Field Herping Methods

Flipping | Road Cruising | Time of Year | Phase of the Moon

CAUTION:  The methods described here are usually considered "hunting" by governmental agencies, and necessitate the possession of the appropriate licenses--EVEN IF YOU DO NOT KEEP WHAT YOU FIND.  Consult my Laws & Equipment page for details.


This technique entails finding likely sites and turning over, or "flipping," ground cover to find reptiles.  There are two basic types of cover encountered:  natural and artificial. 

Natural cover includes rocks and logs, or basically anything in the natural environment which could conceivably provide shelter for herps.  Artificial cover can be deliberate or unintentional.  Examples of deliberate artificial cover include large sheets of plywood and tin which are set out for the specific purpose of attracting herps and providing suitable microhabitats for them.  Unintentional artificial cover is everything else humans produce which ends up in the environment.  In other words, our trash can often provide suitable, even preferred, habitat for herps.  The photo at right shows a gorgeous juvenile (~15") California kingsnake, as it was found, resting beneath a piece of plywood.

Trash dumps are usually outstanding sites to look for herps.  The "official" dump sites authorized by various governmental agencies are typically not as good, however, since they're organized and separated by type of trash, and maintained in fairly sanitary (from an environmental standpoint) conditions.  The "illegal dump sites" are actually better for flipping.  Such sites are in better locations (out in the woods, off less-traveled roads) and contain a wide variety of suitable material--from boards and railroad ties to old chairs, carpet, and mattresses.  THIS is the type of dump site which usually pays off.


Baby Cal King, Found under Plywood
Ironically, local organizations which claim to be environmentally-minded are often employed to clean up such favorable sites because of the aesthetic factor--illegal dump sites are an eyesore, and while many (if not most) types of trash shouldn't be "out in the wilds," large pieces of sheet metal (old highway signs) and lumber (plywood) should be left.  In many areas, these items can blend in with the surroundings to the point where they are not noticed by the casual observer (vegetation conceals it, for example, and plywood weathers well).  Organizations involved in such "environmental causes" often encounter many types of animals during the course of their cleanup efforts, including snakes, salamanders, field mice, etc. which they have just rendered homeless by the removal of artificial cover.

The photo at right shows me flipping a piece of plywood which is barely noticeable.  The next picture shows what was underneath.


Flipping Plywood
A small western diamondback rattlesnake was found underneath the plywood.  The casual outdoorsman would probably walk right past the well-concealed plywood without noticing it.  However, there can be several snakes hiding under a piece of wood that size.


Juvenile Diamondback under Plywood
Much as manmade impoundments are often managed for sustainable take of various types of fish, areas can be provided with artificial cover (setting "board lines," as it's called when laying out numerous pieces of plywood in an area) which will provide greater habitat not only for herps, but for many of their prey items as well.  I personally know of people who have managed such board lines and were able to collect numerous snakes from each such area year after year, and I've experienced the productivity of such board lines firsthand.


Flipping usually involves being "out in nature" (who would've guessed?), but the unforeseen consequences can be chiggers, ticks, poison ivy, etc., even snakebite.  To counter this, most field herpers wear long pants and boots.  Depending on the location and vegetation type, I sometimes get by with just shorts and sandals (this works better in the Southwest than in grassland-type areas).  Another growing concern is fire ants.  These ants like to build their colonies under cover, and I've flipped numerous boards and tin sheets which contained thousands of these stinging insects.  Pay close attention not only to what's under the flipped item, but to the part you're holding on to--it can be covered in ants, which will soon cover your hand!


A long flipping session can wreak havoc on your hands, given the rough consistency of rocks, boards, and other cover.  Gloves are recommended (though I usually forget mine!).  Some people prefer to not touch the cover itself at all, instead using a field hook or even a potato rake.  This technique usually works better with two people--one to do the lifting with the implement (easiest to accomplish from the opposite side from the one you want to lift), and one to look under the lifted object for any herps.

The photo at right depicts the two-person technique.  A friend used his potato rake to first lift the wooden pallet, then used it to brace the pallet in position while I examined the diamondback resting underneath.


Diamondback under Pallet
Finally, pay close attention to how the cover rests on the surface.  It will usually be slightly sunken into the soil, and this creates what is called a "moisture seal."  The relative impermeability of this seal helps to maintain the microhabitat under the cover slightly more humid than ambient conditions, and is often the determining factor in its selection by herps to use for their activities.  Take extra care to replace the cover exactly as you found it--it will often fit back into its original position like a puzzle piece.  By doing so, you guarantee the cover will remain attractive for use by herps.  There are many unethical people out there who leave a path of destruction in their wake, with cover turned but not replaced.

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Road Cruising:

Road cruising involves driving suitable roads which traverse suitable habitat, looking for herps on or near the roads.  Depending on target species and climatic conditions, this can be a productive means of observing and/or collecting herps.  On the other hand, under marginal conditions, it can be very time- and fuel-consuming!

Suitable roads are those which do not receive a lot of traffic.  For example, a two-lane county road is usually better than an interstate highway.  I don't say this because the herps prefer one type of road over the other, but rather because the act of road cruising typically entails driving slower than speeds expected on major thoroughfares.  Additionally, it is sometimes necessary to stop and turn around to get back to a herp, and this is difficult to impossible on most well-traveled roads.  I view this as a safety issue and don't plan to cruise such roads.

I like to joke that the speed at which to road-cruise varies in direct proportion to the time elapsed since the last animal was seen.  By that I mean that at the start of my cruise, I drive very slow--15 miles per hour or so.  If I don't see anything for a while, I tend to drive faster and faster.  Finally, I'll be doing 40 and THAT'S when I come across a big snake in the road!  After stopping to photograph it and move it off the road, I'll revert to the 15 mph speed and hope I'll see another snake soon.  This process repeats until the cruise is finished.  I'm not saying that's the preferred technique, just how it ends up a lot of the time.


Sidewinder on Road
As far as the best speed is concerned, that will be for the individual herper to determine.  My eyes aren't the best in the world, so I tend to drive a little slower--usually 15-25 mph.  It also makes a difference what kind of herp you're anticipating.  Smaller species such as shovelnose snakes and geckos usually dictate slower speeds, though I know people who can reliably spot these driving 55 mph.  Regardless, this is another reason you don't want to cruise major roads--you do not want to drive at a speed that impedes normal traffic flow; that could get you a traffic ticket.

The flip side of this is driving too quickly.  Night driving can be hazardous if done incorrectly--don't "overdrive your headlights;" that is, ensure you can stop in the distance illuminated by your headlights.  This reduces the potential for hitting objects in the road, whether they're snakes, pieces of blown tires, cows, or even kangaroos (click on the link at right for an example--this happened to me in Northern Territory, Australia).

Spotting animals on the road gets easier with experience.  You will initially be stopping for a lot of rocks and twigs in the road until you get a mental picture of how a snake is going to look on the road in your headlights.  Snakes will usually show up very pale against a blacktop road.


Link to QuickTime Movie
Road cruising can be effective both day and night.  I tend more towards night cruising, looking for snakes and nocturnal lizards which use the road surface for warmth.  Asphalt roads work best for night cruising in my experience, primarily because these roads retain heat well (which is desirable for poikilothermic animals like herps) and because herps are generally easier to see against the dark surface.  Some herpers cruise gravel and dirt roads, but these are usually more productive during the day than at night.  In addition, it's often harder to discern a snake on these roads--ruts and "washboarding" on gravel roads can cast convincing shadows in a car's headlights which are easily mistaken for snake by the novice herper.

The picture at right shows a Stimson's python in Australia.  Notice the snake is very bright in the headlights.  The dark area in the center of the snake's body is from a shadow cast by my lantern/flashlight. 

Different times of day and times of year are effective for different species.  Herps can be found at all times of the day, but the nocturnal types seem to come out in force about an hour after local sunset.  However, I've found herps through midnight, and some nocturnal herps will continue to be active through sunrise.

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Stimson's Python

Time of Year:

Most herps in temperate climates are relatively inactive during the winter months, though I've had success flipping in January and February.  Typically, however, herps are brumating at this time and therefore are deeper underground.  As spring arrives and ambient temperatures slowly climb, these herps move towards shallower hideouts, including surface cover.  This time of year (February-April) is usually productive for flipping.  The animals will utilize cover to increase their body temperature without exposing themselves to predators.  Rocks and sheets of tin are especially attractive since these materials absorb a lot of thermal energy and retain it even after sunset.  You probably noticed I'm wearing a coat in one of the pictures above.  That's because it was a cold March morning when we found the diamondbacks.  Also, the baby California kingsnake was found in January!

Herps will start foraging and looking for mates as the temperatures continue to climb.  This means cover is used less, and road cruising increases in productivity.  The warmer it gets, the less activity will be noticeable on roads during the daytime, and the nocturnal herps will begin to be more prevalent.  March through June is a general time frame when road-cruising is productive.

In the middle of summer, it is often difficult to find many herps, as they will often retreat to their deeper sites to escape oppressive heat and low humidity on the surface.  Rain showers greatly increase the odds of finding the animals during road-cruising episodes.

The entire process tends to reverse in late summer through fall, and tapers off with the onset of winter.  Keep in mind these are just general guidelines, and the optimum seasons for various herping activities usually overlap considerably, with both primary methods being effective simultaneously under optimum conditions.

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Phase of the Moon:

Much is made of the phase of the moon, especially when herping at night.  The conventional wisdom, as well as the experience of many, dictates that herps are not as active when there is a good chance of predators being able to see them, i.e. in full-moon situations.  Therefore, many people plan their herping trips around the new moon.

However, just because there's a full moon on the calendar doesn't spell disaster for a herping trip.  Overcast clouds can obscure the moon.  Also, check the moonrise/moonset times.  It doesn't matter if there's a full moon on your scheduled adventure is the moon is out during the day!

The bottom line is that the animals will move when they feel like it--we haven't unlocked all their secrets.

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