Can’t Find the Perfect Herping Spot? Make the Perfect Habitat!

Can’t Find the Perfect Herping Spot? Make the Perfect Habitat!

The Story of My Wife and I Making the Perfect Herp Habitat.


Couple of Squirrel Frogs in Phillip's Pond
Love Birds
By: Phillip Laxton

This article is the story of how my wife and I made the perfect herp habitat.  It is nice to be able to go Herping in your back yard.  Keep in mind, things that work for me may not work for you.  Even the same species may act differently in a different location.  I encourage each of you to share some ideas in the comments section of this article.  You can read through the article and decide for yourself what works for you.

I am writing this article in November for a reason.  Preparing a reptile ready habitat starts in late fall and runs through winter.  The idea would be to get things ready by spring.  You want the things ready before the Herps start moving.

The planning everything out is very important.  Here are some things you want to cover.

  • What resources do I already have access too?
  • What Herps did I want to attract to my property?
  • What kind of habitat do I need to recreate?
  • Are there any cost?

What Resources did I have access too?

When my Wife and I bought our home, one of my first projects was to make it herp friendly.  The property is an acre of land that sits up next to the woods and is off the highway.  The woods are quite swampy and have several canals traveling through it.

On the property, there was a small fish pond about the size of a bath tube.  The pond was overgrown with a lot of aquatic plants.  So over grown in fact, you couldn’t even put a single fish it.  There was also another pond of about the same size that had been converted to a flower bed.  There was a large flower bed on the property that had also been overgrown.

What Herps did I want to attract to my property?

Fowler's Toad
Fowler’s Toad
Phillip Laxton

The property is in the coastal plains of NC.  It is on the immediate coast and is only about 8-9 feet above sea level.  The land is very flat.  There are lots of waterways surrounding my property.  I decided it would be easiest to focus on aquatic and semi-aquatic herps.  I decided to focus on lizards, frogs, toads, and fossorial snakes.  They are all really easy to accommodate.  Most of the larger reptiles need these smaller ones around as food.  I knew that if I got it right the bigger herps would come.  And with enough time, they did….

What kind of habitat do I need to recreate?

I was working on the whole aquatic, semi-aquatic herp approach so it stands to reason I would need water.  My wife and I began by clearing out the overgrown pond enough to allow water to be standing in it.  This became the perfect habitat for southern leopard frogs and pickerel frogs.  I then began digging up the pond that had been converted to a flowerbed.  The dirt was moved to another location on the property and I will come back to that later.  We placed a liner in the pond and filled it up.  We added some vegetation to the pond.  You will need to find out what grows best in your area.  Make sure you have under water plants, floating plants, and plants that are rooted but grow out of the water.

Glass lizard
Young Eastern Glass Lizard
By Phillip Laxton

After the plants came the fish.  This process was a little time-consuming.  We added a few each week to allow the bio filtration time to keep up.  We added 2 species.  Koi and eastern mosquito fish.  The koi really get the biology of the pond moving.  The mosquito fish are used to keep populations of mosquito at bay.  It is important to note that a lot of vegetation is needed so tadpoles have a place to hide from the mosquito fish.

Southern Leopard Frog By: Phillip Laxton
Southern Leopard Frog
By: Phillip Laxton

With healthy plant life and lively water source, the next step was to place plants and rocks around the pond.  We have southern leopard frogs, pickerel frogs, and a bull frog that are permanent residents at the pond.  I have an eastern mud turtle that visits regularly.  He will be gone for a few days then he is back for a few.  I have also found several neonate mud turtles chilling in the lilies.  I have pulled out 2 snapping turtles over the 3 years I have had the pond.  One of the snappers was a neonate.  There are a few spotted turtles that live just inside the woods that occasionally wonder over to the pond when we have a lot of rain.

Ribbon Snake
Eastern Ribbon Snake
By: Phillip Laxton

I have seen several species of snake near the pond as well.  I have seen black racers come for a drink. I have had a few redbelly water snakes stop in for a few days.  The occasional garter or ribbon will stop by for a quick drink as well.  The mosquito fish is an excellent food source for the snakes.  The shrubs and plants around the pond are a frequent place for anoles to hide.  This year, I had a nest of eastern glass lizards hatch in the fossorial garden(discussed below) and the young are regulars at the pond.

As I mentioned before, all the dirt from the pond was taken to a spot next to the woods.  I call it my fossorial garden.  The dirt was spread out over a small area and boards were placed over it.  This creates a perfect habitat for the fossorial (ground dwelling) snakes.  The boards were of all different sizes and shapes.  For more information on how to place the boards see, “The Art of Flipping”.

Rough Earth Snake
Rough Earth Snake
By: Phillip Laxton

We placed the garden just inside the woods for 2 reasons.  1.  The snakes are in the woods and 2.  It doesn’t take away from the visual of the yard.  The most common snake found in my little fossorial haven are rough earth snakes.  I have found as many as 9 in the 10’x10′ habitat.  I also regularly see Ringneck, Dekay’s Brown, and Redbellies.  I have found the occasional salamander as well.

With the pond being near the fossorial site, it makes a perfect one, two, punch.  Each year I add to the project.  This last winter I cleared the woods out a bit and added some fallen trees and a few wood piles.  This has really excited the anoles and five-lined skinks.  It is all slowly coming together.

Are there any cost?

The cost was very minimal.  There was a cost for the liner we placed in the pond.  I had to purchase a pump for the fish and I have to buy the food they eat.  I did have to buy a machete for the woods.  The rest was found in scrap yards or donated by friends.  Here is a break down.

  1.  Liner for pond         $80
  2.  Pump for pond        $50
  3.  Machete for woods  $30
  4.  Dirt and wood for Fossorial Garden were either found on property or donated by friends.
In closing…..
Narrow-mouthed Toad By:  Phillip Laxton
Narrow-mouthed Toad
By: Phillip Laxton

The habitat around our home was slowly modified over the years we have lived there.  Each year we spend a little time to add to it.  The pond and the plant life around it look like any other garden any other person would have in their yard.  The fossorial garden is discreetly placed near the woods and behind my garage.  So for very little money and a lot of tender love and care we have ended up with an awesome habitat for the creatures my family and I enjoy so much.  Do you have a “Habitat” you have prepared for your native herps?  Do you have any pointers are ideas you would like to share.  Please take the time to post them below for others to enjoy.

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The Art of Flipping

The Art of Flipping

A Guide to Flipping

It is a lovely fall evening, sunny skies with a few passing clouds, and the temperature is in the mid-70’s and the humidity is near 60%.  I walk into my backyard and walk over to my dog Cody’s doghouse.  You know, the doghouse he never uses but we keep around anyway.  The dog house sits just in front of the woods, right next to my garage.  I walk over and flip it, just to take a little peek.  I quickly notice lots of squirming little critters.  In my mind I quickly determine what is earthworm and what is snake.  With my cat-like reflexes, I grab one, then two, then a third snake.  Looking in my hand’s, I realize I have two rough earth snakes and a ringneck snake.  This, my friend, is the Herping art of “flipping”.

Flipping, as far as I am concerned, is one of the most fun ways to herp.  I incorporate flipping into most of my herping excursions.  When compared to walking the environment or cruising, key advantages are noticed.

When you walk up on a reptile already out and about, you are typically detected before they are.  The critter is already planning an escape in the event you spot him.  When Flipping, the animal is likely sleeping or less aware of you.  This gives you the upper hand when you capture the animal.  (Side note: Catch and Release!).  Flipping can also be more productive than cruising or hiking during times when the herps are not on the move.  There are many times when reptiles are less likely to be active.

When to Flip?

In the heat of the summer, reptiles find cool places to escape the heat.  Most people think that reptiles being “cold-blooded” means the more heat the better.  Although warmth is needed, there are times when it is even too hot for herps.  Different species avoid heat at different temperatures.  This is covered more in the species profiles.  When herps are hiding from the heat, look for cover that stays shady most of the day.  You can also try flipping cover that meets the edge of a stream, creek, swamp, or pond.

During cool snaps in fall or spring many herps settle in for a siesta.  They will find some cover that will be the first to heat up once the sun comes out.  Tin or other thin cover that will be the first in sunlight are the best places to look during times it is too cool for most herps.  These locations tend to be a bit more dry than summer time hiding spots when it comes to reptiles.  Amphibians will still need moist spots.

Flipping a Tarp for Herps By Phillip Laxton Instagram:  plaxton53
Flipping a Tarp for Herps By Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

When there has been several days of good feeding and everyone is digesting.  What do mean by several days of good feeding?  Lets say you are herping for Nerodia (water snake family).  They love frogs.  After 4 or 5 days of heavy rain (frog weather so it’s Nerodia weather), all the water snakes are full of frogs and hiding under cover to digest their meals.  Think of it like Sunday afternoon football.  All of us guys eat Sunday Diner then it is to the couch we go.  Nothing like a nap after a good meal with some NFL on in the background.

Flipping can have some con’s as well.  The biggest con, in my opinion, is they can be over used.  If you are herping on public property that other herpers know about, there is a good chance that object was moved recently.  I try to only move the cover on my property about once every 3 to 5 days.  Objects that are moved too much tend to be much less productive.  Flipping can also be back-breaking work.  I will cover this more later.  To keep my cover fresh and to save my back, I will evaluate the current environment and determine if hunting active animals or cruising will yield better results.

What is Best to Flip?

Some objects are better than others when it comes to making a good home for herps.  There are two categories of cover.  There is natural cover and artificial cover (AC).  Herps don’t look at it this way.  They will take advantage of whatever they can find.  But for the sake of discussion lets take a look…..

Natural Cover

Natural Cover By Phillip Laxton Instagram:  plaxton53
Natural Cover By Phillip Laxton
Instagram: plaxton53

Natural cover like fallen trees, rocky ledges, large areas of leaf and/or bark ground cover, and area’s of dense vegetation are perfect places for critters to hide.  I always look at the object and try to decide if the size and weight of the object is worth the energy.  I have found big snakes under very light cover and heavy cover.  Generally speaking the bigger the herp the bigger the cover but this is not an absolute.  Target the cover based on what herp you are targeting.  We will give tips for likely cover in each species profile.

Artificial Cover (AC)

When it comes to artificial cover, a whole article could be (and might be soon) written on it.  AC includes anything that would not naturally be found in the habitat.  Tin, plywood, piled or layered materials, household trash, old car parts, fallen signs, and the list goes on and on and on.  The key to AC is all in location.  The same piece of tin could yield poor results in one spot and 10-20 yards away it could yield very good results.

Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton. Instagram: plaxton53
Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton. Notice the boards are not packed tightly.  Leave room for Herps to hide.
Instagram: plaxton53

I have found that tin, plywood, and cardboard all produce good results.  I try to lay some in shade, some in sun, and some in between.  I place most of the cover directly on the ground.  I do have a few AC sites where I stack 2x4s.  When stacking be sure to stack loosely.  If your pile is stacked too tight, there will not be as many hiding places for your herps.  Avoid stacking heavy cover as well.  Remember that flipping is supposed to be fun.  Keep heavy cover at a minimum and never stack it.

I avoid garbage and household trash as it is unsanitary.  Tires seldom result in much.  I don’t know why but, tires never reveal anything for me but the occasional lizard.  I would also avoid roofing shingles for a number of reasons.  First off, they are heavy.  Secondly, they melt in the heat.  Thirdly, they tend to pack tightly.

There is little besides tires and roofing shingles that can be sued to shelter herps but, I have had just as much luck with light material as I have heavy material.  Keep this in mind.

When to Put AC Out?

The best time to put cover out is dependent on where you live.  Here in the Coastal Plains of North Carolina, cover can be put out any time after the herping season has ended.  I usually start placing it out in late fall and throughout the winter.  Spring growth begins early in my area so I like to have it out before spring begins.  Areas with snow cover throughout much of the winter may want to consider placing the cover before the harsh winter sets in.  If you wait until spring you want to be quick as herps begin to become active shortly after the snow melt in most places.  The key to placing AC is to get it out before the new vegetation begins to grow.  I still find myself placing AC throughout the year but any site placed before the vegetation grows will be ready as soon as the herps start moving.  Otherwise, you will have to wait for a little while to flip AC laid after the vegetation begins growing.

Tips and Tricks

  • Flip objects that are in shade during really hot days
  • Flip objects that are in sunlight during cooler days
  • Don’t over flip objects.  Flipping the same object too much can cause herps to begin to avoid it.
  • Try to place objects back exactly where you found them.  The micro-habitats found under objects make them more inviting to the herps.
  • Use AC in strategic locations.  Some in shade, some in sun, and some in between.
  • Keep it light!  Use heavy AC sparingly.  You will regret a lot of heavy AC.
  • Place AC before spring vegetation grows.  Locations with heavy snow fall may benefit from laying out AC before winter.
  • AC laid after the herping season begins should be left alone for a while to set up the micro-habitat.
  • Cheap and even free AC can be found at land-fills and abandoned property.  I have gone to construction sites and offered to take some of their scraps off their hands with good results.