How to do reptile-specific trip? Compared to birding

On the Naturetrek website, quite a few reptile tours are offered.

The concept of a reptile tour got me thinking.

I’m mostly a birder. While keen to photograph a snake or a gecko if I should encounter one, I don’t know how to seek them out specifically.

Any advice on doing that? Or, more ambitiously, on ticking off as many reptiles as possible? How does it compare to birding?

(I’d ask the tour operator given that they’re the expert, but it’d be a bit awkward to ask “give me all your tips and skills for free when others pay good money to have the guide show them”, LOL.)


I haven’t gone on a reptile tour specifically but these are some of my tips that have helped me to locate a lot of reptiles (disclaimer: I’m living in a forested area of Virginia so it may be different for other regions).

1.) Look for sunning spots - these can be rocks, tree limbs, tree trunks etc that the sun shines on. Small lizards often like to gather around these to sun themselves, so it makes it easier to find them by searching for these specifically rather than looking at random.

2.) Go out early - I’ve had more success finding reptiles in the mornings because they usually are sunning themselves as mentioned above. Once it gets hotter later in the day they usually disperse and are harder to locate from my experience.

3.) Look up and down! - Keep an eye on the forest floor for camouflaged lizards but also up above you. Many reptiles especially the lizards can be climbers. Sometimes they may be on a tree trunk above your line of sight so keep that in mind.


The closest to birding would be viewing basking reptiles such as turtles and crocodilians, or walking through habitat, such as desert, during the day with binoculars to view diurnal lizards that are either basking or foraging. Otherwise it’s probably mostly night work either on foot or in a vehicle (road cruising) such as for snakes and nocturnal geckos. In many cases herping is more like owling … except for the listening part.


There is one big difference between birding and herping (which is reptiles and amphibians, but it’s commonly grouped as the methods are similar). In herping, people are far less likely to share exact sites - the reason is that there is a lot of collectors, a huge black market, and that herps are often sedentary and confined to small areas and easy to catch. Yes there is songbird trade and falconry, but the scale of the problem for herps is just so much larger. A lot if the information spreads in closed circles; there is no “herping eBird”.

Herps species density for a given site is usually smaller then for birds - there might be comparable numbers of species of birds and reptiles over a large area, but for example lizards are often hugely allopatric, so you have to cover a lot of ground to see different species. In Europe - and in general in non-tropical climates, the overall diversity is just much smaller.

And herps are hard to find. I still have no idea how people find snakes. I have seen some, but usually just by sheer time spent in the outdoors (being out at night looking for mammals certainly helps). But every time I see these reports from the tropics with multiple species per night, I am just fascinated, because that’s not my experience.

iNaturalist helps a lot to see what species are where, but many species are sensitive, thus hidden.


Whether you should go out at bight or day depends a lot on the species you want to observe… so make yourself familiar with the behavioual background of the species you are interested in.

For example, looking for the few german reptiles, you would not be lucky going out at night… due to the climate they adapted to be active during daytime. Usually highest chances to see and photograph them is when they are sun bathing but are not fully heated up… in the morning and also again in the evenings before they retreat for the night. Certain species are also easier to find sun bathing in early spring and autumn for example, when nights can be rather chill.

In the warmer climates the situation and thus the approach to find them can be very different with more night active species. Often strong lights are very helpful to spot them out


In terms of ticking off species when herping vs birding, I don’t think you’ll ever see more herps than birds on any field expedition especially if most of your effort is during daylight. Of course results can vary depending on where you are in the world. But most herps are secretive and unless you’re actively flipping materials under which many species will hide, you won’t see them.

This is based on my years of experience surveying both mainly in the US.

Also: I’ve found it’s hard to herp and bird at the same time. I’ve almost stepped on snakes when focused mainly on birds and I’m sure I miss a lot of birds when I’m looking at the ground for herps.


It really depends on your location and the habitat in which you are herping. Species are usually much more habitat dependent, and even small things such as sand grain size, a species of plant or soil moisture content can play a huge role in whether a species lives there or not. If you wanted to tick off as many reptile species as possible, it’s a good idea to talk to local herpers. They might not be willing to share spots, but most should be willing to give advice.


I find that herpers and birders make a decent team. Herper walks down the trail first and scans the ground; birders come behind and look up, occasionally seeing the herp in the trees that the herper missed but also not having to worry as much about potential snakes. Both are usually interested in each other’s finds.


Yes, it can be a good mutualistic relationship.

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