Monday, June 09, 2008

What is herping for me? Is it primarily leisure activity? Is it a quasi-mystical way of communing with nature? Is it an addiction, scratching an itch that drives me insane if I don’t get out at least once a week and catch something? It’s probably all of the above, but it’s also a way to contribute to conservation efforts, a way (at the risk of cheesing out the reader) to make a difference.

I’ll note that this is not how it’s always been. My sense (primarily from talking with older herpers) of the early days is that collecting used to be a much bigger part of field herping. This was back before field herping and herpetoculture (keeping and breeding herps in captivity) split into relatively distinct hobbies. Thirty years ago you went out to the Pine Barrens and if you saw a really nice pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), or king snake (Lampropeltis getula) you bagged it. Back then there was less of a focus on breeding snakes in captivity to supply the pet trade. There was also less of a sense that herps were a finite resource, that populations could be depleted by collecting or by other pressures.

These days captive breeding is largely regarded as the correct (morally, environmentally) way to produce captives. (For the most part I agree, but I don’t see much wrong with the occasional temporary captive: a lot can be learned by keeping a critter for a few weeks and then letting it go again, provided it’s a common species, it’s legal to collect it, and you take care to avoid transmitting any diseases or parasites from your permanent collection.)

We’ve also become aware of just how fragile some of our herp populations are, as the same old timers lament the local declines of critters they used to see all the time: “Years ago you could catch spotted turtles in that pond…” or “we used to catch bags of corn snakes [Pantherophis guttata] along those tracks and sell them by the foot back in Philadelphia…” I remember having a conversation with a guy who’s been herping for at least seventy years and who remarked how common my coveted milksnakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) are in old barns in Delaware County. I’m not sure when the last time was that he drove around Delaware County, but I politely informed him that there are no longer many (any?) old barns left in Delaware County. Delaware County, like much of the region, is mostly sprawl now (If you can take me to an old barn in DelCo where I can flip milksnakes, I’ll buy you a six pack of the beer of your choice). Sprawl wipes out herps in many ways, habitat destruction and increased road mortality foremost among them. Pollution has hurt populations of other species (cricket frogs – Acris crepitans – in much of our area, for example); collection has probably had an impact on others, for example those spotted turtles and possibly box turtles (Terrapene carolina).

I’m pleased to see that a lot of my contemporaries have become active with conservation efforts. Over in New Jersey, Kid Chelonia has gotten close with state biologists and works with them to help survey herp populations. A lot of folks active on the Field Herp Forum Northeast forum report finds to their state Herp Atlas Projects (see the links on the sidebar).

On Saturday May 31st Jen and I attended a presentation at a marsh preserve in northern Chester County, PA. The people who own and manage the land are actively involved in bird conservation efforts, and they talked about how they’d like to use the property for educational and research efforts.

We watched a slide show and then popped outside for a quick nature walk on the embankment around one of the ponds at the edge of the marsh. It was a mixed group of local land owners, staff from conservation organizations, and local biologists. I was a little surprised by how many people weren’t aware that there are hobbyist field herpers out there. I guess we need to do more to promote our existence, and I suppose this was just such an opportunity.

I got to play the expert when we found a dead painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). Someone spotted it a few feet away. No painted turtle hangs out that close to that many people, and I declared it dead before I fished it out of the water. It’s carapace was split at the back and its plastron scraped. I think a snapper (Chelydra serpentina) might have crunched it, but it still strikes me as a little strange.

I pointed out the green frogs (Rana clamitans) calling like loose banjo strings around the pond, and then Jen spotted a little American toad (Bufo americanus). I showed it around and talked about how we’d seen them breeding back in April.

The last show-and-tell herp was a female stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus) who looked to be digging a hole as if to nest. However she was really skinny; I don’t think she had any eggs in her to lay. Everyone thought the name ‘stinkpot’ was funny for a turtle, but then I waved her under a few noses and everyone understood. Stinkpots (a.k.a. musk turtles) have scent glands at the bridges of their shell that release a strong, acrid odor kind of like burning rubber.

The most fun news to come out of the property, however, was that a local biologist will be doing some research to follow up on Scott and my observations of spotted turtles Memorial Day weekend. This is a direct result of my having reported the finds to the PA Herp Atlas Project. The biologist is concerned that the spotted turtles are in trouble in PA, and he’s planning on marking turtles there, the first step in gauging the health of the population.

This development is incredibly gratifying. I’m an avid environmentalist, and I’ve always been happy to report finds so that our state agencies can build robust databases for herp conservation efforts. However to see some of our observations generate additional research makes the contribution a little more tangible.

I’ll close with some pictures from a little road cruising we did in New Jersey. We joined Scott on his first cruising trip of the year. We’d been expecting temps in the low 80s with light rain and high humidity. We got the rain and humidity, but the temps were in the low 70s and high 60s – far from ideal. Still, we managed to find a few turtles.

Here’s a mud turtle (Kinosternon rubriventris) we helped across the road. It was a female, and there's a good chance it was a female heading onto land to nest.



Here’s a young snapper for whom we did the same favor. Snappers can also musk, as he demonstrated on my hands.



We were about to drive through a large puddle in a dirt road when we realized there was a turtle swimming in it. It was a female painted turtle. I wonder what she was thinking. Was this a break in a hike to go dig nest holes? Was she going around in circles, trying to find the deep end?




I’ll end with a shot of a fowler’s toad (Bufo fowleri). Around dusk we were walking around, and it popped out of the sand right in front of me.


Jen had a blast the whole night chasing these guys around on the road. At one point we got out to listen to calling frogs (mostly Fowlers toads and carpenter frogs - Rana vergatipes). Scott and I looked around after a couple minutes and realized Jen was a good 200 yards down the road, her headlight dancing back and forth as she scooped up more of her hopping little friend.

Now I’ve got to get around to writing up the report for the NJ Atlas project…


1 comment:

Roberta Petusky said...

Hello, Bernard. Just want to thank you for your commentary in the Inky today (7/27/08), which led me to check out your blog. I was enchanted by your stories and photos. Thanks for the enlightenment. --Roberta Petusky