Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is a common fear among both adults and children.
But when Ray Bosmans stood before a packed room of young children and their parents in the Gudelsky Environmental Center of the Howard County Conservancy on a recent Saturday and asked, "Who here likes snakes and turtles?" nearly every child, including many toddlers, raised their hand or shouted out in approval.
Bosmans' talk, "Cool Turtles and Snakes in Your Backyard," was the conservancy's Wonder Talk for the month of January. For two hours, Bosmans, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and president of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society, discussed the various types of snakes and turtles that can be found in Maryland, and in the children's own backyards.
"When you look at a turtle or snake, you're looking through a window to millions of years ago," Bosmans told his attentive audience. "They're they same now as they were then, just smaller."
The monthly Wonder Talks at the conservancy, on Old Frederick Road, in Woodstock, often draw a big crowd, said Meg Schumacher Boyd, executive director of the conservancy. Bosmans' program last year drew about 100 people, she said, and this year, about 150 people turned out for the event. Most were young families with toddlers and elementary-age children, all gasping with delight as Bosmans showed off a collection of live snakes and turtles.
For Paul Gomez Wick, 6, of Columbia, the morning meant an up-close look at some of his favorite animals.
"I think snakes are so cool," Paul said. While Bosmans was rattling off facts about snakes — the eastern hog snake can play dead and many species of snakes have live births, for example — Paul said he already knew a lot of things about snakes.
He did learn one thing, though: He'd been pronouncing the name of a snake incorrectly.
"I'd been saying 'garden snake,' " Paul said. "But it's really 'garter snake.' "
His father, Rod Gomez, reminded Paul where he'd seen that snake before.
"That's the one I almost stepped on at home," Gomez said.
Located on the 232-acre Mount Pleasant Farm, in Woodstock, the Howard County Conservancy was founded in 1990 "to help preserve the natural environment, agricultural farmland, and unique historic sites in Howard County," according to its website.
The Wonder Talks aren't the only draw to the conservancy in the winter, Schumacher Boyd said. The conservancy tries to carry its programs on year-round, she said, so inside or out, there's something going on.
"It used to be that things slowed down in the winter," she said. "But I can't say that's true anymore. Nowadays, we're pretty busy year-round. The programs that we do hold inside, if the weather's just too bad, we try to focus on encouraging people to get outside.
"A love of nature lasts all seasons," she said. "You see things outside in the winter that, normally, you wouldn't. There's different wildlife, different things going on. People think, 'Oh, it's winter, everything's hibernating, there's nothing going on,' but the woods and the trails are just alive.
"In a lot of ways, it's a better time to see nature – it's quieter on the trails, so it's easier to spot wildlife … Winter hiking is a great time to see nature, enjoy a beautiful season and stay fit, too."
Just in the previous week, Schumacher Boyd said, staff and hikers saw a fox, a barred owl and three pileated woodpeckers feeding together.
With unusually mild temperatures for winter, she said, a lot of winter hikers have been utilizing the conservancy's trails.
"In the last few days, we've had four organized groups of hikers come in," she said. "We have birders come in to use the trails. A lot of folks don't mind the weather at all, and they'll still come out and hike."
The conservancy's winter hours are in effect: It's closed on Saturdays, and building access is only from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays. But the trails are open seven days a week, from dawn until dusk.
"There's still a whole lot of trail use that goes on this time of year," Schumacher Boyd said. "Some days it's almost like spring, with groups of people walking their dogs and bringing their kids out."
'School's Out' days
Several times a month in the winter, the grounds are also flooded with students. The conservancy hosts "School's Out" days, when county students can attend programs — hikes, crafts, nature experiments — on days when there is no school scheduled because of holidays or professional development days.
Even if there were no programs, the grounds would still be active, as the winter season is when the conservancy holds training sessions for volunteers.
It's also time to complete projects around the grounds, Schumacher Boyd said, whether its building maintenance or work in the gardens or ponds. A grove of chestnut trees is currently being planted and cared for in anticipation of the warmer months.
"It's a lot of work prepping for March, when things really start popping on the grounds," Schumacher Boyd said.
Things were popping already during the talk on snakes and turtles, as Bosmans showed off an albino turtle, baby snapping turtles — two fit in his hand — and an eastern box turtle, all to "oohs" and "aahs" from the kids.
"Now, I brought some snakes, too," he said, and the excitement in the room rose even higher.
As the program ended, Paul Gomez Wick tried to convince his parents that a pet tarantula or pet corn snake would be a good addition to their family.
"I'm OK with snakes," said his mother, Cynthia Wick. "But we already have a cat."