Finding Kansas Herps

One of the greatest frustrations for someone new to field herpetology is the lack of understanding about where and how to find herps. With experience, comes competency at locating and observing them, and a sense of accomplishment. The following is a summary of several proven techniques that have been shared by others. Soon, the novice field herper will be making and sharing their discoveries.

Turning Cover: — In most areas, and especially in the Spring, removing debris from the ground can be productive. Keep a sharp eye on the entire surroundings and turn every conceivable type of cover. Stones, logs, cardboard, plywood, junk, sheet metal, and any other movable surface cover may conceal some seldom seen reptile or amphibian. Leave no stone unturned, but replace them all to the best of your ability. Natural or artificial accumulations of rocks, leaves, twigs, and flood deposits often conceal reptiles or amphibians. Rotten logs and loose bark on logs or trees often conceal species you would be unlikely to find by other means. Always remember to lift the bark that remains on the ground, under which animals often seek protection. Bales of hay drying in fields often conceal snakes. Cattle tanks and their associated overflow ponds, particularly in western Kansas, are great places to find herps. The spill-over from full tanks provides a wetland oasis, while the dry tanks offer a shady retreat.
In early spring and to a lesser extent in the fall, one may expect good results from this effort. In the summer, the ground under such cover is often too dry and will yield little. At such times, by far the best practice is to be about early in the morning, before the heat of the sun has penetrated through the cover to the ground, or at dusk as animals are becoming active to forage. Where cover is lacking, you can set out artificial cover (large pieces of sheet metal and/or plywood) in ideal habitat. Some species prefer stacked cover and for other species, single sheets will suffice. Setting up this artificial cover (particularly during the winter when collecting is more difficult) creates refugia for herps that pay dividends the rest of the year and beyond.

Road-Cruising: — By day in spring and fall, and at night during hot summer months using the headlights of a car, much success can be obtained by driving along rural roadways and examining the road for small specimens up close and fleeting glimpses of wary snakes ahead. From late September into October herp populations (especially snakes) reach their greatest densities, and road-cruising is especially productive. Road-cruising is effective for many snakes and many turtles, lizards, frogs, and salamanders. The driving speed should vary based on the ability and alertness of the searcher to pick up still and moving herps against the road background. Many variables come into play (road conditions, adjacent habitat, daytime air temperature, nighttime air temperature, wind speed, moon phase, cloud cover, recent precipitation, and humidity) in determining the species you will see while road cruising. Careful observation of the relationship of these factors with the abundance of animals discovered will increase an individual's enjoyment of this field technique.
While road-cruising one should always be aware of the surrounding vehicle traffic. It is best to restrict your activity to little-used roads. Additionally, pull over when you stop and do not stop where oncoming traffic cannot see you (e.g. below hills and on curves).

Seining/Dip-netting: — Another productive field technique is the netting of marshes, ponds, and streams. Turtles, snakes, frogs, and salamanders may be found by this means, and any closely packed debris or vegetation near the borders of the water should be hauled onto the shore and carefully inspected.

Trapping: — The most effective means to collect aquatic turtles is through the use of traps. Basking traps and funneled hoop nets are two of the most effective varieties (there are many online sources for building effective turtle traps). Additionally, the smaller galvanized minnow traps are ideal from catching smaller turtles and salamanders (e.g. Small-mouthed Salamanders while breeding and Mudpuppys). If trapping while turtles and snakes are active, be sure to leave a portion of your trap above the water, or your catch will drown. Terrestrial traps often make use of an artificial (silt fencing) or natural (rock bluff) 'drift fence' that herps encounter and then move along the face of. Hardware cloth funnels or pitfalls (containers buried flush with the ground) are then employed along the length of the drift fence. All traps should be checked daily (or more often if conditions warrant) to make sure the trapped specimens don't suffer from exposure.

Amphibian Surveys: — Many amphibians are easily discovered at night when they are breeding or prowling for food, especially immediately following rains. In spring, the choruses of frogs and toads will lead you to them; at such times, it is profitable to drive about until voices of interest are heard. At other times, any pond, marsh, or other bodies of water may be expected to contain amphibians. Most species of salamanders breed early in the spring, even with a thin layer of ice present on the water. In western Kansas, Barred Tiger Salamanders have been found at the mouths of mammal burrows where they spend the day, but from which they may wander a short distance at night. All caves, on the Ozark Plateau, especially those containing water, are likely places for amphibians and to a lesser extent for reptiles. In those caves, take care to observe streams and pools closely for signs of small salamanders, including larvae. Flashlights are particularly valuable when observing nocturnal snakes on flat plains or prairies and along streams. In these open areas, watch far ahead for fleeting glimpses of wary snakes and near at hand for the motionless bodies of sluggish or temporarily blinded species. Snakes along streams at night often may remain motionless when approached; during the day they usually dive quickly and are seen only momentarily.

Handling Herps: — All frogs, toads, and salamanders occurring in Kansas may be captured and handled with safety. However, care should be taken to avoid any contact of their skin secretions with a person's eyes, nose, or mouth, because the skin secretions of certain salamanders, frogs (for example, the Gray Treefrogs complex and most toads) irritate mucous membranes and are poisonous if ingested. No lizard in the state is venomous, but all can bite. Only the Eastern Collared Lizard, Great Plains Skink, and Broadhead Skink have jaws powerful enough to deliver a painful bite. All others have jaws so small that no precaution is necessary. Snakes, however, include five dangerously venomous species. Unless these can be recognized positively in advance, the novice should treat all snakes as venomous and observe them from a distance.
Harmless snakes can be temporarily captured for closer examination by picking them up quickly by any part of the body. However, any snake more than sixteen inches long may be capable of giving a painful bite, and some precautions may be desired. Wearing gloves when handling large harmless snakes will alleviate the possibility of feeling a bite and will save your hands from wear while turning rocks and other objects.
All turtles can and will bite, and if their beak is large enough to gain purchase of your body, the bite will be painful. Medium-sized turtles are capable of delivering abrasions, bruises, and punctures. Adult Spiny Softshells, Snapping Turtles, and Alligator Snapping Turtles may cause significant bruising, laceration, or even the amputation of fingers or toes. The claws are capable of causing abrasions and occasional tears. Most turtles can be safely held by gripping each side of the body (in the region of the carapace/plastron bridge). Hold Spiny Softshells by the hind legs with a thumb above the carapace to help keep the legs back. Lift Snapping Turtles by the tail and away from your body (contrary to popular myth, there are no reported injuries to the turtle using this method, and it is the safest for both the turtle and the person holding it). Alligator Snapping Turtles should be carried by gripping the back edge of the carapace with one hand and the front edge of the carapace with the other.
Amphibian and reptile specimens held in captivity for any extended length of time should not be released into the wild. The exception would be specimens temporarily held in the field for photographs or identification.

A Comment on 'Rarity': — Amphibians and Reptiles that are seldom seen are often referred to as 'rare', however, there are no truly rare herps in Kansas. Amphibians and reptiles don't exist in low densities. Rather, we just haven't looked in the right places or at the right time. Many species considered 'rare' may be found in abundance when you happen upon the ideal conditions. It is important to report all findings, and especially those for species considered 'rare'. You may do this by submitting records to the KHA or contributing to the KHS Herp Counts.

Last Updated: 8/27/2022 6:38:07 AM CST — Travis W. Taggart

Travis W. Taggart © 1999-2024 — w/ Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University