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, 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!
I 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!
What 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.
Video: Rom Whitaker on conservation
Local herp societies may offer field trips and much more. The NY Turtle and Tortoise Society is a perfect example.
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