Trip Details

Location: Billings County, North Dakota.

Herpers: Austin, Laura & Jim Scharosch

Start Time: 10:30 am

Weather: Cloudy, windy, rainy. High of 65 degrees.

Laura, Austin and I went on a family vacation to North Dakota with my parents. Most of my relatives live in North Dakota and many of the ones that don't live there were coming in for a wedding. I haven't been there for well over fifteen years, and have never taken my family there. I thought it would be nice to see my relatives and show Laura and Austin the places where my parents grew up. I also decided to slip one day of herping in while we were up there. There is not a big variety of herps in North Dakota, but at least where we were headed the Prairie Rattlesnake is a fairly common site.

As we drove to the southwest corner of North Dakota, the weather appeared as though it was not going to cooperate. It was windy and cold with a light drizzle as we did some touristy stuff and visited relatives the first couple of days. We decided to put off herping until the day after the wedding, which would be our last day there. We were going to go to my cousin Edwin's ranch in Billings County, right on the edge of the badlands. On the Saturday of the wedding we were not too optimistic about the weather for the next day, as it was supposed to be a carbon copy of Saturday's cool, cloudy, windy conditions.  We did get some somewhat encouraging news at the wedding reception. Cody, my cousin's youngest son, had seen a rattlesnake crossing the road near the ranch just before he left for the reception. Of course, then he informed us that it "was a tough one" and it took him quite a while to kill it.

I think everyone in North Dakota hates snakes. I can't say that for sure because I haven't met everyone in North Dakota, but it sure seems like they do. I know all of my relatives do. Each one gave me a look of incomprehension when I discussed my desire to find a rattlesnake. Even after I explained to my uncle that when we find a rattlesnake we only photograph it because we like and respect them, he still asked me if I needed to borrow a gun to kill them when I was done. Every relative had a story of the time they stepped on a rattler in their bare feet, got bucked off a horse into a nest of rattlers, or had a rattler fly out of a hole and nearly kill them. It seems that there isn't a story of a rattlesnake encounter in North Dakota that doesn't end with "and then I killed it". I didn't try very hard to convince them any different, as it was obvious it wouldn't do much good.

We got to my cousin's place in the morning and the weather seemed like it was going to be okay. The sun was coming out from behind the clouds on occasion and it felt like it might warm up. Edwin's place is beautiful. The badlands are a really pretty area, with a lot of interesting rock formations.

The badlands are very different from the Flint Hills area of the Kansas plains that I am familiar with from my many herp trips there. The rocks are sandstone and most are very large. Most of the rocks cannot be turned, and few herps actually hide under the rocks anyway. Many of the rocks that are small enough to turn are very fragile and will break apart when you try to turn them. Juniper bushes grow along the ground, and there are a lot of nice wildflowers.

Sage and prickly pear cactus grow from every nook and cranny.

As we were ready to head up the first rocky butte, Edwin drove up and told me "Jimmy, you guys are loco in the head" and I guess, in some ways, he is right.

We started off, and after walking the hill for a while; I turned a small rock and found a young Racer (Coluber constrictor).

It was a baby from last year and still had all of its hatchling coloration. Racers here hatch out brown with a pattern of blotches and grow into a uniform slate gray. I like racers, but we find a lot of them in Kansas and Iowa so I wanted to find something else. We finished walking the hillside, and on the way back to the car, Laura saw an adult racer, but it dashed down a hole in the ground before she could get a hand on it.

Edwin told us that he sees rattlesnakes in the hills above the dam that he built to make his pond. We went over to look at those hills and walked by the pond on the way. Laura saw a snake in the water, and we all got there in time to see a Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) eating a minnow at the water's edge.

It was a cool site, but I couldn't get my camera out of my pack before the snake finished slurping down lunch. There are no water snakes in this part of North Dakota, and they say the garter snakes replace them in the habitat niche. I didn't really understand this until I saw this garter snake acting exactly like a water snake does in Iowa. When it finished its meal, it took off and swam under water out into the reeds to hide.

The sky was clouding up, and the temperature was dropping some as we got up on the hillside above the dam. We had only walked a little while when I came upon another racer.

It was about sixteen inches long, and appeared to be two years old. It had lost most of the hatchling coloration. There were still spots here and there, evidence of the former pattern. We covered the rest of the hillside without seeing anything else. On the way back to the car, Austin found a small bat on a dirt ledge.

It didn't look like it was in very good shape. I thought I would move it somewhere more protected from the elements, but when I touched it with a stick, it took off and flew away. We also found a couple of large chunks of petrified wood, which is a common site in the badlands.

At this point we took a break and went down to Edwin's ranch. We drank some iced tea and had a shot of Red Eye, a North Dakota specialty, and some deer jerky and decided to try another hill or two. The weather was getting worse and it was spitting rain when we got out of the vehicle. It didn't look promising, but we were here and we were going to keep going.  We checked a rock littered hillside without finding anything, and as we were walking toward the other side of the hill, Laura found something that I had walked right by. It was a Mountain Short Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi).

This was a really cool find, and we were very happy to see it. We didn't even know they ranged into this area, and checking the field guide, we saw that they barely make it into North Dakota. It was something I haven't found before, as the horned lizard we found in Kansas a few years ago was the Texas variety. The temperature was cool, so it sat still for photos and the overcast that was keeping us from finding rattlesnakes also provided perfect light for photography.

We moved on, and I found another racer under a rock.

This one was a small adult that had lost all of its juvenile coloration. I was tired of finding racers by this time, but it was nice that we had found a baby one with blotches, a sub-adult with some remnant pattern and an adult with solid coloration.

That ended our day of herping. We didn't find the Prairie Rattlesnake we wanted to find, but it wasn't from lack of trying. We put in a good four hours plus of walking, but I think the cool windy conditions had moved the big game snakes underground. As expected, the next morning when we awoke to head back to Iowa, the skies were clear and the wind was still. It looked like it was going to be a perfect day to herp, but we were going to spend it driving home.

Read our disclaimer here...