“These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not exerted his powers to make many of them.”
- Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae
Here's a great tip - never tell your non-animal friends that, in response to their inquiries as to your weekend plans, you'll be going herping this weekend. At the best you can expect a concerned stare, at the worst, a few unwanted assumptions about your life behind closed doors. After failing to make the connection between "herp" and "herpes" a few times, something eventually clicked, and I began answering with the longer - if less trendy - "searching for reptiles and amphibians."
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, and those animals are often given the nickname of herps, their aficionados herpers. Biologically, the two groups aren't really that close - reptiles have more in common with birds than amphibians - but the two have historically been lumped together and tend to share a fan-base. This especially is true in the activity of searching for these animals in the wild, or herping.
Compared to birdwatching (or birding), herping is a more rough and tumble, active sport. Birds tend to be colorful, they sing, and they fly. They also tend to be active, and exceedingly wary of people tramping around their home. As a result, the best way to find many birds is to find a likely spot, wait, and watch. It's with that thought in mind that many of us install birdfeeders, birdbaths, and birdhouses in our yards. Reptiles and amphibians, on the other hand are cryptically colored, generally inactive, and (except for frogs) typically silent. Finding them often takes a little direct involvement - flipping stones, rolling logs, checking crevices, and generally poking your nose into every hiding spot available. It means cruising roads late at night or early in the morning for snakes soaking up the heat from the asphalt. It means dip-netting for frogs and turtles.
One of the coolest herping moments I ever had - with a group of friends discovering three species - three genera, actually - of snake under a single rock!
Herping, frustratingly, tends to have much lower yields than birding does. On my morning walk to work, I can usually spot at least a half dozen species of birds - about as many herps as I encounter in a really good day of herping. Again, birds are just easier to spot... that and there are a lot more of them than snakes and salamanders. Unlike birding, herping also has more of a hands-on component, with many herpers not being content until they've actually gotten their hands on their quarry, possibly positioning it for some photographs or taking some measurements. It's a recipe for the occasional bite - or at least musking, from some snakes - neither of which happens terribly often in birding.
Like birding, the data collected by a knowledgeable herper can have great scientific value. Some zoos have even helped organized volunteers into "citizen scientist" brigades to survey their local herp populations, especially sensitive towards amphibians in decline.
I don't go herping nearly as often as I used to. Partially it's because I currently live in a somewhat snake-deprived corner of the country, where the pickings of reptiles and amphibians are slim (that and I've encountered almost all of them already). Partially it's that I don't have a like-minded group to go with anymore, which is probably the real reason - you need someone to egg you on (not literally) and keep up enthusiasm as you scour the landscape.
One major benefit of herping is for helping to introduce young people to nature. Birdwatching may be too passive, require too much patience, for some kids. The act of searching for herps, however, can fascinate children, and as long as they are properly supervised (so no one sticks their hand in a hole which may contain, say, a timber rattlesnake), a great time can be had by all. The excitement of a group of students finding and examining their first red-backed salamander, or box turtle, or black rat snake, it's not just a specimen - it's an extraordinary discovery, a special interaction with the natural world. Many kids will want to take their find home as a pet, but by returning it unharmed right back where they find it, they can also learn empathy for the natural world, and maybe discover a little sense of stewardship for it.