By Scott Matthew Quint
Most field herpers who engage in flipping pay little attention to these things. Sure many will understand that a really hot sunny day is probably not the best time to go out looking for herps, but few will understand why and fewer still even care. This is because flipping can produce alot of herps, even if conditions aren't perfect. Even when all conditions are wrong, a snake, toad or lizard will still occasionally turn up. Because few field herpers keep detailed records, it is sometimes difficult to analyze successes and failures. Hopefully this article will be of some help to everyone who is interested as it will attempt to explain why these factors are important and how being a little more discerning can save you considerable time and money.
Many hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts enjoy getting out into the wilderness and practicing their particular sport. Many will enjoy the time even if they never harvest anything or spot any wildlife. Field herpers are no exception to this in general, but I do not know of any who enjoy driving around looking for opportunities to flip all day and actually lifting all those objects and never finding anything. Flipping can be back-breaking work, and eventually requires some reward. If the field herper knew that it might be a bad day for flipping, he or she might decide on another method of search or even decide on not searching.
Herps (and other animals) shelter under boards, roofing metal, and other surface objects temporarily. It is important to note this, because transitory sheltering objects ar going to yield best results when the herps are the most transient. Sometimes a herp may regularly reuse a particular object, but often this is not the case and frequently when it is it is only coincidental. These types of shelters serve as convenient resting locations while on the move, so to be effective, it is important to know what factors will contribute to an animal using any particular shelter. So let's examine the various factors:
Time of Year
The best time of year for flipping is in the Coastal Plains is the Spring. Fall can be OK depending on the area and in South Florida, Winter is also good, but the best is Spring. The Spring is breeding season and is also when herps are leaving their wintering dens and are dispersing into new or old territories. Both of these situations will have herps on the move for days or even weeks. While out on the move like this, surface shelter is usually employed because it is easier to find and utilize. By Summer, there is no mating drive to push herps out looking for eachother and they are already in the territories they will call home for the rest of the year. Also, verdant ground cover is grown in by Summer and provides more shelter opportunities. By having more sheltering opportunities reduces the frequency that any particular shelter will be used. Fall is a time when the herps start to migrate back towards their wintering dens and the ground cover starts to disappear. Because dry underground shelters are less common in South Florida, herps will winter in surface shelters.
Temperature is easily the most misjudged factor when it comes to herping by flipping. Since herps are ectotherms, many people feel that it's best to go out looking when it is warm. This is true when it comes to finding herps while they are active. The salient point here is that flipping is turning up herps that are currently inactive. In the cool months, the herps will move during the warm of the day then, as it cools for nightfall, they will seek the quickest an dmost secure refuge they can find. As the temperatures lower, the herps go into torpor until the next period warm enough to not only allow activity, but enough to penetrate the shelter and wake them up. Infrared readings of ground temperatures under shelters where reptiles have been found reveal that most are found when the temperature is below 73F. One of the reasons herps do not seek deeper shelters is probably because the outside air temperatrure must go higher to penetrate the shelter and allow the herps to go active. Surface shelters allow faster response to the outside conditions.
All this being said, some animals are active even during Summer daytimes and will shelter under surface cover more frequently. Racers (Coluber constrictor), Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum), Race-Runners (Cnemidophorous sexlineatus) and some others move when it is outright hot and will utilize surface shelters all through the Spring, Summer and Fall. Flipping can reveal these animals when no others would be found. Also, Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) and Skinks (Eumeces sp.) are generally active during the day, even in the summer, and will shelter at night under temporary cover.
Ambient air temperature is important because of it's relationship to activity periods of herps, however, ectotherms must also guard against overheating. Even if the ambient air temperature is low, direct sunlight can heat up objects and herps. Boards, roofing metal, old doors and other god flipping objects tend to be broad and flat. As such they make really good solar panels. This can also be attractive to herps because they will warm up more rapidly and allow for quicker activity in the morning. A board that is exposed to the sun should be checked first thing in the morning or at night. Once the sun hits it, any herps sheltering there will go active and leave. Shaded objects will retain occupants longer, but may be less attractive and therfore less frequently used in the cooler months, though more frequently used as it gets generally warmer. My experience is that shelters that are partially exposed are the most productive. Fully exposed shelters are very good in the early Spring and fully shaded shelters are only good in the warmer months, but yeild primarily small, fossorial or otherwise cryptic herps like salamanders, ground skinks or small woodland snakes.
Precipitation and Humidity
Precipitation is as directly important as sunshine because it can directly affect herp behavior. If rain is threatening, otherwise active herps will seek immediate shelter. Too much actual rainfall will saturate the ground and drive herps that are sheltering underground to the surface. A severe lack of precipitation can cause many herps to go underground and aestivate. Humidity is an indicator of available moisture, but can also have a direct affect on animal physiology. The Coastal Plains are typically verdant and wet. Low humidity increases the physiological need for water, so herps may go inactive while the humidity is low. In general, it can be said that the higher the humidity, the better. This is going to be true regardless of the field herping method you are using.
Sheltering Object Shape, Size, Weight, Material...
Different types of objects have different characteristics that can be beneficial or detrimental to herps. Which herps will use any given shelter will depend on the object and all of the previously described factors. I have found Large snakes under such small flimsy items as pie plates, but the majority are found under heavier objects.
Generaly speaking, plywood, roofing metal and other broad flat objects are great shelters for herps of all sizes. Metal heats up quickly if exposed to the sun and is good during colder months. Wood is also good and heavier pieces are better than lighter ones. Heavier objects insulate the ground better and move less so they feel more secure. These are attractive to the herps and easy to check under for the herper.
More natural cover like logs and loose bark provide less surface area of coverage and often conceal smaller herps, though not always. these should not be overlooked, but bark follows the same rules of boards and logs can be quite heavy. Many herps will just as inclined to be in a log as under one if that opportunity is present.
Piled and/or layered materials, be they tar paper, wood, miscellaneous debris, household garbage, compost or whatever else can be fantastic shelter, but difficult to search. Under good conditions, piles can produce many animals, but they are more work and can be hazardous. Here, density needs to be considered. Roofing tiles often melt in the sun and seal down tightly, providing few opportunities for herps to enter them and more work for the herper. Similar problems arise with drywall and other moisture trapping materials. They can get crushingly heavy and difficult to unlayer. Compost, household or kitchen garbage is good shelter but unsanitary for a human digging through it. Piled cardboard, wood, gravel covered tar-paper and other buildiong materials often are better because they pile loosly and can be more thouroughly searched. For some reason, tires seldom produce anything but a few Anoles (Anolis sp.).
There is no limit to what can be used as shelter by herps. The dedicated may say, "leave no stone unturned", but the wise say. "Leave the unreasonable stones for the dedicated". Remember, this is supposed to be fun.
As with any other search methodology, location is all important. While the back of a bench would be a great object to flip if it were at the edge of a glade near a cultivated field, it would probably be a waste of effort if it were on the side walk. Always look for suitable habitat and consider exposure as explained above. Most of the objects that are best for temporary shelter are man made and so most will be near some human activity. This is actually good, because human activity provides many opportunities for herps and more can be found around limited human activity than not.
Flipping can be a very productive way of finding herps under the right conditions. Under the wrong conditions, flipping can cause unnecessary strain on your back, so be deliberate. Also, beware of tresspassing and of leaving "sets" (deliberately laid debris to check later for herps). Both can get you into trouble and it's not worth it. Think and prepare before you go and consider your spots and trips wisely. Hopefuly this guide will assist you in this regard.