If you look up blue racers on the Canadian Herpetological Society’s website, you’ll find out what they are, (large, blue-gray snakes), what they eat, (rodents, frogs, other snakes), and where they’re found, (Pelee Island, in Lake Erie, ON). These days, most of us take the availability of information for granted. With iNaturalist and a host of authoritative websites and field guides at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget that every fact and figure we read must, at some point, have been discovered and recorded by a living, breathing human being.

In the early spring of 2022, I had the chance to talk to some of those human beings, and saw first hand a small fraction of the work that goes into acquiring wildlife data in the field.

Blue racers are one of Canada’s rarest snakes, with only a few hundred individuals left in the entire country, found only on Pelee Island. For the last three years, WPC, Scales Nature Park, Ontario Nature, NRSI Inc., and the University of Toronto have been working to count, tag, and determine the habitat needs of these endangered reptiles. To do this, researchers not only catch the snakes by hand during the day, but also hunt for them at dusk after they’ve bedded down to sleep.

An observer is only in the way during a daytime snake chase, but I did get the opportunity to accompany three Ontario Nature researchers and WPC’s own Hannah McCurdy-Adams as they conducted one of dozens of artificial cover board surveys aimed at discovering the prefered sleeping quarters of blue racers. For two hours, the survey party and I squelched through mud and dodged poison ivy in two of Pelee Island’s nature preserves while we searched for 84 pieces of wooden board that the blue racer team had left as potential shelters for the snakes. With night approaching and the odd pheasant screaming in the twilight, we carefully lifted each board to count the number of drowsy reptiles underneath it. It wasn’t an unpleasant job, but it did leave me wanting to know more about the people who had chosen to make it a part of their careers.

So, I set out to find out more by asking them.

Hannah McCurdy-Adams holding one of the largest blue racers of the study. Photo: Ryan Wolfe

Hannah McCurdy-Adams has been catching snakes since childhood, and has spent the last ten years working with reptiles and amphibians in one capacity or another. As WPC’s Reptile and Amphibian Program Development Coordinator, she creates and manages reptile and amphibian (‘herp’) projects across Canada – including blue racer recovery work. She also chairs a working group within the Ontario Turtle Conservation Network, co-chairs the Canadian Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Recovery Implementation Team, and helped plan the Canadian Herpetological Society’s annual conference this year.

When I asked her what her dream job was, she said she thought she’d already found it.

Ryan Wolfe holding a blue racer. Photo: Hannah McCurdy-Adams

The king of the racer chasers, Ryan Wolfe is the Project Leader of the blue racer population census surveys, which he began in 2020 as part of his Master of Science degree. Formerly an employee of Ontario Nature and WPC, now working for the environmental consulting firm NRSI, Ryan is responsible for organizing and planning the racer population and road mortality surveys, and has the unenviable job of analyzing the data gathered at the end of each field season.

Candace Park holding a blue racer. Photo: Hannah McCurdy-Adams

There are downsides to studying a creature known for its scarcity. According to Candace Park, trying to maintain a positive mindset when no racers could be found constituted one of the greatest challenges faced by the research team. A recent addition to WPC, Candace is the new Reptile and Amphibian Program Biologist, and like Ryan Wolfe, she too is working towards a Masters of Science degree. When I asked what her favourite aspects of the Pelee job were, she mentioned the camaraderie among the researchers, and of course, the thrill of capturing racers in the field.

Kenny Ruelland holding a blue racer. Photo by Hannah McCurdy-Adams

Everyone I talked to likes to catch snakes by hand. Almost all of them also complain about the poison ivy and other aggressive flora on the island. According to one field technician, it sometimes seems as though every plant in blue racer habitat “has spines or poison”. That technician is Kenny Ruelland, a team leader who has been part of the population census since its inception in 2020. When not chasing blue racers, Kenny runs the firm Ruelland Ecological Consulting, and works most with turtles and snakes. Field work and consulting, he told me, were both jobs he wants to do for the rest of his life.

Jessica Nelson

Jessica is a freelance writer and photographer living in Toronto. She recently completed a job placement with Wildlife Preservation Canada as part of Fleming College’s Environmental Visual Communications program.