Winter Birding in February 2021

I threatened a return to this blog, and by George (aka all the George Foreman Grills I stock at my current temporary job), I’m doing my best to make that happen.

Winter sucks, especially such a cold spell as we had of late here in the central US. Still, cold does bring down a few birds from the North, and as a result I went out looking the other day for some in the sandlands of Mason County, Illinois.

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Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks

Along the road for much of the drive, Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs picked at the seeds and gravel, whizzing away over the snow-covered fields as cars passed. A handful of Horned Larks stick around all year long, nesting in what little habitat they can find, but the majority of these two species nest up on the high tundra and only become readily visible down here when it resembles high tundra to the casual observer.

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Black Hickory (Carya texana)

As a reminder that we thankfully do not live in the Arctic Circle, here’s Black Hickory, a common resident in Mason county’s sand savanna, but at its northern limit here. This species becomes much more common in the Ozarks and Ouachitas, as well as eastern Texas. It’s one of a number of Southern Great Plains species that make Mason county the northeastern corner of their range, with Astragalus distortus and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers coming to mind as two other examples.

Camo Bobwhite
Northern Bobwhite cameo (head and shoulders facing right behind the large tree on left)

Another species that’s found a home north of where it likes to be is Northern Bobwhite, a species that has struggled to survive in most of the surrounding counties but seems to be persisting in good numbers in Mason County thanks to its fondness for the remnant sand savanna and dry grassland edges in the region. The “poor” sandy soils here have ironically saved a richer diversity of flora and fauna than can still be found on the “better” blacksoil to the east, northeast, and south.

Havana Bridge
Havana (Illinois, not Cuba)

As it was still remarkably cold, the only open waterway was the Illinois River at Havana, thanks to barge traffic. Dozens of Common Goldeneye could be seen far out, shown as black specks on the water in the photo above.

Mel Price Dam
Birds below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam

The water being almost completely frozen over, I retreated southwards towards the Alton area. Here large concentrations of gulls and pelicans foraged in the open waters below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River. While the dam kept the river open for barge traffic, ice did buildup around the sides, and I had to make my way carefully down to view the gulls. Or I could’ve been smart and stayed up on top in the parking lot, but I wanted to see the action closer. Don’t do what I do. Statistically I probably should’ve broken like five legs by now.

Mississippi River Ice

(There’s a reason I’m not paid to run statistics for people).

Mel Price Gulling
Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis)

Gulls come quite readily to sliced bread, which is not a good long-term meal for a gull but a great way to tempt them a bit closer for a photo and potentially get one of the rare ones. Of course, the rare gulls did not come for the bread, but a few pelicans did so I ceased gull-baiting.

AWPE Lincoln Shields
American White Pelican and two Ring-billed Gulls

Some of the rarer gulls there included a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, like the one photographed below. This species has rapidly expanded across the United States, going from a European vagrant and rarity in the 1980s to a regular if uncommon winter bird on some lakes and rivers in the Midwest. It’s unclear where this influx of LBBG’s comes from, where they breed, or why they’ve decided to come to North America instead of Eurasia. Answers to those questions may come in the next few years.

Mel Price LBBG
Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

For those wondering why this isn’t called a Gray-backed Gull, the above photo was taken on a cloudy day, while a day later in Illinois I found a LBBG in sunlight. You can see the darker mantle (back color) more readily.

Taylorville LBBG
Lesser Black-backed Gull, loafing about

Another gull species, and even more confusing, is the Iceland Gull. I failed to get good photos of the few we saw at Mel Price, so here’s one from the Lake Taylorville excursion a day later.

Taylorville Iceland Gull
Kumlien’s Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides kumlienii)

Note the pale wingtips and back color, as well as the dark eyes and shorter, blunter head. These all help to distinguish this as an Iceland Gull, specifically a Kumlien’s as it has light gray wingtips, not solid white ones as in the nominate subspecies.

Gulls are fun for some people to ID, but after two hours of looking at them, I was ready to move on. So I did, to the much more dignified and proper birding location of a cattle feedlot.

Great Tailed Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle

Birding doesn’t have proper and dignified locations, for the most part. The birds go where there is food. Stolen corn from cow feed troughs is perfectly fine fare for Great-tailed Grackles, here on the eastern edge of their wintering range.

Green Frog in snowy spring
Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

At this point, the temperature had reached 50 F for the first time in weeks, so I began to look for herps. A Green Frog or two were the only consolations on that point, as the ice still thickly covered the frozen ponds. Hopefully next time I post on here I’ll have quite a few more salamanders, as BIG salamander migrations are taking place in the Upland South where there’s been significantly more rain and even here in the Great Corn Desert a few adventurous Chorus Frogs have started to croak.

A Brief Life Update + Coolest Finds of 2020

Well, most of those who read my blogs already know me as a person, but this is for those who don’t follow me on Facebook or iNaturalist or around the store while I’m shopping (you know who you are).

In the last two years, I’ve worked for the Illinois Natural History Survey and for the Clifton Institute doing botanical surveys (summer 2019, and summer 2020 respectively). Summer 2021 looks like I’ll be back at it again in Alabama. I haven’t yet gained permanent botanical employment anywhere, so it looks like I’ll be going to grad school in fall 2021 to hopefully nail down a position that would let me be employed more full-time. That’s basically where I’m at, trekking across the eastern US every few months during a pandemic for employment.

I found approximately 1283 lifer species in 2020 per my iNaturalist records (660 plants, 418 insects, 48 birds, 24 amphibians, 25 reptiles, and some other stuff that I don’t actively list). A limited selection of some of my favorite animals from the year are shown below, understand that the list is MUCH longer as viewable on this link. (It would take too long to pick out the plants)

Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulatum) from Monroe county IL, a gorgeous, secretive snake species that’d eluded me for years but thanks to Kyran Leeker I managed to find under cover early in the spring of 2020.

I visited Florida in February 2020, before the pandemic. That trip, brief but spectacular, yielded stunning looks at this Mangrove Cuckoo (Coccyzus minor) predating an Io Moth caterpillar (Automeris io) in the mangrove forests of Sanibel Island, Florida. Apparently the stinging spines of the caterpillar don’t bother the cuckoo in the slightest.

I talked my mother into holding this harmless Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis) while we were visiting the high plateaus of West Virginia. Thanks Mom!

2020 is the year I got interested in mothing, and that really got sparked by this Ultronia Underwing (Catocala ultronia) coming to the back porch light I left on one night while residing at the Clifton Institute in northern Virginia.

Eastern Narrowmouth Toads (Gastrophryne carolinensis) had eluded me for years, so finding one with Kyran Leeker and Trevor Slovick on a distanced herping outing in October in eastern Missouri absolutely thrilled me. These ant-eaters, one of the smallest frogs in the East, typically hide under rocks and often burrow underground.

Content from 2021 will appear soon, I have done plenty of recaps on Facebook so I don’t think I’ll inflict many more.

A quick adventure up Hutchins Creek

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Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

Welcome back all to the LONG IGNORED blog of mine. It’s been about eight months minumum? since I messed with this blog. Like an addiction, it’s hard to completely break away from this blog, so here I am back again. I had a ton of drafts that I never finished from 2019, so I’m going to post this retrospective adventure just because I have the photos embedded already.

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Eastern Tailed-Blue (Cupido comyntas)

Anyway, at this time (May 2019) I was finishing up undergraduate school in Southern Illinois, and spending many a day out and about. I’d just gotten into dipnetting (in the two years since I’ve gotten even further into it). One of the finest creeks to visit in southern Illinois’s Shawnee Hills is Hutchins Creek, a few ridges to the east of Snake Road (Larue-Pine Hills). Despite their close proximity to one another, the two do not have a ton of the same snakes, with Midland Watersnakes prevailing as the dominant snake species along Hutchins Creek’s banks instead of Plain-bellied and Copperheads.

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Midland Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon ssp pleuralis)

On the drive from Carbondale to Hutchins Creek I found a delightfully colored up Box Turtle. These slow-moving nomads often get into trouble with careless cars, so I shuffled him (I believe the pale red eye makes it a him, but it might be a her) off to the side in the direction he was going.

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Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

A ford along the drive in provided a chance to catch Illinois’ two brightest fish, a Rainbow Darter and an Orangethroat Darter, on either side of the ford. Rainbows prefer the deeper, faster flowing streams when given a choice, and they have more blue bands, blue and orange on their anal fin, and a “bow” shaped marking on their caudal peduncle (the bit of the fish just before the tail).

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Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum)

Orange throats are more spotted on the sides, and in the Shawnee Hills seem to have paired orange dots towards their tail end, as well as a solidly blue anal fin. The quick comparison over, I let them both back into their respective sides of the ford.

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Orangethroat Darter (Etheostoma spectabile)

Hutchins Creek’s somewhat popular as a swimming hole with the locals, with gravel bars forming a sort-of beach that people like to hang out on. This early in the year, however, it was too cold to go swimming… for sane people. Crazy naturalists, however, dove right into the water.

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Hutchins Creek

Attempts to get ahold of one of Illinois’ few populations of Bleeding Shiner were many, and it took twenty minutes of charging up and down creek until I managed to get some. In the two years since, I’ve learned from that expert fisherman, the heron- it’s better to wait and let them come close to you.

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Bleeding Shiner (Luxilus zonatus)

Bleeding Shiners are restricted to a few creeks in Southwestern Illinois, but increase in abundance westwards in the Ozark Plateau’s many clean streams. Some populations were introduced near the St. Louis area per one of my friends, but the ones in Hutchins Creek are natural from my understanding.

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Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)

Creek Chubs are in every fish-supporting stream in Illinois, of course, and such was the case here.

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Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)

Longear Sunfish hid under branch piles along the creek’s banks, daring me to get tangled up or trip and fall facefirst into the water. I did plenty of both.

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Slender Madtom (Noturus exilis)

I tapped a flat rock underwater and spooked this Slender Madtom into my net. Slender Madtoms live up to their name, being among the skinniest catfish in Illinois. Like all madtoms they have venomous spines in their fins and can deliver a painful sting, so they have to be handled with some caution.

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Common Logperch (Percina caprodes)

My one and only Common Logperch came from dipnetting along this stream. In the words of Steve Irwin, “Isn’t she a beauty?!” I decided to wrap up fishing here (I think I had some finals to study for or something, also), and decided to take a quick run up the Pine Hills on the drive home.

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Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia)

A gorgeous Four-leaved Milkweed awaited me at the overlook, and together we shared a brief sunset before I had to depart. That milkweed gets this every year!

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Top of Pine Hills Road (south end, at the picnic area)

If you want to follow more of my adventures, check out my iNaturalist! (https://www.inaturalist.org/people/wildlandblogger)

Sangamon County Surprises

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.

Common Snapping Turtle
Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

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.

Ovenbird @ lick creek
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)

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.

Blackpoll Warbler, finally
Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)

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.

Graham's Crayfish Snake, MP
Graham’s Crayfish Snake (Regina grahamii)

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!