Month: August 2017

Completing My Year Goals… ish

For those of you who don’t want to dive into the malformed archives of this blog, I posted a list of goals for 2017 that I wanted to find or visit.   Here’s what they are:

My goals for this upcoming year (January 1, 2017- January 1, 2018)

This is basically a Scrabble hunt for what I want to see.  I want to complete at least nine of these, as a sort of challenge to myself.  I don’t know that all of these are complete-able, but I think they are.

Crossed-out means that they were seen before January 1.  Bold means they were seen after January 1.

1. Find Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchids!  Bloom would be nice, but isn’t necessary.

2.  See five of the following birds: Rough-legged Hawk,  Long-tailed Duck, Golden Eagle, Mississippi Kite, (either) Bittern,   American Wigeon, Trumpeter Swan (in IL), Tundra Swan, Red-throated Loon,  Western Grebe, Black Scoter, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Greater Prairie-chicken,  Dunlin, Whimbrel, Willet, Wilson’s Snipe, Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Barn Owl,  Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Snowy Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Nelson’s Sparrow, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, (either) Cuckoo,  (any) Rail,  Northern or Loggerhead Shrike, Marsh Wren, Orchard Oriole, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Canada Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, Pine Siskin, (any) Crossbill,  Purple Finch, and/or Evening Grosbeak.

How I’m going to do this:  Hope and pray for good birds at Montrose.  Just keep my eyes open everywhere else.  Some of these could be at Sand Ridge State Forest during the winter.

3.  Find two of the following reptiles: Ornate Box Turtle, Blanding’s Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Slender Glass Lizard, Bullsnake, Rough Green Snake, Smooth Green Snake, Western and/or Eastern Hognose Snake, Milksnake, Fox Snake, Lined Snake, Smooth Earth Snake, Coachwhip, and/or Plains Garter Snake.

How I’m going to do this:  Most of the turtles are northern, so check wetlands in Chicago area (revisit Volo if possible).  Most of the snakes are more or less within two hour’s drive of here, and many can be found in Mason County if I look hard enough.  Lined Snakes are theoretically in Sangamon County, so finding where they are will involve lots of research.

4.  Find three of the following amphibians:  Tiger Salamander, Marbled Salamander, Slimy Salamander, Silvery Salamander, Cave Salamander, Longtail Salamander, Two-lined Salamander, Spadefoot Toad, Eastern Red-backed Salamander,  Narrowmouth Toad, Green Treefrog, Bird-voiced Tree Frog, Wood Frog, and/or Illinois Chorus Frog.

How I’m going to do this:  Visiting Southern Illinois will make things easier.  I plan to hunt in March/April up in Mason County for the Illinois Chorus Frog, when they’re breeding in the sand ponds of the Illinois River Valley

5.  Find a venomous snake in Illinois, of any kind (albeit from a safe distance).  The best would be Massasauga, but that’s highly unlikely.  Most likely, this will be either a Cottonmouth or a Copperhead along Snake Road, maybe even a Timber Rattlesnake (again, from a safe distance of several yards, and hopefully downhill of me, as it’s harder for a venomous snake to strike uphill)

6.  Find a Kirtland’s Snake

How I’m going to do this:  Possible nocturnal hunts, and visits early in the morning after rain.  This is a very rare snake, and while they are supposed to live around here, I have no idea where to find them.

7.  Visit four new (to me) state parks and/or nature preserves (Meredosia NWR, Middle Fork Nature Preserve, Kickapoo State Park, Doris Westfall Nature Preserve, Howard’s Hill Seep Natural Area, Spring Lake, )

8. Revisit Fults Hill Prairie and find a Scorpion, Narrowmouth Toad, Great Plains Rat Snake, Flat-headed Snake, Coachwhip, Splendid Tiger Beetle or just something that’s rare that lives there.

9. Visit Montrose Point, the birding capital of Illinois.

10.  Visit the Ozarks at least once, especially Johnson’s Shut Ins and some of the larger glades where I see videos of snakes being found under most flipped rocks!

11. Visit Snake Road (should help with a lot of these)

12.  See a live, wild skunk, bear, or badger  (from a good distance away)

13.  Find a Snowy Egret in IL.

14.  Find at least three of the following plants:  Bird’s Eye Primrose, Poke Milkweed, Wild Agave, Bunchflower, (either) Turtlehead,  Kalm’s Lobelia, Obe-Wan Conobea, Lance-leaved Violet, Powdery Thalia, (either) Boltonia, Cancer Root, (any) Orobanche, Prairie Trout-Lily, (either) Ginseng, French’s Shooting Star, Showy Orchis,  Indian Pink, Snow Trillium, Bird’s Foot Violet, Turk’s Cap Lily, (any) Twayblade, Pitcher’s Leather Flower, (either) Camassia,  French Grass, Violet Wood Sorrel, Missouri Coneflower, Royal Catchfly, (any) Spiranthes, (any native in Illinois) Rhododendron, Filmy Fern, Matalea, Heart-leaved Plaintain, Pink Corydalis, (any) Sabatia, Ozark Milkvetch, Blue Hearts, Lobed Spleenwort, Walking Fern, Fameflower, (any in Illinois) clubmosses, Green Trillium, American Chestnut, Water Tupelo.

How I’m going to do this:  This list is weighted towards Southern Illinois and Mason County for a reason.  Mostly, I just have to keep my eyes open.

15.  Find at least one of any Platanthera orchid species (Fringed Orchids), preferably in flower.

16.  Find at least one Coralroot Orchid

17. Have fun!

So… let’s see how I’ve done so far, with 1/4  of the year remaining.  Green means completed, yellow means incomplete, and red means not completed at all.

1. Nope.  Complete miss on any Ladies’ Slippers this year, though I’ve about doubled my list of orchids seen in the wild.  Honestly, I’m pretty content with this up until late April next year.

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2. OH YEAH. Long-tailed Duck, Golden Eagle, Mississippi Kite, Least Bittern, Dunlin, Wilson’s Snipe, Willet, Upland Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper,  Snow Bunting (pictured), Lapland Longspur, both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos,  Virginia Rail,  Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Warbler, Bell’s Vireo, and Pine Siskin have been seen by me up to now in Illinois.   The Marsh Wren and Western Grebe were seen out of state, with Western Sandpiper being added August 27 as the latest bird for this list.

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3. Barely, but yes.  Bullsnake (photo) and Eastern Hognose Snake have both been seen, though only  Bullsnake in Illinois. I will probably get one more for this year unless I actually end up on a herping trip, however.   I need to reevaluate how to find snakes and get better at locating them.

4. No I have yet to see all three amphibians, but only one amphibian species is needed. The only salamanders I’ve seen on this list is a lone Eastern Red-backed in February,  many Slimy Salamanders in August, and none of the frogs have been added.  However, most of these are Southern Illinois species I might be able to get down there sometime soon, perhaps with help.

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5. Yes, for venomous snakes I saw a Copperhead (above), surprisingly not a Cottonmouth.

 6. No on the Kirtland’s Snake, but I have at least one location to check now, so that’s something.

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7. Yes I saw a ton of new preserves, and I don’t have time to list them all here. (Photo of Meredosia Hill Prairie).  I’m not even sure if I should bother to count out of state ones or not.

8. Sort of?  Probably not really, but I have revisited Fults Hill Prairie.  I didn’t get any of the listed rarities (and I probably won’t), but seeing my parents there is a rare sight, so…

9. Nope.  I didn’t get to Montrose, because it’s four (now six or seven) hours away, and I was super busy in mid-May, the best time to visit.  This is one of my biggest goals for next year.

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10.  Yes, I visited the Ozark glades.  And those videos lied, but it was still amazing.

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11.  Yes, I did see Snake Road, and I had my expectations too high.  However, it was still fun.

12.  I  have yet to see a live Skunk or Bear.  However, I did remember after writing this that I once saw a Badger in northern Illinois, crossing a road.

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13.  Yep, I’ve seen twenty or thirty Snowy Egrets in Illinois by now!

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14.  This ambitious list will require far more research to complete.  Still, the answer is yes, as I have seen Bird’s Foot Violet,  Showy Orchis (out of flower in Kentucky), Camassia scilloides,   Violet Wood Sorrel, Ozark Milkvetch (in photo above), Spiranthes gracilis, Walking Fern (in Kentucky), and Fameflower (in Missouri).  The Camassia were all technically in replanted  or probably replanted areas, so that leaves  four genuine Illinoisans- three of which I observed at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve for the first time!

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15.  Yes, one species, the best one, the Orange-fringed Orchid, Platanthera cilaris.

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16.  Also yes, but neither in Illinois.  Two species of Coral-root orchids, the Spring (wisteriana) in Missouri and the Spotted (maculata, photographed) in Colorado, definitely make this list longer!

17.  For the most part, when I don’t plan too much or expect too much, yes, I do have fun!

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Honorable mentions  so far this year go to the Calypso bulbosa, a plant I never expected to find this year, and the Red-necked Stint, a bird I never expected to find this year.

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Total Lunacy Eclipsed By a Stint In Kentucky

I’m not often satisfied with what I put out on this blog, but that title makes me happy.

I live in Southern Illinois.  There was a recent event there involving an eclipse and some extra three hundred thousand people in Southern Illinois, coming to see it.  I suppose the moon sort of (but not quite) blocking out the sun is worth seeing. On Sunday afternoon, while people were paying money to set up tents in backyards, residents were hawking  $1 eclipse-viewing glasses for ten or twenty bucks each in small towns, and some new friends were entertaining me with the game of”Guess what country I’m from?”, a Red-necked Stint was reported in Kentucky.

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Now, I presume the vast majority of the people reading this have never heard of Red-necked Stints, let alone seen one.    The Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) is a shorebird from the Asian Pacific Coast that migrates from Siberia down past Japan and China to Australia and the South Seas- 2/3 of the way around the world!  Notably, Kentucky is not located in that area.  In fact, a Red-necked Stint has never been seen in Kentucky before.  And, the remote field where it was found is roughly two hours from where I live.   I have about a two-hour cap on how far I want to travel to see a single bird, and this was right on the edge.  However, I’ll probably never see one of these in the United States again (excluding a few islands off Alaska where they’re more common).

Time to chase my rarest bird of the year.

But, how would I do this?  Eclipse traffic was going to be horrendous. (As an example, it’s usually a six-hour drive from here to Chicago.  After everyone left Southern Illinois at once, it took 13 hours.)  The solution?  Get up early, like 4:00 AM, and go looking for it.  I compromised- I got up at 4:30 AM, was out the door around 5:00 AM, and went to go see the Red-necked Stint first thing. So did eight other people, one from Massachusetts (though he was coming for the eclipse also).  Well, eight other people at the same time that I did.

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It took considerable amounts of driving to get here, most of which was spent playing “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah several times on repeat.  (It’s a song played in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.)  Some songs remind me of certain trips- for instance,  Maurice Ravel’s”Bolero” reminds me of my adventure with Jesse up after the Orange-fringed Orchid, Russian folk song “Kamarinskaya” reminds me of looking at Snow Geese on Lake Springfield, and Jack Nitzsche’s theme from Starman reminds me of the worst storm I’ve ever driven through, all because these songs were playing when I experienced those events.  (I know I have eccentric musical tastes.)

“Lake Shore Drive” is permanently fixed to this adventure.  It conjures up a view just before I crossed over into Kentucky, with the mists along the Ohio River dissipating as the sun came low over the horizon while I drove past.  I crossed the Old Shawneetown Bridge to get to this:

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The spot itself was concealed from view by cornfields, but a narrow path through the weeds on the edge of the field brought us to the view above.

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Several Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) were readily apparent when I  arrived as were two birders, intensely focused on one spot across the pond:

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THERE IT IS!

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In addition to the faded patch of rusty color on its neck,  the Red-necked Stint was also slightly longer-legged.  This helped when it went to feed with the Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) around it- we’d lose track of it, distracted by other birds, and refind it again using those field marks.  A few of the guys there had seen this species before in the far Alaskan islands, where Eurasian birds regularly end up during migration, so they knew what they were looking for.

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Two of the better distractions were a pair of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), and a Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus).  I rarely get a good look at a Short-billed Dowitcher, and Black-necked Stilts are uncommon in Kentucky.  I was very happy when the two ended up in the same spot.  The Short-billed Dowitcher is the one in brown with the long bill.  (Its bill is shorter than the Long-billed Dowitcher’s… most of the time).

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A Black Tern (Chilidonias niger) fishing on the pond also proved to be a good find.

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Here is the Black Tern at rest, next to a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) slightly underwater.

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Suddenly, we all went back to check for the Red-necked Stint, and it was gone.  We then looked down to the far end- this tiny bird had slipped to the end of the pond right under our noses!

After some more photos, we left, and I left behind a souvenir, the lens cap to my scope.  I then raced in a wide arc around the main spots in the Shawnee National Forest, driving up to West Frankfort and back down to Grand Tower Island to view the eclipse from the levee.  It began as  I drove south, but I got to my spot just a little before 12:30 PM, joining a few others from Cape Girardeau, Chicago and even California in gazing at the sky.

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A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a nearby tree proved a decent distraction.

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Absentmindedly, I took photos of some flying cormorants.  This proved to be bad, as the one on the left may be the smaller, longer-tailed, and rare Neotropic Cormorant.  The photos are inconclusive, but there’s a good chance that this is the third time I’ve seen one this year.  I haven’t mentioned the other two times before, mostly because it wasn’t worth bringing up, due to lack of evidence and the fact that I really can’t rule out small Double-crested from the other sightings.

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A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) proved to be more conclusive.  This species is so much fun to watch as it scampers about in pursuit of fish.  This one still has some head plumes:

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Hordes of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) bunched together as the lights dimmed.  I saw over two hundred between the Missouri and Illinois parts of the island, and they all left the following day.

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Just then, the sky began to darken, as if it was sunset in every direction.  Cicadas called everywhere for a bit, then silenced as it got darker.  The moon passed over the sun, the time of the total eclipse.  I zoomed in to get an obligatory eclipse shot:

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What was far more interesting, and I don’t think this was posted as much, was the way everything around us looked like sunset, though it made my camera’s settings completely freak out:

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I don’t think there’s any better place I could have watched the eclipse from, to be honest!  Once the sky lightened again, half the Cattle Egrets flew off, leaving behind the other half.

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I even got a video of the event, just to show how dark it got.  It’s a bit choppy, though:

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Before all three of my readers show up and make it crowded here in seven years, I do have a reason to stay away…  If you’re familiar with the Youtube channel Brave Wilderness’ Coyote Peterson (and if you’re not, it’s reminiscent of the glory days of the Animal Planet TV channel back when Animal Planet was about animals instead of Bigfood hunts and treehouse building.)  For those unfamilar with it, here’s his video on being stung by a Cow-killer:

So, would you like to guess what ran across the picnic blankets of one of the families watching the eclipse next to me?  Cow-killers, also known as Velvet Ants (Dasymutilla occidentalis), have the most painful sting of any animal in Illinois, though they not necessarily the most dangerous.  They are actually the female, flightless form of a wasp, and not an ant at all.

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The Velvet Ant, more afraid of us than we were of it, scurried off into the grass.  We said our goodbyes, and half-joked that we should all do it again in seven years.  I decided to wait and see more birds, instead of trying to get back home in all the traffic.

Out in the main part of the chute, Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) formed up into a group and began diving after fish, as usual.  They even making a few grunting, croaking noises, something they rarely do.  I guess they were talking about the eclipse, too!

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Here’s the whole flock, one of the last sights I saw before leaving.  None of them were the desired Neotropic, but I’d just seen a Red-necked Stint and an eclipse. I have nothing to complain about!

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And there ain’t no road just like it
Anywhere I found
Running south on Lake Shore Drive heading into town…

… And it’s four o’clock in the morning and all of the people have gone away
Just you and your mind and Lake Shore Drive, tomorrow is another day
And the sunshine’s fine in the morning time, tomorrow is another day.

-Aliotta Hanyes Jeremiah, “Lake Shore Drive”.

The Beginning…

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Let’s just say- I really like Southern Illinois.  After my parents left Thursday night, I decided to take off and go explore the nearby Shawnee National Forest.  There is no part of the Shawnee National Forest that is more than two hours from where I live, according to Google Maps.

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After driving around on backroads for awhile, I came across this fellow in my path, in the Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area.   Yes, it’s a snake.  Snakes are unpopular with some of my readers, and I understand this.  I just don’t care.

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This Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) was my first venomous snake sighting in the wild.  It was a young one, about a foot and a half long, and perfectly still.  I went carefully well around it.

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My destination was Inspiration Point, above the Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area.

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Three-hundred foot tall cliffs make this are very unsafe to visit by yourself- you need someone to tell the cops where it is that you died.  I, of course, went alone. Don’t do that.  I won’t in future.

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That being said, the view over the swamp was incredible.

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The levee road runs right to the base of this lookout, and divides the Big Muddy River from the spring-fed swamps along Snake Road.  Looking down from here, in the pool to my right I saw my first Illinois Snowy Egret, something I’ve been wanting to see for years.

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A Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) female also appeared out of the trees below.  These birds are usually found at the very tops of trees, so finding this one here below me was a bit unique.

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I drove down the road and back home, seeing two Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) along the way.  One of them was even kind enough to stop and pose for photos.

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I went back the following day, finding this immature Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) in a nearby river, giving me the evil eye before returning to its fishing.

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Here’s a view of the bluffs from the levee road.  I drove over to the parking lot at Snake Road to see if anything interesting might be happening there- basically, if anyone found a Cottonmouth.

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A young Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) was the best find. It was far too hot for all snakes.

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Still, the swamp was interesting enough.   It’s rare to see someplace so solidly green.

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Here and there, hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) flowers added color to the swamp.  The big river valleys are covered in these this time of year.

I then went back to the Shawnee National Forest, wandering about on the following day.  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo perched perfectly in a tree for me, something that NEVER happens.  I see a few of these, and hear many more (they sort of sound like an owl on helium), but they never stick around for photos.  So, I raised my camera…

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…no memory card.  I was far enough away from home to decide it wasn’t worth the hassle, so I went off and parked at the spot.  I’m not saying where this is for reasons that will become clear later.  I then proceeded to lock my keys in my car.  This day was going SO GREAT.  After waiting about five minutes, some hikers, strangers to me, showed up and kindly drove me back to my apartment to get my keys and memory card.

Ironically enough, they were from Chicago, a city I often mock.  I could say they were the exception to the rule, but that’s not true.  Chicagoans are great- minus the ones in office and/or the ones responsible for the epidemic of gang violence in Chicago and/or the ones that think the rest of Illinois doesn’t matter, an attitude I rarely see in birdwatching circles.   These were down for the eclipse and had decided to stop and hike.   Without them, I have no idea what I would have done- probably walk back down the road or try to break the window.

And yes, the cuckoo had left by the time we all got back.

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Acadian Flycatchers (Empidonax virescens), however, remained.  It’s been said that these birds are never seen on the ground- they live entirely in trees.  That seemed to be the case on this day.

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Now, the reason I didn’t say where this place is, is due to these little guys- Northern Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus).  I used a flashlight to find them in wet rock crevices, which is good habitat for a few different species of salamanders.  I wish I’d known about this when we visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, the salamander capital of the world with dozens of species.

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I only found two, but the site was small and I only checked crevices close to the trail.

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In the stream that flowed underneath, I found a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).  These frogs prefer woodlands streams, and live all around the edges of Illinois, but not the center.

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A young Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) was the last find of the day.

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After finding that Copperhead and Snowy Egret, I’ve completed my goals for this year.  Now, I did say to google Anhinga in the last post, but actually, I’ve decided I’ll discuss the Anhinga in the next post, about the magical place that is Grand Tower Island. In the meantime, one last inspiring view from Inspiration Point…

 

 

 

Ending My Time In Central Illinois With Mud and Scissortails!

So, I’ve officially moved to Southern Illinois, just when I was starting to get to know Central Illinois.  However, before leaving, I took three trips through different parts of the area.

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Trip #1 was taking my mom to the wildest part of Central Illinois, Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve.   This proved to be more of an adventure than I planned!

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Within about ten minutes, we’d found a Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), the largest butterfly in the United States.  While it’s down in numbers from last June,  Revis Hill Prairie is one of the best butterfly spots I’ve ever visited.

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Eventually, the butterfly allowed us a good look:

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It was all downhill, uphill, downhill, really downhill, uphill, through thick briars, downhill, through thick prairie grass- OH NO, A TICK!- downhill, through stinging nettle, uphill, through spiderwebs, downhill from there.  We got lost for about two hours in the back 40 of the extensive preserve.  I did hear Kentucky and Prairie Warblers, both uncommon for this area, so it got me something at least.  Oh, and Mom and I ended up going straight down into a narrow ravine.  This area desperately needs a trail system.  At the end, we found a Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri )

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My next major adventure, the longest, was a trip to Calhoun County that took several jarring shifts throughout the day.  I was after a Laughing Gull and the confluence of the Mississippi River.  I saw neither.  I took a brief stop in Jacksonville for sandpipers at Mauvais Terre Lake, though, and found a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) when I scared it away only five feet from me!

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I did find a few sandpipers including this Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), and then a Red-shouldered Hawk, the first one recorded here according to Ebird, an online birdwatching database, flew overhead and scared them off to the far side of the lake.

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The shorebirds having flown far away from me, and nothing super-fascinating to be seen, I went over to Pike County and down to Calhoun County.  This area, southern Forgottonia, is very remote- these two counties are served by only one Walmart, and there is no cell phone reception for Verizon customers.  Despite being even more remote in spots, most of the Shawnee National Forest DOES have cell phone reception for me.  I don’t understand this.

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I stopped in the little, well-designed archeological museum at Kampsville and was told of a place called the McCully Heritage Project, which basically feels like a little bit of Southern Illinois transplanted about three hours north. I had a Yellow-throated Vireo twenty feet above me within five minutes of stopping, though the lighting was too bad for a photo.  So, I photographed a Yellow Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) instead.

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I also saw a vintage police car on the road.  I have a rule- drive two hours in the country, you will see something weird.  Sometimes the weird is a bird.  Sometimes it’s not.

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I then walked over a wetland boardwalk, which had a few Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) on the other side.  They may be common, but I still quite like them.

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Puddling Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) were found later down the road, along the banks of the Mississippi River.  There were far more butterflies in this area than I was used to, and I quite enjoyed that.  These butterflies are sucking moisture and minerals out of the mud.

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Another fun find in the area was a lifer Ouachita Map Turtle (Graptemys ouachitensis), in the Mississippi River.  These shy turtles are not easy to find in most of Illinois.

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On the drive back upland, I ran right over a long black thing in the road, and realized as I went over it- “Oh no! That’s a Black Rat Snake!” Thankfully it was unharmed- it must have gone just between my tires.  It’s been years since I’ve seen one of these, and this was the longest one (about four feet) that I’ve ever seen!   This snake has no scientific name, because it has about six different scientific names.  I think Pantherophis spiloides is the current one, but it really varies.

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Abundant Southern and Plains Leopard frogs in the lowlands (in the hundreds) were quite welcome. I drove down through peach orchards, backwoods, and over stunning bluffs.  Calhoun County’s just a fun place to drive for the heck of it, and the occasional nature preserve, historic site, or fruit stand makes for a good place to stop.  I eventually got to the spot I wanted to get to,  Swan Lake at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, only to learn that it had been mostly emptied of water.  So, I went out on the mudflats.

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I wandered out to a willow bar, which would have been an island when the lake was at “normal” levels.   I could see birds over another levee, so I decided to walk from the willow bar  to the levee.  About a third of the way there, I went down a foot into the mud, leading to considerable problems.  To begin with, I was carrying my spotting scope, tripod, camera, and camera case over my shoulders.  Furthermore, I was alone, with no cell phone reception.  I pulled one foot out of the ooze, and, swinging my body around, attempted to go back the way I had come.  However, upon taking a step in the muck, my feet pointing almost perfectly opposite, I realized I was stuck.  My feet could get no leverage- they were both stuck, but since I was basically doing the splits, I couldn’t use one as leverage to pull out the other.  It was about this time that the giant mosquitoes arrived.  Look up Shaggy-legged Gallinipper for reference, or look up Kankakee in the search bar on this blog.  Thankfully, there were only a few.  

There was but one solution- abandon the boots.  I slipped out of the boots with a sigh.  Wearing only socks on my feet, I crawled across the mud on forearms and ankles, spreading out my weight to avoid sinking further.  Ten feet away, the ground dried out sufficiently to allow me to stand up and walk to a nearby willow bar, where I dumped my scope, camera, and tripods- all carefully bagged and protected from mud.  I then crawled back the same way.  Over the next fifteen minutes, I proceeded to dig my shoes out using only my hands and a small rock I’d found on the willow bar. Here’s the results:

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I then admired the hundreds of caterpillars among the vegetation:

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I got back to the main office, sockless, with ten minutes until closing.  After washing up, I decided to continue onwards and go for my next target, the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  This resulted in my stopping at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and seeing Alton:

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No, this isn’t a panoramic shot- it’s just cropped that way.  I drove down to the confluence, and it was closed due to temporary flooding.  Let me remind you- upriver the lake was mostly dry. Downriver, there’s flooding.  I contented myself with federally-threatened juvenile Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) at their breeding site behind a gas station at Riverlands, and headed home:

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My last trip was to Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge, one of the best birding area in the Illinois River Valley, at least in my opinion, with a friend of mine.  After finding forty-two species on the refuge itself (a Great Horned Owl, several Willow Flycatchers, and 25+ Bobwhites being the best finds), we ventured south to a private duck club’s little lake.  Nothing much was there.  While on the way, my friend mentioned that a birder he knew had seen Western Kingbirds at the nearby Meredosia power plant.   I watched out the window for awhile, when suddenly, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!  What the heck!

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According to Ebird, this female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) is a county first record for Morgan County, though it was my third time seeing this species, and second time for Illinois.  We watched it for a bit, and then we drove down the road… past the power plant we had discussed earlier… and two Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) were sitting on the fence.   A third one, a bit further down, proved to be a good photo opportunity:

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This one flew back to the other two, and proceeded to feed them, proving that it was the parent to the two younger birds, and that they had bred someplace on the power plan’s grounds.

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I thought this was the first breeding record for Morgan County, but there’s another one out on Ebird from two or three years ago.  Still, it’s new for 2017- these birds are rare here.  Since the 1900s, Western Kingbirds have been expanding eastwards, and they’ve nested regularly at a few different spots in Illinois.  More and more nests are being found in Illinois, especially near power plants and substations.  I think someday next June, if I have the time, I will search out all power stations and substations in the Illinois River sandlands between Morgan and Tazewell Counties to see how many Western Kingbirds I can find.

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The day ended with me looking at Beardstown Marsh for Marsh Wrens, which did not appear or even sing.  I did photograph these Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a swamp-loving shrub. The next day was spent packing for the big move, and the following day we left.  Now I live in Southern Illinois, surrounded by nature preserves, state parks, and national forest, with everything from hill prairies to rocky canyons to Louisiana-style southern swamps, even roads closed twice a year for snake migration. I really love it here.  This is a big moment for me and this blog- there will be a lot of new stuff I haven’t seen before.

Spoiler for next post- google Anhinga.