Month: October 2017

Short Post About Internet Safety And Ebird

Hi, I’m… not going to post my full name.  I like having a little anonymity on the internet.   After a recent Facebook “discussion” that went rather south on me, to the point that I had someone call me a harassing creep in a private message and then block me so I can’t delete it, I appreciate that even more.    After that unpleasant experience,  I started thinking about how nice it is to have the slight level of anonymity that I do have writing on this blog, even if it’s mostly just family and friends reading it.   (I know it’s read by more than just that number according to the site statistics, but usually it feels like only six people read this.)

Of course, this led me to think about the greatest unwritten issue online for birdwatchers* (after “Don’t be a jerk to people you don’t know on the internet,” but that’s more general).   That would be home Ebird checklists.  People like recording the birds they see in their backyards.  Who doesn’t?  Ebird is the best publicly accessible sightings database for any group of animals that I’ve found, in terms of widespread usage, ease of access, and amount of data.  Often, however, this leaves users on Ebird open to considerable danger.

Here’s what I mean:  Go to Ebird.org.  Click on  where it says “Explore Data” in the top bar. Scroll down to “Species Maps”.  This will open up a range map.  Type in a common backyard bird, like Northern Cardinal.  Once you enter that, you can zoom in on a purple square of any shade.  Zooming in further and further until you see blue and orange markers, of two different sizes.  The larger ones with the white flame are hotspots… those are areas like state parks where multiple birders visit.  The smaller ones are personal markers- Ebird users pinned those markers to the map to record their sightings.  If you click on enough of those, especially in suburban areas, you end up finding a person’s home.  When you click on these icons, the name of the spot (often with an address as the label) will pop up.  You can then click below to see a checklist.  Clicking on a personal checklist, there’s literally a Google Maps link to go straight to a person’s location, as you can see with this random checklist (not to someone’s house) I have here:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40106785

If you use Ebird and aren’t cautious about this, literally anyone- burglars, creepy stalkers, some random blogger off the internet, etc.- with an internet connection can find your house IF they so choose.  Furthermore, if someone gets an Ebird account, and you have a public profile on Ebird, they can see a map of your sightings and figure out when you’re away from home from what you’ve been posting.  They can figure out your routine by the time you post on checklists.  Heck, I’ve been able to figure out other birders’ routines, and I’m not even trying (despite the recent opinion to the contrary).  There are ways to avoid this, however.

  1.  Pick a spot for your home that isn’t your home.  I did this by picking a random spot in my neighborhood back when I lived in a spot where it was worth uploading checklists.
  2. If you don’t want to do this, once you’ve finished the checklist, use the “hide checklist” feature at the bottom right corner.  It’ll make Ebird unhappy, but it’s better for privacy.
  3. DON’T PUT YOUR HOME ADDRESS AS THE TITLE OF YOUR PERSONAL MARKER!
  4.  If you have a public Ebird account (like I do) wait to submit your sightings until AFTER you get back home on long day trips or vacations.  Also, if you do have a regular birding time, and you regularly submit Ebird checklists from the same spots, do something to avoid it looking like there’s a pattern to your movements, or invest in other personal safety devices for yourself and your house.  I’m very irregular with my own birding schedule and locations, which helps, since there isn’t actually much of a pattern to what I do.

If anyone can think of other ideas for safety on this, please comment below.  I love using Ebird, but it bothers me how much personal information people give up when they use it.  Anyway, it’s time to get back to arguing on Facebook with people- not like I’m giving up any personal information there, either.

*People who call themselves birders AND get upset by “nonbirders” (read: peasant scum) calling them birdwatchers need to find better things to do.  For those who don’t birdwatch and read this post,  A. I’m amazed you got to this footnote, and B. I don’t really care if you call me a birder, a birdwatcher, or some other comparable term.  Just don’t call me a garden gnome (inside joke).

Back To Central Illinois! No Snakes This Time!

Hey, I’m going to write a post without herps in it for once!  (There was a snake, but it was moved to a previous blogpost so the ophidiophobes [people afraid of snakes] could enjoy these again.  If you’re one of those people, just don’t go to prior posts from the last two months.) So, a couple weeks ago, I went up to visit my family in Central Illinois.  While there, I decided to talk both my parents into visiting Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve.  A prior expedition up there didn’t end well with Mom and I… we got lost for about 2-3 hours in brush and grasses well over our heads.  By comparison, scaling the loess (windblown sediment) cliffs below was a walk in the park.

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Oh, and last time Mom and I visited, which I didn’t write about because I took less than 20 photos and there wasn’t much to write about, we never ended up where the scenic views were.  Here, we did, and this is why I come back to such a challenging place time and time again:

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In a remote spot near this preserve, Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) bloomed a little, defying my attempts to get a photo.  My last flowering orchid of the year, I figured it would be my last orchid in Illinois for the year.  I was wrong, more on that in the future.

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As we walked back to our car, on a route not back down the cliff, a route rather reminiscent of all the brush, vines and thorns Mom and I’d visited previously, we stumbled across one of my favorite Illinois invertebrates, an American Giant  Millipede (Narceus americanus), usually found in nicer-quality woodlands (at least, that’s where I find it).  Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve also has some old-growth ravine forests, which while not as interesting as the prairies visually, do contain a wide variety of birds and other animals.

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Speaking of great woodland birds, here’s a new one for the fall, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  These birds migrate south to overwinter in Illinois, because for them, Illinois is warm.  I suspect I’ll be seeing more of these as the year goes on.

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Sapsuckers are a type of woodpecker, just like this Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens):

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I’m sure people are wondering why this bird is being handled- it is, after all, illegal to pursue, hunt, take (which legally includes handle), capture, kill, or sell one of these birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act…. and without a waiver or permit that act applies to all but three of the United States of America’s birds.  (Those three are Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow and European Starling.)  However, in this case, the holder has a wavier- it’s bird banding!

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Bird banding involves the permitted legal capture of birds like this Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) using safe methods by well-trained volunteers, who then tag every bird they capture with a loose-fitting metal or plastic band (like the one above, tight enough to remain on the bird and loose enough to not impede it or cause discomfort).  Very quickly afterwards, they release it.  If  the banded bird is recaptured, they write down the band number and learn from that where the bird was last captured, how long ago it was captured, etc. Much of what we know about bird migration comes from bird banding operations.

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For instance, the first White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) of the fall 2017 season was banded the day I arrived.  The banding station is at Lincoln Land Community College, open roughly 7 to 11 AM Monday- Saturday,  late August- early November and late March- May.

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Not all the interesting birds were banded- a migrating Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) flew over and fished at the lake.  That was likely the best bird of the day.

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The bird fished for awhile at the pond- I believe it was still in the area when I left, but that was two weeks or more ago.  Ospreys aren’t common birds in Illinois, but they become more common during migration.

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Speaking of migration and data, this American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) was running a bit later than usual for migrating out of Illinois.  After it was banded, under careful instruction and the watchful eyes of the banders, I was allowed to hold and release the bird.   Releasing a bird is a very satisfying and enjoyable thing to do, and it’d been awhile since I’d been able to do it.

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My dad got to release a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) before we left, his first time doing so.  It was one of my favorite moments of the year… I’m glad he had the day off to do so.  I’m back in Southern Illinois now, getting into trouble… more on that in a future post also!

Ebird Checklists:

Revis Hill Prairie: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39691586

Lincoln Land Community College: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39788030

I’m Going For It- 300 Species, One Year

As of October 20, I’m 11 birds away from seeing 300 birds in the US this year. I’ve got a little over two months, with migration mostly over and not a lot left for me to look for. There’s only a couple “guaranteed” species I’ll get, but I think I’m going to go for it.  Here’s how.

Waterfowl (Anseriformes):  Tundra Swans and any scoters are vital.  Mottled Duck wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility-they’re known to stray from time to time.  Eurasian Wigeon would also be a fun, unlikely find, as would Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

Grouse/Chickens- Greater Prairie-Chickens live two hours away, but they’re hard to pin down except in March when they gather to breed,  and that’s a long drive through the second most boring part of Illinois, the Southern Till Plain. (The Grand Prairie, around east-central Illinois, is #1).  I’ll probably go there next March, though.

Odd Waterfowl (non-ducks)-  Red-necked or Eared Grebes are two remote possibilities, Eared being the most likely.  Red-throated Loon would also be highly desirable, but unlikely.

Herons/Waders- American Bittern is the only one at all likely, though I suppose Yellow-crowned Night Heron is possible. White-faced Ibis or Glossy Ibis is also an unlikely candidate.  I also don’t have Sandhill or Whooping Crane. Yes, Whooping Crane is possible.  A few wintered in a spot within a day of where I live.  That’d be a good bird.  Sandhill Crane isn’t for lack of trying- I just live too far away from where they live and migrate in Northeast Illinois.  Three summer trips up there yielded zero.  One did show up in western Cass County, Illinois, last winter, near a good spot for a shrike.  I’m hoping for that combination again this winter, and preferably before December.   Rails are extremely unlikely. I’ve had two this year, far more than usual.

Birds of Prey: Unless a Ferruginious Hawk, Northern Goshawk, or Gyrfalcon decide to grace an area near me with their presence, I’m out of luck for hawks.  This does mean I had good luck earlier this year.

Owls:  Barn Owls are one of the few species I know I should be able to get, as I have four different sites to check.  I could get lucky if there’s a good movement of Long-eared Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls this winter, and I find out where to go in time.  Locations for wintering sites of these species are carefully protected.  A Snowy Owl would be a fun possibility also, but I run into the same problem- locations not disclosed, for the safety of what is a very easily stressed bird.

Gulls/seabirds-  Rarer gulls like Glaucous, California, Little, Black-legged Kittiwake, Mew, or Western.  I’ll need probably one of these, but it’s unlikely I’ll get any.  I did have two jaeger sp. at Kentucky Lake, but I couldn’t get either to species, though I suspect at least one is a Parasitic Jaeger.  I’d love to count them, but I can’t.

Shorebirds- Barring some miracle, I’m not likely to get an out-of place shorebird.  I’ve seen all but Ruddy Turnstone and Buff-breasted Sandpiper for the “common” Illinois shorebirds, and without a chance vagrant this ain’t happening.

Hummingbirds- Believe it or not, Rufous Hummingbirds are irregular vagrants to Illinois in November.  If one’s reported “nearby”, that would be a good find!

Nuthatches-  Brown-capped Nuthatch is a species I should find this year.  Brown-capped Nuthatches live just over the border in one spot in Kentucky, where they are present year-round.

Blackbirds- Yellow-headed Blackbird would be an unlikely but possible find among large flocks of wintering blackbirds.  Otherwise I’m out of luck here.

Shrikes-  There are some good spots for Loggerhead Shrike within two hours.  I should finally be able to pin down this personal nemesis.  Northern Shrike isn’t out of the realm of possibility either as I know a couple spots along the Illinois River where they were seen last year.

Warblers-  After getting Pine Warbler, I’m out of luck.  In future, more effort here back during warbler migration season in spring and fall would have helped me get a half-dozen more species.  That being said, that same period of time is usually quite busy.

Sparrows- I did really well earlier this year with sparrows.  All I have left to find is Fox Sparrow, surprisingly, and as that’s a wintering bird in the Shawnee I should find it.  The only other possibility is Clay-colored… which should be gone soon if there’s any around.

Finches-  Many of these are moving this winter, thanks to forest fires and poor pine cone crops in Canada.  Red Crossbills should be present in a few spots this winter, by all accounts.  Hopefully they bring White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, etc. with them.  I have Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin for both  the year AND Illinois.

I can also cheat- I have recordings from many of my trips, of birds I couldn’t identify by song.  Many of these are from Colorado, and I might be able to cheat a few birds onto the year list using some of those.  Since I heard them in the field while recording, they do count.

11 species I need for certain, in order of estimated likeliness:

Fox Sparrow

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Red Crossbill

Tundra Swan

White-winged Scoter (or rather, Black Scoter)

Loggerhead Shrike

Sandhill Crane  (Red-necked Grebe)

Barn Owl  (Snowy Owl)

Whooping Crane (I hope)

Northern Saw-whet Owl  (Long-eared Owl)

Gull sp.  (Red-throated Loon instead)

Wild card sp. (November is coming up) (Long-billed Dowitcher)

Substitute out one of these birds every time I find a “cheat” bird on a recording.

80 Snakes, 12 Hours, 2 Days…

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After spending 5 and 7 hours, respectively, at Snake Road over the last weekend on Friday and Saturday, I think I’ve found more snakes over those two days than I’d ever seen before in my life.  22 (Fri) and 58 (Sat) = 80 snakes!  That, and a few amphibians, made for a spectacular day along the bluffs at this unique natural area.

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Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) were the dominant species, representing 80% of all snakes found (64 snakes)!  About half were immatures (neonates) a foot or so long.

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Above is one of those neonates, demonstrating why no one jumps into leaf piles at Snake Road.

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If you couldn’t find the neonate in the previous photo, the snake was successful.  This other neonate on the road isn’t quite as effective at blending in.  Neonate Cottonmouths have a pattern of camouflage that matches fallen leaves, enabling them to hide in plain sight on the forest floor. Adults, more aquatic, have darker coloration that more closely matches the shaded waters of the swamps wherein they live.  Furthermore, adult Cottonmouths, simply due to their size, have fewer predators.  Both neonates and adults are quite venomous, however.

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Additionally, both are remarkably good at vanishing into  the thick grasses along the edge of the road.  For this reason, constant vigilance and walking with a companion or two is highly recommended.  That way you don’t just happen upon one of these guys:

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My usual method at Snake Road, when I’m on my own, is to meet someone on the road (this time of year there’s a few dozen-safety in numbers and plenty of eyes to find everything) and I’d hang with them for a bit until they had to leave or I had to leave.  This sort of thing, combined with my usual hiking/birding, probably puts me at greater risk of  being murdered by a serial killer than the average person.

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That was a minor factor in why I went with a buddy on the first of the two trips to Snake Road discussed in this blog.  Before going to the Road itself, we stopped off along the way at a nearby “waterfall.”  Points will be awarded if you know where this is, and say so in the comments.

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An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus)  hid off to the side of the path.  I’ve realized lately how often the mystery bird calls I hear are chipmunk or squirrel noises.

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Another tier of the three at the “waterfall”.  Yes, there’s a reason it’s in quotation marks.

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So, my friend had never visited Snake Road before.  Nor had he seen a genuine Cottonmouth.  I showed him both.  At one point, we were looking at a Cottonmouth, when another one slithered out of the grass a few feet away from his shoe and scared the crap out of both of us.  The snake then dove for the water, leaving us hyperventilating on the shoreline.  That’s when the third Cottonmoth chose to appear, albeit more slowly.  We decided it was time to move on.

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We went up to the edges of the bluffs, but these are not free of snakes…

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Never stick your hand in a crevice at Snake Road, unless you really WANT it amputated. A serious Cottonmouth bite can require amputation, although usually you’d deserve the bite to provoke that serious of a defensive response from the snake.  Generally, Cottonmouths are very passive and will watch you from a distance as they slowly move out of your way.   Reaching into a hole with a snake that has no escape route (fight or flight), however, is a really bad idea, almost as bad as wearing sandals here… which I also saw people doing.

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More than Cottonmouths lived in the rock crevices, however.  Our lifer Cave Salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) hid in a small wet grotto along the road.  We got good looks at them after double-checking the grotto for small Cottonmouths.  A flashlight is highly recommended here.

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The following day, a bunch of Canadians from Ontario and I ended up looking for Cave Salamanders under a rock in a creek, which proved to have several.  Generally, this species is found in caves, but they do belong to the brook salamander genus for a reason.

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Another odd dweller in the rock crevices was this spider-hunting wasp, hauling a large wolf spider.  The lighting was a bit poor to photograph the animal- in retrospect, I should’ve taken a video.  I don’t like large spiders, and I also don’t like wasps.  Therefore I skedaddled.

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Back to the road, where Cottonmouths were… well, somewhat less abundant, actually.  The majority of snakes we saw were along the edge of the bluff.

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However, our only Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster) of that day lurked just off the road.  A somewhat-ok, not really all that- funny joke about these:  “How do you tell the difference between a Cottonmouth and a watersnake?  The Cottonmouth’ll still be around a second after it sees you.” Not that funny, but Plain-bellied Watersnakes do seem to have a faster acceleration than the average Ferrari, if they realize they’ve been spotted.

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The last good find of the day, just as sunset began, was the eft stage of our lifer Central Newt  (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis).  The eft (immature) was about as long as its scientific name in this font size (including tail).  Newts, unlike most of the rest of the salamanders, live in water as tadpoles, then turn into immature efts and go about on land, before going back to the water and becoming fully adult.   This seems unnecessarily complicated to me, but it provides a newt with great variety and life experience, and builds character.  That, and in the land-based eft stage a newt can travel from one pond to another, enabling dispersion.

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The following day, I tried to study, and when that failed to produce much in terms of results, I decided to take a brief trip outside.  Cut, to me talking to a man at the entrance of the road about the State-Threatened Mississippi Green Watersnake, found ONLY here in Illlinois.  He’d seen one earlier that day, and they tend to migrate all at once from the swamps to the bluffs.  People had been seeing them for the last week- my time was running out to find this lifer for me.   The man also mentioned seeing a Northern Watersnake in a puddle in the middle of the road, a species I’d never seen here before.  I thanked him, and it was noon.  Time to go looking.

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The very first snake of the day was a different “green snake”, an actual Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), in the middle of the road- the only spot where I know how to find them.

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Ordinarily, Rough Green Snakes are hiding in trees, hunting insects and being incredibly stealthy.  This snake proceeded to do that a few minutes later when other people showed up.  However, I knew where it was, and watched it slither up the tree without rustling any leaves or generally letting its presence be known.  Compared to this, a Cottonmouth’s a bull in a china shop.

I showed this snake to a mother and her daughter, (Rough Green Snakes being one of the most interesting and harmless in all of Illinois) and I hiked with them for a little bit before parting ways.

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I walked right past a second Rough Green Snake somewhat later, only for a group behind me to see it.   I did get a video of it as it crossed the road, demonstrating the unusual movement patterns of this species.

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That’s pretty cool, I think.

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Nearby was a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea), sleeping on a branch.  While taking photos of it, someone again mentioned seeing the rare Mississippi Green Watersnake… the mom and daughter I’d just hiked with had seen it.  Well, you can’t see them all.  Reports of Black Racers, Ring-necked Snakes, Copperheads and even a Timber Rattlesnake were repeated by everyone I talked to, which, because it’s me, was everyone.  I even met a bunch of unattended kids and kind of watched them for a bit, because whoever they were with was not wise.  I learned later they’d gone off from their large group on their own.  We all found an unphotographed Black Rat Snake.

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One of the more unusual sightings I saw, and the second snake of that day, was an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) (the photo above was actually taken in Central Illinois, but put here to consolidate all snakes into one blogpost).  These are not often seen here, their ecological niche taken over by the related Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus):

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Note the brighter colors and lack of vertical patterning on a Western Ribbon Snake.

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Here’s an even better look at the head of a Western Ribbon Snake, hiding along the bluffs.  These aren’t rare, but they’re a favorite of mine in this area.  Towards the end of the day, I met up with the president of the Hoosier Herpetological Society, because you meet everybody here.  He mentioned finding a trampled, dying Copperhead near the bluffs- a casualty of the road’s popularity and people not being careful enough.  We herped for a bit and then encountered one of the rarest sights ever seen on the road…

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It’s a Plain-bellied Watersnake, sitting still.  Ok, it’s not really THAT rare, but considering how much these snakes dislike people, it’s still kinda cool.  Notice how it flattens out its head and puffs up its body a little to resemble a Cottonmouth.  This resemblance does the watersnake no favors- they are regularly killed by people who think  they’re Cottonmouths.

It was sundown-  just a bit after 6:15 PM, and we were walking back to our cars.  I saw another guy I know, and we joined up with them.  In the middle of a puddle, where the Northern Watersnake had been reported from earlier, we found another watersnake… my lifer Mississippi Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion)!  Hallalujah! Finally!  Great timing!

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For some reason, Green Watersnakes are a common species all the way up the Mississippi River from the South through far western Kentucky- until you get to Illinois and Missouri.  In Illinois, they only survive here.  In Missouri, they’ve apparently been extirpated- killed off in that state (which is odd, because Missouri would theoretically have more habitat for them than Illinois, since it has more of the lower Mississippi River floodplain than Illinois).

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I departed shortly after this, though several more snakes crossed my path afterwards, including a well-curled Plain-bellied Watersnake:

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I even had two more snake driving back home, at 7:00 PM- seven hours, not bad for a brief trip.

I think the following photo best sums up both why Cottonmouths are called Cottonmouths, and what Snake Road is all about- seeing cool, hard-to-love animals go about their day.  While in pursuit of snakes, I got to meet people from all over- Indiana, Ohio, Ontario, and even England.   I don’t think anyone who went out to Snake Road that day had a bad time- unless, of course, they dislike snakes.  With happy faces like this Cottonmouth’s, how could you?:

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(Sarcasm implied.  I didn’t harass this snake to get it to open its mouth, it was just a little surprised by me and wanted me to back off, which I did.  It then slithered away.)

Day 1- 22 snakes

20 Cottonmouths

1 Plain-bellied Watersnake

1 Western Ribbon Snake

2 Cave Salamanders

1 Central Newt

1 Green Treefrog

1 Bird-voiced Treefrog

1 Spring Peeper

X Cricket Frogs

X Southern Leopard Frogs

Day 2- 58 snakes

42 Cottonmouths

5 Plain-bellied Watersnakes

1 Mississippi Green Watersnake

5 Western Ribbon Snakes

1 Eastern Garter Snake

1 Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

2 Rough Green Snakes

16 Cave Salamanders

3 Long-tailed Salamanders

2 Green Tree Frogs

X Cricket Frogs

2 Dwarf American Toads

X Southern Leopard Frogs