As much as I love exploring all over the state, sometimes unique species can be had right in my own backyard of Sangamon county, Illinois, despite the majority of the county being a wasteland of agriculture.
The stout Common Snapping Turtle does fairly well in the creeks and lakes here, and they’ve started to emerge in order to lay eggs, with the recent flooding. This one ended up with a Dock leaf on it during its travels. I usually help turtles across the road in the direction they’re going, but I make exceptions for turtles that can bite off my fingers. Snapping Turtles definitely earned their nickname, and they can whirl around on their belly surprisingly fast.
The flooding has disturbed some of the local residents, including this ground-nesting Ovenbird. I’m worried its oven-shaped nest might’ve been destroyed by the 3.5 inches of rain we’ve gotten in the last few days here. The flooding made all my usual bottomland stomping grounds inaccessible, as well as a few roads, but thankfully that’s all at this time.
On the plus side, all this rain pinned a few migratory birds down, including a flock or so of these gorgeous Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpoll Warblers live in the spruce forests of Canada, even as far north as the stunted conifers along the edge of the taiga and the tundra. I’ve had a difficult time finding them up to now, and while they indicate the beginning of the end of spring warbler migration, I do enjoy seeing them.
A much more sedentary local, the Graham’s Crayfish Snake hangs out along the water’s edge and basks on sunnier days. As their name implies, Graham’s Crayfish Snakes eat mostly crayfish, especially freshly-molted crayfish. Completely harmless to humans, this species has locally suffered from habitat destruction and locals killing them out of misplaced fear of a “Cottonmouth”. Thankfully, at least of late I’ve seen more of them in Sangamon county than I had in the last several years.
I’d encourage everyone to take the time to check out their local lakes and patches. You never know what might appear!
It’s been a good year or so since I really wrote much on this blog. In that time I graduated from college, saw over 2,000 North American species, got really really really into iNaturalist, visited Florida, had a summer job working for the Critical Trends Assessment Program of the Illinois Natural History Survey, won second place for species in the 2019 Illinois Botany Big Year, and stumbled my way into 2020. I’ve decide to resume this blog for now, starting with my most recent adventures. If you want to go through a DETAILED list of everything I found in 2019, I recommend looking through this list on iNaturalist of my 820-odd 2019 lifer species: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=any&q=Wildlandblogger%27s%202019%20lifers&search_on=tags
Let’s just say I had a full 2019, and 2020 is shaping up to be quite entertaining as well. I’m moving to another state soon, so I’ll be finding quite a lot of new plants, and some new insects, birds, fish, snakes, etc.
Obviously, certain events have happened in 2020 that make outdoor exploration a bit more complicated. We’re not living in the end of the world or the darkest timeline or whatever other nonsense people might say, but we must do our duty to be inconvenienced for health reasons. For me, this has resulted in fewer camping trips out-of-state than I had initially planned on this spring, especially in Missouri, southern Illinois, etc.
My being restricted to areas within close driving distance, however, has led to a crazy number of reptiles and a few new plants being found by me locally this spring. Illinois has more snakes than I’d given it credit for having, and in 2020 I’ve seen 23 species of snake so far.
Above is a lovely Eastern Milksnake, one of my goals for this year, and one thankfully I didn’t have to travel too far to see. I’ve missed this one repeatedly for years, so it’s become a bit of a nemesis, like the other snakes discussed below.
The sandy prairies of Illinois have many Great Plains Species not found elsewhere east of the Mississippi. One of those is the unique Corydalis curvisiliqua, the Curvepod Fumewort, present mostly in the southern Great Plains. Despite its limited range in Illinois, this species thrives on roadside edges and disturbed habitats in the sandy bottomlands of Morgan county, Illinois. Bizarrely, Curvepod Fumewort does not occur further north in the Havana-area sand prairies despite a considerable amount of ideal habitat.
Near-ish to the Curvepod Fumewort, a Plains Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus) roamed about the sand prairie. State-threatened, Plains Hognose Snakes require decent-quality sand prairie with plenty of toads to eat and deep sand to burrow in. Plains Hognoses tend to stick close to their burrows, retreating underground during hot or cool weather. This sedentary, stay-at-home behavior is all well and good for avoiding predators, but it leaves the species’ populations isolated when the habitat nearby is developed or altered.
One of the more fun things about all hognose snakes is their elaborate death-faking behaviors. This one was no exception, crapping all over itself and flipping upside down with tongue out, in a performance from the William Shatner school of acting.
My most wanted species of all time is Kirtland’s Snake, named for scientist, politician, and generally cool guy Jared Kirtland. These rare Midwestern snakes take incredibly crappy habitat, so long as it’s wet and grassy. Originally, they would’ve been quite common in central Illinois thanks to the expanses of wet prairie here, but habitat destruction strikes again here. Kirtland’s Snakes are also State-threatened, and restricted to a few sites scattered throughout Illinois. Nocturnal snakes that hide in crayfish burrows, Kirtland’s Snakes are difficult to find, and it’s only taken me a good ten years to find one near my hometown, even though they’ve been recorded five minutes from my house before. (Quite frankly, I doubt they’re present at that site anymore, but you never know.)
At any rate, that’s some of what I’ve seen this spring. I’ll share more as I head off to Virginia, potentially even a few past finds I considered especially neat. In the meantime, I’m back for now!
Many years ago (it feels like at this point) I ventured over to Missouri in May. I got a lot of ticks and even more lifers. (When out naturalizing, always keep the lifer species/ticks ratio above 2:1, or you should get out of there as quickly as possible.) Given a chance to go to Missouri just before finals week, my friends and I, as part of the Southern Illinois University Herpetology Club, decided to go back to the same areas and look for reptiles, amphibians, and whatever we could find.
… or none of the above because it was cool and rainy much of the weekend. Furthermore, I failed to pack a sleeping bag, and decided to sleep in my car instead with a spare blanket I’d packed . This proved to be a brilliant idea when thunderstorms struck up at 3 AM. We eventually drove over to a nearby state park, Johnson’s Shut In’s State Park *cue my friend Kyle saying “what a weird name for a state park!”* and waited for the rain to pass a bit before venturing out into the trail system.
Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park lies in the St. Francois Mountains of the Ozark Plateau. These low mountains have deep, carved valleys through hard igneous rock, and in some spots the rock has decided not to erode entirely, forming unique formations that “shut” the rivers “in” to narrow channels between large masses of stone:
As it was still quite damp post-rain, we quickly found… nothing, as with the damp was cool, cloudy weather. We did eventually find a Central Newt under a log, near where I found the Fire Pink flower above. Central Newts live in water as tadpoles and fully-grown adults, but in between they are terrestrial and live as efts, shown below. They’re basically the determined young adult who moves out of the dull, boring Midwest off to “somewhere else” before deciding they have to come back here for a job and family, and reluctantly settle down anyway.
This time away from the newt homeland is a brief period of rebellion during which the newt is quite toxic to anyone in contact with it (well, I wouldn’t rub newt skin on a cut or put it in my mouth, at any life stage.) The newt advertises its toxins by having orange skin with brighter orange spots as a warning. If you want to be really scientific, that’s aposematic coloration… I’m toxic, don’t touch me. Some people would do well to have aposematic coloration, for the benefit of those around them. Moving on.
On the nearby oak trees we found strange inflated ball-like structures attached to the leaves. Splitting one open revealed a bizarre urchin-like structure hiding within, fusing around a central core.
These unique galls are the result of a wasp, the Spongy Oak-Apple Gall Wasp, which forms these unique “oak-apples” as some people call them. Inside the center is the larval wasp, feeding on plant tissues until it grows to be an adult. While not exactly beneficial to the tree, these growths rarely become a serious harm, either.
Walking further along the trail, we came to rocky openings in the woods, known as glades. This is a rhyolite glade, if I recall correctly. Glades are formed due to thin soils on rocky hillsides, and they support unique animals and plants from all over the Midwest, both endemic and otherwise.
They are often full of herps hiding under the rocks, and we got lucky with this coiled-up Yellow-bellied Racer hiding peacefully under a rock. Yellow-bellied Racers are a subspecies of North American Racers, including the Southern Black Racers and Blue Racers I’ve seen previously.
Another new form/species/genetic variation of a species I’ve seen already is this Western Slimy Salamander. Western Slimy Salamanders are close relations to the Northern Slimy Salamanders I’m used to finding in Southern Illinois, potentially even the same species although they were recently split thanks to genetics.
In similar fashion, the Prairie Lizard above is split off from the Eastern Fence Lizard over genetics and range. There’s a lot of this sort of thing when it comes to reptile and amphibian taxonomy in the last two decades, and I wonder how much of it will remain intact in the next two decades.
Skinks scuttled about as the sun rose and cleared away the clouds. We came down to a blue pool of the Black River and rested by it.
From there it was a haul back to the beginning, where we stopped at an overlook and spotted an overlooked turtle.
This is a River Cooter, one of our most-wanted to see turtles and a reptile of clean water systems in the Southeast. It was a pleasant surprise as we left.
Oh, but the blogpost doesn’t end here… I know. We next went to a beautiful glade on a nearby mountaintop, from which the St. Francois Mountains were visible as low ridges, typically miles long and only a thousand or so feet high. Look, the term mountains is generous, I know.
On the thin glade soils prairie plants bloomed, such as these Birdsfoot Violets with their two-toned petals. We looked about for lizards and snakes with limited success in terms of lizards and no success in terms of snakes.
Just as we were about to leave, Shawn found this Three-toed Box Turtle male in full Darth Maul colors. The shells of Three-toed Box Turtles are far plainer than those of Eastern Box Turtles, but the head stands out like a burning coal. It was an excellent find to wrap up our first full day in Missouri, and we pulled off a few ticks and wandered back to the campsite.
Look, I know spring is “technically” over on the 21rst of June but I don’t really care. It’s summer when May is over, and May 2019 is dead and gone.
In the meantime, I graduated from college, spent a few days down looking for cool stuff in Southern Illinois, and I’ve now landed a job working for the Critical Trends Assessment Program of the Illinois Natural History Survey doing plant surveys, which is honestly one of the best jobs I could ever have. In the meantime, I’m going to share more blogposts, but now I’m behind. Yay.