Month: November 2017

The Great Shrike Hunt- Success At Last!


If you’re not aware, I’ve always wanted to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Thursday, November 9, I finally snapped.  It all started when I went over to find the northernmost  population of Brown-headed Nuthatches in the US, just below Kentucky Lake Dam along Airport Road there.   Brown-headed Nuthatches sound like a squeaking chew toy, but they were remarkably silent at my visit.  The Red-shouldered Hawk sitting in a nearby tree the whole time probably didn’t help.  I gave them half an hour, left to walk the shores of Kentucky Lake and contemplate life- more specifically, why I’d driven an hour and a half to do this when there’s so many other things I could be doing.  I came back to hear one finally give its little call.  This was a lifer for me.  I still haven’t seen it, but hopefully I will next time.

I decided I was going to drive the extra distance and find Loggerhead Shrikes where they’re abundant on the Tennessee- Kentucky border.  I’ve already gone far enough- why not go fully insane and drive all the way to Tennessee, another hour and a half away?


A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) wished me good luck as I set out on my quest.  A wrong turn got me a Barred Owl, and despite my phone’s dying battery  I was determined to find a Loggerhead Shrike, or make a valiant effort for one.  Was the reward worth it?


Yeah, in my book it was!  My first Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) merely sat on a wire a hundred feet away, but my second one flew down to a corn stem some ten feet away, grabbed a grasshopper, ate it,  and sat for a minute watching me.


Loggerhead Shrikes are one of the most rapidly-declining birds in eastern North America.  Common throughout the Midwest a hundred years ago, Loggerheads used Osage Orange hedgerows and brushy field edges to hunt small birds, insects, and lizards, which they often impale on thorny bushes and small trees- like Osage Oranges!- or barbed wire.


With the removal of trees around the edges of farmfields (to prevent seedlings from growing up with the crop- same goes for the brushy edges), increased pesticide use, and the general destruction of habitat, the Loggerhead Shrike began to vanish across the Midwest.  It holds out only in habitats it likes- such as the floodplain bottoms of the Mississippi River Valley in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the brushy edges and thorny trees remain somewhat intact.  I saw five throughout the day.  I got so excited about it that I took a video:


After videoing the shrike, I drove to Kentucky Bend, seventeen square miles of land which the Mississippi River almost entirely encircles and Tennessee borders the rest, with Missouri bordering the whole area on the other side of the river.  Therefore, you can stand on Kentucky Bend, and look eastwards over the Mississippi River flowing north, and see Missouri, from a spot you can only drive to through Tennessee.  Geography is SO much fun.

After crossing the river, I stopped at a KFC to eat in Hayti, Missouri, after fufilling the #1 rule of birding trips (always buy gas in Missouri-it’s cheaper), and realized that my phone wasn’t going to make it the rest of the trip.  My phone’s plug doesn’t work,  and with the sun setting, I duck-taped my phone to a wireless charger, which worked surprisingly well.  I made it back home navigating by interstate signs and intuition alone, as the ancients did up to about 10-15 years ago.  It was seven hours of driving, but I did it.  I now feel that I can pretty much do anything.


Back in Carbondale a couple of days, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flew over the Carbondale Reservoir, but the sunset there made it even better.  I couldn’t help but tack this spectacular sunset on to what has to be one of my favorite finds of the year.


Year Birds

#292- Fox Sparrow (seen some time before this, but also at Carbondale Reservoir)

#293- Brown-headed Nuthatch(lifer, heard only)

#294- Loggerhead Shrike (lifer!)

Cottonmouths In November- I Forget That I Live In The South!


This is basically a summary post of three trips at Snake Road, covering the last few days of October and the first week or so of November.


At this time, Central Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis) efts (young) were everywhere.


Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) were understandably happy about this.  Ribbon (and other types of garter) snakes and newts are in a toxic relationship- as the newts increase the amount of toxins on their skins, the snakes increase their immunity to such toxins.  I took a friend along to this area- this was his first Snake Road snake.


His second was a Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake along the bluffs.  I posted online that this would be the last Rat Snake of the year.  I figured it would be the best snake on that particular day…


It was upstaged by a Mississippi Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion)- a State-Threatened species in Illinois found only at Snake Road.  Frankly, I think these should be called Olive Watersnakes- their color and head shape both resemble olives to some extent.


I have no problems with the common name Green Treefrog for Hyla cinerea.  We walked along the bluffs, looking hard for Cottonmouths and finding surprisingly none.  Where were they?


Flipping a log in a creek did get us a Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda) and a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).  That this frog hasn’t eaten the salamander is a bit surprising to me.


Wandering back to the Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) spot proved fruitful, as usual, with 15-20 salamanders present.  A crevice in this area yielded our first and only Cottonmouth of the day, and we watched the little Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans) hop out of our way as we left:


A few days later, I returned with other friends.


While looking for salamanders, we found this exotic blue fungus and an unusual type of harvestman (Vonones ornata) at the very bottom of the picture (I didn’t notice it until writing this blogpost, actually!)  We also went over to Grand Tower Island:


Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) have arrived at Grand Tower Island for the winter.


Driving backroads nearby, we found a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on November 3, in the middle of the road, miles from a den site.  This encouraged us to get over to Snake Road ASAP.


The Cottonmouth was a real nicely-patterned one that posed nicely for us.


So did a Western Ribbon Snake, just down the road.  I’m not used to just having snakes cross the road all the time in front of me.  Perhaps it’s because I never really looked before, but there do seem to be a LOT more snakes down here.

Once we reached Snake Road, we found nine Cottonmouths.  At one point, we were going down a steep slope on the bluffs, with some brush on one side and leaf piles and the bluff on the other.  I told my friend we need to move very slowly to ensure that we don’t step on a Cottonmouth.  That’s when I saw one in the bushes three feet away from my leg.  My friend and I backed up rather quickly and let it slide by into a hole.  We considered whether or not it would be worth it to go down, and that’s when I looked into the brush to see this:


Needless to say, we didn’t go down that way!


Northern Harriers perched in nearby crop fields.  I presumed they were hunting mice.  However, apparently there were other animals to hunt, also:


A Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) juvenile, my first one of the year (and probably my last new snake species for the year, haha!) crossed the road and hid in the grass as I drove up.  The amount of dust on the snake’s body indicates that it had been on the road for some time. Racers are one of the fastest and most aggressive snakes in Illinois.  They’re also completely harmless unless you’re a hemophiliac or have some other weird blood disorder where receiving any tiny cut would kill you.


To be fair, aggressive isn’t the right word-  defensive is. Like all snakes, Racers only bite if handled, stepped-on, or cornered, and the last two are extremely hard to do with a Racer, because they can slither away at speeds faster than most humans usually run.  I said this was a juvenile- an adult will be considerably longer and black with a white belly.


Nearby, on Grand Tower Island, the last of the shorebirds were feeding in the mud.  Baird’s Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii), Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), and Least Sandpipers(Calidris minutilla) scurried about, eating the last few insect larvae as they fueled up for a flight to the Gulf Coast, where most of them will spend the winter.  The last few Baird’s had the farthest to fly- they have to get to South America!


I say it a lot, but the distance which these tiny, robin-sized birds fly twice every year amazes me.


One last trek out here, with a few friends from my apartment, brought us tons of frogs and salamanders moving on a light, misty Sunday.   Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) hopped about on the forest floor, the X on their backs making them instantly identifiable.


In crevices, Long-tailed Salamanders lurked about.  I always wonder how many salamanders there are- I’d guess we only see a tenth of the ones present in the cracks at the most.


We had to watch our step on that day, though- Central Newt efts were everywhere, in the dozens:


I’d never seen so many salamanders at one spot.  I suspect the rain had gotten them moving.


The last snake on Snake Road I saw was this Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster).


I did mention there were lots of salamanders, right?  Here’s the full length of a Cave Salamander, tail and all.  They almost deserve the “Long-tailed” name!


My possible last lifer salamander of the year was this Northern Zigzag Salamander (Plethodon dorsalis)- these are fairly common in parts of Southern Illinois, I just don’t see them often.  They replace the Eastern Red-backed Salamander in the Shawnee Hills, though in far eastern Illinois the Red-backed is the dominant species. “Zigzags” vary in their zagginess by range, with this form being one of the least zaggy.


In crevices nearby were the last few snakes of the year, three Cottonmouths (pictured) and… a rat snake.  Well, even though none of the photos turned out, it was the last snake of the year (I expect).  We’ll see if that pans out- I’ve said it before, and I may end up saying it incorrectly again.


I saved these last two photos for the end- I’m so happy with how they turned out.  There’s not much cuter in the herp world than this Western Ribbon Snake, and there’s not much better in the scenic overlook department in Illinois than Inspiration Point, especially with good clouds.  It’s a joy to live in such a beautiful place, with so many creatures.  This is probably the last herping post of the year, and while the herping year started out slow for me, it’s really gotten great.  Hoping for even more next year- I’ve still got plenty of herps (and everything) I haven’t found yet!


Two Down, Nine to Go, and Ironic Timing, Too!


I’ve had few better birding days than Saturday, 10/28/17.  A guy I’d never met in person before, Kyle W., and I joined forces  about 8:15 AM and birded much of the southwestern Mississippi River Valley, from Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County north to Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in Monroe County and then back south again until 7:00 PM. I’ve not birded Randolph or Monroe Counties much before.  Above is Kinkaid Lake Spillway, an “artificial” waterfall.


At Kinkaid Lake Spillway, two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and one migrant Northern Harrier, as well as about eighty Greater White-fronted Geese, flew overhead, in a good start to a great day.   Our first Cooper’s Hawk of the day flew past us while driving through Chester, IL.

Whooping Crane #1

The greatest bird of the trip was our one lifer Whooping Crane (Grus americana)!  Kyle W. had actually seen it the day before, and I’d decided off the back of his sighting “Why not?”  He agreed to go, and we went. One of the rarest and certainly the tallest bird in North America,  It was a joy to see such an amazingly rare and large bird- it dwarfed the Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) around it, and those are not small birds.

Whooping Crane #2

It’s funny- I’ve now seen Whooping Crane before Sandhill Crane in Illinois this year, despite there being ~650,000 wild Sandhill Cranes, compared to ~500 wild Whooping Cranes.  So using overly simplified mathematics, I had a 1300:1 chance to find a Sandhill Crane over a Whooping Crane.  However, despite several searches, I’ve found only the one (Whooping) Crane this year.

Whooping Crane #3

Of course, this is a spot for Whooping Cranes, which mitigates all overly simplified mathematical ratios. Bird reporting is both a blessing and a curse for Whooping Cranes- people occasionally shoot them just for the heck of it (and, being the tallest bird in North America, standing in an open slough, it’s not like it’d be easy to miss).   Property owners near where rare birds like Whooping Cranes arrive, irritated by the inundation of  occasionally rude and disobedient birders, have also been known to shoot said rare birds (illegally) to keep people from trespassing.

By not reporting the exact location of this find, people don’t chase it and the bird isn’t hunted or in as much danger.  However, one concerning thing was our observation that a duck blind was being built in the same slough where the Whooping Crane was.  It’s on private property and the landowner is well within his legal rights to hunt there. Hopefully the crane moves on before that becomes a problem, though I suspect it won’t.


Seen throughout the day were hundreds of Eastern Bluebirds- in some spots there were dozens, with about fifty on one set of wires near Ellis Grove, IL being our largest flock.   (Of course, it wasn’t till later that I realized I have no pictures of any bluebirds from the trip.) Equally in the hundreds were Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) and Savannah Sparrows, and approaching them in numbers were Swamp Sparrows in nearly every habitat.

Among the large flocks of Horned Larks (immature above)  and sparrows, there were three American Pipits and a Vesper Sparrow in the fields near and on Kaskaskia Island. Kaskaskia Island could be very productive for larks, sparrows, longspurs etc. in the winter- there’s a lot of weedy fields and good habitat. I suspect I’ll be asking local landowners if I can bird the fields there a couple times this winter, although the roadside birding was good enough on its own.


In a single large slough at Kaskaskia Island were three Dunlin, a Pectoral Sandpiper, two Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) (including the one pictured above), a Wilson’s Snipe, a Lesser Yellowlegs,as well as a couple Killdeer- six shorebird species, and it was almost November!


Also on Kaskaskia Island in a dried-up slough was one Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus), seen at a quarter to noon- a bit odd for this usually crepuscular (dawn/dusk) species. This was probably my third-favorite find of the day.

About 40-50 American Kestrels, 35-odd Red-tailed Hawks (including a couple of unusually pale ones and a couple that wouldn’t be bad for subsp. abieticola), and about 25-30 Red-shouldered Hawks were seen throughout the day.  Unfortunately, we saw no Merlin or Peregrine Falcons, but other than those and Black Vulture, we saw at least two or more of all the expected or likely species of raptors.

Other numbers for raptors include 18 Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) throughout the day, the majority near or on Kaskaskia Island and in the brushy areas behind Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. A few were seen high up, migrating, including one at Kinkaid Lake Spillway in Jackson County.  Northern Harriers are my favorite raptor (excluding owls)- I love watching them skim feet above the ground as they hunt for mice:


Many Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) including an unusually tail-less one, a dozen-odd Bald Eagles, three Sharp-shinned Hawks and two Cooper’s Hawks represented the rest of the raptors.


Several of the migrating raptors were at Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve- this spot could be a good hawkwatch, although unfortunately it’s an hour or more from any significant towns.


I still think this is the best scenic overlook in all of Illinois.  I’m willing to give Garden of the Gods, Mississippi Palisades, Grandview Drive,  or Inspiration Point some room for competing with it, but I really do like this spot.  Someday I’ll get here in the summer and find a scorpion, but it wasn’t to be this day.  The cold breeze- I was shivering- proved that.


Fults Hill Prairie is probably my favorite because you look out at what appears to be Illinois.  It’s not like some beautiful forest- it’s actually the farmland of Illinois.  It feels more honestly Illinoisian than Garden of the Gods, for instance (the Illinois one, not the Scottish or Coloradoan ones). That, combined with the lack of crowds and the fact that you’re standing in a prairie, for “the Prairie State”, endears it to me.


Here’s one of the Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) that flew past us, this one actually flying northwards below the bluffs, slightly protected from the  strongest winds. There may be some hawkwatching here done in the future -you can see so far around here:


79 Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew over as we prepared to hike back down Fults Hill Prairie’s steep slopes (not recommended for beginners).  These were migrating, one of the last flocks I expect to see this year:


Large flocks of Gadwall and some Wood Ducks were pursued by Bald Eagles at Kidd Lake Marsh Nature Preserve. There were clearly more birds, but due to the thick lotus cover and lack of viewing areas at Kidd Lake Marsh we couldn’t see them. A couple of Wilson’s Snipe and many Swamp Sparrows were present here.  Perhaps most interesting, however, was the Smeared Dagger Moth (Acronicta oblinita) caterpillar:


A single Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) was spotted among about twenty decoys at a private hunting area (which we birded from the road) in southern Monroe County. It was being watched closely by a Coyote (Canis latrans) behind it as you can see below:


The last and one of the best finds of the day was a lost male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher where the train bridge crosses Lock and Dam Road in Randolph County near the mouth of the Kaskaskia River- Kyle missed it, unfortunately, as it flew off when I drove past, I only comprehended what I saw once I’d driven past it. While searching for it unsuccessfully, hundreds of American Robins flew past. This capped our day, and we then went to a Halloween Party- dressed as birdwatchers. The costumes were remarkably easy to find… we didn’t have to change clothes at all!


The sky looked very Stranger Things-y to me as we went away.  This was a splendid Saturday and with the Whooping Crane (Species #290 for the year, lifer #309 for the US and #263 for Illinois), I was 10 birds away. In an entertaining series of events, Sunday night, October 29,  I was saying to a few Chicagoland birders on Discord (like Skype, but better) that I’d trade my recent Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sighting for any scoter- preferably Black. I’ve seen White-winged and Surf Scoters before, in 2016, but Black Scoter, in Illinois the rarest away from Lake Michigan, has eluded me.

Monday morning, October 30, a Black Scoter showed up at Crab Orchard NWR, 20 minutes away from me.  Kyle W. and I chased it, spotting a few Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) along the way:


The Black Scoter was far out- we had to scope for it, and no photos were taken.  As a result, the reviewers on Ebird have decided, despite there being four witnesses, that the bird was not there.  Either that or they just haven’t gotten around to updating it.  Irritating, but ultimately- it’s my word that I saw it, and I did see it (#291).


A large flock of mixed ducks swam in the middle of the lake behind it.  Forster’s Terns (Sterna fosteri) continued at the campground beach, though no rare gulls joined them:


In the perfect finale to the great Illinois bird exchange,  on Tuesday, October 31, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher showed up at Montrose Point in downtown Chicago. The guys I was talking to got to see their Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  I don’t know what happened, but the timing’s hilarious.  Hopefully we can do that again sometime!

In the meantime,  I’ve seen two lifers, so whoop whoop!


Year Birds for 2017

#290 Whooping Crane

#291 Black Scoter


It’s a Marbled I Got Out Of This After All


So, I like to go off in the wilderness by myself.  It’s not wise, but I do it- too much.  If you’d like to see a complicated map of where and why, look down:


The Shawnee Hills “land bridge” is one reason why this area has more tree species than the entire subcontinent of Europe, as this set of hills connects two mountainous regions of high tree diversity as well as the Gulf Coastal Plain (the lower blue area).  This isn’t the world’s most accurate map, but it captures the basics of southern Illinois’ terrain  fairly well.


I was visiting the Cache River, one of the best natural areas in Illinois… although “natural areas” is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the Cache.   Above is the map of the Cache River drainage and the old Ohio River floodplain through which it flows.  Below you can see all the manmade “improvements” to the basin.


I walked the banks of the Mississippi cutoff on last year’s Christmas Bird Count.  The Cache River basin has been significantly altered from what it used to be, and yet it remains one of the most scenic areas in all of Illinois. Heck it even has great shorebird habitat:


Here, at Easter Slough,  I spotted a few ducks and shorebirds  foraging with Baldcypress trees growing wild in the background.  To most people, this is a flooded field.  To a birdwatcher in an inland state, this is shorebird habitat.


Here they are, the shorebirds.  There’s a Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus) , a few Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), one Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), and one Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes).  There were a few more species out of frame, and the ones I listed aren’t all easy to see above as they are hiding together.  I’ve missed seeing something like this.  However, I wasn’t here for shorebirds.


The swamps of the Cache River area provide habitat for Marbled Salamanders. Post-shorebirds, I stopped off to see the biggest trees in Illinois.  The large trunk in the center back is…


…the trunk to the biggest Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) tree in Illinois.  Seeing it reminded me that I’d never identified a Water Tupelo before, so this is therefore my lifer Water Tupelo.  Strange, but that’s basically how lifering works.  Until you can put a name to it, it doesn’t count- or does it?  I’m sure most people on the planet couldn’t give the “scientific” common name for this tree, but they could appreciate it regardless as a great tree.  There’s too much obsession with accurate names and shaming other people for not knowing them.  But I digress.


Here’s a thousand-year + old Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)- this forest is one of the oldest in Illinois.  I spend some time here just looking up, but I soon realized there were only trees.  The birds weren’t spectacular on this day, and what I had come to see- salamanders- still awaited me.


A few warblers did appear, including this Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) which should be in Florida soon.  This bird gets the name Palm Warbler from where it lives in the winter,  not the summer, and it spends neither one in Illinois.

I went over to the salamander spot (location: classified) and parked my car.  I walked along a path, then down along a gravel-covered slope briefly, flipping logs and finding absolutely nothing as I went along.  I decided to turn around, and I took a quick photo of an orchid leaf as I wandered through several acres of woodlands (finding zero salamanders) back to my car around sunset.  I called my dad to see how he was doing while out, and then reached into my pocket for my keys…


After quickly looking in my car, I realized I’d lost my keys in several acres of wet forest- and the sun was setting- and all of my friends were an hour away.

I ran back into the forest, looking for the small blue strap attached to my keyring that should help me to find it again.  After some raging, praying, and crying, I found them again- at the only spot where they would be obvious- the small spot of gravel where I’d walked earlier.  Evidently the praying worked, and after going back to the car, I double-checked my photo of the orchid leaf, to reveal my first Illinois  Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor).  These unusual plants grow a  single leaf in the fall, overwinter, and then the leaf dies in the spring before flowers are produced.


So- I didn’t get any salamanders from what I’ve been told is one of the best spots in Illinois, but I did get a state lifer orchid.  I’ll take it.  Also, I wasn’t lost in the largest swamp in Illinois overnight, probably the best part. The sunset from Easter Slough on the way back was a welcome reward.


HOWEVER- I still hadn’t found any salamanders.  While mentioning this online, a friend of mine gave me an even more top secret spot to go to that should definitely get me my Marbled Salamander.  It’s such a secret location, that if I tell anyone, this friend is going to have to kill me.  Ok, not really, but I did promise to never tell, and I’m a man of my word.


After finding a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius),  I knew the spot was going to be good.  Well, it wasn’t bad for birds, but what about amphibians?


I flipped a log over- and I found a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus).  This wasn’t the target species, but it IS a salamander, albeit with fewer lungs than the one I was after.  Slimy Salamanders actually have NO lungs- they breathe through their skin.


Nearby rock cliffs had close to twenty Slimy Salamanders.   They didn’t like my light much.  I went back down to some lower areas, and was about ready to give up after flipping log after log and finding nothing.  Then, as I was about to call it…


Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)!  On a nest!  With a Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) in the background!  Marbled Salamanders live an unusual life cycle for an amphibian- they lay their eggs in the fall under rotting logs and the larvae hatch as small versions of the adults.  This may seem normal for humans  (except for the  laying-eggs and rotting-logs part), but salamanders and other amphibians in Illinois tend to lay their eggs in ponds in the spring, produce gilled tadpoles, and these grow legs, lose the gills, and come onto land in the summer.  I’ve never seen a salamander nest before, and I carefully replaced the log to avoid disturbing this habitat any more.  Finally!  After everything, I found a Marbled!