Month: September 2017

Snake Road- Holy Farancia!!!

So, my snake luck has been rather- well, I’ve seen a lot of snakes lately.   Part of this has to do with Snake Road.  Part of it is just my extreme luck at this time of year.  First, it was  this, sticking up out of the grass along a road in the Shawnee National Forest as I drove by:

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This morphed into a lifer, two-foot long Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), a State-Threatened species and the third venomous snake species I’ve found this year- just sitting in the grass on the side of a random road.  I maintained a safe distance- this is the most venomous of Illinois’ snakes, albeit also the least likely to bite a human in Illinois.

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Timber Rattlesnakes can grow to about double this length or more.  Snakes never stop growing- they just usually die at about a certain length.  They do slow down once they reach maturity.

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I took a video as the snake crossed back into the woods to get away from me.  The battery of my camera ran out as I took the video, but I still managed a decent clip:

Lifer Timber Rattlesnake

While off and about, I also discovered this skink, probably a Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), on a rock ledge.  I’m still not used to just finding lizards while hiking.

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Not far from it,  someone I was hiking with found an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) in the undergrowth.  They are quite active this time of year, looking to build up food reserves before winter.  One sign of their existence is triangle gaps bitten off a mushroom, though a Box Turtle will eat a wide variety of food, including mushrooms, leaves, berries, insects, worms, and even carrion.  One Box Turtle even ate a live bird that was trapped in a banding net!

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We took it out for a brief look before replacing it in the undergrowth where we found it:

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After this, I wandered over to Grand Tower Island for some birds:

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Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have begun to appear widely. I suspect these are migrants.

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Immature Bald Eagles  (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) cruised overhead, though the mature bird seems to have left for other waters.  This individual is growing some white in the tail.

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Hundreds of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) have congregated here of late.  While not a rare bird, seeing more than a hundred of such a large species is always an impressive sight! I suspect this is a staging sight (a spot where migrants gather to form into flocks), or perhaps just a stopover site for food and shelter as the egrets migrate southwards.

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Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) have declined in number, however as the fish population has died off in the drying sloughs nearby..  This one decided to fly off.

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Several Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), along with hundreds of Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus), congregated to eat dead fish.   The sloughs here are filled with Asian carp (Hypophthalmichthys spp.) that died as the water quality and food supply dwindled out.  It reeks, and it also attracts plenty of wildlife…

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Raccoons (Procyon lotor)  seem to be considerably more abundant in these lowlands than I am used to.  Perhaps they’re just more diurnal in the absence of humans.  Either way, I saw this one well before sunset, having a nice meal of rotting fish.  I’ve named it Smeagol.

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Did I mention there were hundreds of Great Egrets?

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I then went over to Snake Road, a road closed twice a year for snake migration.  I’ve talked about it before, but to recap- snakes live in the swamp on one side of the road, and hibernate in the cliffs on the other side of the road.  They cross over the road in great numbers in spring and fall to get wherever it is they want to be for the next season.  Occasionally, there’s water on both sides of the road, as seen above, but for the most part, a strip of woodland accompanies the roadside.

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It’s here that I found boulders covered lushly with Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum).

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A large American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) hopped along, oblivious to any potential dangers…

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I was not.  Someone had messed with a couple of the Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on Snake Road, and as a result they immediately went into defensive mode.  This involves a lot of gaping and tail-shaking, as if it wanted to be a rattlesnake.  Many of Illinois’ snakes shake their tails in defensive postures- I presume as a way of imitating rattlesnakes.  However, Cottonmouths are plenty dangerous enough on their own- they don’t need to pretend!

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This open mouth, the whitish lining deriving the name “cottonmouth”, shows the fangs very well- which is the idea.  Cottonmouths have potent-enough venom to kill a human.  While that happens rarely, amputations and extremely costly medical bills are also known side effects.  Thankfully, almost all they do is bluff- you’d have to get within striking range (half the snakes’s body length, though I give it more) or handle one (illegal here, and it should be illegal everywhere).  Almost all bites are the result of someone trying to catch or kill the snake.   Cottonmouths are fascinating, but it’s a fascination that comes with serious respect and a little bit of personal space.

Notice how thick the body is.  One feature that distinguishes a Cottonmouth is its incredibly thick body.  The very angular head, usually held up at a steep angle, is another ID feature.  Cottonmouths are pit vipers, having sunken “pits” behind their nostrils, containing heat-sensing organs for detecting prey.  Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are also pit vipers.

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It is said that Cottonmouths chase and attack people.  If that were true, I would be dead.  In fact, they are the laziest snakes I’ve ever seen.  Since Cottonmouths know they have venom glands, they can take all the time they want in crossing a trail, confident in their power.

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Because of their small, vulnerable size, baby Cottonmouths do not have this luxury and are therefore skittish, albeit with a tendency to only be seen once nearly underfoot. A Cottonmouth this size is referred to as a neonate, as it was just born this year.

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It was hot and humid, and it had rained overnight. I walked down the road, spotting a snake in the distance as it crossed the road. It was too thin for a Cottonmouth, and I had no idea what it was.  In point of fact, it was the last thing I ever thought I’d see…

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IT’S A MUD SNAKE!!!  The Mud Snake (Farancia abacura) is the “best” species to find at Snake Road, one that most people never see.  I know people who have looked for Mud Snakes here for 20+ years without success- and this is the fifth species I find here (after Copperhead,  Ring-necked Snake, Cottonmouth,and Plain-bellied Watersnake).  Mud Snakes spend the vast majority of their life underwater in a swamp, preying on aquatic salamanders.  To see one on land anywhere is great.  To see one on Snake Road itself is nearly a miracle.

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Despite what I’ve just said, Mud Snakes are not considered rare in population- they just live a life cycle that renders them almost completely hidden from humans.  They’re not small either- an old Mud Snake in the right habitat can be over four feet long.  This one was three feet or so in length.  I recorded a video almost as soon as I found the snake.  It’s mostly a reaction video, but enjoy:

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Right after this, the snake curled up, lashed out at me, and then it slithered away back into the swamp.  I then walked onwards, scaring up a Barred Owl along the way, though it vanished into the trees without a photo.  It was about ten or fifteen minutes later that I ran into someone herping. The man I met had been looking for Mud Snakes for ten years, and it was the only Illinois native snake species he had not seen in Illinois.  That man was very disappointed.

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However, he did find me my first Snake Road Black/Grey Rat Snake, an animal for which there is essentially no  good scientific name.  (It’s changed five or six times since 2000, and I’m waiting it out to see what scientific name sticks.)  Because the scientific name changed, scientists insist that the common name must also change from Black Rat Snake to Grey Rat Snake- despite it being black (the lighting above makes it appear more grey, but it was black).  That is, unless it’s on the other side of the Mississippi River, where it is now a Western Rat Snake automatically.  Snakes can swim large bodies of water, including this species… more data is needed.

Whatever you call it, this is one of the more common snakes throughout the Shawnee National Forest.   A day later, while surveying plants for a botany lab, a member of our class came across this one, and after releasing it at the base of a tree we watched it climb, and I took a video.  Black Rat Snakes have impressive climbing skills, especially for animals with no limbs!

Video does have some language.

"Grey" Rat Snake Climbing Tree

Now that I’ve demonstrated the climbing skills of the Black Rat Snake, I will mention that the Black Rat Snake photographed at Snake Road, in order to get away from the herper who found it, decided to climb up my legs.  In defense for its lack of wisdom, I was standing still and taking photos, at least until it tried to go up my shorts.  There are limits to what I’ll put up with from a wild animal, and the snake was set on the side of the road, where it vanished into the grass.

I ran into another guy, and we decided to check the cliffs.  We found no snakes, but a State-Threatened Bird-voiced Treefrog  (Hyla avivoca) was a lifer for me.  These are only found in a few swamps in Southern Illinois, the northern edge of their range, though they are much more common further south:

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A spectacular sunset is  the perfect way to end a spectacular day.  However I settled for this moderately good one. Nothing was going to top that Mud Snake, anyway.

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A Cache of Good Finds

I’m having so much fun with the titles lately.

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South of the Shawnee Hills in Illinois (yes, you CAN go that far south) lies an entirely new ecosystem, the Gulf Coastal Plain- several hundred miles from the Ocean.  However, thanks to the Mississippi River Valley, this ecosystem extends as far north as Southern Illinois. The Cache River Valley is the northern outpost of the Gulf Coastal Plain.  Here Southeastern species like the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) live.  This bird is actually a bit late- it should have left for South America in August!  Next spring, it will be pure yellow, with dark wings.

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Pink Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is an uncommon wetland plant of the Wabash River Valley in Indiana and Illinois, the southern Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  In between, it’s very patchily distributed.  This is one of those plants where the range map fascinates me, with wide, seemingly-random gaps between populations.

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Spiny Softshell Turtles (Apalone spinifera) were fairly common, I saw about five or so.  They enjoyed basking in the nearby creek.

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Spiny Softshell Turtles get their name from the spiny growths on their shells, above their necks.  You can see this on the big turtle above.

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Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is fairly common in the swamp down here, though not forming pure stands of red flowers as it does in other parts of Illinois.

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Wild Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) grew in a nearby parking lot, the last phlox of the year.

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A  boardwalk ran through dried Heron Pond- the late summer has brought its usual drought, and the swamp was nothing but mud and tall trees.

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Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) forests like this one are at the edge of their native range in southern Illinois.  While these aren’t the giant Baldcypress trees found in other parts of the Cache, I was impressed with this grove, the yellow-green needles like a forest of gold.

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And here be giants.  This is the State Champion Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda) tree- the biggest tree I’ve ever seen in Illinois!  Cherrybark Oaks, like Baldcypress, are Coastal Plain trees that swing north here in their distributions.

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My hat is over a foot wide at the brim.  This is a massive tree.

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I then raced over to Cave Creek Glade, where IDNR had arranged a guided hike.  All four of us (one guide, three people) climbed up the steep glade (rocky, grassy slope surrounded by woodland).

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Cave Creek Glade Nature Preserve is one of the most well-preserved in Illinois. Regular fires and volunteer maintenance make for a plant community nearly-identical to that of Native American times.  I do find it funny how keeping an area “natural” involves so much work!

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Yellow Horse-gentian (Triosteum angustifolium), with its axillary (between the leaves and main stem) flowers and seedpods, was a favorite of our guide’s for this unusual flower placement.

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I think this is Eastern Marbleseed (Lithospermum parviflorum).  At any rate, it’s a Marbleseed.  The small, rock-hard white seeds provide the name for this plant.

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Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) butterflies live upon Asters.  They’re common favorites of mine, though I believe I saw more back home where Heath Asters are more common.

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A Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) sat in a tree. (If I’m obviously wrong, let me know, but the call sounded like it and it looked like one to the best of my limited ability to discern such things.  Empidonax flycatchers lead to ID anxiety for even the best birders.)

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One of the most “natural” areas in Illinois, there’s virtually no non-native plants beyond a certain point on Cave Creek Glade.  This is one of the best-maintained natural areas in Illinois because of how uninvaded it is.  As Cave Creek Glade is a dry rocky hillside so hot that on an 80°F day,  no insects hid under its rocks, (I checked, hoping for the bizarre Vonones ornatus harvestmen), I suspect the conditions are too extreme for most  introduced, nonnative species.

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If I remember correctly, this is  Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve ).

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This Blue Sage (Salvia azurea) is a State-Threatened plant species restricted to far southern Illinois.  It grows more commonly in the southern Great Plains and the southeastern coastal plains.   This area’s Blue Sage are part of a disjunct population centered around far western Kentucky, and this is one of the few spots in Illinois where they are present.

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Another find was this odd small-flowered plant with blue flowers.  I believe it’s Fluxweed (Trichostema brachiatum), after some internet research.

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Crinoid  and brachiopod fossils could be found in some of the limestone rocks of which the glade was composed.  However, as this is an Illinois Nature Preserve, there is NO collecting of any fossils here. If you visit and you find fossils here, please leave them for other people to enjoy, or else you are actually breaking the law.  That being said, I’d never considered fossil-hunting in Southern Illinois as something I could potentially do in areas where this is permitted.

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The views from Cave Creek Glade were something we could take home, in the form of pictures and memories.  In a month or less, this will be a spectacular place for fall colors.

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Meanwhile, in the vicinity of these areas, on a trail, I spotted this Cottonmouth crossing.  A family with their three kids and dog came along, as did one of the people from the Cave Creek Glade hike.  The Cottonmouth lazily got out of their way as they passed along the side of the trail behind it and well out of the strike range (half the snakes body length). Cottonmouths are not aggressive, but there’s no sense in getting too close to a venomous snake.  The snake departed into the woods, evidently disdaining the sudden amount of traffic on its quiet path.

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While I didn’t see much more of the Cache than this, I enjoyed what I got to see, and there will be many more visits in the future.  The largest and oldest tree in Illinois, a Baldcypress, grows in this area- and I plan to make a trip back to find it sometime soon!

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A Grand Little Grand Canyon

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There is a widespread belief that Starved Rock State Park has the best canyons in Illlinois.  In addition to being wrong, this belief is usually held by people not acquainted with the Shawnee Hills.  I am fast becoming acquainted, and enjoying it immensely.  Speaking of immense, the Little Grand Canyon is the longest trail I’ve hiked in the Shawnee National Forest.  Let’s talk about that.

(Yes, that was a reference to Good Mythical Morning.)

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Little Grand Canyon is a box canyon, so named because it’s flat on the sides and flat on bottom.  The length of the trail varies between 2.9 and 3.6 miles, depending on what source you use.  It’s a long trail with >300 feet of elevation change both down and back.  That’s difficult in Illinois terms, if not really difficult anywhere else in the US.  Little Grand Canyon is worth the hike, however.  For instance, in the photo above the dark stems are Beechdrops (Epifagus virginianus), an unusual parasite of beeches that never produces leaves.  Furthermore, the small paired round leaves growing below it are Partridge Berry (Mitchellia repens), an uncommon plant in Illinois.  These two are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to life here.

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A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) drank moisture from a moist boulder.

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Yellow Passion Flower (Passiflora lutea)  trailed over the slope of the canyon. This lifer plant is a relative of the tropical Passion Flower vines commonly grown in gardens.

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The entry is a very round, shaded, wet trench of slick rock.  Little Grand Canyon is on my ever-growing list of places you should never hike alone, for several reasons.

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Life throughout the canyon was fascinating.  It’s a large area, and we found much in it…

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In dry cracks in the sandstone, Cave Crickets hid.  These are also colloquially called “Sprickets” for their long legs and generally unnerving appearance, resembling a spider/cricket hybrid.  However, they don’t bite and are generally non-hostile.

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Wetter crevices in the surrounding area, and the use of a flashlight, turned up a few Long-tailed Salamanders (Eurycea longicaudata), a lifer for me. Long-tailed Salamanders are “cave salamanders”- considered one of an informal group of salamanders whom prefer dark damp crevices and cave entrances.  The other informal group Long-taileds belong to, the “brook salamanders”, refers to the fact that they also can be found under stones along streams.

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Long-tailed Salamanders, whatever their name is, proved to be amazingly elusive.  I had always believed that salamanders were slow-moving creatures, and in comparison to lizards, they are.  The speed of sound is slower than the speed of light, but both outpace a man.  It’s the same here.  I also have some moral issues with catching salamanders- unlike reptiles, which have scales, amphibians have skin that is very easily damaged.  Handling amphibians is not recommended.

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A Gray Treefrog (Hyla sp.) perched along the edge of the bluffs, in a little niche.

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Walking Ferns (Asplenium rhizophyllum) grew in a mossier section.  This is a species of fern I hadn’t seen in Illinois before.  They grow small plantlets at the tips of every leaf, which root into the moss to grow new plants which then grow leaves with plantlets on the end, and so on.

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Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) hid in mossy niches and cracks down low near the base.  There were plenty of these in a wide variety of color forms.

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In sheltered spots, clubmosses grew, my first for IL.  Clubmosses look like large mosses, but they have a different anatomy which includes a vascular system.  They prefer wet acidic rocky, high-quality natural areas- which most of Illinois isn’t, but Little Grand Canyon is, in parts.

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On the canyon floor, Southern Leopard Frogs (Rana spenocephala) hopped about along the various pools.  The rocky creekbed along the canyon only remained in the form of small pockets of water, each holding a unique group of fish, frogs and other animals and plants.  No two pools had the same species composition- depth, shade, substrate, and proximity to the walls of the canyon varied greatly.  The diversity of microhabitats here is impressive.  Microhabitats are small patches of varied terrain, soil type, moisture, light, etc. within one major habitat.  Knowing microhabitats is usually more important in finding a species than just knowing general habitats.

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Crayfish hid under rocks along the streambed and waved their claws menacingly whenever their rocks were disturbed.

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There were over a dozen clearly distinct fish species in the pools, including this Orangethroat Darter (Etheostoma spectable).  Orangethroat Darter is a fairly common species of rocky creeks in the Midwest, but this is my first time finding one in Illinois.  Darters, which mostly like unpolluted rocky creeks, generally dislike Illinois, which is full of polluted muddy creeks except on its edges.  Darters get their name from the way they move- they rest on the bottom among rocks and swim rapidly from rock to rock, before settling again.  All Darter fish are found in North America only, where two hundred and thirteen species thrive, many restricted to only one or two river drainages.  The Ozarks and the Cumberland Plateau are especially noted for this, with almost every river in those areas having its own unique species of darter.  This led to one of the first major conservation battles back in the day, Snail Darter vs. Tellico Dam. See link for details.

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Unusual rock formations in the bluffs indicate Little Grand Canyon’s ecological past and present usage by animals.  This area’s cracks and crevices play a vital role for snakes and other creatures that need to overwinter underground.   At one point, Little Grand Canyon was known as Rattlesnake Den for its large population of Timber Rattlesnakes.  These were overcollected and/or killed here and throughout the state, leading to a severely diminished population statewide.  Timber Rattlesnakes are now State-threatened in Illinois, and while they are not present in large numbers anywhere in this state, a few  secret, protected hibernation den sites still persist.

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In addition to venomous snakes (Copperheads persist in fairly decent numbers throughout the Shawnee Hills, including this site), Little Grand Canyon’s  steep, slick rock cliffs are the other reason this place shouldn’t be hiked alone.  People have died from falling over the edge of the cliffs here.  It’s amazing, but not the safest place in the world.

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The tree in the center, along with other plants surrounding it, were notably darker than everything else around it.  I have no idea why this is.   Perhaps some sort of fungus?  If so, it’s affecting all of the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the tree… I should investigate this.

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We climbed back up the canyon, past an area rich in plants and also in poor lighting- hence the lack of photos from our way out of the canyon.

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Well above a waterfall, I flipped two rocks.  One yielded this tiny crayfish, ~150 feet above the valley floor.  I wish there was a guide to Crayfish of Illinois- I haven’t found one yet.  I might have to make one… that’d be a project.

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At the top, a Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)  sat on a wooden fence.  What a surprise.  The fence was at the top of one of the finer overlooks in Illinois.  It’s a solid No. 6 behind Fults Hill Prairie, Inspiration Point,  Grandview Drive, Meredosia Hill Prairie, and Pere Marquette State Park.  I will someday come up with a list of the best scenic overlooks in Illinois. This will be on it.

After this overlook, the trail undulates up and down a ridge for a mile back to the parking lot.  If I hadn’t been spoiled by the trail I’d just hiked, the upland forest here might have been enjoyable.  As it was, I was a bit too tired and running a bit late to notice.  I would recommend taking this path in reverse order, starting out going west (left) and going in a clockwise loop back. However, no matter how you walk it, Little Grand Canyon is one of the finest places to visit in Illinois and currently holds the title of best canyon I’ve ever visited in Illinois.  If you’d like Starved Rock with a tenth of the people, a slightly longer trail,  a bigger, wilder canyon, and far more diverse flora and fauna, visit Little Grand Canyon… with a friend or two.

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Ebird Checklist (It’s back!): http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39074990

When You Dip, Don’t Trip On The Cottonmouths

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It’s time to introduce the word “dip” to nonbirders, and I don’t mean something you’d put on chips.  Nor do I mean the substance that seems to be the subject of every YouTube ad I see lately. Dipping on a bird means missing it.  I don’t know where that originated, but it’s a thing.

On August 17, a  Swallow-tailed Kite, one of the most beautiful hawks in the world, was seen at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Missouri, less than two hours from where I live.  Due to a lack of internet information about the bird (it’s in a weird gap zone where it’s common enough to not be reported widely and rare enough that it ought to be)  the Swallow-tailed Kite was not seen again until the 24th, and then it was seen the 24th through the 27th.  I heard about it on the 26th of August, but I wasn’t able to go and look for it until August 31- several days after any reports.  For a rural area like Stoddard County, Missouri, that’s not a surprise.  It’s the edge of the Ozarks, near significant wetlands but not near population centers.  The closest city of more than 20,000 people is Cape Girardeau, about an hour away.   So, I had a chance, if I got out early in the morning and checked for it flying about in the rising air currents. This would be my 300th species of wild bird I’ve seen in the United States.  Mentally, I couldn’t wait, but…

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Cut to August 31.  I wake up, groggily, and look at my alarm, faded memories of turning it off some hours previously running through my brain.  It’s 9:30 AM.  I wanted to be on the road at 8 AM.  Well, I massively screwed up.  The weather was gray and cloudy as I drove over to Duck Creek Conservation Area, arriving around 12:00 PM.  Gray and overcast skies, lightly drizzling with cold rain, the edge of the old Hurricane Harvey storm system- terrible weather for hawks and singing migrants, and depression inducing for me.  And that’s before reflecting on the fact that this storm killed 51 people and displaced thousands, including a few people I know.

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Whenever you’re complaining, it’s always good to remember there’s people in worse situations.  I stopped complaining, and I stopped the car, at the spot.  No Kite in sight- nothing moving.  Well, there was still plenty to see.  I waited for several minutes, scanning the nearby area, which had a few Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis).  I decided to go check out Duck Creek Conservation Area’s main section after waiting for awhile with no sightings, and so I did.

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It turned out to contain a 1,800 acre lake, 2/3 of which was American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea).  That’s 1,200 acres of American Lotus.  Back in late July, the main bloom season, that had to have been a spectacle!  Even now, it was still impressive, the massive platter-sized leaves floating on the water or emerging up en masse, a little worn from a long growing season.

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If there’s any spot north of Texas where a Northern Jacana could show up, it might be here.  A Northern Jacana, for the unaware, is this little Central American bird with huge feet that wades around on lily-pads and lotus leaves.  They have the largest feet, relative to body size, of any bird.  It’s a bird I’ve always wanted to see,  but almost certainly none will ever show up here.  Anyway, that was a tangent of hypothetical nonsense.  I just like Jacanas.  Back to more photos of the lake.

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Duck Creek Conservation Area, and the nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, sit in an odd location.  To the southeast is Crowley’s Ridge, a raised line stretching over 150 miles from southwest of Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas, on the border of the Mississippi River and Mississippi itself.  On both sides of Crowley’s Ridge are floodplains, and several miles west of the floodplains at this point, the edge of the Ozarks rises up.  It’s odd geography, because in the middle, at Duck Creek and Mingo, you can see a chain of not-very-distant hills looking either northwest or southeast, as you can see above and below:

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Those trees in the lake itself are Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), the quintessential Southeastern swamp tree.  They grow here in large numbers, though none of them are the giants they can be on old-growth forests.  This entire area was logged, and if it had stayed dry it would be farmland or ranchland like the surrounding area.  Continued flooding ensured its survival.

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This 1800-acre lake is a perfect rectangle (of course it’s artificial) with roads all the way around.  It was built to control water flow in the area, holding water during wet seasons and releasing it in dry seasons.  This conservation area, as well as Mingo NWR, is built around providing winter food for duck populations.  And, of course, duck hunting.  During duck season, the conservation area is closed to non-hunters.  Next February, I think this might be a really fun place to visit for ducks.

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White Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) bloomed among the lotus.

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I moved away from the lake, and decided to venture into the back 40 of the conservation area.  I was met with a scene out of National Geographic- a ton of herons in a tree.  Specifically, these are Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), a species which is moving through Southern IL and MO currently:

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I then decided, mapless, to try taking a back way over to Mingo.  While inevitably lost in the edge of the Ozarks, I spotted three beat-up graffiti-ed trailers – and one perfectly large, healthy, tropical banana tree growing in a pot in the middle.   Owing to my unfortunately persistent ethnic stereotypes of trailer-dwelling Ozarkians as shotgun-wielding meth users, I didn’t stop for a photo.  It does fascinate me how in our “politically-correct” society, no one cares if you mock country people in the hills who live below the poverty line.  But I digress.

Anyway, I bring up the banana tree as part of my rule of country driving.  “If you drive for two hours in the country, not on the interstate, you’ll see something weird.  Sometimes the weird is a bird.  Most of the time it’s not.”  There’s also the Southern Wilderness and Carbondale Addenda, as follows:  “In the Ozarks, Cumberland Plateau, and Shawnee Hills, the finding-something-weird time is one hour- and in Carbondale, Illinois, it’s five minutes.”

Getting myself un-lost by turning around and driving to the Kite spot yet again (with no luck), I proceeded over to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.  I found a calling Least Flycatcher, an early migrant, on the way when I pulled off at a marsh overlook to check Google Maps.  I also learned that Mingo charges admission: $3 per day or $12 per year.  It’s a giant swamp. That’ll be $12.

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The Visitor’s Center proved to have very helpful staff.  In fact, it was one of the nicest visitor’s centers I’ve ever explored.  They told me that Yellow-crowned Night Herons are common on the refuge in the spring- the last Midwestern heron I have yet to see.  At that point, I was glad I’d bought the year pass, without knowing yet what was to come.  A Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) l butterfly landed outside, on the pavement, as did something else:

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I had no idea that Robber Flies, feared insect predators of mosquitoes, were also able to hunt dragonflies like this Green Darner (Anax junius).  This fly was over an inch long, and completely harmless to humans.  In fact, Robber Flies eat mosquitoes, so we want them around.

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On the edge of the roads, I found masses of Sneezeweed (Helenium amarum), so named because settlers used it to cure colds and because it blooms as the same time as Ragweed, thus making people think they are allergic to it.  The scientific name is better- Helenium refers to Helen of Troy- according to Greek myth the most beautiful woman in the world.  Helenium isn’t the most beautiful flower in the world (Showy Lady’s Slipper is), but it is a pleasant one I quite enjoy.

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A Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) , Missouri’s official state reptile, wandered about on the path.  I’d seen a couple before, but this is my first time seeing one well.

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Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) were everywhere.  I was hoping to find maybe a rarer turtle, but as this is slow-moving muddy waters, few unusual turtles were visible.

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Another animal that was everywhere was the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula)- the white immature form.  I found exactly one adult Little Blue Heron, in the photo above.  After this, I drove up to one of several overlooks on the edge of Crowley’s Ridge.  Far off is the eastern Ozarks.

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If you don’t like snakes, and you somehow tolerated the Robber Fly, this is the perfect spot to end off.  From here on in, it’s a lot of snakes- albeit four lifer snakes!  These were all found someplace within or near Mingo- not the same place, and I’m not saying where.  Mingo National Wildlife Refuge is over 21,000 acres of habitat, and combined with the 2,400 acres of Duck Creek, it’s a massive tract of wilderness.  Snake poachers can have fun figuring all that out, although most of the species I saw aren’t exactly the most popular for collecting.  If I’d seen Kingsnakes, Rattlesnakes, or Milk Snakes, the most popular snakes to be collected, I’d be considerably more elusive about the locations.  If you ever seen a large, colorful or venomous snake in the wild, don’t announce specifically where it is, or there’s a good chance it will be taken away.

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Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) are common in wetlands here, and this neonate was hiding in such an area- the only flipped snake of the day.  By flipped,  I mean that I turned something over to find it.  Everybody else was out and about.

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That includes my first lifer snake of the day,  a Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata confluens).  Hiding in the woody tangles along one of the many ditches, this Southeastern species is one of several species of snakes whose Southern ranges curve upwards along the Mississippi River Valley floodplain, of which this is technically a part.  I had forgotten these live in Missouri- they’ve been extirpated (died out) from what was once a very limited Illinois range.

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Another lifer  was the Diamondback Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer), one of North America’s larger watersnake species,  generally found in the southern parts of the Great Plains and Mississippi River drainage.  This particular specimen was at least three and a half feet long!

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Unsuprisingly, the third one was another Nerodia watersnake, the Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythogaster).  It was in the middle of a road and decided to quickly cross that road and get away from me. So, the above photo is the only one I have.

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Later down that same road, a large, thick-bodied snake with a very angular head began to cross- my very first Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), forty feet away.  Cottonmouths have much thicker bodies and far more angular heads than any other snake I’ve ever seen in the wild.   There’s so many myths about these, one of North America’s more common venomous snakes, that I feel I may have to do a little mythbustering here.  Cottonmouths are reluctant to bite- handling, harassing or stepping on a Cottonmouth hard are the best ways to get bitten.  I’ve been told on multiple occasions that Cottonmouths will chase people, but that isn’t entirely true.  If a Cottonmouth sees a threat,  its first instinct is to escape, preferably into nearby water.  If the person happens to be between the nearest water source and the Cottonmouth, it may slip right by the person en route to the water.  So, a Cottonmouth may appear to be chasing a person, while doing nothing of the sort- the exact opposite, in fact.

Also, the range of a Cottonmouth does not extend past the Shawnee Hills in Illinois.  I occasionally end up in arguments with people whose all-knowing “country uncles” say they see Cottonmouths throughout central or northern Illinois.  I usually end those by offering to get bitten by said snake, sight unseen.  (I won’t be saying that in southern Missouri or where I live now.)  There’s a joke that all snakes in the US have been called Cottonmouths at some point.  The sad part about this is that nearly all US snakes, especially watersnakes, have been killed as “Cottonmouths”.  I understand if you don’t like snakes- I’m not too fond of spiders or wasps.  But please let them be. Leaving a snake alone is the surest way to not be bitten.

(Then again, if you don’t like snakes, how did you make it this far?)

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After all of this, I decided to drive around the refuge, and see the sights:

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Currently my best photo of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) is this one above.   These birds are my photographic nemesis, as I’ve mentioned previously.

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I ended up driving all of the Wildlife Loop, scaring up some turkeys, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and a few scenic views, all the way from Crowley’s Ridge across the floodplains to the Ozarks -three different natural divisions in less than twenty miles!  Crowley’s Ridge is considered to have flora more characteristic of the Appalachians than the Ozarks, and the wetlands between are similar to those of the Gulf Coast or Lower Mississippi River Valley in general.

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From here to southern Indiana, centered on the Shawnee Hills is a major transition zone.  The edge of the Great Plains is a little bit north of here, and the edge of the Gulf Coastal Plain natural division is right up against this- in fact, in the photo above, you’re looking at a little bit of it.  To the west, the Ozark Mountains form their own unique natural division, while to the east the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and by extension the edge of the Appalachian Mountain range, just barely misses Illinois, but much of its flora and fauna are present.  As I mentioned, Crowley’s Ridge, which you can see below,  is, to some degree, an extension of that area.

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Northern prairies meet southern swamps, and eastern forests meet western woodlands- and it’s all happening here!  Add to this the fact that the world’s third largest river flows through the middle of it, and that many North American birds use this area to migrate- well, it’s just all very, very, exciting for me, that I get to live in this area now.

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The Wildlife Loop proved to have some wildlife, with three Raccoons (Procyon lotor) at various spots.  One individual, roaming along the banks of a ditch, remained for a photo in the dying light of a clouded sunset.  I ended up out of the Loop, to find:

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A thicker-than-usual line appeared in the grass in the middle of a road.  Neonate (young) Cottonmouth!   The angled head, when it popped up, was a dead giveaway.  I approached to within six feet- it’s a snake that’s a foot long, after all, and I have leg protection in the form of snake guards.  (Sometime I’ll do a blog showing all the gear I have.)  It watched me- I watched it.  Neither of us moved for a minute, but neither approached the other.  I then backed away, and the snake took off for the side of the road, away from me.  Good luck out there, young Cottonmouth.

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After this, I checked the Kite spot, yet again, and saw nothing.  It was getting dark, and driving exhausts me.  I stopped in a rural town for gas, which was $2.26.  A couple hours later, my new hometown had it for $2.59.  Always stop for gas in Missouri, if you live in Illinois.

I may have dipped on the Swallow-tailed Kite, but I’ll take four lifer snakes, a few good birds, and two amazing areas to explore in exchange.  In order to make the cost of that Mingo year pass worthwhile, I have to visit three more times…

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Ebird Checklist for Mingo NWR:  http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38942057