Dan Parkes is a snake enthusiast from Queensland (and November ’17 Explorer of the Month) who loves nothing more than going bush with the aim of finding and identifying a scaly mate. Yep, he’s into snake spotting. It’s a hair-raising hobby, but through education he hopes to break the snake stigma, and keep us safer in the process.
What on earth is Herping? Herping is a term derived from the professional field of herpetology, otherwise known as the study of reptiles and amphibians. Herping is the act of searching for reptiles or amphibians and for me, it involves finding snakes.
Whether you love them or hate them, spotting a snake in the wild is absolutely exhilarating – you can’t deny it. The way they move, their vast array of colours and their defensive behaviours are truly amazing when you get to see them in person. But what is involved?
Develop Your Spot List
For an amateur snake enthusiast like me, whenever I am planning to travel in Australia, my first course of action is to learn about the native snake species at my destination. This helps me to discover when and where I am most likely to see them and also assists in preparation should the worst-case situation eventuate – being bitten.
Snake distribution can always be found with a quick google search and will give you a simple overview of what snake species you are likely to encounter. The Australian Reptile Online Database is a great starting point for snake distribution research. When I arrive at a National Park I have an idea of snake species I wish to find. Having a goal or developing a “spot list” will help you to tune in.
Safety Tip: Even if you’re ophidiophobic (guess what that’s the fear of?) developing a spot list is a great safety precaution that can help you to stay calm in an encounter.
Tuning in refers to adjusting your eyes to your environment and its vegetation. It always surprises me to hear that there are Australians out there that have never seen a snake in the wild. It absolutely blows my mind, they are everywhere!
Being tuned in and actively looking instead of having a good ol’ chinwag to your mate significantly increases your chances of seeing a slithering serpent. If you are tuned in, you will be able to easily discern a snake from a stick, or spot colours of red, black or white among leaf litter.
Look left, look right, look up, look down then repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t, not even for one second think that snakes are only found on the ground – they will be in trees, in and on logs, in water – everywhere. Just keep looking, but keep your eye on the time. Time gets away from you very quickly once you are tuned in.
This is the fun part, especially when you find a snake that you have never come across before, or one that you get to tick off your list. There have been quite a few times when I have come across a snake that I’m not familiar with and as a precaution, not interfered with at all. I’ll take note of its key information so that I can look it up later or seek assistance from a snake professional.
Key information includes, the species’ habitat (e.g dense rainforest), geographical location, key colours or markings (although these features are highly variable – especially with Eastern Browns), length and head shape.
If you can attain photographic evidence (safely) then your best bet for identification is to consult a snake professional. There are many snake catchers across the country that do fantastic work in providing accurate snake identifications (normally free of charge) which is a good avenue to proceed with after you’ve spotted something unfamiliar.
Every herper (a person who engages in herping) has their own philosophy on handling snakes. Personally, I don’t handle wild, venomous snakes. There are, however, courses available that train you to become proficient in venomous snake handling.
I have heard many horror stories about people receiving an envenomation after misidentifying and handling a venomous snake. So if you’re not a herpetologist, a snake professional or very knowledgeable and experienced with snakes, then I have one slice of advice for you: Don’t touch.
Each snake, both individually and as a species, displays different temperaments. When I photograph snakes, I start back and move closer after I have gauged the temperament of the individual snake.
In most of my encounters I have had to be very quick on the trigger to get a decent shot. This means that usually I have my camera set on Auto mode so that the only thing I have to worry about is the zoom. If a snake is calm enough then, and only then, will I switch into manual and have a play around.
I have found that the temperament of a snake is influenced by the consumption of a meal, time of day/night and the nature of your interaction with the snake. To give an example – I have come across many Olive Pythons in the wild, most have been placid but some, particularly ones with a full belly, become quite aggressive.
Snake Spotting Is Risky But Rewarding
Herping is an exhilarating hobby to have, but it comes with a significant element of danger and risk given that Australia is home to many of the most venomous snakes in the world, including the most venomous land snake in the world, the Inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus).
Herping is an activity that you can engage with in a range of capacities but don’t ever get complacent. Envenomation is life-threatening.
** Please note: all inferences have been made on personal experience. Your experience/s with snakes may vary.