The province’s highways are a reliable place to have encounters with B.C.’s amazing wildlife, but few drivers have had the experience of 100 Mile House’s Murray Zelt, and fewer still have managed to capture it on film.
Zelt, an aspiring wildlife photographer, was driving to Kamloops on the Mother’s Day weekend to see his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. As he headed down the hill toward the Deadman River crossing west of Savona on Highway 1, something flew out of the ditch to his right and almost hit his vehicle.
“I thought it must be an eagle or a hawk, it was so big,” says Zelt. He looked back over his shoulder and recognized the bird as a red-tailed hawk; a relatively common sight in the area. What was not so common, however, was what the raptor was carrying.
“I saw the bird first, and then I saw it had a huge snake in its talons,” says Zelt. “Crazy!”
Fortunately, he never goes anywhere without his camera, so after pulling safely off to the side of the road he snatched it from the vehicle and jumped out to try to grab some shots.
“The bird didn’t want any part of me possibly interrupting its meal, but I managed to get some shots as it flew away,” says Zelt, who adds that he was surprised to see the hawk managing to gain altitude, even with its heavy load.
“It was a big snake, definitely not a garter, and it didn’t look like a bull snake.” The diamond pattern on its back made Zelt think it was a rattlesnake, as they are known to inhabit the area, and that possibility made him cautious, as well as more than a bit uneasy.
“I was trying to get closer, so I hopped a barbed wire fence. I was paranoid about not stepping where there might be a rattlesnake, because I thought that if the hawk was packing one there might be more around. I was wearing shorts, and I didn’t want to end up going to hospital with a bite instead of going to see my grandson.”
As he picked his way through the sagebrush he was more focussed on looking through the viewfinder than looking at the ground. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt a sharp poke and pain in his calf, and turned around, envisioning a snake biting down on his leg.
However, it wasn’t a snake that was stuck to him, but a ball of prickly pear cactus the size of a kiwi fruit.
“That was a relief, seeing that large cactus cluster stuck in my skin, even though it hurt,” he says with a laugh. “I was extra cautious on the way back to the car.”
Zelt says that wildlife photography is a hobby he developed almost by chance. He worked at the Chasm sawmill north of Clinton for more than 20 years, until it closed last year, then transferred to the West Fraser plywood plant in Williams Lake. He credits a former site manager at Chasm for getting him interested in the hobby a few years ago.
“What got me into photography was a Nikon camera I got as a 25-year service award at Chasm, so I’ll always give credit to Adrian, the site manager. I went up to him a few weeks after the ceremony and said that it had really inspired me to get started in photography.” He has prints for sale at Junctions Coffee House in Cache Creek, and wants to pursue more photography when he retires.
Zelt’s hobby means he does a lot of hiking, walking, and exploring in his spare time, and he says it has opened up a whole new world.
“It awakens the senses a lot more, makes you attentive to wildlife. You see a lot of things most people won’t because your senses are in tune with all the amazing creatures out there. There’s so much out there to see if you just open your eyes and appreciate it.”
He always has his camera with him, because he doesn’t want to miss any shots. Before the hawk/snake showdown, he says that the most bizarre thing he ever saw and photographed was a hungry bald eagle chasing a male mallard duck at 103 Mile Lake.
“It circled the far end of the lake in hot pursuit until, like an aerial manoeuvre from Top Gun, the eagle, now fully inverted, grabbed the mallard as feathers billowed to the ground. I snapped rapid-fire pics of the wild encounter and luckily got the shot, but it had to be close to 400 yards away, so obviously it wasn’t the sharpest. It was still very cool, though.”
The shot of the red-tailed hawk with the snake was also a long one, even with a zoom lens, but Zelt says it’s a decent depiction of what those birds will go after for food. When he got home he did some research and found that the hawks will tackle rattlers on occasion, but speculates that they sometimes get bitten and lose the battle.
“I’m curious to know how that particular encounter turned out.”