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Snake Hunting with Romulus Whitaker – Learning from the Master

Gharial and TurtleHello, Frank Indiviglio here. A life engrossed in herpetology has provided me with more adventures than I dared expect. From tagging Leatherback Turtles in St. Croix to heaving Green Anacondas from a Venezuelan swamp, I’ve been quite fortunate. But I’ve always known that natural wonders are also plentiful close at hand. In fact, one of my most exciting herping trips took place in a NYC suburb.

Note: I’d enjoy hearing about your own unforgettable (and “wish you could forget”!) herping experiences. Whether your tales involve garter snakes in the backyard or crocodile monitors in New Guinea, please write in so that I can share them with other readers, thanks.

Turtle Enthusiasts Gather at SUNY Purchase

In July of 1993, I attended an amazing, week-long international conference held in Westchester County, NY – The Conservation, Restoration and Management of Tortoises and Turtles. Hosted by the dedicated folks at the NY Turtle and Tortoise Society, this gathering of leading professionals and serious hobbyists has, in my experience, yet to be matched. The 500-page conference proceedings are an invaluable resource, and I highly recommend them to anyone with more than a passing interest in turtles and tortoises. You can order the proceedings, for the unbelievable price of $20, here.

Romulus Whitaker

Romulus Whitaker, one of the world’s foremost herpetologists, was in attendance as a speaker. Although most often associated with his work in India, Mr. Whitaker actually grew up in NYC; I had long been in awe of the accomplishments of my fellow New Yorker. At the time, I was a reptile keeper at the Bronx Zoo, working with Indian Gharials that had hatched at the Madras Crocodile Bank, founded by Mr. Whitaker. Curiously, the Gharials went off feed for 5 months each year, despite being kept warm, yet remained active and lost little weight.

I introduced myself to Mr. Whitaker, and right away found that he lived up to his reputation as a pleasant soul, always willing to share his expertise. We spoke often over the next few days, and I learned a great deal about Gharials, Painted Terrapins, Giant River Turtles, Narrow-Headed Softshells and other South Asian reptiles that I cared for (the Gharials, I discovered, were responding to an internal “clock” that informed them it was winter in their native land).

Snake Hunting with a Legend

Towards the end of the conference, Mr. Whitaker asked if I might take him to a spot where he could see some native NY snakes…those that first inspired his interest as a child. It happened that we were in the middle of a hot, dry spell at the time and, what’s more, I wasn’t very familiar with the surrounding area. So there I was, about to go snake hunting with Romulus Whitaker at a time when I’d be lucky to find a Brown Snake!

King CobraI made some frantic calls to local contacts and learned that Ward Pound Ridge Reservation would be my best option. I had previously been involved in salamander research there, and was relieved to recall that this largest of Westchester’s preserved areas was something of a herp haven, despite being so close to NYC.

All herpers (or birders, or naturalists of any sort) soon learn that animals rarely if ever show up when you wish, or do what “is expected of them”. But, as is true with of all with a passion for reptiles, Mr. Whitaker showed almost child-like excitement at the prospect of finding even the commonest of snakes. Buoyed by his enthusiasm, I resolved to do my best.

Was I in for a surprise! In quick succession, we found Black Ratsnakes, Black Racers, Eastern Garter Snakes, Northern Watersnakes, Brown Snakes and Northern Red-Bellied Snakes; the most productive near-city trip of my life. Even more surprising, given that we were in a dry spell in mid-July, was the discovery of Dusky, Red-Backed and Slimy Salamanders, and Eastern Spotted Newts. A number of interesting spiders rounded out the day. (Note: all animals were released).

Wonderful Encounters, Near and Far

I’m rarely superstitious, but I believe that the man was truly charmed! It was such a pleasure to see him in action…despite being at the pinnacle of his profession, he was as thrilled to be in the field as my 4-year-old nephew is today. I knew of Mr. Whitaker’s reputation for speed and agility, but was still surprised at how good he was at catching even sun-warmed Black Racers. He leapt headlong into thick cover in his pursuits, and rarely came up empty handed. Although younger, in very good shape, and well-experienced, I was not at all in his class…I’m sure the same remains true today!

Black RacerWhat a day, and what a conference. Soon after, Mr. Whitaker departed to begin work with nesting King Cobras in India, and I was off to tag Green Anacondas in Venezuela (please see articles below). But, looking back, I see that we enjoyed our time at Ward Pound Ridge just as much as those “exotic” adventures. We herpers are indeed a lucky bunch…the world, near and far, holds so much of interest for us. I look forward to hearing about your own trips and observations.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook. Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly.

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

Further Reading

Video: Rom Whitaker on conservation

My Close Call with a King Cobra

Tagging Anacondas in Venezuela

Local herp societies may offer field trips and much more. The NY Turtle and Tortoise Society is a perfect example.

King Cobra Nesting Research

Snakes in NYC

Gharial and Turtle photo By Adam Jones Adam63 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
King Cobra Photo By Enygmatic-Halycon (http://www.flickr.com/photos/enygmatic/1980455755/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Black Racer photo by Sfullenwider (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

6 comments

  1. avatar

    I have four adventures I can think of. The first one was a search for snakes with a former member of the New England Herpetological Society. He knew a few of spots where we could find some. The first one was on the opposite side of a mountain. It was a hot and humid day, and I was just getting over a respiratory infection. Only made it up one side, before turning back. Next was this field that had various debris thrown about it. There we found an eastern ribbon snake, despite an obvious injury it still managed to get away from us. It and a northern leopard frog. The next sight was much more fruitful. There we found eastern milk snakes, a northern red-bellied snake (which was gorgeous by the way), and a ton of eastern garter snakes!

    First time I went out with John Clare, we found quite a few things including spring peepers, wood frogs, red efts, northern two-lined salamanders, and red-backed salamanders. I thought that was pretty cool. Although he had never been to the area before, he knew exactly where to look. A few months later I got a call from him asking if I was interested in taking part in helping salamanders and frogs crossing the street on “big night”. Did he really have to ask? Hell yeah! We were joined by Ray Coderre of Harvard University and the three of us headed out to meet local legend Rona Balco, who had organized that night’s efforts. The night started out with numerous wood frogs, followed shortly by spring peepers, then finally spotted salamanders. At first the salamanders slowly trickled out of the wood work, then they exploded out. It was awesome! Then it got better. Rona took us to a vernal pond behind the local high school. The pond was crawling with spotted salamanders, never seen so many at one time! You seriously had to watch where you stepped. Then we spotted some smaller, grayish salamanders in the pond, turns out they were Jefferson’s salamanders, which are a protected species here in Massachusetts. It was such an honor to see them!

    The fourth trip was out in California with a now ex-girlfriend. We took her son to the local park to look for frogs. At first we didn’t find anything but this large millipede (large for me, as New England millipedes don’t get more than an inch), then I noticed a section of the field that had these little flags and the grass was a little bit longer there. So I went over there and saw my first Pacific chorus frog, then another and another. So cool! Unfortunately the only snake we found was a coastal garter snake with it’s head bashed in. Pictures from that adventure can be seen on my FB page.

  2. avatar

    Hello Kurt

    Nice to hear from you again; thanks so much for the recollections. Reading them, has me even more eager than usual to get out again. I especially enjoy trips to vernal ponds on the “right” nights, when spotted salamanders, peepers and wood frogs could all be seen together….as I recall, we’ve both been out with some of the same people.

    I saw quite a few Am Bullfrogs on this past Friday, in N. NJ…already fat, so they have likely been up for awhile. A friend reports hearing American Toad calls in Ct…very early for them as well.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    I have seen bullfrogs in my swimming pool since this month started. Haven’t seen much more than that, since I missed “big night” this year.

    If I ever make it down to your area, or vice versa, we will have to go out herping together.

  4. avatar

    Hello Kurt,

    Easy to miss things this year; I’m looking forward to watching for nesting snapping turtles; in s. NYS, most nest on the first few rainy nights in June, and that timing is remarkably consistent. I wonder if they will move early this year. Yes, please let me know if you’ll be in the area, and I’ll do the same.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    I suspect it will earlier this year as everything else is. I will let you know if I have plans to head NYC. I have been meaning to see the Bronx Zoo someday before I die. So who knows? Also I have been meaning to get back to the Intrepid. Haven’t been there since 96.

  6. avatar

    Hello Kurt,

    Better hurry…the BZ has closed 2 buildings since the economy turned! Let me know if you’ll be in town; I’ll keep an eye out for snappers.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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