Thursday, May 25, 2006

Catching Snakes and Illinois Wilds Institute for Nature

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As kids growing up in suburban Cincinnati, my brother and sister and I had easy access to some pretty nice places. There was a woods with a pond behind our house, and a creek that wound through a pasture on a farm nearby. In retrospect it sounds kind of funny to me, but one of our favorite activities was catching snakes.

We had reliable spots in the creek for catching queen snakes, and we would naturally pick up anything else we found under the rocks there: salamanders, crayfish, tadpoles, just about anything that moved.

Sometimes we would fan out and walk the woods looking for black rat snakes or racers, bigger snakes that were harder to find but much cooler to have. Occasionally the rat snakes we caught were longer than we were tall. We also picked up a lot of box turtles as we went. On our record day we collected eighteen of them, more than I’ve seen altogether in the thirty-plus years since that time.

My parents were surprisingly accommodating. We didn’t get in trouble for coming home wet and dirty, and my mom tolerated snakes in the basement as long as they were contained. My dad even made a pen in the yard from garden fencing, which he and the guy at the hardware store called “turtle wire.” About the only rule that applied was to let things go where you caught them, and we were pretty good about that.

This trip down memory lane was prompted by a more recent experience I had, a three-day workshop on reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey at the Cache River Wetlands Center in southern Illinois.

There I again found myself walking the woods with others who ran towards the person who called out “snake,” rather than away. Between the workshop participants and our guides from the Natural History Survey we found and identified eight species of salamanders, ten types of frogs and toads, six kinds of turtles, two kinds of lizards, and eleven species of snakes. On top of that, we netted a variety of crayfish, darters, and minnows—really we took a look at just about anything that moved.

I should emphasize that the workshop took us beyond finding and identifying critters in the field. We enjoyed presentations on the life history and conservation of the animals we studied by professional scientists from the Natural History Survey. Chris Phillips, who wrote the Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Illinois and Chris Taylor, one of the region’s foremost experts on crustaceans, were the primary instructors for the class.

The workshop I attended is part of a program called the Illinois Wilds Institute for Nature, which aims to help people from all walks of life connect with the natural wonders of our state, and which you can learn more about through the Illinois Natural History Survey’s website. In an age when many people experience nature by watching a guy on TV catch snakes on the other side of the world, we’re extremely fortunate to have access to such programs right here in our state