Meet Jim Andrews: Vermont’s No. 1 snake man
Jim Andrews’ boots went splodge, splodge as he trudged along a waterlogged ditch in the mostly pathless Blueberry Hill Wildlife Management Area in the town of Ira on a hot July morning.
His gaze flicked from side to side, alert for the slightest movement. He was already wet to the knees from a thus far unsuccessful brookside hunt for the skittish spring salamander, a slimy amphibian colored the ugly pink of calves’ liver.
“What are we finding?” Andrews called to Cindy Sprague, a volunteer assistant from Huntington.
“Nothing … slugs,” she called back.
When you are Vermont’s only full-time herpetologist, this is how you spend your days: in places most people don’t want to visit, in search of creatures most people don’t want to see.
At a slight movement in the grassy ditch, Andrews’ hands flew into the underbrush and came up with a small garter snake. It slithered in a coil around his wrist as Sprague, state lands forester John Lones and intern Megan Kane of Fletcher clustered around to look at the familiar yellow-and-brown striped creature.
“How many wild vertebrates can you catch in your hands?” Andrews asks. “You can handle them, you can identify them — they are a great vehicle to introduce people to the natural world.”
Andrews had come to Ira, southwest of the city of Rutland, as part of his dogged effort to document — town by town — the range of the state’s reptile and amphibian species: 11 snakes, 11 frogs, 10 salamanders, seven turtles and one lizard, the five-lined skink.
The result has been Andrews’ constantly evolving Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, an authoritative document on where those 40 species have been found in Vermont.
Through his own field studies, and with reports from a network of dozens of amateur herpetologists, Andrews and his atlas can identify the single town (Vernon) where the Eastern hog-nosed snake has been documented and the only Vermont town where the presence of wood frogs has not yet been reported (Newport). He knows where the freckled Jefferson salamander is concentrated (in the Champlain and Connecticut River valleys) and where the greatest diversity of snakes can be found (western Rutland County).
His atlas has become a resource not just for scientists and teachers but for conservation groups and town planning commissions.
“The atlas matters a huge amount,” says Steve Faccio, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in Norwich. “If you don’t know where something is, you can’t conserve it.”
Andrews has become a kind of amphibian evangelist, leading groups of students, amateur naturalists and state highway workers into the field to catch, hold and examine rat snakes, wood turtles, salamanders and frogs.
He’s found converts by the dozens, including the highway workers who attend his periodic classes and use what they learn to keep snakes and salamanders in mind as they design and maintain culverts and roadways.
“Jim is the best teacher ever,” said Sprague, one of those converts, as she and Andrews set out for Ira. “He’s just so into herps. Once you are out there with him, they are a little addicting. It’s amazing how I’ve gotten so comfortable around snakes.”
Andrews, 59, is a big, shambling man. He looks as if he might bulldoze his way through the woods, but in fact moves with the ease and alertness of a hunter. A Middlebury native, he describes himself as a “rural woodchuck” who searched for snakes with his mother and grandmother when he was a child.
He came late to the formal study of herpetology, earning a master’s degree at Middlebury College after 11 years teaching junior high school science.
“Herps,” as he calls them, became his passion, along with advocating for conservation of the vernal pools, wetlands and rocky hillsides where snakes, turtles and salamanders thrive.
His swing through Rutland County one July day was typical of his work: an ultimately successful two-hour hunt for the spring salamander; a vain search for the Eastern ribbon snake around a pond in Poultney; an equally unsuccessful search for snakes in a 100-foot stone wall near the pond; and a visit with the pond’s owners to encourage them to contribute reports to the Atlas.
Throughout, Andrews preached the gospel of herps: Snakes are not to be feared. Amphibians are under-appreciated. The habitat of both sorts of creatures is worth conserving as part of a healthy ecosystem.
Turning over brookside rocks where salamanders hide or rummaging in a stone wall, Andrews was a fount of offhand herp knowledge: Painted turtles are freeze-tolerant. Rat snakes are arboreal and love old barns and woodsheds. Wood frogs are particularly susceptible to predation and “Fowler’s toad has an unpleasant call, like somebody strangling a sheep.”
“That is a fantastic find!” he exclaimed when Sprague snagged an 8-inch-long spring salamander, the first to be documented in Ira for Andrews’ atlas. The lungless amphibian (which absorbs oxygen through its skin) wriggled in the biologist’s hands as Kane measured it for the Atlas’ database.
The salamander isn’t rare, endangered or even uncommon. Nor is it attractive by human standards, having the wet, naked look of a fetus. In fact, the salamander could be a poster child for the difficulty of winning protection for reptiles and amphibians. They lack the charisma of mammals, the beauty of birds or the economic usefulness of fish.
“There’s a need for people to speak up for the interests of reptiles and amphibians,” Andrews said over a packed-in lunch of bacon, cucumber and cheese slices. “I have to look out for them.”
By 5 p.m., Andrews’ shirt was as wet with sweat as if he had gone swimming. A bloody scratch oozed on his forehead. The air was filled with buzzing flies in the sauna-like heat. Stinging nettles fringed a stack of rotting lumber behind an old barn in Benson. But Andrews smiled happily as he and Megan unstacked the boards, uncovering what appeared to be a garter snake condominium.
They snatched each snake (“Grab first, think later,” Andrews says) to record its sex and length. He pulled his thumb firmly down the belly of one fat specimen: “eight, nine, 10” – “eleven babies in there,” he concluded. (Garter snakes give birth to live young).
As they neared the bottom of the pile there was a flash of yellow — a long Eastern ribbon snake, its three yellow stripes as gaudy as a carnival costume.
“People’s perception of snakes is so wrong. They aren’t slimy and cold,” Andrews said. The ribbon snake was smooth and warm in the hand, its muscles rippling like a strip of leather come to life.
Andrews let the snake slither from his hands. Its tail flicking, the slim reptile slid smoothly between two of the stacked boards. “Snakes might not have personality or intellect, but they are fascinating nonetheless,” he said.
“Because they live in a confined area, it is easier to understand they are dependent on us,” he said. “My end goal is conservation and perpetuation of the species and their habitat … I would like to see individuals in every town who were interested in knowing what is in their town, and then in its conservation.”
For more information, or to report sightings of snakes, frogs, salamanders and turtles in your town, go to http://community.middlebury.edu/~herpatlas.
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