When the world was waiting for the next trending hobby, Chlebanowski was exploring around his hometown of Alex, actively looking for snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, and salamanders. Before long, his hunt for herps, the collective term for reptiles and amphibians, included photographing his finds and sharing his observations with other naturalists.
By 2021, Chlebanowski's once-every-few-weeks adventures had grown to daily 5 – 6-hour trips followed by 5 – 6-hour night cruises.
"Some days I'd flip probably 200 rocks. I wouldn't always find something under the rocks, but it really built an appreciation of the wildlife and landscape. Sometimes I'd be in a remote area and wonder if I was the first person to stand in that spot in the last 100 years."
An appreciation for nature continued to grow in Chlebanowski's temporary position in the guest services department at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. He would see people getting introduced to lorikeets, feeding a giraffe, or touching a stingray, and it reminded him of his own experiences.
"I could see that same spark light up. The idea of conservation, it just clicked."
Chlebanowski, now a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, has mostly built his knowledge of Oklahoma's reptile and amphibian communities through self-learning.
"I've picked up a lot about which habitats species prefer just by going to different spots and flipping rocks or looking under logs. It can be a grind, but it's worth it."
iNaturalist, a free platform that catalogs nature sightings from citizen scientists around the world, has also helped Chlebanowski learn more about individual species, scout his next herping destination, and share his observations with other naturalists. But even with iNaturalist, and despite hours of searching and flipping rocks, he's only spotted his favorite species, the western milksnake, once.