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Field Collecting/Observing Sightings of herps in the wild, where-tos and how-tos, as well as photos of herps in their native environment.

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Old 05-02-2005, 03:08 AM   #1
Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide

This is a story that I had published in Notes From Noah back in the late '80s. With snake hunting season coming around, I thought maybe posting this would be appropriate.

Just today, I had a friend of mine call and among the topics we talked about, he mentioned that he took a trip to southern Maryland to look around for some herps. He said the trip was so discouraging that he will probably never go back there. Now I'm sure that many people feel this way when they don't find what they are looking for, but in this instance the discouragement was caused much less by the lack of herps, then the way that other herp hunters had carelessly destroyed every location in that area where even ancient rumors mentioned that herps had been found there in the past. Every piece of cover that could harbor a reptile was lifted and then left lying where it was dropped, rather than putting it back in it's original place and position. I found that within a very short time, my friend and I were shouting on the phone, not at each other, but with each other. My blood was boiling. It made me realize that I have been wanting to write something like this for a long time now, but time constraints always forced this idea to the back burner. Until now. Now I am getting damn mad.

The subject of this paper is one I feel should be pondered by anyone who goes into the field with even a casual interest in finding herps (or any plant, animal, insect, etc. for that matter), and has any regard for nature and the environment in which they search for their targets. We hear quite a bit about the destruction of the tropical rain forests and the casual manner sea turtles are killed every day by shrimpers. We decry the destruction of large areas by the developers' bulldozers when they plow gopher tortoises underneath the ground and then seal their doom with 6 inches of asphalt. Wetlands are drained, drylands sprout manicured housing developments, rivers and lakes are polluted, oceans are dying, the very groundwaters that provide the water we drink are tainted by chemicals we can't even pronounce but touch and change every one of us in ways we shudder to think about.

Yet we; herpers, naturalists, nature enthusiasts; professionals, amateurs, and novices; we all feel blameless and smug in our knowledge that we are not the cause nor can be blamed for the destruction. We all shake our heads at the destruction and feel secure in the knowledge that we are the enlightened few, the ones that know snakes aren't slimy and don't lurk in the shadows to pounce on an unsuspecting human. To lodge protests, we may swear off eating shrimp or write nasty letters to companies that sell snake skin boots. And while we feel helpless to stem the tides that progress must eventually bring to shore, we feel righteous in that it is not our hand that takes a species one step closer to extinction. But I am outraged at the little cancerous nibblings of the earth I see by people I would call friends and peers; people that have the same interests as I and should know better; people that don't even see the destruction their own hands are causing.

How many times have you gone 'collecting', whether it be to photograph wildlife, just observe nature, or to try to bring home a rare prize, and found your favorite spots vandalized? All the prime sheet tin and plywood boards are lying propped against bushes or flipped over without being returned to their original positions and the micro habitats underneath are drying out and dying. All the now homeless inhabitants scattered to find or create new homes before they perish from exposure or predators. Creatures that have been traveling the routes of their territories will later return and find their cherished retreats destroyed. How small this must seem on the scale of worldwide insults to our Earth, yet how casually this happens everywhere, everyday, and by a group of people who should be very aware of the results of their own careless actions.

Can a person be so callous of all life that he or she can't take the extra couple of seconds to put that board back the way it was when it was found? If nothing was found there this time, then maybe next time will be luckier. Unless the spot visited is one that will never be stopped at again, a person's own self interest would dictate preserving the habitat sites. Herptiles regulate their temperatures by putting their bodies in a place that is the temperature they want to be. This optimum temperature preference is further complimented by herptiles wanting to be in areas of specific moisture ranges at different times of the season, different times of the day, and in different internal cycles. When it is wet out, they may want to be drier; when it is dry out, they may want to be wetter. Finding herptiles is the fine art of being at the right place at the right time. This 'right place' that was found underneath that piece of sheet tin will not be right at all times. If nothing was found there, then one or both parts of the equation was not true. It all depends on various factors, but the point to be made here is that if that same piece of tin is left standing on edge against a tree or bush, then this will NEVER be a 'right place' again, no matter how 'right' the time is. If it is flipped over onto the grass, it may become a 'right place' again, but why make nature work so hard to create again what was just destroyed?

Even if a person should never expect to return to a spot, common decency should be enough incentive. As an average, I would probably expect to look under a couple of hundred pieces of tin or boards before I found something that would really excite me. But the real fun of herping is not so much the 'catching' as it is the 'looking'. It doesn't really matter too much if someone else was at a spot an hour before I got there as long as it still looks like a good spot to find something. I will still notice signs of intrusion, but heck, if it still looks good then maybe some piece was overlooked. But when I see stuff uprooted and scattered all about, it really takes the wind out of my sails and the fun of the day just evaporates. To again play on the self interest angle, it should be considered that I have several times found herps, not when I turned something over, but when I was putting it back as I found it. In one instance I had looked under an old car seat and found nothing until I was rolling it back over to its original position and a gravid female Outer Banks king snake crawled out to see what all the commotion was about. So if a real good reason is needed to put stuff back the way it was found, there it is. By not putting something back in position, something may easily be overlooked and missed. (Of course, someone harpooned this theory the last time I went back to the spot mentioned above. The car seat was ripped to tatters and there wasn't anything left big enough for something to hide under. But another gravid female king was laying among the tatters, so all was not lost! A pox on the person who destroyed the car seat.)

We pause now for a brief message from our author......

While I am thinking of it now, let me dwell on something that has bothered me lately, but I'm not sure if it's my skewed way of looking at things or not. Several times I have been on collecting trips with various people that have come across piles of sheet tin or plywood boards which set them into a frenzy to spread all this stuff out all over the countryside to make 'snake habitat.' Invariably while they are tearing apart these piles, all sorts of animals will be running out from between the layers, probably much the same as people would do if some giant creatures were tearing apart their apartment complex. Now all of these pieces of boards or tin are laying flat on the ground for as far as the eye can see. In some minds, a great new snake habitat area has just been created. But has it? A pile of material many layers or levels thick with an equal number of varied thermoclines has just been reduced to a whole bunch of little habitats with exactly one thermal range. Am I wrong in thinking that a spot has just been destroyed that would probably harbor an animal comfortably at nearly anytime of the season or day, and then a whole bunch of little spots were created that would be comfortable to this same animal at only a restricted range of seasons and daily times? To illustrate: If you take a pile of sheet tin 12 or so layers thick laying in the bright sunshine, you will probably find that underneath the last layer it is still rather cool and moist most of the time. An animal could easily choose the temperature it likes by merely traveling up or down to the level that provided its optimum temperature. Now, if you take those same 12 pieces of tin and lay them out in the same sun, you will find that all 12 pieces are unbearably hot underneath most of the day, with not a chance of anything being able to survive for long under any of them. Now this same animal has only two choices: either under a piece of that tin (pick one, any one, they are all the same) or go somewhere else down the road. Sure, at the right time of the day at the right time of the season, then all 12 pieces could be a 'right spot', but is there really much reason to expect that enough animals will overwhelm this one spot, to where all the tin pieces will be needed to house them all at the same time? Again, maybe I'm looking at this wrong, because I've seen enough people I know to be intelligent do just this exact sort of habitat adjustment enough times to doubt my own logic.

We now resume our regularly scheduled gripe.....

If it were that only I am unlucky enough to find a few isolated instances of this sort of disregard for nature, then I guess there would be no real problem; only my problem of going to all the wrong places. But from all the people I talk to, and all the places I go, it is apparent that it is the same everywhere and getting worse all of the time. I have spent more time than I care to think of trying to put spots back together again to attract herptiles, but after a dozen or so times putting the same pile of roofing tiles or sheet tin piles back together again, I've just quit and consider myself beaten. I guess the people that destroyed those areas thought that those habitats healed themselves when they returned a week or so later. It is quite conceivable that some of the snakes they have found were because I did take the time to heal the wounds they made earlier and the snakes found the spot favorable again. No more, fellahs. You're on your own.

But this is happening all of the time and everywhere. No matter which state I go to, it is a rarity to find a place that appears untouched by snake hooks and hopeful herpers. In a lot of cases you can tell how long it has been since the last herper was there from how green the plants are underneath the flipped boards and tin and how dried out the ground is that was previously covered by those same boards and tin. Finding dead pine trees with the loose bark still intact is a sight that is getting increasingly rare in some parts of the country. Admittedly, putting bark back onto trees or reconstructing demolished tree stumps is a real challenge to even the most dedicated environmentalist, but that doesn't excuse a person from at least piling up the debris so some animal could find shelter underneath the pieces of bark or rotted log.

Of course, nearly everyone I discuss this problem with seems rightly outraged and every indication points to there being no possibility that they might be responsible for any of this destruction. Phantoms? Poltergeist? Alien collectors from Mars who don't know about Earthly habitat requirements? Who is doing it? I know of only one person who blatantly refuses to take the time to reconstruct the habitats and makes no bones about it. "It's only garbage." He says. "It's not natural to begin with so what difference does it make?" Well, that's fine; everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I just think that if some creature finds the detritus of mankind to be beneficial in some fashion, to slightly counter all of the things that are detrimental, we really don't need to add further insult to injury. If some box turtle finds that an old car hood makes a nice little hideaway, who are we to deny it that refuge by leaving it leaning against a tree when we don't find what we were looking for underneath?

Herptiles as pets are becoming increasingly more popular. A natural extension of this is the desire of the same people who buy them as pets to seek out their interests in the 'wild' (and I use that term loosely). All natural habitats are already under immense pressure from all quarters and one would hope that the legions of people searching for herps would take the time to enjoy what they are doing and not be in a rush to destroy the homes of even the very animals they seek. Many states are protecting all of their native fauna and it may well be that we are providing all the ammunition they need to prove that such laws are necessary. All anyone needs to see are forests totally denuded of bark, stumps uprooted and demolished, logs pulled from the earth and torn apart, abandoned buildings torn down and the parts scattered over the ground, swarms of herpers like locusts devastating the land, and you begin to wonder how you yourself would vote on an issue like this. Can you side with a law that denies you a favorite pastime in the hopes it will stop those persons that will probably ignore the law anyway? Can you NOT side with a law like this and hope it will get better on its own?

Laws probably won't work. Matter of fact they would probably cause more damage since more people would not take the time to put cover items back the way they found it if they were in a hurry to get though looking over an area before they were caught. Restrictive permits apparently do not work. For instance, have you heard about the biologist here in Maryland who put up drift fences during the late Winter several years ago, collected spotted salamanders by the hundreds and pickled every one of them? All with legal permits, of course. I know of some people that were strongly considering a 55 gallon drum of formaldehyde as a repository for this gentleman, however, they settled on just removing the drift fences. We have all read accounts of populations of animals being decimated for the pickling jars of museums or for some scientist who wants to examine the heart structure of 3,000 samples of one species in a test site area. What does a protective permit system protect?

So, what's the answer? Education? Realization? Rehabilitation? Eradication? The fact that you have read this far means you, at least, are willing to learn, so we are trying the education angle and you want to see if I have any answers to offer. I feel that peer pressure is about the only shot that has a chance of helping. But it will not be 100 percent effective. I can remember my parents driving my brothers and I to Florida down route 301 and I used to marvel at the way all the trash along the roads would scatter from the wind of our passing car. That was before the 'litter bug' campaign. Sure, you can be fined for littering the highways, but I don't think that is the real cause of the cleaner highways as much as just the awareness of people that the stuff they throw out of their car windows ends up in the very scenery they were driving to see. Of course, I still see people tossing trash out of their windows, but not as many as there used to be. So, make copies of this and give it to anyone you feel might be a bit lax in their field habits. If you find a car parked at your favorite spot, put a copy on the windshield. If you are collecting with some people who are demolishing the countryside and unaware of their actions, call attention to what they are doing. (This can be especially effective if a group of friends is out collecting, as long as YOU aren't the only one who cares.) They may not realize they are doing anything wrong. And maybe pay attention to your own actions. Look back at the area you just passed through. Does it look like a tornado has passed behind you? If it is very easy to tell which boards and tin you've already looked under, maybe you need to change your style somewhat. Take it as a compliment if someone looks under a board that you already looked under just 5 minutes ago. Assuming that you have determined that it is some other person(s) causing the problems and you've made attempts to correct their actions, bear in mind that some bad habits are hard to break, so give them time. If they still show no evidence of rehabilitation after a few weeks or months (depending on your tolerance level), then leave them at home. Let them know that you do not want to associate with them and you think the world would be a much better place if they found some other hobby to occupy their time. Of course, most people have their own transportation so you may expect to find them again out in the field, perhaps ripping up your spots again and finding your ecologically sensitive concerns amusing or of no concern of theirs. What you should do at that point is up to you, but I don't think I need to remind you that it takes very little effort to convert that Furmont snake hook from a STUMP RIPPER to a RUMP RIPPER...


As luck would have it, I was put to the test the other day, actually not at all long after I finished the above article. I had gone poking around in the field in an area that I had hoped was fairly unravished and happened to meet with two people that I have met in the past, but in different circumstances. Both were long-time herpers and I considered them to be among the more experienced and knowledgeable people who might collect snakes in the field. After a short period of comparing notes and catching up with the latest news from our respective parts of the country, we agreed to wander around together in the area we were then in.

After a couple of stops, I started getting the cold sweats, since I knew I was being tested and a severe confrontation was about to take place. I watched with astonishment as these two experienced herpers demolished entire areas looking for a particular species of milk snake known to frequent that neck of the woods. As one section of likely looking habit after another was torn apart and left gaping like an open sore, I could feel my blood pressure rising and knew that if I didn't even have the guts to voice what I was preaching in the above article, I surely couldn't hope to put it in print and expect anyone else to take it seriously. The thought entered my mind fleetingly that maybe I am really the only one in the world that cares about this at all. As unbelievable as it seemed, I had spoken with one of these guys on the phone not more than a week or two ago and discussion of this topic left me believing that I am not alone in my beliefs, but can this be the same guy? (Am I wimping out for not putting his and his buddy's name here in print?) At one point, they offered to find a place for me to park my truck and then ride with them, but with the impending clash, I felt it prudent to keep my own set of wheels handy.

Since both were doing equally as much damage as the other, I decided to start my attack with the one whom I thought was the more likely to be receptive of my ideas, especially based on earlier phone conversations. But I made sure that the other could hear and be included in my accusations.

I pointed out the areas that the two defendants had just destroyed and asked what could possibly be on their minds to indiscriminately destroy these habitats with not even an effort to rebuild the shelters they demolished. I felt for certain this was going to blow up into a very heated argument but was rather surprised that we all started to discuss my ideas rationally. One of them claimed that he would take the time to rebuild the habitat in areas he knew species of interest frequented but did not take the time when he was in unknown and unfruitful areas. I pointed out that in many areas I have found specimens, they are not found every time or at every opportunity, so the areas being destroyed may be utilized by the very species they were looking for but not at all times. Now that those shelters were destroyed, there was little or no chance of them having another chance to find one in the future. I have been to areas over and over again without finding anything of interest, and then suddenly find things that made me whoop in surprise and pleasure.

One of the guys presented the argument that maybe they were creating more suitable habitat by destroying the old structures and creating new ones more favorable to snakes. This could have been true if an actual effort were being made to build something like a shelter, but to just leave debris scattered wherever it's thrown is unlikely to be useful to much of anything. Particularly when a large pile of boards, tin, shingles, or tar paper is stripped down to the ground and all those component parts are thrown in a huge donut around the now bare earth in the center.

Whenever anyone goes collecting, why do they feel they have a better chance of finding something if they find an area 'untouched by snake hooks'? Could it possibly be that it is felt that those undisturbed boards might harbor habitat that is attractive to the herps being looked for? Can there be a casual link between undisturbed habitat and attractive (not 'pretty', but the more literal definition of attracting something) habitat? Sure, someone could have caught that king snake this morning, before you got there, but if the habitat is still intact, there is a possibility that another one could have wandered in to fill the gap in the food chain or decided that board would be a nice safe place to hide out while it goes through the shed cycle.

Anyway, I did notice that both of those guys made efforts to put some of the habitat back together, but it was not more than just an effort to appease the mad man that had chosen to accompany them that day. I doubt I had a lasting influence on either of them and expect that my logic was as foreign to them as theirs is to me. It is saddening, because I would have thought both of them would have been more aware of their surroundings and more concerned with the results of their actions. Both are very experienced collectors and obviously intelligent, so it discourages me to think that people of their caliber, and not some novices, like I had thought, are being the cause of the destruction I am finding. If these people cannot reason about the link between finding herps and the habitat requirements that those same herps need, then what hope do I have of influencing anyone at all?

I am saddened and discouraged.........
Old 05-02-2005, 06:26 PM   #2
I don't know if anyone else took the time to read this, but i certainly did, and its certainly worth reading. Everything in this article is so true. I have losers right now cutting all through the woods on 4 wheelers flipping every rock/limb/piece of wood they see and just leaving it there. its obvious when walkind through the woods and you see huge spots where objects that may attract herptiles have been remvoed and placed beside the indention in the ground. It really is not that hard to replace the piece of wood or rock or whatever. Please anyone who reads this reply, read the original post, and really think about it. Next time you're herping and decide to look under something, go ahead and look under it but please replace it when you're done. It truly is discouraging when you arrive at a "bad spot" because someone was too lazy to replace the wood.
Old 05-02-2005, 07:11 PM   #3
I was kind of picky when I went snake hunting with people. One of the greatest compliments someone could pay me was when I saw them lifting up a piece of material looking for herps that I had just looked under and replaced about 5 minutes ago. Well, now that I think of it, maybe it WASN'T a compliment at all! Maybe they thought I had missed something.....

Anyway, I think I stated my thoughts in that article. I wrote it a long time ago, and really haven't read it very recently.
Old 05-02-2005, 07:21 PM   #4
Well...That article rocked, and hopefully others will take the time to read it. Sometimes when someone opens a thread and sees how long it is they decide nto to read it, but that one is definitely worth reading.
Old 05-05-2005, 08:45 PM   #5
Mike Greathouse
Excellent article.

Thank you Rich.
Old 05-05-2005, 09:19 PM   #6
Great writing Rich!
Old 05-07-2005, 11:18 AM   #7
Rebel Dragons
All I can say is WOW!!! I almost feel compelled to go snake hunting. Not to catch them but to just see what I can find and maybe be quick enough to get a picture of it. I have not done something like that since I was a kid and we chased black racers!!! I will certainly keep your article in the back of my mind........
Old 05-07-2005, 12:26 PM   #8
Great article Rich. Would you consider an abridged version for the many who will not read it because of its length? It's a message that really needs to heard, and that might make it a littel more widely read.
Old 05-07-2005, 01:19 PM   #9
When I originally submitted that article to Notes From NOAH, the editor faced the same challenge. He finally came to the conclusion that he could not cut ANYTHING out without destroying the entire structure and flow of it. And I tend to agree. I believe he DROPPED a bunch of other articles in that issue to make room for it in its entirety.

Sorry that much of the world has a "Readers Digest" attention span, but the complex issues and the necessary quantity of words needed to explain them fully will simply have to pass them by.

I tend to think in images. When I read books, I form actual pictures in my mind of what the words are saying. Honestly, there are some instances where I could not tell you if I read the book or saw the movie. It is all the same to me. So I guess when I take the time to try to write well, I try to do the same thing with my words. People who can only see the print on the page will probably not like to read very much.
Old 05-08-2005, 07:30 PM   #10
Great writing and all very true. I found the most spectacular site 2 weekends ago with tin scattered everywhere and went back to find almost the same number of snakes and some of the same snakes but also 2 different species. I hope no other herper without the same common sense comes along and cleans the site out or flips and doesn't fix.....Here are a few pics....


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