature with over 80,000 6×7, 6×4.5 and 35mm film and digital images. He has been capturing evocative images of the natural world for over 25 years, producing the highest quality images for publication. His images often capture unique behavioral characteristics of wildlife or special lighting or weather conditions of landscapes. His images have previously won prizes in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, National Wildlife and Nature’s Best photo competitions. Welling is a charter member of NANPA. His searchable library of more than 10,000 images available for licensing is at