Editor’s Desk: Herping for Couch Potatoes

May 23, 2014
The Reptile Report
by Editor in Chief

The Reptile Report - Ever wanted to learn how to “go herping” but didn’t know where to start?  Ever wanted to get to know Orry Martin a little bit better?  Ever said, “Who the heck is Orry Martin?”  Well, come along with me on a grand adventure and get answers to all those pulse-pounding questions and more!  Tons of pictures to see, just click on any of them to see the full-sized image.

I love reptiles, but I’m a bit of a homebody.  I’m far past my athletic prime, if I’d ever had one.  I spend a lot of time on the computer and see a lot of amazing pictures of reptiles and amphibians taken in the wild.  And I sit and think about how cool it would be to find snakes and lizards and frogs in the wild.  And that’s about as far as it goes.

A couple of months ago, I attended the Texas Rattlesnake Festival, which is a civilized event that takes place indoors with central heating and air conditioning.  Not a single bug, bog, or burr was found at the event.  It was my kind of place.  While there, I had the pleasure of meeting Orry Martin, aka Texas Snake Hunter.

Orry was jealous when he found out I lived in San Antonio because there are so many great herping opportunities out here. “Tell me what you’ve seen!” He asked with the enthusiasm of a kid waiting for his favorite story.

“Umm, well, I haven’t really seen anything, except for some anoles and house geckos around the deck. I don’t get out much.”

“You don’t herp?” He was surprised. How can an obvious snake-loving person who lives in south Texas not herp?

Surely I’m not the only one? I can’t be the only one who would love to find that wild snake or lizard or turtle, but doesn’t have a clue about where or how to start. So I asked Orry if he’d be willing to show me the ropes, so to speak, and he graciously agreed.

Last weekend, with my daughter Petra as my wingman, I drove out to east Texas and met Orry for two awesome evenings of genuine field herping.

First and foremost, let me say that Orry is an absolute doll, especially once we all relaxed and he got over calling me “Ma’am”. He’s polite and funny and an open book—a true pleasure to hang out with. And the man knows his animals!

The first thing he asked us on that first evening was if we would mind getting wet. “Nah, we’ll dry off.” Well, my poor old shoes are still covered in mud. When he said “wet” I had no idea we’d be thigh-deep in creek water with sucking mud at the bottom that tried valiantly to steal our shoes. He came prepared, wearing swim trunks and rubber boots—a fashion statement to make any true herper proud. Me in my hiking shoes and blue jeans, not so much.

001-creek boot drainOrry shaking the water out of those fashionable boots.

I was surprised when he drove us through a lovely neighborhood and parked at the end of a street with a little patch of woods capping it off. Well, that “little patch of woods” turned out to be a beautiful swath of creek and wilderness. We slipped into the trees along a path and the neighborhood completely disappeared. I had no idea there were such wide, wild areas in the middle of urban sprawl. At first, Petra and I tried to skirt all the puddles and muck along the path, and then carefully made our way along the bank of the creek while Orry walked right down the middle of it. A recent cold front and heavy rains had made the ground treacherous and the creek more swollen than usual. It also sent most of the reptiles into hiding, Orry feared. But we were game to look anyway. Cottonmouths were our target, but I would have been happy with anything, really.

Eventually, we got to an area where crossing the water was the only way to continue. No more hugging the banks. So Petra and I took the plunge. When you’re having that much fun, and on a serious mission to find whatever is out there, a little thing like “wet” (or even “sucking mud”) can’t be allowed to stand in your way. Later, when I told a friend of mine that we’d gone hunting for snakes, she asked if it was scary. “No! The only scary thing was being afraid of falling into the creek and ruining my cell phone.”

002-creek 0The beautiful creek.

003-creek 4Trying to stay reasonably dry and clean.

003-creek 3Giving up and taking the plunge!

004-creek 2Just a wee bit of slippery, sucking mud!

We didn’t find anything at the creek, but I learned some great things about herping for us couch potatoes. My biggest lesson was to allow myself to just DO without THINKING about it. If I stopped to think about that steep, slippery slope I was expected to climb down (and back up again later), or the deep, running water with treacherous mud, or the effort needed to push through brambles and clamber over fallen trees, I would have convinced myself that I was too old and too much of a potato to do any of it. Instead of thinking, I allowed myself to plunge right in and discovered that I CAN do all of that. And not only that, but it was FUN, too.

So, my fellow sofa-‘tators, that is my first message to you: Don’t think about it, just do it!

I also learned that with good company and beautiful nature all around, it really doesn’t matter if you find anything. It’s still a rewarding, refreshing and fun thing to do.

Even though Orry had warned us that the cooler weather might make the reptiles scarce, he still felt bad that we struck out at the creek. He’s a nice guy that way and didn’t want us to get discouraged. Undaunted, we climbed back into his truck, muddy paws and all, and set out for the next spot on his agenda. The next leg of our adventures was a lot less strenuous as he drove us out to a little-used road for some road-cruising.

For those that don’t know, “road-cruising” is exactly what it sounds like it is. You find a dark, quiet road, preferably uninhabited, and drive along it looking for animals that have ventured onto the road’s surface.

Eagle-eye Orry spotted the first snake of the night. It turned out to be a baby copperhead, which was very commonplace for him, but a thrill for Petra and me. He might see copperheads all the time, but for me it was a “lifer”. Well, everything we saw that weekend was a lifer for me! “Lifer” is how you label a species of critter that you’ve found in the wild for the first time in your life. After taking some pictures, Orry carefully (without touching it) urged the little guy off the road and into the safety of the grass, and we resumed our cruise.

We also saw lots of little green frogs and gray toads on the road. Once, Orry jumped out of the truck just to catch a green tree frog for us to play with for a few minutes. It had fun bouncing around inside the cab of his truck before it got released back where he’d found it. While we dodged amphibians and kept an eye out for more snakes, Orry mentioned that he’d been told years ago that eastern spadefoot toads could be found in that spot. He said he knows every frog and toad in the area and has been searching for five solid years without ever seeing a single spadefoot. Five years! That’s one tenacious herper!

005-green tree frogGreen tree frog.

006-copperhead 2Check out the brilliant green tail-tip on this cute baby copperhead.

007-copperhead 4This was one of my favorite pictures of the night.

After a few more baby copperheads and lots more frogs, we decided it was time to head back. It was getting late and the temperatures were dropping. Orry would drop us off at our hotel and pick us up again the next day for more adventures. On our way out, Orry suddenly stopped the truck. “I just saw something I want to check real quick. It’s probably nothing. Wait here.” He jumped out and ran back down the road, leaving his door open. A few moments later, he returned with his hands cupped around something and his face glowing like a kid on Christmas morning. He carefully lifted one hand and said reverently, “It’s a spadefoot! A dadgum spadefoot!” Sitting in the palm of his hand was a tiny little gray toad that looked, to me, like all the other hundreds we’d been dodging that night. Orry has the Eye, I’m tellin’ ya!

So another amazing lesson learned: Never give up on your target! You might not find it the first time out, or even the hundredth time out. But if you stop looking, you’ll never find it!

008-spadefootThe wee little spadefoot toad was nervous.

009-spadefoot-orryOrry was able to get a much better picture of it than I did.

The next day, Petra and I had the afternoon free, so we went and saw Godzilla. Hey, it’s kind of reptilian, so it’s relevant. If any of you find a reptile that breathes blue fire, please let us know!

Orry picked us up at our arranged time and we hit the road, this time headed out to a different town with a special spot that he knows. All these areas are secret, by the way. If you’ve ever tried to ask a real herper where the “good spots” are and gotten blown off, there are good reasons for that. Serious field-herpers are very protective of their spots. A slip of the tongue to the wrong person can devastate an area. It’s not uncommon for someone to swoop in and strip an area of an entire species just to sell them. Another danger is from careless, casual “herpers” who tear through the environment and leave destruction in their wake. And if an area is hunted too frequently, the animals may move on in search of quieter territory.

So the blindfolds and hoods Orry made us wear were totally understandable. No, he didn’t do that. It was a genuine honor to be trusted with these special locations.

While we drove to the next spot, we had time for some fun conversation. Orry’s father didn’t like snakes and encouraged him to stick with turtles instead, but his mom would sneak out with him for snake-hunting trips when she could. Snakes or turtles, though, Orry was hooked and knew from the beginning that he wanted to spend his life working with animals. He’s super-grateful for parents who supported him, whether they shared the same likes or not.

He graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in biology and high hopes of landing a network television job hosting nature shows. The networks showed a lot of interest, and Orry signed several contracts for various projects that never quite panned out. Much to his dismay, he learned that the networks’ vision for programming never matched up with his own. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of being the TV host who always went shirtless while wearing a cowboy hat. “That’s just not me!” He laughed, ruefully. He got a job teaching high school biology and started making his own documentary videos called Texas Snake Hunter.

Unfortunately, about a year ago, his partner and camera-man got married, lost interest in the project and sold off the camera equipment. Needless to say, that put a huge speed bump in the road for Orry and left his fans hungry. Recently, Orry rounded up some new equipment and brought his own Mom on board as his camera-mom. I’d say Ms. Martin deserves some kind of “Mother of the Century” award! Orry gave us an oral preview of his newest project and I can safely say that all the Texas Snake Hunter fans out there will be very satisfied soon! (Soon turned out to be today, with his newest video going up just hours before the publication of this blog. If y’all make it all the way through to the end of my story, you’ll find a link to his awesome new vid!)

We finally arrive at our next adventure site. This was again, right in a typical neighborhood, but surprisingly invisible to most of the people who live right beside it. Orry has a little side-job of snake-removal and fields calls to help people who find one on their property and don’t know what to do about it. Because of that, he’s made numerous valuable contacts and gotten permission to be on some private land or in public parks that are usually closed after dark. This particular site was a beautiful, grassy field that was privately owned. Someone had laid out some tin sheets and created ideal hiding habitat for snakes, and Orry was given permission to visit the site when he wished. He expected to find Louisiana milk snakes, Texas rat snakes or maybe buttermilk racers.

The sun was getting lower in the west and shining beautifully across the field as Orry carefully lifted one tin sheet after another. Strike out. Other than a couple of super-quick elusive geckos, we didn’t find anything under the sheets.

010-tin flipsOrry carefully pulling up sheets of tin.

011-rat snake field 2Heading out across the sun-kissed field in search of more.

After exploring all the tin in that area, he led us across the field to another spot that had some old railroad ties. The first set of four yielded zip as they were carefully turned, so we moved on to the second and last set of four. Orry was beginning to fret that he’d promised this site would be rich in snakes and we’d struck out so completely. But there were still those last four ties to check. First one, nothing. Second one, nothing. Third one, jackpot! I saw a large snake-tail vanishing into the rotting wood at one end and Petra spotted the body pressed against an opening at the other end. Orry took his hook and carefully encouraged the snake to move back toward the more open end. Petra got hold of it and together they worked it out. This was her first time handling a wild snake, and she reached out and caught its neck like a pro. She held on just tight enough to keep it from turning on her, but not so tight as to hurt it, while keeping the rest of the body supported in her other hand.

This was a huge, beautiful yellow Texas rat snake. Absolutely stunning. The poor thing was a bit sleepy and surprised and seemed docile at first, but then suddenly switched into that typical Texas rat snake attitude, “I WILL kill you…just…give me a chance!” It was pretty cute. We took pictures and admired its beauty, then carefully let it go right back into the wood where it had been hiding and laid everything back the way we’d found it. The last railroad tie was also empty, but that one snake made the long drive out to that location so very worth it!

012-rat snake hiding 2Rat snake hiding not so good.

013-rat snake hiding 1Rat snake still hiding not so good.

014-rat snake fishingSnake fishing!

015-rat snake extraction 2

016-rat snake extraction 1

017-rat snake 3Look at that beast!

018a-rat snake 4Gentle but secure hold.

018b-rat snake 7Look how long!

019-rat snake 5“I keel you!”

020rat snake 6“I keel him, too!”

Next, we went in search of some Texas corn snakes.  We found a long, country lane that was mostly gravel and was known for having a strong population of corn snakes.  Ironically, we didn’t find a single corn snake on the road.  But we did find a very pretty juvenile Louisiana milk snake, which Orry had never seen on that road before.  And we found a Graham’s crayfish snake, which was another lifer for Orry.  And we found more copperheads.

021-milk snake 1Louisiana milk snake.

022-milk snake 2Louisiana milk snake.

023crayfish snake 1Graham’s crayfish snake.

024-crayfish snake 2Orry like a proud Papa.

025-crayfish snake 3Very roughly keeled scales on this little fella.

Along the way, we also saw armadillos, raccoons, possums, and other critters. We even saw a large alligator in a park lake, but it was really dark and we could only see his eyes above the water, so no pictures to document that one. All in all, for me personally, the weekend was a huge hit. I learned a tremendous amount about nature and wildlife, that it’s much closer and more accessible than I’d ever imagined. And I learned a lot about myself as well. I hope the weekend was as fun and fulfilling for Orry as it was for Petra and me!

I asked Orry, “How does someone like me, who doesn’t know beans about herping, get started?”

His first suggestion is to find someone to take you out and show you around, which is exactly what I’d just done. But not everyone is fortunate enough to know someone like Orry. Or to be trusted by someone like Orry. So, what if you don’t know anyone or can’t find anyone willing to take you out? How can a typical couch-potato find those sweet spots?

Here is what Orry said:

1. Find water. Animals need water. Prey items need water, and the snakes follow the prey. So that is typically a very fruitful place to start your search. Walk along a creek or river or lake or pond. And don’t be afraid to get wet!

2. Create a habitat. If you find a reasonably isolated patch of “wild” that doesn’t look like it gets much foot traffic, lay out some sheets of tin roofing. It makes an ideal place for snakes and other critters to hide beneath. Let it sit and “mature” for a while, then return from time to time and take a peek underneath each piece.

3. Find some back-country roads. They can be asphalt or gravel, doesn’t matter. Look for roads with as little night traffic as possible, lacking shoulders with grassy areas that come right up to the road, and ideally with some source of water nearby.

4. Be patient!

And here are my personal suggestions:

1. Don’t underestimate yourself and your abilities!

2. Don’t be afraid to get dirty.

3. Keep your expectations realistic. Enjoy the journey as much as the treasures you’ll find.

4. Be respectful of nature!! If you move something, put it back. If you pick up or move an animal, put it back where you found it when you are finished. As the saying goes, “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”

5. Please be careful! When you find critters under rocks or other objects. Make sure the animal is safely out of the way before you set its home back into place. You don’t want to squish your treasures!

6. Be patient!

Now…get off that sofa and go find something wild!

026-copperhead 7Something wild!

Orry’s newest video!

Judy Clothier
Chief Editor of The Reptile Report
Judy@TheReptileReport.com

Read more from The Editor’s Desk

Freedom Breeder