Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest post: Hello, herpetofauna!

James and I met several years ago as FLCC students, on a Wildlife Society club trip to the Adirondacks for a weekend. All I knew of James was that he was quiet, but really smart. Over the next year or so, we got to know each other better (while struggling through chemistry classes), and since we’ve graduated and split to different SUNY campuses, have remained in touch. James asked me about blogging, and put out a feeler on Facebook to see if his friends and family would be interested in a reptile and amphibian themed blog. I offered up my blog for a guest entry, and so here we are. Please welcome my friend James Beach!

Meet James, a Finger Lakes Community College 
alumni, and friend of mine.
Every year around this time I anticipate the emergence of the local herpetofauna that surrounded my urban apartment. The many wetlands within a 15 minute drive from my apartment are home to an abundance of species, from frogs and toads, turtles and snakes, and last but not least, the salamanders and newts. To me, the emergence of these animals a reason to celebrate! Hearing the symphony of wood frogs and spring peepers signifies the end of winter and the start of longer days, but beyond that, it also rejuvenates my spirit.

My love for reptiles and amphibians began when I was a small child in the late 80s and early 90s. I would spend my free time in a stream behind my parents’ house in rural upstate New York. Although my identification skills were not yet developed, I would try as hard as I could to learn as much as possible about these marvelous creatures. It was that small stream, the memories it helped create, and all the beautiful animals I found, that stayed with me into adulthood and shaped my career and personal goals of getting as many people as possible interested in herpetofauna. I am currently perusing a bachelor’s degree at SUNY Brockport where I am majoring in Environmental Science with a focus in wetland ecology.

Spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
Photo credit: Melissa Fadden, SUNY ESF
March 20th typically marks the start of the “herping” season. For those new to this term, herping is the nickname for the activity of searching for reptiles and amphibians. It’s fun, easy to get involved in, and can be done almost anywhere. Many children growing up find many species in their backyard, as well as ponds, streams, swamps, marshes, and ditches. I cannot begin to explain how many different species I used to bring home to my mother, asking, “Can we keep it?” Usually she would say NO, but on occasion she would oblige my interest as long as it stayed outside. This is probably a typical scenario for many kids growing up, but what are the consequences? Is it okay for children and adults to take animals from the wild and bring them home, thinking that they can somehow provide a much better environment than its natural residence? It is this question that I seek to answer with this blog post.

Midland painted turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata
Photo credit: Melissa Fadden, SUNY ESF
How we interact with nature is in essence a reflection of our values: if we value nature, which I think we all should and mostly do, then it should be in our interests to leave whatever creatures and natural objects where we find them. We can instead pay homage to nature by storing beautiful sights in our memories, drawing pictures, or taking photos. Herping is a great activity in which to get family or friends involved, and it’s rewarding for both the young and the old. But to be ethical about it, there are a few questions one should ask.

First, how do you do it, and where and when do you go? Herping is a fairly inexpensive hobby requiring only a field guide, headlamp, snake hook (this item is optional and can be found at most pet stores), a first aide kit, rain gear and warm clothing.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
Photo credit: Melissa Fadden, SUNY ESF
The easiest thing to do is find a wetland around you and go a half hour after sunset, when it’s raining lightly and not terribly windy. You’ll find that the first spring rains are the best time to get out there because this is when many salamanders are on the move and begin breeding. Salamanders will leave the forest floor where they are hardly ever seen, and migrate to wetlands to begin mating. The sounds of wood frogs and spring peepers will also begin to be heard around this time. There’s a short window of opportunity, but by mid April the chances of finding some of the less common species begins to decrease. I have been in wetlands where hundreds of spotted salamanders are abundant and are moving into wetlands, and no one would ever know if they weren’t out there on those chilly rainy nights. If any of these animals are present you will see them.

The next question one should ask before herping is, how should these delicate animals be handled, if they are to be handled at all? Amphibians breathe through their skin, and because of this, are susceptible to toxins from pollution. It is okay to handle them very gently. I recommend that the best way to do so is to wash your hands in the wetland first to make sure you don’t transfer any toxins to them. If you smoke or put on any hand sanitizer, you should refrain from handling them, because the toxins on your hands could potentially kill them.

Wood frog (Rana sylvatica) Photo credit: Melissa Fadden, SUNY ESF

 How do you find specific snakes, lizards, and turtles? This is a tough question to answer, because it largely depends on luck along with knowing the habitat of the target species. The best time to search for turtles or snakes is early in the morning around 7am until 1 or 2 in the afternoon throughout the breeding season, although some, like painted turtles, will stay active beyond that. Many of the more secretive species will be hard to find after that point. Mornings that reach temps in the early to mid 60s with lots of sunlight are great for getting outside and seeking out the turtles in your area. Many species will begin to bask once they emerge from hibernacula, and can easily be spotted as they purge their system of the lactic acid that has built up over the winter. If targeting snakes, one can try to manipulate the habitat a bit by putting large objects around the area for the snakes to hide under. Checking these locations every couple of days should yield great results, and you’ll begin to be more conscious of the species located around you that perhaps you had no idea existed.

If a child asks to take any of these animals home as a pet, what should the response be? It should always be NO! In New York State, all of our native species are protected, and it is illegal to take any of them from the wild. If the child is interested in having a pet, please do some research and consult a pet shop. Beyond that, these animals are also important members of their local ecosystem, and it’s extremely important that they remain there for others to enjoy. Currently, herpetofauna are experiencing a huge decline due to habitat loss, fragmentation, invasive species, chemicals, climate change, and poachers. These species are very important to scientists as they are viewed as environmental indicators, meaning their presence in a wetland will show what kind of condition their environment is in. If the area is severely degraded, these species will be absent.

A common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) Photo credit: James Beach

Please keep all of these things in mind when herping. It’s important to have fun, and also to recognize the importance and aesthetics these animals have. If looking to become more familiar with frog and toad calls in your area, I have posted a link that will get you started: USGS Frog Quiz. I have also included links to books and audio CDs that aide in identification: The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State and The Frogs and Toads of North America.

Thanks for reading, and of course happy herping!

*All comments and questions will be relayed to James!


  1. I did a 12 wetland site herp survey a few years back. Since I was on my own and it was a lot of fun learning how to identify the species. So far herps and mammals catch a lot of my interest thus far.

  2. The photos aren't showing up for me :(

  3. pretty nice blog, following :)


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