Tips on Field Techniques
Adapted from the Massachusetts Herp Atlas Project, Massachusetts Audubon Society. Used by permission.
Although each RAARP participant will develop their own style of working, the following basic suggestions are offered in the hope they may be useful to project participants.
Basic Equipment: Not all amphibians and reptiles live in wet areas - but many do. In cool weather, waterproof boots are imperative. In the heat of summer, many people simply wear old sneakers that can get soaked. Binoculars (especially those that focus closer than 15 feet) are very useful in observing and identifying amphibians and reptiles at a distance. An aquatic dip net (available at laboratory suppliers) is useful to briefly detain semi-aquatic specimens. For small, quick moving, and slippery streamside salamanders, a standard aquarium dip net is almost imperative. Plastic, wide-mouthed jars will comfortably hold your catch while you identify and/or photograph the animal. For those picking up road kills, a supply of zip lock bags are in order.
Data cards, topographic map, a field notebook (or pocket recorder) and pencil, a field guide, and a camera with extra film virtually require you to have a small knapsack to carry everything comfortably.
Approaching Herps: Most species are very visually-oriented and are likely to see you long before you see them. Additionally, most species pick up vibrations from the ground as you walk. Consequently, you should walk carefully and stop often - scanning with or without binoculars. For basking turtles, binoculars or a spotting scope will aid in identification at a distance. Look along stream edges, on basking rocks or logs, in the duckweed clogged edges of marshes, or elsewhere. If you startle some unsuspecting herp, simply sit down and wait a few minutes for it to surface again. Also, look carefully where it started from - there may be another individual nearby.
Bending and Turning: This is the tried and true method of finding amphibians and reptiles. For many species, logs and rocks are important feeding, resting, nesting, and escape areas. If there is a specimen beneath, you must remove it first before replacing the rock or log. Consider lifting only the objects you can easily hold up with one hand. This allows you to remove the specimen and then carefully let down its cover. Now you can identify and/or photograph your animal and release it next to the object where it will likely burrow beneath almost immediately. Fill out your data card while you are there.
Road Runs: Many people have found this to be an effective way
to find a lot of species over a large area. The basic idea is to
drive slowly on roads that cut through good herp habitat (near
marshes, woodlands, agricultural fields) and get out and examine
animals when they come into view. The trick here is to drive slowly
enough (usually 15 mph or less will let you see spotted salamanders,
while 10 mph or less will show redbacks and four-toeds) to see
specimens before they are run over. In early spring and summer,
road runs on rainy nights can be very, very productive. During
the turtle nesting season
(mid-June to mid-July) many females can be observed either crossing roads or digging nests along the roadside.
There are obvious safety considerations for the car's occupants and you should never stop in the middle of the road. Don't jump out of the car without (a) it being stopped, and (b) you first looking for traffic.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is also a good time to collect road-killed specimens. If you are so inclined, place the specimen in an appropriate size jar and fill the container with rubbing alcohol sufficient to submerge the specimen. Complete a reporting slip (click to download). Take specimen and reporting slip to the Nongame office, NH Fish & Game Department, 11 Hazen Drive, Concord, NH. It's a good idea to call ahead at 603-271-5859.
Slow Approach: Many frogs, turtles, and snakes can be approached close enough to identify and/or photograph without ever having to handle them. This is especially useful for rare species or potentially dangerous ones (see below *). Once you spot an animal, stay still for a few minutes - allowing it to adjust to your presence. Eventually, take small steps towards the side of the animal - stopping frequently and waiting half a minute or so. With some practice, you will be able to get close enough for a reliable photograph. The advantages are that the animals will not be overly disturbed and also your photograph will have a more natural appearance.
Vocalization and Other Sounds: Male frogs advertise their presence (and often their territories) during specific courtship seasons. This makes them obvious to the observer who is tuned into the sounds of nature. Get yourself a good record or cassette and learn the sounds of those species that are in your area. Since many wetlands (as well as other herp habitats) are on private land, hearing the sounds of frogs can provide valuable information without accessing the property. Frog calls can be taped for later identification. Try to make your recording when there is little automobile traffic or airplane noise.
Handling Herps: No matter what you do, some individual herps will likely have to be held briefly so they can be identified and/or photographed. You should be aware of a couple of things. Most amphibians have relatively moist bodies and they can desiccate quickly. In addition, most absorb oxygen and other gases through their skin. Do not handle any of them if your hands are covered with insect repellent. Pick up moist leaf litter or reach into a brook to keep your hands damp. Furthermore, many species (especially four-toed salamanders) can easily have their tail detached (which is a predator escape ploy), but it is best left on the animal. It is often best to transfer your "catch" as quickly as possible to a clear plastic jar with a screw top. Now you can carefully identify your catch or ready your camera, or even possibly photograph it through the container. Release it as soon as possible and don't keep it in the sun. It is best to handle only a single animal at a time.
There are obvious precautions about venomous snakes as well as large snapping turtles and water snakes. There is no reason any of these need to be handled, so don't do it. Take a distant, but clear, photograph and spend some time watching what they do.
Taking Notes: Make a habit of taking notes in the field. Specific instructions for filling out your reporting slips are given elsewhere, but the following suggestions may also be helpful. For each field trip note the date, time in field, specific location (this should be detailed enough to allow another person to find the area you were working), weather, general habitat(s), and amphibians and reptile species observed. Behavioral notes, including egg laying, courtship, basking, interactions with others, and more, add to the value of your field notes. The behavioral details of many species are poorly known or documented and thus offer a good opportunity for the field worker to add to amphibian and reptile knowledge. If your notes are transferred to a journal or organized in a notebook, they will provide a useful reference for future trips.
Activity Periods: Amphibians and reptiles in New Hampshire exhibit
a wide variation in their activity periods. Some (like red-spotted
newts) may be active every month of the year. Some species are
decidedly nocturnal while others are active only during the day.
Knowledge of the activity periods and habits of amphibians and
reptiles can be very helpful.