It’s time to introduce the word “dip” to nonbirders, and I don’t mean something you’d put on chips. Nor do I mean the substance that seems to be the subject of every YouTube ad I see lately. Dipping on a bird means missing it. I don’t know where that originated, but it’s a thing.
On August 17, a Swallow-tailed Kite, one of the most beautiful hawks in the world, was seen at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Missouri, less than two hours from where I live. Due to a lack of internet information about the bird (it’s in a weird gap zone where it’s common enough to not be reported widely and rare enough that it ought to be) the Swallow-tailed Kite was not seen again until the 24th, and then it was seen the 24th through the 27th. I heard about it on the 26th of August, but I wasn’t able to go and look for it until August 31- several days after any reports. For a rural area like Stoddard County, Missouri, that’s not a surprise. It’s the edge of the Ozarks, near significant wetlands but not near population centers. The closest city of more than 20,000 people is Cape Girardeau, about an hour away. So, I had a chance, if I got out early in the morning and checked for it flying about in the rising air currents. This would be my 300th species of wild bird I’ve seen in the United States. Mentally, I couldn’t wait, but…
Cut to August 31. I wake up, groggily, and look at my alarm, faded memories of turning it off some hours previously running through my brain. It’s 9:30 AM. I wanted to be on the road at 8 AM. Well, I massively screwed up. The weather was gray and cloudy as I drove over to Duck Creek Conservation Area, arriving around 12:00 PM. Gray and overcast skies, lightly drizzling with cold rain, the edge of the old Hurricane Harvey storm system- terrible weather for hawks and singing migrants, and depression inducing for me. And that’s before reflecting on the fact that this storm killed 51 people and displaced thousands, including a few people I know.
Whenever you’re complaining, it’s always good to remember there’s people in worse situations. I stopped complaining, and I stopped the car, at the spot. No Kite in sight- nothing moving. Well, there was still plenty to see. I waited for several minutes, scanning the nearby area, which had a few Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). I decided to go check out Duck Creek Conservation Area’s main section after waiting for awhile with no sightings, and so I did.
It turned out to contain a 1,800 acre lake, 2/3 of which was American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea). That’s 1,200 acres of American Lotus. Back in late July, the main bloom season, that had to have been a spectacle! Even now, it was still impressive, the massive platter-sized leaves floating on the water or emerging up en masse, a little worn from a long growing season.
If there’s any spot north of Texas where a Northern Jacana could show up, it might be here. A Northern Jacana, for the unaware, is this little Central American bird with huge feet that wades around on lily-pads and lotus leaves. They have the largest feet, relative to body size, of any bird. It’s a bird I’ve always wanted to see, but almost certainly none will ever show up here. Anyway, that was a tangent of hypothetical nonsense. I just like Jacanas. Back to more photos of the lake.
Duck Creek Conservation Area, and the nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, sit in an odd location. To the southeast is Crowley’s Ridge, a raised line stretching over 150 miles from southwest of Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas, on the border of the Mississippi River and Mississippi itself. On both sides of Crowley’s Ridge are floodplains, and several miles west of the floodplains at this point, the edge of the Ozarks rises up. It’s odd geography, because in the middle, at Duck Creek and Mingo, you can see a chain of not-very-distant hills looking either northwest or southeast, as you can see above and below:
Those trees in the lake itself are Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), the quintessential Southeastern swamp tree. They grow here in large numbers, though none of them are the giants they can be on old-growth forests. This entire area was logged, and if it had stayed dry it would be farmland or ranchland like the surrounding area. Continued flooding ensured its survival.
This 1800-acre lake is a perfect rectangle (of course it’s artificial) with roads all the way around. It was built to control water flow in the area, holding water during wet seasons and releasing it in dry seasons. This conservation area, as well as Mingo NWR, is built around providing winter food for duck populations. And, of course, duck hunting. During duck season, the conservation area is closed to non-hunters. Next February, I think this might be a really fun place to visit for ducks.
White Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) bloomed among the lotus.
I moved away from the lake, and decided to venture into the back 40 of the conservation area. I was met with a scene out of National Geographic- a ton of herons in a tree. Specifically, these are Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), a species which is moving through Southern IL and MO currently:
I then decided, mapless, to try taking a back way over to Mingo. While inevitably lost in the edge of the Ozarks, I spotted three beat-up graffiti-ed trailers – and one perfectly large, healthy, tropical banana tree growing in a pot in the middle. Owing to my unfortunately persistent ethnic stereotypes of trailer-dwelling Ozarkians as shotgun-wielding meth users, I didn’t stop for a photo. It does fascinate me how in our “politically-correct” society, no one cares if you mock country people in the hills who live below the poverty line. But I digress.
Anyway, I bring up the banana tree as part of my rule of country driving. “If you drive for two hours in the country, not on the interstate, you’ll see something weird. Sometimes the weird is a bird. Most of the time it’s not.” There’s also the Southern Wilderness and Carbondale Addenda, as follows: “In the Ozarks, Cumberland Plateau, and Shawnee Hills, the finding-something-weird time is one hour- and in Carbondale, Illinois, it’s five minutes.”
Getting myself un-lost by turning around and driving to the Kite spot yet again (with no luck), I proceeded over to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. I found a calling Least Flycatcher, an early migrant, on the way when I pulled off at a marsh overlook to check Google Maps. I also learned that Mingo charges admission: $3 per day or $12 per year. It’s a giant swamp. That’ll be $12.
The Visitor’s Center proved to have very helpful staff. In fact, it was one of the nicest visitor’s centers I’ve ever explored. They told me that Yellow-crowned Night Herons are common on the refuge in the spring- the last Midwestern heron I have yet to see. At that point, I was glad I’d bought the year pass, without knowing yet what was to come. A Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) l butterfly landed outside, on the pavement, as did something else:
I had no idea that Robber Flies, feared insect predators of mosquitoes, were also able to hunt dragonflies like this Green Darner (Anax junius). This fly was over an inch long, and completely harmless to humans. In fact, Robber Flies eat mosquitoes, so we want them around.
On the edge of the roads, I found masses of Sneezeweed (Helenium amarum), so named because settlers used it to cure colds and because it blooms as the same time as Ragweed, thus making people think they are allergic to it. The scientific name is better- Helenium refers to Helen of Troy- according to Greek myth the most beautiful woman in the world. Helenium isn’t the most beautiful flower in the world (Showy Lady’s Slipper is), but it is a pleasant one I quite enjoy.
A Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) , Missouri’s official state reptile, wandered about on the path. I’d seen a couple before, but this is my first time seeing one well.
Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) were everywhere. I was hoping to find maybe a rarer turtle, but as this is slow-moving muddy waters, few unusual turtles were visible.
Another animal that was everywhere was the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula)- the white immature form. I found exactly one adult Little Blue Heron, in the photo above. After this, I drove up to one of several overlooks on the edge of Crowley’s Ridge. Far off is the eastern Ozarks.
If you don’t like snakes, and you somehow tolerated the Robber Fly, this is the perfect spot to end off. From here on in, it’s a lot of snakes- albeit four lifer snakes! These were all found someplace within or near Mingo- not the same place, and I’m not saying where. Mingo National Wildlife Refuge is over 21,000 acres of habitat, and combined with the 2,400 acres of Duck Creek, it’s a massive tract of wilderness. Snake poachers can have fun figuring all that out, although most of the species I saw aren’t exactly the most popular for collecting. If I’d seen Kingsnakes, Rattlesnakes, or Milk Snakes, the most popular snakes to be collected, I’d be considerably more elusive about the locations. If you ever seen a large, colorful or venomous snake in the wild, don’t announce specifically where it is, or there’s a good chance it will be taken away.
Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) are common in wetlands here, and this neonate was hiding in such an area- the only flipped snake of the day. By flipped, I mean that I turned something over to find it. Everybody else was out and about.
That includes my first lifer snake of the day, a Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata confluens). Hiding in the woody tangles along one of the many ditches, this Southeastern species is one of several species of snakes whose Southern ranges curve upwards along the Mississippi River Valley floodplain, of which this is technically a part. I had forgotten these live in Missouri- they’ve been extirpated (died out) from what was once a very limited Illinois range.
Another lifer was the Diamondback Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer), one of North America’s larger watersnake species, generally found in the southern parts of the Great Plains and Mississippi River drainage. This particular specimen was at least three and a half feet long!
Unsuprisingly, the third one was another Nerodia watersnake, the Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythogaster). It was in the middle of a road and decided to quickly cross that road and get away from me. So, the above photo is the only one I have.
Later down that same road, a large, thick-bodied snake with a very angular head began to cross- my very first Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), forty feet away. Cottonmouths have much thicker bodies and far more angular heads than any other snake I’ve ever seen in the wild. There’s so many myths about these, one of North America’s more common venomous snakes, that I feel I may have to do a little mythbustering here. Cottonmouths are reluctant to bite- handling, harassing or stepping on a Cottonmouth hard are the best ways to get bitten. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that Cottonmouths will chase people, but that isn’t entirely true. If a Cottonmouth sees a threat, its first instinct is to escape, preferably into nearby water. If the person happens to be between the nearest water source and the Cottonmouth, it may slip right by the person en route to the water. So, a Cottonmouth may appear to be chasing a person, while doing nothing of the sort- the exact opposite, in fact.
Also, the range of a Cottonmouth does not extend past the Shawnee Hills in Illinois. I occasionally end up in arguments with people whose all-knowing “country uncles” say they see Cottonmouths throughout central or northern Illinois. I usually end those by offering to get bitten by said snake, sight unseen. (I won’t be saying that in southern Missouri or where I live now.) There’s a joke that all snakes in the US have been called Cottonmouths at some point. The sad part about this is that nearly all US snakes, especially watersnakes, have been killed as “Cottonmouths”. I understand if you don’t like snakes- I’m not too fond of spiders or wasps. But please let them be. Leaving a snake alone is the surest way to not be bitten.
(Then again, if you don’t like snakes, how did you make it this far?)
After all of this, I decided to drive around the refuge, and see the sights:
Currently my best photo of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) is this one above. These birds are my photographic nemesis, as I’ve mentioned previously.
I ended up driving all of the Wildlife Loop, scaring up some turkeys, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and a few scenic views, all the way from Crowley’s Ridge across the floodplains to the Ozarks -three different natural divisions in less than twenty miles! Crowley’s Ridge is considered to have flora more characteristic of the Appalachians than the Ozarks, and the wetlands between are similar to those of the Gulf Coast or Lower Mississippi River Valley in general.
From here to southern Indiana, centered on the Shawnee Hills is a major transition zone. The edge of the Great Plains is a little bit north of here, and the edge of the Gulf Coastal Plain natural division is right up against this- in fact, in the photo above, you’re looking at a little bit of it. To the west, the Ozark Mountains form their own unique natural division, while to the east the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and by extension the edge of the Appalachian Mountain range, just barely misses Illinois, but much of its flora and fauna are present. As I mentioned, Crowley’s Ridge, which you can see below, is, to some degree, an extension of that area.
Northern prairies meet southern swamps, and eastern forests meet western woodlands- and it’s all happening here! Add to this the fact that the world’s third largest river flows through the middle of it, and that many North American birds use this area to migrate- well, it’s just all very, very, exciting for me, that I get to live in this area now.
The Wildlife Loop proved to have some wildlife, with three Raccoons (Procyon lotor) at various spots. One individual, roaming along the banks of a ditch, remained for a photo in the dying light of a clouded sunset. I ended up out of the Loop, to find:
A thicker-than-usual line appeared in the grass in the middle of a road. Neonate (young) Cottonmouth! The angled head, when it popped up, was a dead giveaway. I approached to within six feet- it’s a snake that’s a foot long, after all, and I have leg protection in the form of snake guards. (Sometime I’ll do a blog showing all the gear I have.) It watched me- I watched it. Neither of us moved for a minute, but neither approached the other. I then backed away, and the snake took off for the side of the road, away from me. Good luck out there, young Cottonmouth.
After this, I checked the Kite spot, yet again, and saw nothing. It was getting dark, and driving exhausts me. I stopped in a rural town for gas, which was $2.26. A couple hours later, my new hometown had it for $2.59. Always stop for gas in Missouri, if you live in Illinois.
I may have dipped on the Swallow-tailed Kite, but I’ll take four lifer snakes, a few good birds, and two amazing areas to explore in exchange. In order to make the cost of that Mingo year pass worthwhile, I have to visit three more times…
Ebird Checklist for Mingo NWR: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38942057