A San Francisco garter snake. One of the most beautiful snakes in the world. (Photo: Brian Gratwicke/CC BY 2.0)

Birding might be the most well-known animal watching pastime, but to herpers, the really exciting creatures are the ones found much closer to the ground.

In case you’ve been sleeping on the joys of herping, it is the practice of seeking out reptiles and amphibians, either for the sheer enjoyment of witnessing them in their natural state, or for a little bit of citizen science.

The name derives from the field of herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians. Herpers are those civilian explorers who have found a fascination (and often a beauty) in creatures that many people might consider creepy.

“I started when I was 11 years old. I saw a snake in my yard, and went from there,” says Mike Pingleton, one of the Project Administrators of HerpMapper, an online project that is working to use herper-collected data to map reptile and amphibian populations across the globe. “That was in the early Seventies and I’ve been doing it ever since. So clearly it’s something I enjoy doing. … It’s more of an obsession than anything else.”

A turtle chilling in Texas. (Photo: Mike Pingleton/Used with Permission)

According to Pingleton, recreational herping didn’t take off until the early 1990s, with the advent of the internet. Herping, like birding, has long been around in some form or another, but began taking shape as a more formalized activity in the late 20th century.

As Pingleton explains, it was initially a rather lonely hobby. “Back then when I was a kid it was just sort of a solitary pursuit,” he says. “The internet hadn’t been invented yet, and your networks for herping were local herpetological societies or nature centers.” However, with the community connectivity provided by the internet, the formerly disparate herpers were able to form a larger, more bonded community, sharing information among each other, and finding like-minded herp fans.

Most recreational herpers refer to themselves as “field herpers,” and their goal is to experience the creatures rather than capturing them and keeping them in captivity. “The goal is to enjoy the animal, not change its life,” says Pingleton. “It’s not really about going out and finding things and putting them in a bag and taking them home. It’s the act of enjoying the animals where they live with as little impact as possible.”

A little pig frog in the Everglades. (Photo: Mike Pingleton/Used with Permission)

The other aspect of field herping incorporates acts of citizen science. Since people are already out in the wild looking under rocks, and trying to find semi-hidden creatures, some herpers take it upon themselves to catalogue and report their findings to the scientific community. In this way, herping offers the option to crowdsource a complicated and often hidden arm of biology.

Pingelton’s HerpMapper is a good example of this. Using a phone app, amateur herpers can geolocate their finds to an overall map, which could then be accessed by scientific authorities. Many herpers begin as just curious explorers, but then move into more scientific reporting as their interest in the animals, and the conservation of the habitats that support them, grows.

While the herping community has grown over the years, it is still a far cry from such massively popular activities as birding. “I would characterize us as how birding was maybe 50-60 years ago,” says Pingleton. “We might fill one baseball stadium, but we certainly couldn’t fill two.”

Thanks to a larger degree of knowledge of the natural world in the general public (cheers, internet!), people seem less afraid of or creeped out by herps like toads and snakes than they once were. And this in turn has led to a wider general acceptance of herping.  

But even though it’s not as popular as birding, it does have certain advantages that birders will never know—most immediately, the fact that reptiles and amphibians hang out on the ground. “You’re never going to have a wren perch on your hand so you can have a close look at it that way,” says Pingleton. “Herpers have the opportunity to pick up a snake, or look a turtle in the eye.”

That ability to get up close and personal is some of the appeal of searching for herps. While each herper’s specific interest in the pastime is different, many of them become interested in it due to the unique nature of the animals. As Pingleton points out, checking out strange creatures is a fascinating way to experience the natural world.

A tree lizard spotted in Thailand.  (Photo: Mike Pingleton/Used with Permission)

If you find yourself drawn to salamaders, snakes, frogs, and the like, Pingelton recommends picking up a field guide, or finding another herper in your area that might be willing to familiarize you with the local herps. And from there it’s all about going out and getting used to looking for your quarry. Getting good at herping is a cumulative process that gets more rewarding the more you do it.

“In a sense, it’s a very personal discovery process,” says Pingleton. “The first time you look for a toad, you might have a hard time finding a toad, until you find you first one, then all of a sudden your brain says, ‘Oh, okay!’ Then the next toad is a little easier to spot.”

For his part, Pingleton has an ever-evolving life list of herps that he’d still like to see. He recently got to see another of his longtime loves, the San Francisco garter snake. “Many people think it’s the most beautiful snake in the world,” says Pingleton. “It’s only left in a few protected places.”

Hopefully, the growing herper community, and its efforts as citizen scientists will be able to keep such incredible creepy crawlies going for years to come.