Month: April 2019

THE Pile of Cottonmouths (and Missouri, first)

Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

I may have bent the Internet a little lately by posting a photo of some Cottonmouths. I’ll discuss that as an addendum to this initial post. Cody and I, doing one of our usual excursions, decided to wander over to Hawn State Park in Missouri and look around for the usual mix of reptiles, amphibians, birds, weird insects and plants that make up our average adventures.

Rose Vervain (Glandularia canadensis)

On the roadside we ran across a large patch of blooming Rose Vervain, a floriferous plant of dry open rocky areas.

Goatweed Leafwing (Anaea andrina)

Once at Hawn we swiftly discovered this Goatweed Leafwing, or as I like to call it the Flying Dorito, accompanying a few other butterflies.

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

As we rounded a corner, the third of my most-wanted butterflies came into view (Goatweed Leafwing, Pipevine Swallowtail, and now this:)

Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea) on Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Falcate Orangetips, lifer butterflies for me, are locally common Southern butterflies that only emerge early in the spring. This beautiful male (only males have orange wingtips) stopped its near-constant flying to show us its intricate side pattern. Unusual fact about these butterflies- unlike most butterfly species, the larvae of Falcate Orangetips are cannibalistic.

Bess Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus)

Another unusual insect in the area is the Bess Beetle. Bess Beetles are social to an extent, often living and raising young together, even communicating with squeaking noises (which they will also do as an alarm call when handled.) This Bess Beetle decided to go up and wave about on a log, for reasons only explicable by beetle logic. While taking this photo, something scurried noisily in the leaf litter behind the log, my lifer…

Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracitus)

Southern Coal Skink! Missouri has tons of lizards, compared to any state I’ve visited outside of Florida. I don’t know what it is about the Ozarks that results in such a plethora of lizards, but I definitely like it. Coal Skinks use their brown and black coloration to hide in plain sight among leaves, as shown above quite readily.

Prairie Lizard (Sceloporus consobrinus)

Among the most common is the Prairie Lizard, the more abundant replacement of the Eastern Fence Lizard west of the Mississippi, and we found several of these guys head-bobbing on nearby logs.

Plestiodon sp.

Skinks can be quite hard to ID so many of the lizards we saw remained unidentified. After a bit, we decided to climb up into the hills and look for things under the rocks.

Hills at Hawn State Park

A lifer Western Slimy Salamander was a highly welcome surprise under a rock I flipped. Slimy Salamanders used to all belong to the same species but someone decided that there needs to be 13 different species of Slimy Salamander, based mostly on range and genetics. This is my second member of that complex… eleven to go.

Western Slimy Salamander (Plethodon albagula)

Nearby, a Common Gartersnake cruised about hungrily. If I was writing a nature documentary like all the BBC ones, I’d cut back and forth with ominous music between the Western Slimy Salamander and the Common Gartersnake, until nothing ends up happening because the two individuals are widely separated by distance and edited to look closer together. Unfortunately, I don’t have the BBC funding me, so this is as good as it gets.

Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Cody and I continued to flip rocks, and we managed to find a decent number of lizards in between all the ants and wolf spiders.

Flipping a skink
The flippidated skink (Plethodon sp.)

As this is Missouri, there’s a few things present here under rocks that aren’t in Illinois and are more typical of the Southeast or Southwest. One of those is scorpions, specifically Striped Bark Scorpions. Cody was treated to the suprise of five scorpions under one rock, an individual of which is below. Flipping rocks is like gambling- you never know what your luck is going to be and sometimes you hit a jackpot (of scorpions).

Striped Bark Scorpion (Centruoides vittatus)

The sun began to set more and more, so we moved off to home, strolling back through the filtered sun of pine-scented woods (that made Cody sneeze nonstop from the pollen.) Etc. etc. drove home the end.

Alright, now I’ll get to the Cottonmouth story.

Piney woods of Hawn State Park

I enjoy wandering about the Shawnee National Forest, and I found a location that looked good for plants, potentially- a pond deep in the hills. I ended up getting lost multiple times and stumbled across the pond, looking down to this sight below. Words were said, to the tune of “Holy s–t!” I then proceeded to put my hand down six inches away from Cottonmouth #31, coming in to join the pile.

Full log of Cottonmouths

Since I’d never seen a thick pile of Cottonmouths like this before, I figured I’d post the image online. It blew WAY up. I presume they’ve just emerged from a den I didn’t know they had. Since juveniles and adults were mixed in together, I presume it’s more communal basking and not the proverbial “mating ball of Cottonmouths”. This presumption was supported by a few commenters on my online posts. Well, time to send it back out once more into the net, with the statement that this is very rare to see, none of the Cottonmouths chased me or anything, and you’d have to be well off the beaten path to find this. Don’t ask for locations. Have a good day!

The Famous Pile of Cottonmouths
THE Cottonmouth photo (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Flipping [Out] Over Everything

Upset Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) between biting sessions. Racers are among the most aggressive snakes in the US… but only if you handle or corner them. Also, they’re nonvenomous and don’t have long teeth, so getting bit isn’t a huge deal.

Hello again! I can’t sleep for some reason, so I’ve decided to turn on Eurythmics and write a blog post at 2 AM. No one’s grading this, so I think it’s ok for me to be writing now. If I had an actual graded assignment I’d be more concerned that I’ve been awake for >24 hours. As it is, no one reads these anyway, I don’t think from looking at site stats… I’ll shut up and get into it. This is going to be a real quality post.

Virginia Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica)

So, my good friends Chris, Cody and I have got a site known as [Redacted] where Chris samples the local snakes for Snake Fungal Disease. This is either an emerging threat that’s going to wipe out half of North America’s snake species or it’s a natural part of snake hibernation that has increased as a problem due to inbreeding depression and declining populations from habitat loss, depending on who you ask. Either way, it basically rots the snake’s scales off its body until the snake dies. Lovely, right? Not. [Redacted] is a field site in the Shawnee Hills that borders a swamp and as such has a very nice den of snakes, lizards, and other herps.

Cliff at [REDACTED]- this place is basically Snake Road without the convenience or crowds.

At [REDACTED] we flipped this Ring-necked Snake out from under a rock. Flipping rocks is the quickest way to find herps, and it can be a lot of work. Furthermore, while under one out of every two rocks there’s often a plethora of ants, only about one out of every one hundred rocks yields a snake or similar-quality fauna. If that’s not enough, species vary by the substrate UNDER the rocks. Ringnecks like rock-on-rock best.


Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus) just about to go back under his rock.
Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)

Salamanders, on the other hand, tend to prefer rock-on-dirt for hiding, especially if they have boltholes they can scurry back to while you’re turning on the camera, as with the example below.

Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) with what appears to be a partially regenerated tail from a previous accident.

Occasionally, a good rock flip will strike gold and you’ll end up with something like this gorgeous Common Five-lined Skink:

Young Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

It should be mentioned that in rock flipping, I tend to “encourage” or personally remove the involved species out from under the rock before replacing it, just to prevent accidental crushing when I replace the rock as close to the way it was when I found it.

Better view of the skink, which definitely crawled up onto Cody’s hand and totally wasn’t grabbed out from under the rock where it was resting before it took off at lightspeed.

Also, I try to be careful of the nearby plants when flipping rocks- many of these are drought-adapted, uncommon plants, like this American Columbo:

American Columbo (Frasera carolinensis)

Even leaf piles require careful examination- you never know when one of these Little Brown Skinks is going to be diving through a pile of leaves.

Little Brown Skink (Scincella lateralis)

I mentioned the ants already, good ok we got that out of the way. Next one up is one the one person I know who reads these blogs, my mother, isn’t going to be thrilled with. Sorry Mom, I’ve started to find jumping spiders cute. This appears to be a Whitman’s Jumping Spider.

Whitman’s Jumping Spider (Phidippus whitmani)
See Above (Idontcarenow mymelatoninisettingin)

Bizarre insects are fast becoming favorites of mine, as this small leafhopper demonstrates. That wild patterning design works surprisingly well as camouflage against lichens, especially when you’re the length of my pinky’s trimmed fingernail.

Erythroneura calycula

[REDACTED] is known for scenery, but it receives few visitors, and to be fair while the views are pretty good it’s no Inspiration Point. Furthermore, the ticks and mosquitoes can be relentless at times (but what else is new?)

Oaks and other trees at [Redacted]

Occasionally I don’t flip rocks over, I let Cody do that while I look at plants.

More Virginia Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica)

Given the number of Spring Beauties, at some point butterflies show up to pollinate them, including my most-wanted butterfly species for YEARS, the Pipevine Swallowtail. Pipevine (Aristolochia spp.) is an uncommon species this far north, and thus so often is the butterfly. I’ve regularly misidentified many other dark swallowtail species as this butterfly, but I now realize the single curve of red dots is fairly unique to this species.

Lifer! Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

Meanwhile, Cody continues to flip rocks, and I hear a “Holy S–t!” I move back to see what he’s found, and it’s a young Western Mudsnake! One of the more difficult snake species to find, and Cody and I got one! Unfortunately, this is one of the days where Chris is unable to join us, so I took a mildly sadistic pleasure in texting him “Look what we found!”

Mudsnake (Farancia abacura)

Mudsnakes are not considered particularly “rare”- but they are more or less underreported due to their habits. Mostly aquatic, often nocturnal, and feeding almost entirely upon aquatic salamanders like the Lesser Siren deep in the backwaters of unvisited swamps, mudsnakes are extremely rare to see. This was Cody’s lifer. It began gaping after an extended handling session, and we realized we’d gotten carried away. Replace the rock, let the snake slide underneath, flip more rocks…

zzzzzzzzzzzzzz [I the author have fallen asleep, go out and flip some rocks].


March of the Turtles (but it’s April?)

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

As spring moves forth, so does the plodding of the turtles. No matter how far they may be from water, it seems that the turtles will march onwards.

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta ssp. elegans)

Some turtles refuse to march, of course. These Map Turtles (which include my state lifer False Map Turtles in the back) prefer to hang out in the middle of the big muddy rivers, swollen by floodwaters.

Northern Map Turtle (front, Graptemys geographica) and False Map Turtle (back, G. pseudogeographica) basking on log

The flooding drives fish into shallow water where young Bald Eagles hunt for them, and I took my parents to witness this flock of Bald Eagles, as they’d come down to visit me.

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

My parents and I also decided to go investigate Jackson Falls over in the eastern Shawnee National Forest. Upon stepping out of the car I ran across this Spring Beauty Mining Bee, so we were off to a great start!

Spring Beauty Mining Bee (Andrena erigeniae) on Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

We followed the bluffs to the top of the falls, and then beyond.

Creek flowing into Jackson Falls

My mother spotted a Hermit Thrush even before I did, and we managed to get a picture. These thrushes are on their way north, having spent the winter in the Southern United States.

Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)

The sandstone here shears off in mostly straight-edged blocks, forming interesting mazes at the bases of some cliffs. Between this and a confusing, poorly-mapped trail system we were quickly lost.

Sandstone blocks south of Jackson Falls

We ended up by a clear, unpolluted creek, where to my surprise I found this Least Brook Lamprey, a state-threatened fish species. Many lampreys are parasitic. However, this species only feeds in its larval stage and then only filter-feeds plankton from the water. In adult form Least Brook Lampreys live for 6-8 months but don’t eat at all.

Least Brook Lamprey (Lampetra aepyptera)

Continuing up the creek, I tried to photograph more fish. I fell in the creek and the fish got away, so I had to content myself with a moth.

Bilobed Looper Moth (Megalographa biloba)

Finally we made it to the base of Jackson Falls, and after admiring the view we climbed back to the car, and I do mean climbed.

Jackson Falls

Tired, but with some time left in the day, I decided to show my parents around the Cache River area. We found many Spiny Softshells basking along the creeks, yet another turtle species.

Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera)

Dozens of flowers bloomed, including this Jacob’s Ladder:

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans)

The following morning we drove around the Mississippi River Valley and encountered shorebirds feeding on the edges of flooded fields.

Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)
American Golden-Plovers (Pluvialis dominica)

This honker of a Common Snapping Turtle was marching out between ponds as well, and since it happened to stop for a bit on a pulloff we stopped to admire it.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Red-eared Sliders marched forth across many roads.

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta ssp. elegans)

This Great Horned Owl flew off to confront a nearby Bald Eagle, while the fast-growing chicks in its nest waited patiently for Mom to come back. I’ve been keeping this nest in the middle of a river a bit quiet for months now, only for someone else to come along, find out, spill the beans, and now I’ve heard stories about someone going out in waders to get up close to the nest for photos. Bearing in mind, this river is well over flood stage and Great Horned Owls, as seen below, are good nest defenders.

Still, at least the limited disturbance hasn’t affected the owls yet and I got to show them to my parents from a distance, as the last part of their trip.

Great Horned Owl w/ chicks (Bubo virginianus)

After saying goodbye to my parents, I went back home, finding this Common Snapping Turtle in the process of marching homewards itself, with a bit of dirt to its name.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Looking For The Little Things at Larue Again

First, some backstory- for years I’ve read the online exploits of Jeff Skrentny, Paul Sweet, and other Chicagoland big day birders, hawkwatchers, and generally “big” Illinois birding people through Facebook, the ABA blog, and many other articles. I’ve been intimidated for a long time by them and their wealth of knowledge and experience.

So as you can imagine, when both Jeff Skrentny and Paul Sweet were coming down through Southern Illinois and asked me to show then around Larue-Pine Hills, I was basically shaking in my boots the entire time.

It didn’t help that upon meeting them in the Anna, Illinois Dairy Queen parking lot, I proceeded to miss my turn for Larue-Pine Hills almost immediately. We took a slightly more scenic route, but I about had a panic attack after realizing what I’d done. Still, we got to Larue-Pine Hills.

Trillium sessile?
Downy Yellow Violet
Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens)
Cut-leaved Toothwort
Cut-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine concenata)

After finding several unique plants and listening to the songs of a Hermit Thrush and a Black-and-White Warbler, we got down to the business of hunting down crevice-dwelling salamanders. These two photos were taken the previous day- I didn’t get good pictures on the morning itself as both species were tightly wedged into narrow rock crevices.

Despite looking all over, not a Cottonmouth did we see.

Cave Salamander
Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)
Long-tailed Salamander
Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicaudata)

Walking down a bit further, finding many kinglets on the way, we ran across the Southern thorny vine, Smilax bona-nox. I hoped to find Cottonmouths, but as it was we failed to do so… it was getting late into the morning and I had an afternoon class.

Smilax bona-nox
Saw Greenbriar (Smilax bona-nox)

Thankfully not all herps failed us and we stumbled into a Green Treefrog hiding deep in a crevice (as were so many of the herps this morning).

Green Treefrog
Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea)

With no reptile luck on one end of the road (but thankfully some significant amphibian luck), we moved to the other end of the road, stumbling across this turtle and an unpictured Black Vulture along the way.

Red-eared Slider
Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans)

Running out of options- there was only one choice left to make. There is one spot at Larue-Pine Hills that never fails at certain times of year. This spot is sort of secret, and difficult to access, but we trudged to it and our efforts payed off with a few Cottonmouths, including this somewhat shabby individual pictured below. It was enough. I’d succeeded.

Dirty Cottonmouth
Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Calming down now that the target species had been acquired and that I hadn’t made a fool of myself in at least half an hour, I continued onwards with Paul and Jeff. We proceeded to find a few more snakes, including this cute little Dekay’s Brown Snake, one they’d seen a few times before as this is one of the most common species in Illinois.

Dekay's Brown Snake
Dekay’s Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)

As we approached the cliffs, Ringed Paper Wasps buzzed around us. This species of wasp specifically nests on cliffs adjacent to water- difficult to find in much of Illinois, but essentially the entire area here. They were one of many “little things” that made the day, given the initial lack of snakes.

Ringed Paper Wasp
Ringed Paper Wasp (Polistes annularis)
Spatterdock (Nuphar advena)

Also buzzing around us and above the Spatterdock were a few damselflies, including this gorgeous Fragile Forktail, a recent lifer for me and the first odonate of the year for either of my guests.

Fragile Forktail
Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita)

Flipping over a few logs revealed the typical Euryrus leachii, one of Larue-Pine Hills’ more common millipedes but a charmer nonetheless

Euryrus leachii

As it began to warm up further, we noticed more and more arthropods, which proved to be a blessing when my lifer Goatweed Leafwing came flying into view. One of the three butterfly species I’d promised myself I would try to find this spring, this “flying Dorito” is almost pure orange on the upperwings, with the underwings brown for camouflage.

Goatweed Leafwing
Goatweed Leafwing (Anaea andria)

Despite my unnecessary anxiety, it’d been a wonderful outing. While I still found both birders somewhat intimidating, we left to our separate spots (school and Heron Pond, respectively) on good terms, with a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle and a Great Egret watching us as we parted ways.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle
Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)