Herping the Light Fantastic

 I just returned from a trip to the sky islands, isolated mountain ranges near the junction of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, a magic high-altitude oasis that offers world class-birding and some of the most amazing biodiversity of herpetofauna to be found.

At times I felt simply overwhelmed as I attempted to add birds and reptiles to my life list, literally not knowing whether I wanted to look up…or down.

lizard

My first Arizona herp, a plateau lizard hand-caught at the Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Arizona. A lifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with “herping” as an activity, it is similar to bird watching, aka birding.  Birders try to spot different species of birds and add them to their life list.  It is an established fact that birding field guides have a checklist in the back to this very purpose.

In herping, you are seeking to find, view, catch, photograph and then release all manner of reptiles—lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians and amphibians—frogs, toads and salamanders.  The individuals who participate in herping are called herpers.  The sighting of a new species is considered a “lifer,” the same as it is with birding.

This is where all similarities come to a crashing end.

Sky Islands

The Chiricahuas--sky islands--a Mecca for Birders and Herpers alike

Birders can often be found slathered with SPF-50 sunscreen and wearing their matching khaki field clothes and Tilley hats with uber-expensive binoculars secured to their chests by straps to make bearing them more, er, bearable.  They sometimes carry ridiculously long-lensed cameras on tripods, and their soft twittering voices remind you of, well, birds. 

The birder’s natural habitat includes boardwalks and nature trails.  Their preferred diet seems to be granola bars, seeds, nuts, berries and expensive bottled water.  They tippy-toe.  They titter.  And they are as pale as albinos.

Mojave rattlesnake

A venomous Mojave rattlesnake being photographed by herpers, all of whom hold at least one doctorate. Cowboys, all.

By contrast, herpers are cowboys, clad in all manner of tee shirts and jeans.   Some don snake chaps, but many simply wear sneakers.  They also strap headlamps to their baseball-style caps and carry snake hooks and tongs.  And remember this: heaven forbid that you ever mess up and call a pillowcase a pillowcase.  It is a snake bag or capture bag.

Their natural habitat—swamps, deserts, fields and forests.  A favored activity is cruising up and down roads that transect these locations.  Driving long distances at 20 mph, they can suffer from road hypnosis with their eyes glazed over in spot-a-snake mode.   If somebody yells “Snake!” (whether or not there is one) the herper will jump out of the vehicle and run around in little circles, cursing.

Tin at the Southwestern Research Station in the Coronado National Forest, Portal, New Mexico.

Herpers often flip tin looking for reptiles that use it as a "hide." Finding tin is like finding hidden gold. Near Portal, Arizona in the Coronado National Forest.

To get going in the morning, herpers might have to swig coffee and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks after long nights of road cruising, and they guzzle colas during the day to stay sharp.  And as their evening of road cruising winds down, out come all manner of alcoholic beverages.  Beer, by and large, is the preferred one, though the brand trends from year to year, as some of us are quite the afficionado.

Preferred foods include a wide variety of the bad-for-you:  jerky, pickled eggs, red sausages, chips, barbeque, hot dogs.  And sometimes, in the middle of a slow day, a herper just might sneak away for an ice cream cone.

While birders seem polite, orderly, refined and quite knowledgeable about bird calls, herpers are people of a rich and varied vocabulary.  Most know the Latin binomials for all of the species they could possibly encounter, and they know the vocalizations of the frogs and toads in their area.  They can go on and on, ad nauseum about the habitat requirements of the various herp species, and they certainly can cuss a blue streak.

Herpers checking out a glass lizard

A glass lizard poses for the paparrazi. Can you tell which ones are birders and which ones are herpers?

A birder may just tippy-toe off a trail to have a little peep at a swallow-tailed whatchmacallit, but a herper will plunge headfirst into a ditch in order to grab a retreating Lampropeltis. Sunburn, skinned knees, ant bites, groin rashes and cactus spines are de rigeur for a field herper.  In fact, coming home without such badges of bravery just might expose one as a weakling, subject to ridicule. 

Baby bird

Photo of a black-throated gray warbler fledgeling, taken by a herper with ridiculously tiny camera who happened to observe it being fed by its mother at very close range!

Return home with leeches and abrasions and you will be long-celebrated as a hero.  Pick cactus spines out of your behind for six years and are a legend.

Birders observe.  Herpers touch.  Birders enjoy decorum.  Herpers are anarchists.  Birders are tidy. Herpers surrender to entropy.

Birder=alt-folk, pop, jazz.  Herper=heavy metal, country, blues.

Birder=butterflies and rainbows.  Herper=ground-in dirt and black soot from a recent burn.

Stay tuned for my next blog with actual herping adventure in the desert Southwest!

Spider

A tarantula assumes a defensive posture while being admired by herpers near Portal, Arizona.

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Cataloochee. Another NABventure in the Can…

September was slipping away, and with it, our opportunity to visit the Great Smokey Mountains National Park without having to drive an armored vehicle and wear shoulder pads.   October brings out an army of leaf peepers hell bent on seeing the prettiest fall colors ever.

Elk in meadow at Cataloochee

Lone bull in meadow at Cataloochee, NC

And so it came to be that I tiptoed up to my son’s room and disrupted his slumber at five o’clock.  I beckoned him to come downstairs and shower quietly to avoid waking his father.

By 5:35 a.m., Nolan and I hit the road for our latest NABventure.

Another NABventure

Nolan demonstrates that every NABventure has a jumping off point

Way back when his father and I were going through potential baby names, we were mindful of any acronyms the child’s initials might spell.  We hit upon his name and noted—to our delight—that his initials spelled out NAB.  For the uninitiated, “nabs” are what country Southerners call the little cheese and peanut butter Lance crackers that come in packages of six.  Simple working folk in the South don’t take coffee breaks.  They break for a coke-a-cola and a pack of nabs.

So when the lad and I head out for parts unknown, we call it a NABventure.  Sometimes, little cheese crackers are actually involved.

Our destination in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park was the Cataloochee Valley. The reason for our trip there is that elk have been reintroduced into the park.  Before European settlers came, elk were native to most of the country.  But the last elk in the Smokies were extirpated in the mid-1800’s.  The Eastern elk subspecies is extinct.   The initiative to restore elk to the Smokies took flight in 2001 with a handful of animals brought from the Land Between the Lakes herd and was supplemented by Canadian imports the following year.

If you look at a map, Cataloochee is right off I-40 just beyond Waynesville, North Carolina, and quite close to the popular tourist destination of Maggie Valley.  It appears that it would be easy to get there.

Uh, not!

We made exit 40 at 7:30 a.m., came off the exit ramp and almost immediately found our right turn marked by signs.  And we proceeded on a vertical journey that soon left even

iPhone panoramic view

The iPhone with new iOs 6.0 will take panoramic views

pavement behind.   I squinted at the screen of my iPhone and read directions aloud, “Stay to the Right (at one point, the road will “Y”) Road becomes gravel, and very narrow…proceed UP mountain with caution.  After reaching summit, proceed down same gravel/narrow road.  At the base of the mountain, road bears to the left and becomes paved again.”

I am mortally afraid of twisting turning mountain roads and high bridges.  I’m not talking a little bit scared.  I’m talking lie down in the seats.  I’m talking places where I will get out of the car and walk rather than be inside a vehicle negotiating certain tight spots.  I’m talking medications are really needed.

Farmhouse in the Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley Farmhouse

This did not go well.  That part of the journey is 10 miles long.  The dirt road is one lane.  There are no guardrails.  A sixteen year old male was driving.  I was beside myself, digging my nails into the armrest and pressing my right foot through the floorboard.

There is no telling how many times I begged “Slow down!” or beseeched the deity I worship to help me.  Near the summit, my prayers were heard and I was helped by scads of chipmunks in the road.  I would holler “LORD!” with one breath and “Oh, look at the cute little chipmunk!” with my next breath.   Chipmunks, you see, were present in unprecedented numbers and they are some really pretty little squirrels.  They were a welcome distraction.

Amazingly, the road is paved in the valley.  It’s a mystery as to how they got heavy equipment in there to pave it.  I wanted to stop, get out and kiss the pavement, and I vowed to never return.  At least not without Xanax.

Cataoochee valley barn

Barn

Just past the ranger house and the small campground, the Cataloochee Valley opens up into a series of broad meadows.  Nolan focused on the wild turkeys, which were everywhere, but I immediately spied a bedded bull in the field, a nice 6×6.  We passed a man walking a well-behaved golden retriever and I spotted a herd of elk in the field on our left where perhaps a half dozen cars had pulled off the road and parked.

In the chill mountain air, several people were photographing a bull and his harem of cows with cameras that I’m sure cost more than some cars.  There were guys with lenses over two feet long and as big around as my thigh.  I got out my binoculars and fleece pullover to the music of bulls bugling up and down the valley and Nolan whipped out his iPhone and began taking pictures.

People with cameras and elk

Elk paparazzi seeking that perfect shot

I had neglected to bring my tripod and a charged battery for my camera, so we were stuck with our iPhones.  Compared to the serious photographers with their obscenely outfitted cameras, we felt a little like David facing Goliath.

Some of the elk wore radio collars and ear tags, but the herd bull was a splendidly naked 7×7.  He guarded his harem and bugled back when a challenging bugle came from up the valley.  The animals were very close.  Cows and calves feeding to our left brought them ever closer to the line of tripods and cameras.

Dominant bull elk

The splendidly naked herd bull. Photo courtesy of Nolan Burns, taken with this "Redneck Zoom Lens."

Calf nursing his mother

A calf nurses, oblivious to the excitement. Taken with our "redneck zoom lens."

A cow elk is not a tiny little deer.  But a bull is enormous.  Much taller than my horse and armed with about a hundred pounds of sharp headgear, he is a testosterone-charged monster all but bellowing smoke.  As his harem came closer to the cars and photographers and the dog walker came back up the valley, the bull became somewhat nervous.

He began running at the cows and circling the harem, keeping between the cows and the line of paparazzi.  There are park rules against using elk calls and rules about how close you can get to the elk.  The elk were oblivious to the 50 yard limit. Through no fault of their own, many of the onlookers and photographers became too close.  The bull trotted towards the road.  The closest guy folded his tripod and beat a retreat.

Nolan scooted behind the truck.

The dominant bull gives chase to a radio-collared cow

Our Redneck Zoom Lens captures love in the the air

He is always openly skeptical about each NABventure.  In fact, sometimes I don’t let on that we are actually on a NABventure until we are in the truck and halfway there. Earlier this year I sneaked in visits to a Revolutionary War battlefield and the Sumter National Forest.  Just tell him that he gets to drive and he will get into the truck.

On this outing, Nolan seized the day and saved the day.

“Mama, give me your binoculars,” he said.

Nolan’s idea worked.  He stuck his iPhone’s lens up to the binocular lens and began to photograph the elk through the binoculars.  A similar attempt of mine failed a few days before, when I tried my iPhone against my microscope lens at work.   But he was able to get some decent shots with his “Redneck Zoom Lens.”

Belting out a bugle

Herd bull sounds off. The bull elk's loud whistles are called "bugles."

Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.  In spite of the Appalachians being right in the backyard of most people in the Eastern U.S., they are rugged mountains, nearly vertical.  I’ve visited and hunted elk, deer and turkeys out West.  Many take the Rocky Mountains seriously and take the Smokies for granted.  People, these are some serious mountains.  Don’t take them for granted because they happen to be in your backyard. 

Cataloochee take home points:

  • It’s really hard to get there!  Take everything you think you will need, including nerve pills for the drive in.
  • No fee to get in the park.
  • There is no visitor’s center or store of any kind.
  • There is a public bathroom which is handicapped-accessible but it does not have running water, electricity, climate-control or a baby changing station. There is a dispenser of hand sanitizer.
  • There are old buildings from before the park service bought the land—barns, a school, a house, a church.  You can and should go in them!  They are our heritage.
  • There are hiking trails but you can see the elk quite well from your vehicle or side of the road.
  • Elk are most active 2 hours after sunrise and 2 hours before sunset.
  • The park is most crowded during the summer and during the month of October.
  • The elk rut is in September-October.  Bulls are bugling and mating is occurring then.  Ideal times to see rutting activity and without having to fight crowds would be mid- to late-September.
Subordinate bull with radio collar

Subordinate bulls are often referred to as satellite bulls

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We might be rednecks…ya think?

Yes, I might be one.

After 25 years of working most Saturdays, I’m enjoying having a Saturday off every now and then these days.   This morning I had in mind getting a pedicure and manicure and settling in to convert locally grown organic pears into jars of golden jam. 

My 14 year old son had other ideas. 

“Take me to Academy Sports,” he begged.  After about 45 minutes of running out of excuses as to why I didn’t want to take him, I turned his request to my advantage. 

“Take your laundry out of the drier, fold it and put it away,” I said.  “Pick up all of your clothes up off the bathroom floor and put them in the laundry sorter.  Start a load of laundry.  And I’ll take you to Academy Sports.” 

It’s about 45 – 50 miles from our house to Greenville.  We arrived just in time for an early lunch.  I’m convinced that 80% of our family income goes to feeding this boy.  We went to Red Robin where we ate until we both acknowledged that we wanted to puke. 

From there we battled traffic down Woodruff Road to Academy Sports.  For a short period of time, we dithered around together along the main aisles, then he left me to go shop for bullets for his deer rifle.   I looked at meat-processing equipment, dog items and folding lawn chairs.  He and I rendezvoused in the backpack aisle. 

We drifted past deer stands and trail cameras and into my personal favorite section–deer lures, where I tend to get a little carried away.  For a change, selection and prices were good.  Often I shop too early and they don’t have the good stuff in yet.  Or I wait too late and the good stuff is picked over. 

We discussed a few choices and I started grabbing things.  Pretty soon I had to send him for a shopping basket.  I bought 3-packs of scent wick dispensers–the kind with a felt wick and a handle that easily hang from a branch.  They’re bright orange and easy to retrieve when he you get down from the stand.

I picked up a spray bottle, economy-sized, of a scent eliminator spray. 

And, oh, the deer pee!

I bought doe urine and a nifty three pack that includes plain doe urine, doe-in-heat urine and, yes a bottle of buck urine.  Great products by my current favorite Code Blue and at a very fine price.  The lad and I briefly discussed purchasing a pack of preloaded Tink’s 69 scent dispensers but I balked when I saw that they had to be actived by a chemical heat pack and only lasted for four hours.   

The fun part, really, was the check-out line.  All the lines were long.  We were lucky to be behind a family who, hmm, maybe don’t get to town very often. 

The matriarch went nuts over a little display of crazy bands right by the checkout counter. 

The boy and I made eye contact and shared a very faint smile when she began to squeal with delight over them.  I think I’m short, but the lady was about 4″9″, with a long, black and chemically damaged hair.  She had an odd facial structure, a speech impediment and  few teeth.  And she wore a tee shirt that said “Trailer Park Chihuahua.”  It featured some dandy-looking singlewides, two badass chihuahuas and Confederate flags, plus the slogan “the South”s gonna rise again.” 

While she and her family ripped through the silly bands (“Look!!! They got all kinds!”) behind us, the daddy in front mumbled something to the effect of “Y’all better get up here ‘fore I haveta pay or you’re gonna be SOL.”

Meanwhile another lady in line wearing her Clemson Tigers game day orange was getting pretty spun up by the lighters shaped like little fishing rods and deer rifles. 

“Look!”  she hollered to her friend in another checkout line.  “It’s a lighter made like a fishing rod!” 

“How much is it?”

“Ten dollars.”

“We better wait til closer to Christmas.”

The lad and I shared another slight smile and I whispered, “These people obviously don’t get out very much and are excited by the colorful trinkets.” 

And I thought we lived in isolation.

The gnomelike woman and her five to seven kids continued to paw through the silly bands and the lady in front of me was still mesmerized by the lighters.  “Hey,” she called to her friend again, “The one shaped like a football is only eight dollars.”

All of the sudden a scream ripped the air from a line off to our right.  Startled, I started to grab my son and hit the floor.   I have a healthy paranoia of being stuck  in line somewhere during a holdup.  

But the two Hispanic guys standing by the screaming woman started laughing and the woman started loud, fast talking in Spanish, and she was beating both guys with her fists. 

“That line over there is moving faster,” my son said.

“Yeah, but this one is way more fun.” I countered.  The woman was still cursing those guys when we finally made it through the checkout counter.

We live in a rural area, a bit off the beaten path.  At times I am inclined to believe that everyone I meet lives in a trashy home and either cooks meth or makes moonshine in the shed out back.   But today, in metropolitan Greenville, I felt rather…sophisticated. 

Until I got home and got out of the car. 

 “Hey, boy,” I yelled to my son, “don’t you leave that pee in the hot car.”

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