Why Did We Do It?

Why did we write Herping Texas, and travel around to all those places? I’m sure that some people would wonder why two grown men would keep chasing after snakes and frogs long after the time when you “should” outgrow such things. So I guess it’s a fair question, and I will offer a few answers.

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A guy who still chases snakes and frogs

One answer is that Texas is full of beautiful places, if you go out of your way to seek them out. The reptiles and amphibians that we wanted to see are most interesting, natural, and beautiful when you see them in places that are relatively undisturbed. That’s our opinion, anyway. As a result, we planned trips to preserves, national parks, refuges, private land, and wildlife management areas. All (except the private land) were accessible to most Texans and a few, like the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, were at the edge of cities. Even Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks are no more than a day’s drive from most places in Texas.

The Texas Banded Gecko is a pretty common lizard in parts of the Trans-Pecos, but the one we found on a night walk in the Chihuahuan Desert might have been the best one of its kind I had ever seen. It was very quiet except for a light breeze and the occasional rumble of distant thunder rolling across the desert. It was also very, very dark, with a brilliant field of stars overhead. The little lizard was beautiful, especially in that context.

Additionally, we wanted to visit each of Texas’ ten or so ecoregions. The boundaries between them are sometimes indistinct, but each one is like a different country. Obviously the dry desert flats and mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos are different from the woodlands and wetlands of the Piney Woods. Even across north Texas’ grasslands and woods, the Rolling Plains are very different from the Cross Timbers, the Blackland Prairies, and the Post Oak Savannah. You might find a Marbled Salamander under logs or leaf litter in a bottomland forest on a sunny winter day in the Post Oak Savannah, but on such a day a walk out on the Rolling Plains may be windy, colder, and will turn up no Marbled Salamanders.

Another reason is that the past seventeen or eighteen years have provided us quite a natural history education about herps and their habitats. Maybe it has been more like a practicum course, after reading field guides, natural history books, and journal articles. There was no better place than the Big Thicket to see just how persistent a male snake like a tan racer can be in courting a female, even one who has been killed on the roadway. I cannot imagine a better way of seeing how a mother alligator can be protective of her babies while remaining calm and watchful than in a coastal marsh at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. All that time in the field and the experiences that we wrote about were priceless. We still have plenty to learn, but a large part of what we do know, we learned during our travels.

I have often noticed how safe these places feel, even in the desert at night in the company of Mohave rattlesnakes, or on the slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains. Maybe some of this is related to the sense of peace and well-being that comes from doing something you love in a beautiful setting. It is true that if you want to prove to yourself how dangerous such places can be, you can do it fairly easily. However, with some preparation and experience, common sense, and a desire to watch and learn (rather than a desire to prove something about yourself), you can visit the wild places of Texas free of worry. I feel safer in any of those places than I do in the malls and on the streets of Texas cities.

We could have traveled and experienced all this without writing a book. However, I want to carry all this with me in future years, past the time when I might not be able to hike the Chisos Mountains or wander through the bottomland forest along the Sabine River. I want these memories and photographs in case some of the places disappear, for reasons that could include fracking, being sold off, or being walled off at the border. But the absolutely most important reason is to pass the experiences along to others who may want to go there, or who may want to live it through the pages of a book. Nothing could be more gratifying than to hear someone say, “After reading what you wrote, I had to go visit,” or “Your book made me think of reptiles and amphibians more positively.” We want the book to be an invitation into a world we know and love.

That’s why the dedication of the book is “to all young herpers and naturalists who follow their dreams into the field.”

An Excerpt from “The Cross Timbers”

I wish Steve Campbell was here to see the publication of “Herping Texas,” as Clint and I draw on recollections of Steve in more than a few stories we tell in the book. Steve passed away six years ago, and he was a wonderful and funny friend to many of us. In the chapter on the Cross Timbers I talked about the western massasauga rattlesnake, a small rattlesnake that was once common in prairie habitat west of Fort Worth. One of the stories in which Steve played a part involved a massasauga:

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Western massasauga

“One other observation of a massasauga’s behavior helps explain why people may claim that one or another venomous snake chased them. On a spring night out on the road near Weatherford, Steve Campbell and I came up on an adult massasauga. It was Steve’s first encounter with this species, and so we got out and lingered over it for a couple of minutes, admiring it. The snake remained motionless on the caliche road under our lights, and we talked about the intricacies of its pattern. At some point I wanted to see it in a different position, and I nudged it with my snake hook. It exploded into movement, heading straight toward where Steve had crouched to look at it. He, of course, also exploded into movement, and in my memory it is always something close to a back flip that I witnessed, although I doubt he was that acrobatic. In any case, as he moved out of the way, the snake continued on past him and toward whatever spot it may have considered to offer shelter. There was no chase, and no attack – the snake was simply racing for cover, with no thought of who might be in the way.”


Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles & Amphibians, Michael Smith & Clint King. Texas A&M University Press (release date November 5).