Herpetofauna of Europe : the making of ...
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Herpetological field trips in Europe - The making of …

Pictures (c) of Jeroen Speybroeck. Comments are welcome.

On this page, I will try to document what we do on our trips, and how our result (as described in the reports) is achieved. There is little or no magic to it, only an unhealthy amount of semi-obsessive dedication. This description is by no means meant as a textbook bible - just the story of how we do it.

Preparation of the trip

First this. Some people may think, while reading this, that it is much more rewarding to find animals without any preparation. True. However, our subjective wish is to see as many species as possible on each trip, so, we 'hunt' the entire list of species in every region, island, country, ... that we visit. Silly, for sure, crazy, perhaps, but that's how it is.
In our experience, instrumental to a rich species list, given the limited travel time of a trip, is information. First of all, this means knowing the species. If you don’t know where, when and how a species lives, you can’t really expect to find it. The latest Arnold field guide gives concise info, which has much improved since the previous, 1978 edition. Additional information from local books, scientific papers etc. may be useful, as many species have a variable ecology and behaviour over their range of distribution. Experience also helps. If you found some Cat Snakes (Telescopus fallax) before, you will probably be more likely to search in the right place and at the right time next time.
The internet has allowed us to get in touch with professional and amateur herpetologists all over the continent. Usually, nothing can beat local intel. We enjoy learning more about these animals when herping together with local experts. It is also nice to get in touch with local people themselves, of course. As a minor note, I should add that on some occasions, we have, however, had doubts on local knowledge, especially on snakes. People sometimes tend to generalise on the habits or scarcity of a species, based on anecdotes and personal (limited) catch success only.
Asking local non-expert people, while travelling, can also be helpful but not seldom leads to stories with a certain amount of exaggeration and folklore. We have heard local people talking about snakes drinking milk (Italy), snake poison located in the tailtip (Greece), lepracy transmitted by geckoes (Spain, Malta), Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) being extremely dangerous, due to toxic substances from both head and tail (Karpathos), vipers only living in the mountains (Greece), … . Also people's knowledge on the abundance of a species living at their doorstep can be strange. On Karpathos, we were at first not that happy to learn that the local people (or at least many of them) did not know about the endemic salamander (Lyciasalamandra helverseni). Afterwards, this, luckily, proved to be in contrast to its abundance.
Concerning preparation of our trips, Jan usually takes care of practical matters (planes, cars, hotels, …), while I try to collect information on suitable searching locations. Of course, we do not always have local guidance, so that’s where our own experience and knowledge come into play.

Searching and finding

How to search and find, depends on the species. Usually, finding amphibians comes down to finding the right habitat in the right area, mostly associated with water bodies. Calling frogs and toads also help, so digging up some sound recordings of the call of a species helps. Salamanders can be hard to find in one season, but are often all over the place in good (humid) conditions in the right time of the year. Newts are usually readily found in their aquatic habitat during the breeding season, albeit -like with most amphibians- a nocturnal hunt is often most rewarding. Turtles (except for marine ones) are rather easy as well, as they are slow and often make enough noise while making their way through the vegetation. Lizards are often conspicuous baskers and, again, when you are in the right place, it is usually rather a matter of tens of minutes than of hours to find them. Skinks can be less conspicuous but are often (very) abundant in the right habitat in spring. In the next paragraph, I will focus on search-and-find guidelines for the more difficult ones; the snakes.
Besides animals found dead on the road (DOR), finding snakes may require intensive specific searches. Whereas many tourists come by the occasional lizard, snakes are a much rarer sight if you don’t really search for them. A few snake species are easy to find. In many areas, the aquatic species of the genus Natrix can be readily seen. When turning stones in spring, the Worm Snake (Typhlops vermicularis) in Greece is not that hard to find either. Vipers can be restricted to small areas, but there, they can be abundant. Whip and Montpellier snakes (Coluber s.l. spp. and Malpolon spp.) are also often abundant but are usually very fast moving. Rat snakes (Elaphe s.l. spp.) usually are either more secretive or less abundant (a dilemma question that has been puzzling us for a while - probably both hold true?). Finding them comes down to proper timing and patience. The same holds true for smooth snakes (Coronella spp.) and the Sand Boa (Eryx jaculus).
Different species have different habits and habitats. Reading as much as you can, helps. Many snake species like areas with a diverse structure of open spots, some rocks, herbs, shrubs and bushes. The most, and certainly the more difficult, snake species rarely lay around fully exposed - looking carefully for small parts of their body being visible in between the vegetation or from underneath a rock etc. is necessary. Most species are thermophilous, so chances are often better on a south-exposed slope, including exposition to morning sun. Some species, like Montpellier snakes, are opportunistic and can be found on dump sites (= where there's a lot of food = rats etc.). We often wondered whether food availability may be more important for snake abundance than 'naturalness' of the site. Many of the snake specimens we found were underneath something, so turning over rocks, logs, junk etc. can be rewarding, not only for snakes but for all herps. The rule here, is not to give up too soon. Big flat stones are most promising. Remember to put them back as good as possible without squashing any animals.


example of a valuable habitat for both amphibians and reptiles, due to a variety in structure and exposure and the availability of water - fifteen species were found here

Timing is also important. On a first level, the season: spring is the best season for all herp species, due to reproductive activities. At a second level, the time of day: don't expect to find many snakes when temperatures are above 30°C. On a warm day, many reptile species (snakes, lizards and also tortoises) only come out during the first and last hours of sun. Excellent weather to find snakes is cloudy but warm enough. Also after rain, when they come out to bask. If it's too hot for you to walk around, there are usually not many snakes out and about. It can be useful to feel the substrate's temperature with your hands. If the soil is really hot, no snake will lay on it. Same with turning stones: if the lower surface of the rock is boiling, it's no use to expect reptiles there and you'd better search in the shade. While searching, walk slowly and scan every part of the habitat (e.g. a dry-stone wall with bushes). If you here a short, stumbling noise, it's most likely a lizard - they are fast at short distances only. Snakes make a longer lasting noise. If you hear that noise, jump towards it without hesitation! Keep in mind that patience and persistence are qualities of a good snake hunter - both of which I largely lack ;-).
Finally, chances of finding anything go up with the number of people searching. In contrast to birding, where too many people may scare the animals, herp hunting success is to our opinion proportional to the number of searchers. Of course, gifted snake hunters are not that common, but highly valuable assets to a team.

Catching and handling

To catch newts, leaving a funnel trap in ponds overnight has proven to be useful in areas with (presumably) average or low abundance of the larger newt species. Also in densely vegetated ponds, where net dipping is difficult. We use a funnel trap which is easy to assemble and take apart again afterwards (for transportation). Of course, we also use nets. Lately, small ones seem to be sufficient when you have enough people and patience. In our experience, the larger ones that can be transported easily are often of poor quality and break easily. Also useful are torches to explore waterbodies and their surroundings at night, when e.g. larger newt species become more active and visible. Another nocturnal excursion is exploring stone walls with holes in them, looking for geckoes and snakes hunting them. If the weather is right (not too cold, not too much wind, and for amphibians not too dry), the headlights of a car can also be useful ;-). We often drive around at night or at twilight for herps, but also for mammal spotting. Concerning herps, we have found many species of amphibians (especially frogs and toads) and every now and then some snake species (like Ladder Snake, Cat Snake, Milos Viper, Four-lined Snake, …) this way.
In order to get a good snake portrait, to admire the animal from closeby and sometimes even to identify it, we feel that it is necessary to catch the snake. As we highly prefer to see wild animals in their natural habitat, we are not into terraristics and all animals (snakes and others) have been released in the exact spot where they were caught. This is especially important with species that have a small home range. Handling them is always done firmly but never to harm in any way. Accidents have happened but are very few. Note that many species of herps are protected by law and catching them is illegal. Just so you know...
Despite the availability of a variety of snake catching helps, welding gloves seem to suffice to us for catching European venomous snakes. The gloves are kept on all the time while exploring suitable habitat, as you never now when you will have to jump at a snake. They are also useful when turning stones or finding your way through thorny vegetation. Maybe the larger specimens of Ottoman and Milos Viper might be able to bite through them. They never have in our experience, but we have heard differently occasionally. Care is always of the essence and experience with smaller species is useful before trying to catch the larger ones. Photographing venomous snakes is best done with at least one glove on, if you want to get close. In that way, you have one hand to prevent the snake from going the wrong way and another to handle your camera in a more or less comfortable way.

Photography and reporting

To photograph newts and some more aquatic anurans like Bombina spp., we use a small glass aquarium with shallow (horizontal) depth, so the animal is obliged to be close to the front glass = where the photographer is.


newt photography with Jan and Gerd - note use of a background cover with Jan

Newt photography often requires a lot of patience, as nearly all of them refuse to stay clear of the picture-spoiling margins of the aquarium. This can be solved by inserting suitable substrate (stones, pebbles, vegetation, dead leaves, ...), at least to the lower surface of the aquarium. A special aquarium was made for -future- photography of the olm (Proteus anguinus), as this animal is especially difficult due to its size and unfamiliarity with light.
For snake photography, we also use a very special, state-of-the-art item: the lit of a cooking pan! Covering the animal with it, seems to provide a (false) sense of security and when the lit is lifted, some seconds of snake tranquility can be enough for a picture of one of the more mobile snake species. You have to make sure that the lit does not catch too much sunlight, otherwise the snake underneath it will do anything but calm down. We carry two sizes of lits, for different sizes of snakes. Some specimens are too large for either of them. In that case, we try to get by with e.g. a jacket, usually with less success. Worm Snakes (Typhlops vermicularis) are too small to feel safe underneath the smallest lit. They hate sunlight and are very active when exposed to it. A smaller object (e.g. glove) can be useful to provide them with the same sense of security. Some snake species will, however, always remain hard to photograph. A warm whip snake is never really calm. Rat snake species can refuse to stay still as well, especially if laid out in the sun, as they are not too fond of direct sunlight. Most agreeable snake species to photograph may well be vipers. After a few attacks, they often calm down. In contrast to the phlegma attributed to them, in our experience, however, Meadow Vipers (Vipera ursinii s.l.) are not calm and docile at all. All specimens that we have photographed (n > 20, distributed over at least three subspecies) were nearly constantly focusing on the photographer, hissing and threatening to bite all the time. In such cases, an assistant decoy can be most useful for a nice profile shot.


Stefanie attracting the attention of a Vipera ursinii moldavica to give Bram a shot at a decent picture - note use of welding gloves and the lit in the lower part of the picture

From 2004 until 2012, all my pictures were made with a Canon EOS 300D camera. From 2013 onwards, I am using a Canon EOS 60D. I have used until now only the camera’s built-in flash and two lenses: EFS 18-55mm and a zoom lens, EF 90-300mm or 70-300mm. June 2013, I bought a more luxurious lens - a 100mm macro from the famous L-series. Use of a portable Vosonic VP6230 external hard drive of 40 GB to store images in the field has become obsolete with the introduction of large memory cards. My pictures go through a minor amount of Photoshop editing, usually including re-sizing, cropping, use of the shadows and highlights tool and a single sharpening job. This keeps the pictures pretty close to their natural appearance. Pictures are “saved for web” at quality “JPEG - high”.
As a final note on photography, technique and personal talent play always a role and are not easy to describe. Some personal taste is involved, e.g. I prefer nocturnal shots of nocturnal animals (like spadefoot toads (Pelobates spp.)), even with shadows cast by the flash. 'Multi-flashed' images may have tons of depth of field and lack a single shadow. However, I personally feel that they give a sterile, studio-like feel to the picture. On the other hand, I should start to use a macrolens and a tripod. I do not think of myself as a true photographer, but more as a reporter. I do not intend to make art through photography, simply because I do not have the talent, or -at best- I am too lazy to develop it. A clear representation of the animal is enough for me. Besides focusing on the animal’s eye, bearing my position in relation to that of the sun in mind, and looking for a setting with moderate or low contrast in brightness, there are not that many rules that I keep in mind. Nearly all my pictures are shot using full automatic mode on my camera. This includes using autofocus, as my eyes are worse than even the worst autofocus. I guess all this means a lot of credit to the camera ;-). Seriously, without wanting to advertise, I can but say that I am very happy with this camera, and that I still have a lot to learn, especially concerning technique, composition and post-production.

The web reports are written in a web-based html-format, available from the HYLA main website and adapted for my site by Gijs. I usually make the report immediately after the trip, while my memory is still fresh. Helpful in this perspective is a notebook, in which I take down all observed species at all prospected locations during the trip.

From Google Earth to GPS and back – additional tales of freaky preparation

As I wrote above, prior to any trip, I always try to collect as much search site information as possible. If you’re more the “just see what crosses my path” type, the following section will most likely make you doubt my mental health. Just so you know.

Long live Google Earth! I use it as a preparation “scrap book” for the GPS data that I subsequently use in the field. Let me elaborate a bit.

Waypoints

Coordinates

If lat/long coordinates of a spot are available, it is easy. Just create a waypoint (or placemark; yellow pushpin). It can be wise, if in doubt, to send the waypoint as a .kml file to the informant to check. If not, you can walk the Pyrenees for years in tens of valleys without a single Iberolacerta ever in sight (trust me…).
Of course, you can also explore the aerial photos for interesting habitats, marking ponds, rocky outcrops, … with a waypoint.

Example - I want to know where Lago Zilio is, a natural lake in the Nebrodi Park on Sicily with a rich herpetofauna. I ask around and someone who has been there with a GPS, tells me that it is at N 37 57 10.4 E 14 24 52. For places like lakes, it also happens that you can find them on the internet if you enter their name and e.g. “latitude”.


Descriptions

If someone gives you a route description, with a little luck (decent resolution, no clouds, not too much trees, …) and using all features (incl. 3D terrain view), it is quite easy to find most spots and how to get there.

Maps as picture files

Sometimes, you find or get maps with indications on where to walk, where to go, … Adding that map (in picture file format) as an overlay in Google Earth and adjusting transparency to my likes, I stretch the map to fit some reference, e.g. the roads. With this crude georeferencing, dots on maps become much more precise and can be turned into precise coordinates.

Example - I cannot seem to find Lago Zilio’s coordinates directly, but I found a map on the internet with the lake in it. Using it as overlay, the lake’s location becomes evident.

Tracks

You may know a super spot’s coordinates, but not how to get there. You could just start from the nearest paved road, store the spot’s coordinates into your GPS, and try to reach it with trial-and-error, whether you drive off-road or you hike. This may work fine if the distance is short, not too many roads, paths or confusing intersections, flat terrain and an open landscape. At least, for longer distances through wooded and mountainous areas, it is, however, very useful to have a track in your GPS, which leads you (from an easy-to-get-to spot) to the herping heaven that you are aiming for. Unpaved roads and footpaths are often very well visible in Google Earth. Therefore, you can draw a track on them in Google Earth that leads to the target spot.

Example - No paved roads seem to pass near Lago Zilio. Looking at Google Earth’s aerial photos, I can spot some dirt road options, so I draw tracks to the spot.

Finalisation and upload

Now all the information is there. How to use it?

When preparations are done, I have a sizable .kml file and my Google Earth view is covered with waypoints, making it also easy to plan a general route from one area to the next. When driving is involved, I use e.g. Google Maps beforehand, to check and calculate how long drives will take, so it becomes also clear where you might want to spend the night. Preferably, near a spot interesting for some nocturnal herping, of course.

If you do not have, need, want or can afford a (hiking) GPS device, you can print all your previous stuff from Google Earth, and use it as regular maps. However, you can save a huge amount of time and frustration using the data you compiled in a GPS. My Garmin GPS device uses a software program called MapSource to up- and download data to and from the device and from and to the PC. Here, you can upload and convert (among many others!) .kml files. I convert the .kml to a .gdb, which is a MapSource readable format. After having uploaded the .gdb data to my GPS device, I can navigate straight forward to all my waypoints, following the tracks I drew in Google Earth (see above). No more getting lost, driving around for hours looking for that one pond, … . Also, because you can add topographical maps of nearly all parts of Europe as layers to the displayed GPS image, there is less need to deal with paper maps and their mistakes, although it is of course always best to have a backup plan for the digital toys.

Afterwards…

Saving new waypoints and tracks while herping, I end up with detailed positions and routes of my field activities. Downloading the data to MapSource, I can subsequently explore my field coordinates and tracks in Google Earth by one click in MapSource.

From xls to kml

You can also create .kml files from collected data. Make an Excel file with the columns “name”, “desc”, “latitude” and “longitude”. First field will be the placemark’s label name, second is the description info in the popup box, third and forth are N/S and E/W. The coordinates can be in any format: xx yy zz, xx yy.yyyy, xx.xxxx, … Save the file as a .csv file (comma separated values) in Excel. Then, upload it here and create a .kml. That’s e.g. how I make my European observations map, starting from an Excel file with all my data. Alternatively, I can -of course- paste all my field trips into one MapSource file and do the single click to view all in Google Earth, but I don’t have .gdb files for my older stuff, so hence the Excel database of my observations.

Street view

For spots which are close to a road, the street view feature in Google Maps also seems useful. Not yet covering the whole of Europe's roads, but definitely worth a peak.

Tools

I use a Garmin Nüvi 250 for car navigation and a Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx for “the details”. While the Nüvi navigates me as close as possible on regular roads, the GPSMAP comes into play when driving off-road or hiking. It’s the GPSMAP to which I upload all compiled information plus topographical maps of the area. From 2005 to 2008, I used a GARMIN Geko 201. Since 2008, I am using the GPSMap, which allows use of map layers and offers a much better satellite reception (e.g. in broad-leaved woods, narrow canyons, ...). In the mean time, it obviously has become outdated by more recent devices.

As specified above, of course all these tricks and tools are complemented with unprepared searching at seemingly suitable habitats everywhere. More often than not, this allows for unexpected surprises.


And that's about it. Hope it was worth the read. Comments, suggestions, … always welcome!

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Last update: April 21, 2014 19:53:55