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Field Herping Techniques & Tips
This is a quick guide to different field herping techniques that are quite common and productive for field herpers across the globe. As well as providing a few different techniques for you to employ, I’ve also added a quick “tips” section that deals with weather conditions, timing, and some different topics that need to be dealt with by most herpers.
Flipping: Flipping debris can be extremely effective when looking for herps and is the method that most field herpers employ regularly. Flipping can refer to anything from natural cover like logs and rocks to artificial cover like tin, wood, and trash (that’s right, trash!) Snake and other herps love to utilize cover because it gives them the sense of security they need, and it is easy for them to thermoregulate by hiding below it during the hot hours of the day. But, flipping seems to be extremely good during the spring and fall seasons as a rule of thumb. Caution should be taken when flipping because you never know what is going to be under the next log you flip and you don’t want your hands to be the first thing to find out. When flipping, remember that as you flip debris you are changing microhabitats and that you should try to put everything back EXACTLY where you found it to keep these vital microhabitats intact.
Bark Ripping: Bark ripping is basically a way of searching for milk snakes and other small terrestrial animals that love to squeeze between the trunk and bark of downed trees. You do exactly what it sounds like, taking a potato rake or snake hook and ripping the bark away from the tree to reveal what lies beneath. This is not a tactic that I don’t employ much because, ethically, I have a problem with it. I feel that caution should be taken when doing this because you have to remember that there is another microhabitat living between the bark and the tree and when you are destroying it, you are destroying that hide for another herp and any microhabitat that may have been thriving before you came along.
Hiking in Habitat: If properly done, this can render a lot of finds in the field. It takes a lot of preparation and research to strategically hike in habitat looking for visual encounters, and finds can be very spaced out with lots of walking and work in between. I personally use this method a lot and have had moderate luck with it by researching what types of habitat my quarry is going to be located in. Most of the habitat you’ll want to walk will be where two habitats merge like a tree line; the perimeter of ponds, streams, and lakes; rock outcrops; and sloughs seem to be very productive in my experience. I find it enjoyable just to walk out in nature as well and if you want to hike first and herp second this could very well be the choice for you!
Road Cruising: This is considered the lazy man’s herping, and can get very expensive with the current gas prices. Basically you want to try and locate very remotely driven roads that pass through good habitat. Drive slowly because your target is normally small and can be difficult to see. I like to try and keep it around 20mph, but you have to figure out what is the right speed for your eyes to adjust and search effectively. I also like to turn my fog lights (low beams) on because I feel that in my car it lights up the street that much better. Generally the best times to road cruise are in the spring and fall, right at dusk/twilight. Road cruising also seems to produce more finds in the southern US than other places due to the extreme temperatures during the day and the considerably cool nights during the spring and fall. If you are wanting to road cruise for amphibians, going during or after light rains is perfect and has produced a lot of finds for me in the past. I would suggest giving road cruising a try, as it deserves a very proficient place in field herping, but if you really want to experience herps in their natural environment then this probably isn’t the method for you.
Dip Netting: Dip netting is a technique that is specifically used for finding amphibians that reside in shallow water. You take a net on a pole and basically walk the shore line and skim the shallow water for herps. I don’t do this much as I don’t like to carry the net out with me, but it is one of the most efficient ways of finding many different species of salamanders and definitely deserves a place in the field herping methods. There are many people who are very skilled with this method, and it takes time and practice to truly learn how to dip net efficiently. The one note I’d like to add is that care should be taken to check the net often as you can catch a herp quickly and drown it by dragging it through the water for a long period of time.
Funnel Traps: Funnel traps are a good survey tool for various herps, but are generally used for snakes more than anything. Normally these traps can only be used on private land unless a permit is obtained for surveying purposes on public land. A funnel trap is constructed of a wooden box with hole on each side. The top should also have a hinged lid of some sort so that the trapped animals can be retrieved safely and easily. Then a ¼ to ½ inch chicken wire is normally used to make a funnel that the snake can pass into, but can’t get back out of is created at the four holes that you created on each side of the trap. From that you should be as much black, tarp fencing as you can and make equally long strings of it out from the traps so that animals that run into the fence have the option of going around the fence, or directly towards the trap. These traps should be checked often as the snakes can get cooked in the sun, dehydrate, or eat one another if they are there for too long. Many people like to make sure the trap is shaded and they’ll put water containers into the traps to try and reduce the fatal importance the problems present. I have not used funnel traps, but if you’re trying to conduct a survey of an area or find a targeted species this is a great way to approach it.
Time of Day: The time of day that you go out looking for herps can be very important and, many times, will determine whether or not you have a successful day. If 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. are your favorite times of the day then you may very well be cut out for field herping. During the early morning when temperatures are just starting to rise and at twilight when the sun is setting is when most herps are actively searching out food and their next hide, so this is the time to find them. During the summer, the only times that will most likely be suitable for herps to be out and about will be during the early evening and into mid-morning because afternoon temperatures would kill them. During spring, however, I have had a lot of luck between 1-5 p.m. on days when the high reaches about 76F. I find lots of snakes basking in the warmth of the sun, and this seems to be the perfect temperature to find many diurnal snakes during the months of March and April. Road cruising is normally best at dusk, and when twilight hits I normally like to be at the road that I plan to cruise that night. So, important times to remember are morning and twilight if you want to have the best luck finding herps.
Time of Year: The best times of the year for field herping seems to take place during the spring and fall months when the rains are more frequent and they daytime highs are not at an extreme. I have found most of my herps during the months of March, April, May, June, September, October, and November. During the early spring and late fall months are when flipping natural cover and road cruising tend to produce the most herps for myself, and habitat hikes produce a lot of finds for me during these times too. Artificial cover tends to produce a lot of finds during all of these months as they are normally better heat conductors or insulators than natural cover and provide better cover when temps begin to rise or drop to more extreme levels. During the late spring and early fall months the technique that has worked best for me has tended to be habitat hiking later in the evening with lamps because many herp species are very active at this time and you’ll see a lot more of them crossing your path than you would imagine. As a final note, it is obvious that in extreme cold and heat snakes and other herps cannot survive very well outside and field herping is very difficult if not impossible during these times. With that said, many people in the South and in California have found herps during the winter months, and I have had luck in the North and Midwest during July and August where the midday temps don’t get quite as high.
Wet/Dry: Wet is always going to produce more than dry! That is just a field herping fact. The only time wet will be a detriment to your finds is when the microhabitats under natural or artificial cover are flooded or overly damp. Most species will not thrive in these conditions, but some amphibians find this perfect. But, if it is considerably or extremely dry outside, you’ll see your field herp finds drop off quickly. Most species will go into a state of “hibernation” during this time to conserve as much water as possible and survive the period of drought. During these times your best bet is to only check places in close proximity to a water source, or to wait until a rain comes because the herps will come out in full force. This is another reason why spring and fall are the best times of year because most precipitation comes during these months and the herps will be out and moving. Road herping can be phenomenal for finding herps after a good evening rain, and if you don’t need to get up early I would suggest hopping in the car and taking a drive if one of these light showers occurs because it will most likely pay off.
Moon Phase: Some field herpers swear by moon phase and wind speeds, but I haven’t seen much evidence that supports this case. It is documented that nocturnal species are not going to be very active during new moons or full moons because there is more light and thus, less cover for them to move under. I have seen some evidence that wind does have a factor however when it comes to road cruising because herps tend to avoid open spaces during winds over 10-15mph. I’ve still found plenty of herps in habitat during these winds, but road crossing during these gusts is almost null and I would suggest refraining from using this method and stick to places where gusts are blocked by trees and other natural barriers.
Where do I go?: The question I find most beginning field herpers ask is, “Where do I go to find herps?” Here is the best answer I can suffice, and this is how I went about getting into field herping and targeting certain species. The best way to find herp habitat is to contact people and do as much research as you can. Good places to start are field guides for your area and to contact people on various forums. There are many forums specifically dedicated to field herping, and most people are more than willing to share information with you for the area you’re in. Another great place to start is by contacting your local Parks & Wildlife department or Natural Conservation Museum. The receptionist may not be able to provide information, but normally somebody on staff is familiar with the local herps and more than willing to help out a novice herper in search of information. Public lands are normally easy to find (i.e. parks) but you need to make sure that herping is legal in these areas, and if you are planning to collect you need to make sure that it is legal or you have the permits necessary to collect native species. If you talk to these people enough and get into their circle, many times you can end up being asked to accompany herp surveys and help out if you are known to provide good records and ethical standards. Another great resource for scouting good herp habitat is Google Earth. This gives you an amazing topographical map that will tell you elevations and show you landmarks of interest that can really improve your field herping experiences. If you’ve contacted these places and are still having trouble you are always more than welcome to email me with inquiries and I’ll be more than happy to help you get started in the field in your area. My contact is email@example.com.
Selecting Habitat: Selecting habitat can be made very simple with a little research on your target species and some time in Google Earth. I like to find habitat that has multiple habitats meeting in a close proximity so that I can walk these changes, and I like them to be near a good, constant water source so that I know it’s a good “oasis” for herps. Other good habitat tends to be rock outcrops on hills that face south or southwest because of the wind and sun exposure this direction receives tends to be more ideal. I normally herp more forested areas, grassy plains, creek bottoms, sloughs, and water sources more than other habitat and this seems to produce a good amount of targeted herps for my area. You just need to pinpoint the habitat that best fits your species (i.e. sandy or loose soil for pituophis and other fossorial species or woodlands and marshes for Agkistrodon) and look at maps for areas that you can access legally and fit these characteristics in your area. Remember, just because you didn’t find a herp the first time you try a spot doesn’t necessarily mean its bad habitat so check back from time to time and see if your initial feeling and research was correct.
Acquiring Hunting Property: Private property can be VERY useful for field herping and if approached correctly it can be easily acquired. NEVER GO ON PRIVATE PROPERTY WITHOUT PERMISSION!!! This can lead to serious confrontations that could end up with an angry farmer shooting at your, a ride in the back of a cop car, or worse if you’re unlucky. I grew up hunting in Iowa, and after watching people approach landowners for so long, I can assure you that it is very simple. Always approach landowners with courtesy and respect, and make sure that you state what you are requesting and what your intentions are with your found quarry. Most landowners will have no problem with what you are doing, and the more personable you approach the situation, the better the relationship is going to be. With a little conversation and possibly a cold drink, you can normally get a landowner to allow you on the land whenever you would like. A great thing about acquiring private property is if the owner allows you to, you can begin setting up your own “tin fields” which are just fields created out of roofing tin or sheets of plywood arranged strategically to provide good shelter for herps, thus better results for you. Once again, make sure that the owner is okay with you laying down tin in a certain area before you actually go about creating the field and getting yourself in trouble and possible kicked off the property for good.
Creating Artificial Cover: Artificial cover can be some of the most effective herping sites you can possibly make if they are constructed correctly. A good material to use is roofing tin because it is a good conductor of heat and it has a decent heftiness to it. Weight of the material is very important because herps like to be under something that is solid and secure and a light piece of balsa or a really thin sheet of metal doesn’t provide the type of cover they seek out most. When it comes to placing the material in the field, I like to find spots where two habitats collide and place artificial cover in these areas because most herps tend to be at these intersections. I also like to place cover so that some pieces are in the shade and some pieces are exposed to the sun so that the herps can thermoregulate between the different pieces. Another good way to provide artificial cover at different thermal gradients is by piling the cover at different levels so that the gradient is from the top to the bottom. Just make sure that when you search through this cover that you put the pile back just as it was to avoid disturbing microhabitats. After you have chosen a spot and placed your cover, it is best to wait a couple of months before the cover really start producing good finds. This allows the microhabitats to form under the cover, and a “moisture seal” is created between the ground and the cover that is desirable for herps. For this reason, you want to try and create several different tin fields so that you don’t over-herp a certain area and ruin the moisture seal that needs to develop. Over-herping can also create too many disturbances and animals will recognize when an area does not sustain the security they desire. This is only a brief introduction into creating tin fields and setting up your own AC is entirely up to you and what you are targeting with the cover. Locate some good habitat and try to set up some fields that will provide you with herps in years to come. Have some fun this season, and safe herping!
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