Calling all Scouts with a curiosity for the slick and slithering: Register now for our spring Herpetology Workshop!

Your old favorite is back — our spring Herpetology Workshop on April 20! This course helps Scouts earn the Reptile and Amphibian study merit badge by completing eight of the badge’s 10 requirements in a single five-hour course.

Reptiles and Amphibians meet the masses!

Student Scouts will convene from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and learn the identifying characteristics of reptile and amphibian species, important components of various species’ natural environments, reproductive processes, movement and behavior, and even explore some long-held superstitions about creepy crawlers.

Reptiles and Amphibians meet the masses!

HMNS Scouts courses are offered throughout the spring, with many allowing campers to earn multiple merit badges in a single day. For more information on all things Scouts, including class schedules, class requirements and registration, click here or email scouts@hmns.org.

Reptiles and Amphibians meet the masses!

To request to be added to our dedicated Scouts mailing list, click here.

Exploring Sri Lanka

Most people know that Sri Lanka is the post-1972 name for Ceylon, the large island off the southeast coast of India.  But most people – myself included before this trip – probably don’t know much more than that about this fascinating country and its ancient culture.  For two weeks in late September/early October, I had the chance to visit and learn more.

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

Our guide, Anselm de Silva

My three travelling companions were Paul, a herpetologist who worked for 25 years at the Houston Zoo; his wife Barbara, formerly head of the zoo’s primate section; and Lynn, who currently works in the primate section.  My interests are in plants and insects – so the trip had a broad biological orientation.  Our in-country guide was Anselm De Silva, a herpetologist and professor who has written many books about the reptiles and amphibians of Sri Lanka.  He put together quite an itinerary for us natural history geeks, taking in seasonal forest, dry forest, cloud forest, a huge botanical garden, but also some famous archeological sites, a tea picking operation and processing factory, and the bustling city of Kandy, one of the country’s former capitals.

Things I learned about Sri Lanka…one, it has an incredibly ancient (and violent) history.  We visited several ancient archeological sites, including Anuradhapura, which reminded me very much of Tikal in the Peten area of Guatemala:  both are ancient metropoli that were abandoned and subsequently covered by jungle.  Both flourished during the same (long) time period:  about 400 BC to 1000 or so AD.  Both were mainly religious sites (Buddhist and Hindu, in the case of Anuradhapura; polytheistic in the case of TIkal) with many temples and extensive living quarters for the monks and/or priests of the religious class.  The architecture, carvings, and other art work found in the two sites are amazingly similar. 

Polonnaruwa is another historical site we explored – it dates back to the time of William the Conqueror.  The nearby fortress city of Sirigira was also impressive.  Like some of their counterparts in the New World (Tikal, Palenque, etc.), these archeological sites in Sri Lanka are great for seeing wildlife.  Macaques and langurs ran about the ruins, lizards basked on the ancient brickwork, and exotic birds flew among the trees. 

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

Elephants bathing at Yala National Park

In addition to its archeological riches, I learned that Sri Lanka has protected about 8% of its land area in 15 impressive national parks and other reserves (over 100 protected areas in all).  We visited just a few of them.  My favorite was Ruhunu or Yala, the largest park in the country, comprising over 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) of dry forest on the southeast coast.  Visitors to Yala are only allowed to travel safari-style with a driver and guide; there are too many large and potentially dangerous animals to let people wander on their own.  It was the end of the dry season, so the shrinking water holes were the best place to see wildlife.  We had hoped to see leopards, as Yala has the highest concentration of these animals of anywhere in the world – but we missed on this one.  However, we saw dozens of elephants, axis deer, water buffalo, wild pigs, crocodiles, along with langurs and macaques, mongooses, a variety of lizards, and dozens of birds. 

Langur family

Langur family

Flying fox

Flying fox

In Bundala, another large park along the southern coast that was mostly lagoons and swamps, we saw many of the same animals but also many water birds – herons, egrets, storks, flamingos, lapwings, stilts, etc., etc.  Our best views of elephants was at Minneriya, where we watched two bull elephants in must mingle with a large herd of cows and youngsters, while in the distance a pair of jackals yipped back and forth, and spectacular Brahminy kites flew overhead.  Wild peacocks and jungle fowl (national bird of Sri Lanka – ancestor of the domesticated chicken) were everywhere in all these parks.  Flying foxes (giant fruit bats) were everywhere, hanging chittering in the trees by day, flying off en masse in the evenings.  They were spectacular!  Sadly, we noticed many caught (electrocuted) in electrical lines, especially near roost areas. 

I learned that tea, coconuts, rubber, fish, coffee, and spices are all major export crops in Sri Lanka.  We had a chance to spend a couple of days in the refreshingly cool tea-growing area in the central mountainous area.  The plantations themselves – hills covered with carefully pruned tea bushes, coral bean (Erythrina) or other trees providing some shade – looked and felt very much like the coffee-growing areas of Costa Rica’s central plateau.  However, the brightly dressed Tamil workers reminded me that this was the East and not the West. 

Tamil women

Tamil women

I also learned that Sri Lanka has a relatively high standard of living (the highest of any Asian country,according to WIkipedia) and a literacy rate of over 90% – among the  highest in the developing nations.  The country is predominantly Buddhist, but Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are also represented, and all appear to co-exist quite peacefully (the Tamil Tiger rebels are Hindu, but their rebellion is based on ethnic and economic problems, not religion).  The people we met were friendly, and I didn’t notice any who were desperately poor.  Most people spoke at least a few words of English, and there was a lot of interest in our upcoming election!  I loved the clothes – most women wore colorful saris – in all colors of the rainbow.  I saw only a few women, and only in the cities, wearing pants.  Men had a wider range of possibilities – some wore pants, others shorts, and many wore long or short sarongs.  Sandals and flipflops were the footwear of choice for both sexes.  Muslim men often wore caps on their heads, and the women covered their hair with a scarf.   

 

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

Sri Lankan breakfast fare

The food was good – although I did crave a bowl of cold cereal or a simple peanut butter sandwich more than once.  “Rice and curry” is eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their hands (the right hand only is used).  That took a little getting used to since I have been discouraged from putting my hands in my food since I was about two years old – and this was not discrete finger food, but rice and helpings of often soupy curried vegetables, or meat, or lentils, etc.   But, we managed (and sometimes broke down and ate with a fork).

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Tsunami monument at former tourist lodging

Our time was short and there were things we didn’t get to do - we missed seeing the traditional dancers in Kandy, for instance.  And I would have loved to check out some of the beaches, which were fabulously beautiful, with clear blue water and pinkish sand.  Colorfully painted wooden fishing boats, and endless skeins of fishing nets, were strewn over some of them; others were completely pristine.  Although most areas have been extensively repaired, we saw some evidence of the devastating 2004 tsunami in places along the coast.  Seeing the bare foundations of houses, and hearing people’s stories, reminded us that Sri Lanka lost over 35,000 people in that disaster, with over half a million displaced - making our recent hurricane “Ike” seem benign by contrast.

Fishermen and nets near Galle
Fishermen and nets near Galle

All in all it was a very interesting visit.  If I go back, I’d like to have more time to explore on my own and get to know the people.  I’d especially want to go back to Galle, an old Dutch outpost on the southwest coast.  The colonial part of the city in particular was very picturesque.  The highland village of Ella had marvellous views and plenty of accomodations for tourists.  I would definitely want to get to Sinharaja, a rainforest preserve with many endemic plants and birds.  And I’d want to spend at least a bit of time on any of the gorgeous beaches – and do some shopping! 

 

Hindu temple entrance

Hindu temple entrance

Picking tea

Picking tea

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Ancient temple at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Great Stupa at Anuradhapura

Street scene in Gampola

Street scene in Gampola

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Reclining Buddha (Gal Vihara) at Polonnaruwa

Incidental Herping and Heroes

Southeast Arizona desert

Southeast Arizona desert

I recently took an all-too-short birding trip to Arizona. (Birding is like bird-watching only more sciency.) While my friend Martha and I set our sights on finding some of SE Arizona’s more glamorous birds, we did take the opportunity to check out some of the other local fauna. We were privileged to observe kangaroo rats, a family of javelina, swarms of mosquitoes and a variety of very speedy lizards. Here are a few of the non-blurry pictures we managed to snap of the slower daytime critters.

aponophelma species

Wild tarantula peeking out of her hole at the Sonoran Desert Museum - in the bird aviary!

dung beetle

A dung beetle! If you look closely you can see the ball it is rolling.

western box turtle

Martha first spotted this little cutie on our walk in San Pedro Valley.

While lots of animals are active during the day, some are easier to find at night. Daytime or nighttime, herping is good, clean fun. It’s a lot like birding, except with reptiles and amphibians and more often than not you try to catch them. Herping, especially in the desert, can be very rewarding once the sun sets. As the air cools, the roadways retain a lot of their warmth, which reptiles and amphibians crawl out to absorb.

Summer is also monsoon season in SE Arizona, so toads are just as likely as snakes. Our nocturnal guides on our mini-excursion were none other than the same folks who had rescued us the night before from atop a mountain when our rental had a flat tire and a leaky spare – a story for another time but heroes none the less. Quick shout-out to Nick, Mary, Steve and Becky!

As we set off into the night, watching a spectacular lightning show to boot, Martha and I followed behind our knowledgeable leaders in our car. How prepared were they? They even had these cool radios so when we stopped abruptly I would know where to park without running over our intended “catch”. Of course, we only handled the nonvenomous reptiles and all of them were herded or released to the side of the road. Safety first! Here are some of the pictures Martha took since, wouldn’t you know it, my digital’s batteries died after the first rattlesnake.

great plains toad

One of our first toads: a Great Plains Toad, who it turns out can hold quite a lot of water.

couch's spadefoot

I was surprised at the greenish tint of this Couchs Spadefoot toad.

mojave rattlesnake

All of the rattlesnakes we found at night were juveniles, and none were as large as this Mojave Rattlesnake.

rock rattlesnake

I found this Rock Rattlesnake as we headed to Tucson, though not under a rock.

Threadsnake

I still do not know how Nick spotted this Threadsnake on the side of the road. Now to count the head scales to accurately identify it.

desert variation of common kingsnake

After this gorgeous Desert Kingsnake finished defecating all over Nick, I got to hold it!

longnose snake

One of the more colorful snakes we saw that night, the Longnose snake.

Martha, not necessarily a fan of snakes but more an appreciator of amphibians, was very patient with me when I requested she photograph each of the critters we saw. We had a great time and would have stayed out longer had the weather been slightly more cooperative.

aphonophelma species

aphonophelma species

On our way back to Tucson to catch our flights home we also were lucky enough to spot this little beauty (at 70 mph no less) crossing the road. By the time I turned around we had nearly lost it to the roadside shrubbery full of cows. We had a great adventure and can’t wait to plan another trip to spot all those we missed this go round!