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.

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post

  • Share/Bookmark