Why You Should Scale Up Your Birding By Looking for Reptiles

Lower your binoculars and expand your next trip by seeking out snakes, lizards, and amphibians. Here are some expert tips to get you started.
Western Fence Lizard. Photo: Creeping Things/Alamy

Perhaps it’s happened to you: You’ve been out birding on a cool morning and glimpsed the long, lean form of a snake crossing the path. Unpacking your car on a summer trip, you’ve noticed lizards perched atop some nearby rocks. Or maybe you’ve encountered someone with a snake hook, flipping over logs with a determined expression. If so, you’ve had a brush with field herpetology, or the pursuit of reptiles and amphibians, colloquially known as “herping.” 

For many birders, the interaction goes no further than that. But while herping and birding might seem like different hobbies, they have more in common than you might think, says herpetologist-turned-birder Steven Prager, director of Audubon’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch. “Both communities have chunks of people interested in natural history and conservation,” he says. “Both have chunks of people who are listers. And both communities hold that identity very close to the chest.”

Like birds, reptiles are fascinating to observe in the wild: colorful, alert, behaviorally complex, and compelling both in their stillness and bursts of activity. Much in the way that practiced birders develop a sort of sixth sense for where to look for birds, herpers do, too. If anything, it’s only where and how you look for them that can differ, says Jess McLaughlin, an ornithologist who now studies anoles at the University of California Berkeley.

“A lot of the differences are in terms of scale,” McLaughlin says. “Sometimes you’re looking in thickets for tiny birds, but a lot of times you’re looking at things that are a quarter of a mile away. Herping is more intimate—the lizard is right there. It just brings the whole scale of the environment into focus in a very complementary way.”

Prager agrees. “It forces you to see the smaller nuances in the habitats you’re exploring,” he says. Herping, like birding, goes better when you pay close attention to the microclimates particular species like—it’s just that with herping, those species are generally hidden away and often underground. “Just because you’re out in the Sonoran Desert doesn’t mean you’re going to find a lyre snake. You’re going to have to key into canyon walls, places with lots of crevices, and you’re going to see night lizards and arthropods along the way. So it really connects you to that resource.” 

Surprisingly, herping also tends to be a bit more accessible than birding, says Anne Chambers, a biologist at Berkeley who also began her career studying birds before taking up herping. While expensive equipment and binoculars aren’t a necessity to bird, she says, they certainly help in closing the distances often involved. “With herping, you don’t really need anything,” Chambers says. “A lot of my fieldwork I did with a hammer to flip rocks.”

One of the biggest differences between the two interests, however, has less to do with method and more to do with how the public perceives the subjects being studied. Birds are generally seen as lovely and charismatic, while reptiles are more typically viewed as off-putting—or downright dangerous. “A lot of birder social media assumes that if I post a picture of a bird, people will think it’s cool,” McLaughlin says. Field herpers tend to be more proactive—even defensive—when it comes to evangelizing for scaly beasts, in part because people don’t generally panic and kill songbirds when they come across them. “A lot of herp social media is about why it’s cool, why it’s not scary, why you should care. It’s reflective of the cultural views we have on birds versus reptiles.”  

If you want to begin looking for reptiles, there are a few different ways to go about it, some of which require more effort than others. The easiest approach is to just scan rock piles, rotting logs, and fence lines when you go on a regular birding trip, says Chelsea Connor, a researcher at the California Academy of Sciences and co-founder of Black Birders Week. From there, she says, you can try your hand at flipping logs and stones to see what’s hiding beneath—just make sure to use a stick, lift the objects toward you for safety, and put them back exactly as you found them to preserve habitat. Discarded boards or sheets of tin also tend to have scaly treasures hiding underneath. 

As with birds, Chambers says, once you get to know reptiles better, you can begin targeting your trips to find them, clambering about boulders and logs and seeking them out more directly. Different reptiles are active at different times: Some snakes and many lizards prefer a hot and sunny day good for basking. Most snakes, however, are nocturnal and more active in the early morning or around sunset. 

Another option is “road cruising,” which is a particularly good way to find otherwise secretive snakes and amphibians. “Just hop in a car around sundown on a nice warm evening and find a low-traffic road through good habitat and see what you see out on the road,” Prager says, pulling over—safety permitting—to ID species you find. “It’s a great way to get a good view of animals in a safe way and start learning some of the nocturnal species around you.” 

Some species of reptiles are particularly common and easy to look for. If you live in the central or eastern United States, looking for birds in the forest gives you the chance to spot lizards like the tiny, coppery little brown skink or five-lined skink. Species of garter snakes are found in every state, generally around moist environments. Rat snakes and water snakes often turn up in city greenways. Woodpiles and fence lines—even in suburban areas—tend to host fence lizards. And downed logs in ponds and rivers are often rich in turtles like river cooters and red-eared sliders.

If you do succeed in finding a reptile, you’ll run into the biggest difference between birding and herping: the question of whether or not to handle it. While photos of people handling reptiles are very common on social media, Chambers says, there’s ongoing debate in the herping community about whether it’s appropriate to touch animals that you find. In her opinion, experienced herpers tend to over-handle animals, and people see much more interesting natural behavior if you don’t try to catch them. Beginners should think twice before grabbing, in other words. “If you want to pick an animal up, do so carefully, get your photo, and let it go quickly,” she recommends. “Appreciate that moment, but let it go.” 

If you’re in an area that hosts venomous snakes, Connor notes, it’s wise to take some extra precautions. Snakes aren’t aggressive, but it’s best to avoid an unfortunate confrontation. One easy tip? Using field guides—or the community science website iNaturalist—to see what animals live in an area you plan on visiting. “If you can’t identify an animal, don’t touch it,” Connor says. “If you don’t know if it’s venomous or not, don’t touch it. It’s always really important to be cautious and cognizant of what you’re doing—your safety is the most important thing.”

The main thing to recognize, though, is that keeping an eye out for reptiles will open up a whole new area of the natural world to you. “Birds are just glorified reptiles,” Prager says. Indeed, they are the descendants of dinosaurs, with crocodilian great-uncles and extremely distant lizard, turtle, and snake cousins. You might call combining birding and herping an integrated theory of reptile watching, one that makes as much space for what lives under dead trees as in the canopies of live ones. 

“If you’re a birder, take a step back and think about what it is you love about birding as an activity,” Chambers says. If you search for birds because you love being out in nature and seeing animals, she continues, “I don’t think reptiles are too much more of a stretch. Give them a chance.”