Travis Taggart and other fellow scientists do not truly love snakes. But they do admire them, including for their beauty.
Taggart and several other Kansans will gather in Butler County this weekend for a field trip they organize three times a year. The event is free and open to anyone. Volunteers, sometimes by the hundreds, often with their children, gather three times a year at some spot, usually a state lake or nature park. With permission from nearby landowners, they fan out into pastures and creek beds, carefully turning over flat rocks or tree branches and logs, capturing and recording numbers and species of snakes and amphibians. The gathering spot Saturday will be at Butler County State Lake and Wildlife Area in southeast Butler County. These expeditions are organized by the Kansas Herpetological Society.
People who have never done this before might be surprised by what they see. “Herpers,” Taggart said, admire snake and amphibians – for the good they do hunting insects and rodents, for how they make our world more interesting, and for their beauty. To a herpetologist or anyone who loves nature, snakes with their green or gold or brown or yellow or black or red scales are infinitely beautiful, and people are always startled when Taggart or someone else shows up in camp with a milk snake covered in bands of colors.
Herpers, as they call themselves, have organized these expeditions since 1974, never suffering any injury, Taggart said. “In that time we’ve found thousands of venomous snakes, and no one has ever been bit,” he said.
Scientists and snake wranglers organize the volunteers to bring most of the animals back to the campsite gathering spot to be recorded and photographed. At most of these hunts, Taggart and others who know how to safely handle venomous snakes will pull them out of bags or cages and show them to children and adults there.
At some of these gatherings, especially in eastern Kansas where species are more numerous, anyone showing up will see hundreds of snakes, turtles, salamanders, lizards, frogs and toads at the gatherings at lunch hour and before sundown. Butler County is home to the massasauga rattlesnake, so some of them will probably be found.
Anyone wanting to take part should follow the KHS signs along the roadsides and show up at Butler County State Lake before 9 a.m. on Saturday. As many as 200 volunteers have shown up at some of these hunts, a fact that benefits science because a high count of people means a lot of searching gets done.
Species new or rare to Kansas have been found that way, including, recently, the smooth green snake or the redbelly. “I’ve spent a lot of time hunting, but with one person you have to hit that right rock or that right log and be lucky,” Taggart said.
The hunts are scheduled at a different county in Kansas for each of the three annual hunts, with numbers and species recorded for the Kansas Herpetological Society. Most animals are released, though people can take them home, and scientists who come along will sometimes take a specimen to a lab or museum to study.
Taggart, the curator of herpetology for the Sternberg Museum in Hays, said this effort gives herpetologists a good idea of which species live in the state, and how they are faring. “But it is also so much fun,” he said. “I like seeing people, especially children, who have never been around snakes before. The best part is seeing children, who have no innate fear of snakes, get their first chance to interact with them.”
Anyone showing up should bring leather gloves, pants and sturdy shoes, because much of the hiking will be done in brush. Bug repellent, sunscreen and hats to ward off sunburn are also a good idea, he said. For more information, contact the field trip coordinators: Travis Taggart, 785-650-2445, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Daniel Murrow, 620-314-8783, email@example.com.