RUSSELL COUNTY — From seven states, about 180 people traveled in a caravan probably unseen in these parts since the days of covered wagons. Rather than California or Oregon, these travelers wanted to go no further than the rocky ridges of the Saline River Valley.
“These are some of the finest herping grounds in the country,” said Travis Taggart, as he and scores of others scaled steep hillsides, tipping up rocks and looking underneath for snakes and lizards. Within the first few yards, shouts rang out as someone found this lizard or that small snake.
Indeed, after a day and a half of searching the group had logged nearly 2,000 individual reptiles and amphibians. Numbers is what brought Eric Thiss, and his son, Evan, on a 10-hour drive.
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“Minnesota has, like, 30-some species and Kansas has (about) 100, and you can find so many here in a weekend,” said Thiss, from Lanesboro, Minn. “Kansas has so much wide-open space left.”
Thiss was talking about the Kansas Herpetelogical Society’s annual spring field trip. Last weekend’s gathering in Russell County marked the 41st anniversary of the group’s founding in 1974.
Taggart, the event’s organizer and Sternberg Museum of Natural History curator of herpetology, said the gathering was different from most wildlife-related events because creatures found can be held as well as seen. He told of a time he tagged along with some birders, and listened as they argued about a species of bird they were looking at near Lakin.
“There’s no doubt what you’ve got when you’re herping, because it can be right there in your hand,” he said. “You can see every detail, study what you’ve got in a field guide. I think because these animals can be held is one thing that makes herping so popular with kids.”
According to Taggart, who was joined last weekend by his young children Meg and Jess, more than half of the participants last weekend were under 18 years old.
Every participant was also afield to help further the science.
A Colorado biologist studying snake venom was in need of plains black-headed snakes. Participants gathered scores of the thin, blonde-colored snakes with pink bellies for the cause.
Taggart, probably Kansas’ top herpetologist, was keenly interested in the number of tiny western ground snakes that might be found on the ridges north of the Saline River. Historical accounts said 24 specimens had been found in an area that’s about five miles by 12 miles since 1917. The nearest other population of the species is about 100 miles to the south in the Red Hills.
“The thing is, we’ve only had two specimens in the area in about the last 20 years,” he said. “Both of those were mine, and I’ve lifted a lot of rocks through those years.”
Barely yards from the truck last Saturday morning someone brought Taggart a ground snake for positive identification. It was the first of 119 of the species found on the trip, indicating a strong population. Ring-necked snakes were the most common find for the weekend, with 541 specimens. Nine massasauga rattlesnakes, a species most commonly found at night, on roads, were the only venomous snakes found.
Taggart credited one of the group’s highest find rates to the quality of the habitat, the size and dedication of the group and the ideal conditions of recent rainfall and moderate temperatures.
Eric Kessler, a high school biology teacher in the Blue Valley school system, said the field trips are ideal ways for his students to learn about nature and the outdoors.
“You can sit in a class room, or look in a field guide, and learn this snake or that lizard likes to live in this kind of a place,” said Kessler, who has been bringing as many as 72 kids at a time on the field trips for about 15 years. “But when they get out here, and they see that habitat, and how those animals live in that habitat, it teaches them so much more. It’s especially neat that they can see those animals up close and hold them if they want.”
When crowd first spread over about a half-mile wide swath of hills, there were quite a few who showed hesitation toward handling any finds. By the hour, more and more first touched and then eventually held something like a tiny ringneck or Texas horned lizard.
“A lot of the kids we bring are real city kids who’ve never spent much time outdoors,” Kessler said. “We’re hoping they realize this is all something they can do on their own, and maybe someday they’ll take their kids outdoors, too.”