Category: Bugs

Spring Break Wanderings

AMKE
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Flickr and WordPress have conspired together to change up the formatting of my so that now photos form “blocks” in between text blocks, with the option for captions. I’m sure this change will be for the best, but I am change-adverse to some extent, except when it’s winter changing to spring. Speaking of which, I wrapped up my last-ever college spring break in a whirlwind of birding and other pursuits.

TUTI at LMG feeders
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

Recently, my good friend Kyle and I visited Lincoln Memorial Gardens, a local natural area on the shores of Lake Springfield in central Illinois. Having resided in Southern Illinois the last few months, I noticed immediately how much less green Central Illinois is in mid-March. Nevertheless, the birds were active, including…

PIWA in Cornus florida
Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)

… a Pine Warbler singing away in the center of the park. Pine Warblers are rare migrants in Sangamon county Illinois, and despite having lived there for many years this was only my second one ever. The lack of pine trees, introduced or otherwise, means most of Central Illinois lacks in Pine Warblers, especially compared to Southern Illinois.

RHWO
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythocephalus)

This immature, molting Red-headed Woodpecker foraged nearby. I suspect these woodpeckers of being religious birds. Their populations have dwindled out in the Northeast, which has seen an increase in secularism, while Red-headed Woodpecker populations remain stronger in the Bible Belt of the South and Midwest. I’m joking of course, but it is an amusing idea to consider.

Esox sp. with snail sp.
Pickerel (Esox sp.)

A flooded cornfield in my wanderings produced this mysterious fish, which appears to be some kind of Pickerel. Unfortunately I was lacking a net so it remained uncaptured. One of the great rules of exploring nature- ABAN:

Always Bring A Net.

Bidens
Spanish Needles (Bidens bipinnata)

As spring approaches, a few old seedheads stick around, like these Spanish Needles. This plant’s seeds have barbs designed to attach in clothing, fur or feathers and carry the seeds away for dispersal.

Veronica
Bird’s Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica)

It’ll be a bit before most flowers bloom, but this Bird’s Eye Speedwell, a local weed, has decided to get an early start. This is an introduced species of disturbed, rarely-mowed lawns. It has several siblings in the genus Veronica with smaller flowers and shorter flower stems (pedicels) that are even more common and are among the first flowers I find each year.

Sugarberry
Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)

This Sugarberry, found in lowland areas throughout the southern 2/3 of Illinois, may win the prize for strangest bark on a native Illinois tree.

Smilax tamnoides
Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax tamnoides)

The only prize Bristly Greenbriar is in the running for is “Most Painful Plant”, which it loses to Multiflora Rose and its curved prickles. Sorry, but those straight prickles on the greenbriar are just too easy to pull out to be truly insidious, even in the thousands. Still, there’s a harsh beauty to them.

Rathki's Woodlouse
Rathki’s Woodlouse (Trachelipus rathkii)

Thanks to iNaturalist, I found out this is an introduced woodlouse (roly-poly, pillbug, sowbug etc.) from Europe. According to iNaturalist, I’ve found this species throughout Illinois woodlands of all qualities, which given that it’s an invasive species is more than a little concerning. Some brief Google Scholar searches turned up very little information on this invasive species, leading me to question exactly what effects it does have on our ecosystems?

Augochlora aura?
Pure Green Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura)

Under the same log was this Pure Green Sweat Bee. I used to be briefly employed in a pollinator survey down in the Shawnee National Forest, although the only Augochlora I ever got to see were pinned. I presume they winter under rotten logs? Honestly, I need to learn much more about bees.

Blacklegged Tick
Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

Unfortunately, around the same time I obtained another year first, possibly my least favorite of the year. Tick populations are increasing across the US, and I got this one in a downtown, urban park in Springfield Illinois. I highly recommend tick checks at all times of the year, anymore.

To end on a happier note, as I drove back to school I was interrupted by a flock of 13 Sandhill Cranes passing over. South of the Chicago area, Sandhill Cranes can be quite infrequent to rare in Illinois, despite passing through Chicago and other portions of northern Illinois in the hundreds of thousands. Some do breed at a few local wetlands in northern and eastern Illinois- a massive conservation success story, given that as recently as the 1980s Sandhill Cranes were extirpated (gone) from the state of Illinois as a breeding species. Seeing crane flocks this far southwest in the state hopefully becomes less rare of an occurrence. At any rate, these cranes were a wonderful end to a great week off.

SACR
Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Havana Great Time, Emiquon-dn’t Ask For Better Birding!

How have those two puns slipped past my notice for this long?  I mean, it’s probably good that they have, but still, you would’ve thought I’d have caught something like that by now.

After the adventures of the last week,  I figure it’s worth refreshing people’s minds on Central Illinois’ premier natural areas, which I broadly refer to as “Glorious Mason County” even though it’s a bit broader than just that area  It could also be called the “Havana area” as that’s the name of the largest town in the region.

Random fields

I could go into a very deep discussion about the complex geology of this area, and because I wouldn’t understand any of it, I won’t.  However, I’ll try to pass on the limited, simplified view that I do understand, and illustrate this with a map:

Mason County Map

Basically, most of the area is covered in sand dumped there by glacial runoff- the Kankakee Torrent flooding that drained Lake Michigan down to its current water level and carved the canyons in Starved Rock State Park. The primary area of sand is surrounded by a yellow highlight on the map.  To the west, the Illinois River  runs in a valley carved by the former path of the Mississippi River in pre-glacial times.

Field in mist

The sand deposits encouraged the growth of more Western plant and animal populations.  Bullsnakes, Pocket Gophers, Silvery Bladderpod, Prickly Pear cactus, Western Kingbirds, and Lark Sparrows  comprise some of the many “Western” animals and plants found here.  More “Southern” plants and animals, like Pawpaw, Ozark Milkvetch, Prothonotary Warblers  and Northern Mockingbirds also dwell in Mason county and the surrounding regions.  Just across the river, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, usually restricted to the Gulf Coast, have been discovered breeding in Fulton county as of 2017 and 2018.

Indeed, the wetlands along the Illinois River attract millions of migrating ducks and geese every year, as well as rarer species like King and Black Rails, Least Bitterns and Black-necked Stilts.  Strange vagrant birds like Sabine’s Gull, Anhinga, and Ruff have appeared in this area on multiple occasions.The two red areas are the largest wetlands in the region- Chatauqua and Emiquon.  Emiquon is on the left, Chautaqua on the right.

Grasshopper Sparrow

More  common birds like Eastern Meadowlark, Indigo Bunting or the  Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)  above have hung on here in numbers exceeding those of surrounding areas.   In recent years (early 1900s) someone looked at the sand dunes and thought “You know what this needs?  A large pine plantation!”  Sand Ridge State Forest (the large area circled in blue, top center of the map), and a few other localized areas, are the result.  Another fun introduction about the same time was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a small bird imported from Europe and released in St. Louis.  It’s since made its way upriver slowly into this region.

Random field

I think that’s enough for background.  Of late I’ve been spending time in southern Mason county, which hasn’t  been explored enough compared to the Sand Ridge – Chautauqua – Emiquon area to the north.  However, it has its rewards.  For instance, abundant Grasshopper Sparrows:

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrows are vanishing across most of Illinois.  Sure, they’re a little brown bird of limited interest to someone not interested in birds, but if they disappear something will be lost from the world- a bird that both sounds like and eats grasshoppers.  Thankfully there’s still a healthy population of Grasshopper Sparrows in most of Mason county.

Random weed

Another advantage of wandering around the backroads of southern Mason county is the occasional population of Cannabis sativa.  Mind you, this isn’t the kind generally smoked (though it is a controlled substance).  This is more or less hemp.  (I also don’t smoke anything- I generally think human lung tissue is not designed to take in smoke of any kind.)  Wild Cannabis is an actual weed in moist areas throughout this part of the state, though fairly uncommon.

Five-lined Skink

Also uncommon is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), especially one of this considerable size (approximately eight inches long).  This female was sitting on a mattress dumped at the marijuana spot photographed above.  It then ran up a post to be photographed.  Five-lined Skinks have an unusual range- they are close to their northern edge in Illinois at this spot, but they also occur in eastern Wisconsin.  It was my first time seeing one this far north, at any rate.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Across the road, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)  sat in a bush quietly, in pursuit of caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in this area, probably because of all the caterpillars from the ever-present butterflies.  There are a lot of butterflies in Mason county- far more than in the surrounding agricultural wastelands.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are primarily caterpillar predators, devouring caterpillars in the hundreds, so they do well here.  Thankfully they miss enough caterpillars to leave plenty of butterflies.

Poppy Mallow sp?

Growing on the side of the road was Clustered Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe triangulata), a fairly uncommon plant of dry soil and sand prairie.  I’d never found it in the wild before!  We pressed on to Revis Hill Prairie, spotting Northern Mockingbirds, Henslow’s Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers on the way, as well as NINE American Kestrels in one field.

Revis Hill Prarie

Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve is the area on the map circled in blue EAST of Kilbourne.  This contains the region’s highest hills, rising about 250 feet above the Sangamon River Valley.  I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation as to why there are hills here, but there are.  On top of these hills are multiple old hill prairies which have grown here since presettlement times.  Less common birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, White-eyed Vireo and Baltimore Oriole are abundant here.  However, Revis is very little-known for birds- most people come here for insects.  There’s a species of walkingstick and a species of leafhopper only known from here in Illinois.

Tiger Beetle

A number of burrowing wasps and tiger beetles (Cicindelidia spp.) take up residence in the sand and/or loess prarire sections of the preserve.  I don’t think I’ve ever stopped here and not found a new species of insect to me (except in the winter, of course).

Fowler's Toad

All of these insects serve as excellent food for Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri).  Growing above it was this unusual flower, the Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella), one of the hundreds of species of plants present at this incredibly biodiverse site.

Asclepias viridiflora

After driving through Revis, I drove my friend Kyle to see his first Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) in Illinois.  Birds of the Great Plains and further west, Western Kingbirds expanded into St. Louis (where dozens can be seen in industrial areas!) and upriver into Havana, Illinois, showing a strangely consistent fascination with power substations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Western Kingbird in Illinois on a natural perch- they have done well with manmade structures.

Western Kingbird

The Havana power substation where these Western Kingbirds nest also has a population of Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), and I managed to get both in a photo together.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows resemble the much more common House Sparrow, but they have an all-brown cap and black dot on their cheek that differs from the House Sparrow (unspotted cheek, gray cap with brown sides).  Eurasian Tree Sparrows also tend to be found on the edges of town in scrubby areas, and I find it rare to see them in backyards.

EUTS and WEKI

A levee at Chautaqua National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, is the perfect spot to find Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and that’s where I went on the previous day with a different friend.

Eagle Bluffs

Hundreds of  American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and some shorebirds were present here.  Most of the shorebirds were far out- it’s been a bad breeding season up in the Canadian Tundra from whence they come,  so the numbers of shorebirds migrating this year are likely to be uncomfortably low.

Pelicans and Gulls

Thankfully, not all is going horribly in the bird world because the pelicans are doing well.  Large flocks like this are becoming more and more common, and they are a delight to watch, gliding nd whirling about in the air.  Pelicans aren’t particularly graceful, but their colossal size makes them readily watchable. While not as long-winged as Bald Eagles, tall as Whooping Cranes, or heavy as Trumpeter Swans, American White Pelicans overall seem to me to be Illinois’ biggest bird.

AMWP flock

The wetlands here and across the river at Emiquon are being drained to allow seed plants to grow on them, providing food for ducks in the winter and mudflats for migratory birds.  Both Chautauqua and Emiquon are carefully managed by pumping water in or out at the right times of year to maximize the benefit for animals, especially waterfowl.

This Chautauqua-Emiquon area has become a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, one of several Ramsar Wetlands Illinois has.  (The others are Chiwaukee Illinois Beach up in Lake county (seen here)  Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (seen here) the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands (not seen yet, but definitely on my list for later) and the Cache River-Cypress Creek Wetlands (seen here). Hey, I’ve been to all but one of those this year!  A Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designation is basically like winning a conservation Oscar, and it’s great that Illinois has five of them- among US states, only California has more than Illinois does.

Emiquon North Globe Units

Over at Emiquon, we found many Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and other shorebirds wading around in the mudflats looking for insects and worms, and squabbling with each other.  Black-necked Stilts are particularly quarrelsome.

Black-necked Stilt

By contrast, these Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were content to work together and hunt down prey.  They’ve recently arrived from far northern Canada, so I imagine they’re fairly hungry.  The Greater Yellowlegs still have far to go- all the way to South America!

Greater Yellowlegs

Just as Illinois is a flyover state for many people, so it is a flyover state for birds on their way to other places.  Still, sometimes they stop in and visit, and we’re glad when they do.  Especially when, for instance it’s a Sanderling (Calidris alba) and I haven’t seen one since 2016.  The pale fuzzy bird on the left is, I believe, a Sanderling.  They like sandy beaches and as a result are uncommon inland, away from the Great Lakes (which DO have sandy beaches).  This is one of the world’s longest-distance migrants, traveling from the High Arctic (think top of Greenland) all the way to southern South America or Australia in the winter.

Not bad for a bird seven inches long!

Sanderling I think

We spent two days and saw over a hundred bird species in Glorious Mason County- not easy to do in late July, when many of them have stopped singing and many more have yet to migrate south.  Despite moving to ostensibly a better spot for nature (southern Illinois)- which IS really good despite what certain Ryans who’ve never been there may say about it – I always end up missing this area when I’m away from it.  It’s the first area I really explored away from my hometown when I got into birding, and it’s a place I can’t help but return to time and again.

I really am Havana great time.

Thompson Lake

Snake Road in Recap (Part 2) (Herpers are weird)

Baby Cottonmouth

This is the spring snake post, if you hadn’t figured that out by now.  I’d recommend leaving if you don’t like snakes, salamanders or Scarlet Tanagers.

Above is a baby Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). As usual, I have to make the disclaimer that I have a camera with fairly good zoom. If you tried to get that same photo with a cell phone, you’d be an idiot. Baby Cottonmouths are just as venomous as regular Cottonmouths, only smaller and sneakier.  (More on that topic later).

Broad-headed Skink

Much less sneaky is this Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps).  It was a cooler April day when I found him, and everyone was up on logs or walls trying to catch a bit of heat.

Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

Rat Snakes (Whateveritisnow changeswaytoofrequentli) love to be in odd spots, so of course one was hanging on the side of a cliff.  It’s seriously impressive how they manage to do so with no arms and legs.  Also, I have no idea how it got there.

Green Watersnake

More obvious in its mobility was this on-the-ground Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion), my first state-endangered herp of the year. “First” implies that I’ll find more.  I don’t actually know that, but I assume I will.  This is one of the rarest snakes in Illinois, only found at Snake Road.  It certainly looks boring enough to be rare, that’s for sure.

Angry Cottonmouth

Less boring and more alarming was this Cottonmouth, a few days later, which decided to show off as a number of them usually do.  You basically have to pick one up for them to bite you, however.  I don’t know that from personal experience, so take that with a mild grain of salt and give them a bit of space (body length of the snake, is the bare minimum for me).

Whatever Rat Snake

This same day, we found a Rat Snake up in a tree. These are very good climbers- I see them up on something as often as I see them on the ground.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) crawled around on the rocks nearby.

Western Ribbon Snake

A Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) crossed the road nearby.  This is one of my favorite snakes.  It’s like an Eastern Garter Snake, but…better.  I’d say some random fact about why it is, but it just is, and that’s all there is to it.

Northern Parula

I am, of course, continually distracted by other things than snakes at Snake Road.  Those distractions usually have either chlorophyll or feathers.  In this case it was feathers, belonging to a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana).  Warblers at Snake Road this year seemed to be closer to the ground than usual, probably due to the colder-than-average temperatures.  This of course means better-than-usual viewing.  In one notable case, a herper friend of mine photographed the reclusive, canopy-dwelling, state-threatened Cerulean Warbler ON THE GROUND- and it’s a good photo, too!  The most irritating thing is that he doesn’t really care, because “it’s just a bird”.

No, it’s a feathered reptile that’s flown thousands of miles for you to see it and enjoy it, and even more rarely, it’s at a height where you actually CAN enjoy it.

Doubly irritatingly, one was seen at a low height on my Spring Bird Count at Snake Road by a herper, while I was looking the wrong direction.  It then flew away, and I saw it fly, but not well enough to be sure of the species for personal counting.

Cave Salamander, lost.

In the meantime, near Snake Road I found a couple of interesting salamanders, including this Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) that apparently had no problem hiding out in the middle of a brook several yards from anything resembling a cave.

Nearby, I located a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). Yes, they’re very slimy.

N. Slimy Salamander

On Saturday, May 5, I undertook a Spring Bird Count at Snake Road.  Along the way, a friend and I were treated to a plethora of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) we helped  cross the road:

Eastern Box Turtle- Wow!

Eastern Box Turtles are not graceful.

Get out of the road, you idiot!

We then met up with several herpers from across the state- all certifiably insane, of course.   (I mean, with all due respect, anyone who goes looking for venomous snakes for fun usually has a few wires crossed.)  For starters, I was instructed to call anything I saw a Copperhead, as a running inside joke, the origins of which I do not recall, a month later.   It’s hard to remember other specific examples- it’s been a busy month. They were enjoyably mad, however, so it was a fun trip in one of the best nature preserves in the Midwest- in a word, glorious!

Prothonotary Warbler

As it was May, the herping was slower, so I focused on things with feathers, to the mild amusement and/or irritation of the other herpers.  Woe to anyone who attempts to approach this Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), for it is well-guarded by Poison Ivy (Toxidendron radicans).  It didn’t elect to pop out for a better photo, unfortunately.

Beware

It was a slower day, but that didn’t mean nothing was out, and one of the “Copperheads” we saw was this juvenile Cottonmouth, carefully concealed in a tuft of grass about seven feet away from the path. Unfortunately for me, a blade of grass decided to photobomb in front of the snake.

Plain-bellied Watersnake

Along the path, we discovered this Plain-bellied Watersnake about ready to shed its skin, something snakes do every so often because their skin doesn’t grow with them as they grow.  The reason I know this snake is about to shed is that it has blue on its eyes- a traditional snake

Scarlet Tanager

The snakes were few and far between, and the birds were abundant, at least in voice, one of which was my lifer Golden-winged Warbler.  So I slowed down the group by stopping and calling them out every so often  (every five feet on a 2.5 mile walk).  Whatever. Birds are cool. There’s more of them to see, they’re easier to see, and they do more interesting things.  Sometimes they even let you almost get a good photo of them, like this Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) decided to do.  Oddly, the more common tanager was Summer, but I have no good or even mediocre photos of them from this trip.

Two-Hander

We flipped over a log and uncovered this large Northern Slimy Salamander, which, after some consideration, I think might actually be my first Northern Slimy Salamander at Snake Road.  It was a “two-hander”- if it had been legal to handle it, and if hypothetically we had done so, it would have required two hands to hold it.

Jack-in-the Pulpit

Distractions of the chlorophyte kind prevailed- this Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a species of which I am indubitably fond.  I haven’t used the word indubitably in awhile, and it feels good to try it out again.

We walked down the road, and collectively looked at a number of rocks.  As one group, we all decided without much speaking that we should flip the rocks, and we let the Canadian in our group go first.  He flipped this and we flipped out.  It’s a Midwestern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus helenae) – a lifer for me, and the Canadian guy, and my friend I’d driven there with, and a fun snake to find generally!  These are actually one of the more common snakes within their range, but they tend to be underground hunting and living like worms, so they’re rarely seen.

Worm Snake

Even more abundant are Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus) like the one below: Interestingly, at this location, three subspecies mix (Mississippi, Prairie, and Northern) resulting in unusual intergrades with patterning matching all three subspecies on the same snake.  This patterning is on the underside and is therefore not visible in the photo below:

Ring-necked Snake

Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) crawled about on old cut stumps (as seen below).

We also scared up a less-than-photogenic Broad-headed Skink that was a three-hander- nearly a foot long!  None of us had ever seen one so large at Snake Road before, and considering how often Snake Road gets visited by this crowd, that’s a surprise!

Five-lined Skink

I was technically supposed to count birds as part of the official Spring Bird Count, and I was the only one who never discovered a reptile first, as a result. Furthermore, I found flowers distracting on occasion. Larue-Pine Hills has about 1,200 species of plants recorded from it, which is a LOT:

Phlacia?

The other herpers, somewhat tired of having to wait for me while I counted birds and photographed flowers, moved on ahead.  I fell behind. My friend who’d ridden with me had stuck with me, and another herper had joined us- one of the original gang who’d arrived later and seen less of the road. I checked my phone and notices a message:

“We found a Rough Green Snake.”  A Rough Green Snake is arguably the best snake. Note the period after that sentence.

“Ok”- My traditional response to everything, which I have been informed is sometimes not helpful to the person on the other end.

“Do you want to see it or should we move on?”- The friend I’d brought along had never seen a Rough Green Snake, and I hadn’t seen one this year.  This was a no-brainer.

“See it”- I typed back.

“Run”- was the reply.

So we ran.  It was at that moment I discovered how out of shape I am.  But we did see it:

The Best Snake (Rough Green Snake)

It turns out that that last hour was apparently idea for Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)- we ended up seeing FOUR of them, which made my friend and I and virtually everyone there very happy.  This snake is a brilliant green, eats mostly bugs, and is completely docile and harmless. Therefore it is in a population decline (pesticide-induced lack of bugs, habitat destruction and overcollection are the big three.)  Indeed, if you ever see a snake in the wild, don’t give its exact location, especially if it’s colorful or venomous, as someone’s likely to either kill or capture it.

The Best Snake

I noticed my lifer Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) along the path as I walked.  It’s an overdue species for me, and I was glad to finally see one in the wild:

Zebra Swallowtail

While walking along the path, having caught up to the other herpers, we looked down and saw a young Ring-necked Snake, not much longer than my middle finger, hiding among the gravel:

The Cutest Snake

One last Rough Green Snake saw us off nearby.  They are called Rough Green Snakes because their scales have a “keel” or ridge on them, which makes their scales feel “rougher”.

The Best Snake

I took one last look at a flower, Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii, named for the Miami tribe of the Shawnee, not Miami, Florida), and then we prepared to leave.

Miami Mist

Snake Road wasn’t done with us just yet.  One Cottonmouth decided to sit in the middle of the road and block conscientious traffic (though many people would’ve just run it over).  Attempts to get it to shift, using the traditional implements of hats and sticks, resulted in it going under a car and disappearing.

Looking under the car, all we found was a toad we hadn’t noticed was there before.  The whole thing seemed like a bizarre magic trick, and we didn’t find the Cottonmouth despite extensive searching. The grass on the side of the road was therefore off-limits (venomous snake + tall grass = dumb idea to walk through it) and we gave up.

The guy whose car it went under later found the Cottonmouth’s remains crushed in his tire- apparently it had crawled up in the tire from underneath the car. When he’d started to move his car again, it had been killed, unfortunately.

So, this post is in dedication to this unfortunate Cottonmouth, whose persistent violation of road safety laws led to its demise.  Don’t be like this Cottonmouth- don’t crawl into a stranger’s tire.

Tragedy of the Cottons

As of this writing, I still haven’t seen an Eastern Garter Snake, Illinois’ most common snake.  For some reason, I’m not disappointed by this.

The final results of the Spring Bird Count: I had 79 bird species, my then-highest ever one-location total.  Ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45312902

The Police and I… and Some Weird Bug, Too!

I’ve had a series of run-ins with the law before, but this was the worst…. because this time, I actually did something illegal.

Where did I go wrong?

It all started with a bird. Well, two birds.  Actually, it started with a different bird- one I saw.

IMG_5823

This is my lifer Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla).  Laughing Gulls are birds of the oceanic coasts- especially Florida.  I’ve almost certainly seen them before, but that was back in the dark ages before I became a birder.  So, this is my lifer- first one I’ve officially seen in the wild.

IMG_5408

It joined a number of other unusual species at the Crab Orchard Lake Campground beach… including one very unusual species that WASN’T the Laughing Gull.

IMG_5430

Black Terns (Chlidonas niger) should have migrated out of Illinois a month or more ago.  This one was very late, though it’s gone now.  Ironically, I found one a few days before at Lake Springfield:

IMG_5387

Perhaps it enjoyed all the other terns present.  An unusually large flock here probably assembled to eat all the biting flies present, of which there were many.  A few Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia), like the one on the tall buoy, also joined in the fly-hunting.

IMG_5439

The odd, buzzing calls of Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) can be heard all over this beach.

IMG_5958

Here, one’s squawking about my presence.  Note that the leg and bill color are black- in the spring and summer, these will be orange, and the bird will have a black cap on its head instead of eye patches.  Forster’s Terns look like an entirely different species in winter and summer.

IMG_5984

Tired of being analyzed, this tern took off, and flew right over my head on the way back out over the lake.  These terns are probably going to be here well into November, until all the bugs die.

IMG_5840

Also present here for several days were Franklin’s Gulls (Leucophaeus pipixcan) (the bird with wings raised).  These are similar to Laughing Gulls, but they have shorter bills, whiter eye rings and whiter tips around their feathers.  Franklin’s Gulls migrate inland, living alongside ducks in the summertime up in North Dakota and Canada- the Prairie Pothole region.  Franklin’s Gulls then migrate south and end up in Texas- they’re one of the few gull species easier to  find inland in North America.  They do end up on the South American coast for the winter.

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A late Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) tried to steal the show also, with its bright red bill remarkably unnoticed by me most of the time I was looking at these gulls and terns.  However, the Ring-billed Gull in front of it decided to steal the show by doing whatever that face is.   People would ordinarily pass off a group of  birds like this as “seagulls” and even many birders would look past it.  However, I’ve grown to really like gulls as of late… which is why, when a little kid on a bicycle rode up, scared all the gulls away, and then rode away before I could say anything, I was a little bit irritated. I don’t even know where he went.

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Several days went by.  I bought a Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge pass, which I believed entitled me to go and visit most of the refuge, (I was wrong about this, as we shall see) including the  remote spot of Wolf Creek Bay.  A Praying Mantis waited in the grasslands there, as did a LeConte’s Sparrow (unphotographed), on a previous trip.   After another birder told me about hearing Pine Warblers in the woods along the Harmony Trail, (and also that it was probably ok to go back to Wolf Creek Bay)  I went over and heard Pine Warbler and Red-breasted Nuthatch, adding to my year and Illinois year lists respectively.  (A lot of birders keep lists of species they find- birding of this sort is basically a giant scavenger hunt.  I enjoy watching behaviors, but I do also fit into the “lister” mentality).

With the Pine Warbler and Laughing Gull, I was at 288 species for the year in the United States- 12 away from  In the meantime, reports of an Eared Grebe and Long-billed Dowitchers, both of which would be lifers for me, tempted me back to the Wolf Creek  Bay overlook.

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On the drive over after church, wearing full , I spotted a few Franklin’s Gulls flying around.  That short bill and the faint white spots at the wingtip help to distinguish this species.  I spotted an open gate- apparently, on this particular Sunday, visitors were allowed to drive around the restricted area.  If visitors were allowed back here on this day- great!  I could go legally see the Eared Grebe and Dowitchers!  I would totally not get in trouble!

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Illinois’ largest Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) grew along the roadside.

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After driving around, I walked down the old road, at the end of which was the spot for Long-billed Dowitchers and the Eared Grebe. The fall color brightened  the grayness of the day.

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Large flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and mixed sparrows contained among their ranks a late Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea).  This was a good bird, if not exactly the one I wanted.

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A Raccoon (Procyon lotor) sat by the edge of the road and took off as I approached.

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Here’s a few lifer Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus),  (YAY!  New bird!  Species 289!)  but Eared Grebes were not evident.  I walked back up the road, and scared a Copperbelly Water Snake  that crossed the lane. I also found something else:

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Meet, Pselliopus barberi, the Tiger Assassin Bug.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  It’s easily the strangest bug of the month.  Assassin Bugs roam around, biting and sucking out the insides of fellow insects.  They’ve got a painful bite even for humans.  I took photos from a slight distance and then went back to my car, where I found out I’d broken the law.

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Waiting back at the parking lot were two refuge marshals, and they asked what I was doing down there without a permit… apparently, despite what I’d been told, I wasn’t allowed back there.  I apologized profusely and got off with a written warning.  I did have a nice chat with one of the officers while the other one wrote up the warning and looked me up to make sure I’m not a dangerous criminal.   Despite my checkered past with being detained as a terrorist, (full story here), they decided I was fine and let me off.  A copy of the warning is on file at the refuge office- if I trespass again, I’m getting a ticket, which is fair.

However, something about this is really not fair. The Eared Grebes have returned to the same spot, in greater numbers.  There are now two of them… I don’t want to break the law, again.    I’m going to ignore the fact that I saw a lifer bird species and remain bitter about the injustices of not being able to see Eared Grebes. ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Year birds:

Laughing Gull (287)

Pine Warbler (288)

Long-billed Dowitcher (289)