There are a lot of field herpers in the world. Yes, we may not be as large of a group as birders, but there are a lot of people who get out on a regular basis to look for reptiles and amphibians in the field. For instance, FieldHerpForum.com, the biggest and best field herping dedicated website out there has a hair under 3,000 registered users and many herpers don’t post online or advertise their hobby. We’re looking at a big group and all the field hours represented by our group has the potential to add up to a lot of good information on life history, conservation status, ecology and many other facets of herpetology. Thankfully, for this, we have the North American Field Herping Association (NAFHA) and the HERP Database.
NAFHA is a group of field herpers who pool their field data and expertise for the purpose of education, conservation and knowledge of reptile and amphibian species. Make no mistake, these three goals are all highly interconnected and dependent upon one another: education to the public of reptile and amphibians matters make them seem less like beasts to be feared and more like wonders to behold which inevitably leads to greater conservation, especially on the small scale levels which are the most important – think of the number of people out there who no longer bludgeon snakes or other herps to death because a friend or family member is a herper. And also, gaining the knowledge on reptiles and amphibians allows those of us who enjoy them to educate others, and allows organizations to implement that knowledge for large scale projects such as habitat conservation, etc. I strongly recommend herpers out there get involved with NAFHA, get to some group outings, and enter some (or all, if you have the time) of your finds into the database at NAHERP.com.
Although I am passionate about education, conservation and gaining knowledge of reptiles and amphibians, perhaps the best reason I can think of for being involved in NAFHA is the community of herpers involved. My first NAFHA trip was one I organized to northern Alabama for our very own Southeast Chapter, and upon arrival all of us were instantly friends and we had a superb time camping as well as getting out and enjoying looking for critters together. A year almost to the day later and I got to join up with 70-ish other herpers for the first NAFHA annual meeting in southern Illinois at Snake Road. This was, perhaps, one of the most fun gatherings I have ever been a part of: 70 people came together, many of them for the first time, and it was as if we were all old friends.
We, myself and good friend Don, arrived at the chilly campground late at night only to be faced with the predicament: we’re getting up early tomorrow to look for some hognoses – 6am-ish. We can either go to bed now, hang out for a little while and then go to bed, or go look for some cave salamanders. The answer? Anybody who’s ever been around a tried and true herper in a new locale certainly knows the answer: We hung out for a little bit, went out for cave salamanders (finding several thanks to our local guides,) hung out a little more – then at some point we closed our eyes for a minute or two.
Despite this lack of sleep, we awoke the next morning and caravanned across the state lines. Donald and I had the distinct pleasure of riding with my friends Daniel and Yvonne Dye – I first met the Dyes through NAFHA and we’ve had some pretty stellar times herping together since then (and every once in a while Daniel looks at a bug too.) In short order (ok, we got lost once,) we were there: a beautiful sandy prairie – prime Dusty Hognose (Heterodon gloydi or Heterodon nasicus gloydi) habitat.
To back up a smidgen – Dusty Hognoses are not common in Missouri. In fact, when speaking later with Mike Pingleton, he informed me that they were on the state’s endangered species list and subsequently taken off. You might think getting taken off the endangered species list is a good thing; this is not the case with Missouri’s Dusty Hogs – they were taken off because one hadn’t been seen in the state in 80 years.
Flash forward to 2012, and one or two have turned up at the site we were at just in the past year. I have learned to be skeptical when it comes to my chances of finding hognoses in the field (see http://fieldventures.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/the-great-white-whale/ ); so I was hopeful but not necessarily expectant. The expectation came when we began finding small, triangle-shaped burrows, some of them with recent tail slides going into them. Yes, expectation and excitement. Kind of like Christmas.
So we walked and walked looking for the critters. During that time I took a few breaks and just admired the beauty of the sandy prairie: I began to wish I had a decade or two to live nearby and immerse myself in the flora and fauna of the area, there’s no telling what secrets the place had if it had been hiding Hogs for 80 years. Though I was not the one to walk up on any of them (I was only about 10 meters away from one of the find though, so I count it,) our group of 20 or so herpers ended up with three Dusty Hognoses that day. We also turned up a Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemephora coccinea copei), which I was a little dismissive of, given the dozens one can see every night in some areas of southern Florida. I was abruptly chastised by Mike for failing to show respect for the critter: it was one of less than ten ever found in the state. Sorry Mike. After this, most of us headed back to visit with the new arrivals to the camp, and a few went on to a glade that has turned up some interesting herps in the past.
Dusty Hognose (Heterodon nascicus gloydi)
I opted to head back because I wanted to greet all the newcomers (this was actually just as much a social trip as a herping trip for me, after all,) and I also wanted to get my first look at the infamous Snake Road in daylight. It ended up bring cold and wet, but the beautiful thing about Snake Road is that it’s situated right at the edge of the ranges of many western species (and subspecies), so many of the herps Donald and I saw that seemed like old friends were actually completely different animals (Western Cottonmouths, Western Slimy Salamanders, etc.)
Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeriae)
That evening a group of 12 of us or so decided to go into town for some Barbeque: I found it interesting that a Barbeque dinner is a herping tradition even for herpers in the great white north. We ate there then returned to the camp, where we all partook of some great conversation and fun times. It was especially fun to hear of some of the adventures of the more nomadic herpers in our group like Marisa I., Tim W., Donald, and several others who spend great swaths of time traveling and enjoying North America’s herpetofauna.
And Dan Krull’s pancakes really deserve their own photo and caption.
The next day was a riot (almost literally, except there was no smashing of windows or looting.) All 70 NAFHA herpers departed to the road and began walking and searching. On paper, the conditions were pretty terrible that day: cold, still wet from yesterday. Did I mention cold? Well, with 70 herpers, even terrible conditions can be productive – in fact, it would be amazing to see what such a group would find under ideal conditions, because even so our species list was pretty impressive: Red Milksnake, Copperhead, Cottonmouth, Timber Rattler, Lesser Siren, Smooth Earth Snake, and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting. That evening I gave a talk on aquatic herp trapping, and once again enjoyed some time around the fire.
Donald and I had to leave early the next day for our last leg of the trip: going to Pigeon Mountain, GA in search of the Pigeon Mountain Salamander, and we left the group shortly into a search for a few Amystomid salamanders and a few other snakes in another area of IL. It was saddening to depart from a group that we’d had such a wonderful time with, but a few lifers were calling our name and we had a flight to catch some 8 or 9 hours south of where we were.
Over the long weekend, we had a huge mix of a lot of different views and philosophies, a lot of different ways to be divided: Atheists, Christians, republicans, democrats, libertarians, socialists, artists, businessmen, and any number of other categories. Despite this, I am not aware of one instance of strife or not getting along amongst the group: just one shared passion for reptiles and amphibians. It’s a beautiful thing, and begs one question: Who’s in for the NAFHA 2013 Annual Meeting?