Category: Cache River

Spring Break Wanderings

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis)

Winter 2019 Sort of Recapped

Right, I’m a wee bit behind here.

Last actual post I did on here was of the Carlyle Lake Trip.   I’m going to pass over Fall 2018- a lot happened but it’ll take too long to recap. Let’s move into January and February 2019.

I stayed up in central Illinois and spent early January 2019 with my parents, with very few plans of what I would do this year besides studying for the GRE, graduating college, finding a job, etc.  On January 7 I decided to get out and about on a warmer day and go looking around a nearby marsh in the Lick Creek Wildlife Area.  This resulted in my finding two unusual records.

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First up was a turtle- in particular, one of Illinois’ more common turtles, the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  I’ve never had a reptile before an amphibian in January.  This turtle, however, can be winter-active when it wants, and as this day exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature the turtle, one of a few, was out basking in the sun.

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The second and far more ridiculous of my two finds was a wintering Common Yellowthroat (Geoythypis trichas).  This warbler species is supposed to be down on the Gulf Coast at this time of year- not hanging out by the side of a creek in central Illinois!  This was one of TWO I found in January, the second down at Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area in Union co. Illinois, both in marshy grasslands with open water.

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After a couple of weeks, I went south for my last semester of college, to the Shawnee Hills.  I’ve earned a reputation in certain corners of the internet for praising Southern Illinois a lot, and this isn’t unearned.  As the landscape above shows (taken from Grand Tower Island) the Snow Geese wander around this area in January, and in great numbers, and with great scenery as a backdrop, and everything is “great” and I’m overusing that word now and this is a run-on sentence and I don’t know how to end it.  Ope, there we go.

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Here’s those Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens), along with a few Greater White-fronted Geese (foreground, orange bills and brown bodies, Anser albifrons), hanging out in a nearby shallow wetland just off Route 3 in Jackson co Illinois.  They’ve all mostly migrated out of here by now, but for two months the air was thick with Snow Geese down here.

Snow Geese aren’t the only large, mostly white birds to pass through this area…

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WHOOPING CRANES!  A pair of these incredibly rare, endangered birds (Grus americana) overwinter in a secret location in Southern Illinois.  This pair will fly back to Wisconsin in the summertime, where they’ve been reintroduced. Note that they were photographed from inside a car and we used a decent amount of zoom.  Don’t approach Whooping Cranes too closely, as there are less than a thousand of them in the world and scaring them could potentially do considerable harm.

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Another quite rare bird I found (this one personally) in January was a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) , one of which is photographed.  I found a third one at Larue-Pine Hills a month later, in late February. These birds are uncommon migrants through southern Illinois.  Back in the 1970s, Golden Eagles were recorded annually in parts of southern Illinois, following massive flocks of Canada Geese as they made their way south to forage here.  However, more recently farmers have started plowing their fields in the spring, leaving some corn remaining in their fields overwinter, and geese distributions shifted.  Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese came in and now feed upon the remains of corn in the area, while Canada Geese remain much further north. (This is potentially oversimplifying the shift in geese, to see some more causes read this article linked here) The Golden Eagles shifted their range also, although some still come down this far south after ducks and geese.

GHOW on nest

In addition to the rarer birds, I found this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) occupying a nest somewhere in the Mississippi River Valley.  Unlike many bird species, Great Horned Owls nest during the winter and typically take over other bird’s former nests.

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While driving around looking for salamanders the other night, some friends and I came across this Barred Owl (Strix varia) sitting on a road side and quite willing to pose for photos.

Little Gull

One of the rarest birds I’ve gotten to see of late, and the only new one (lifer!) for me was this Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), the bird with the black underwing in the blurry photo above.  A predominately Eurasian species that rarely nests in the US and Canada, Little Gulls sometimes tag along with large flocks of other gull species and migrate through Illinois.  I’ve tried and failed to find several over the years, and I finally found this one at Carlyle Lake with a friend last week.

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Alright, after spamming all those rarer birds, let’s cool off with some ice formations from Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park, before moving on to small and cute birds.

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Over this winter, an unprecedented irruption (winter movement) of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) occurred in the Eastern United States.  This species of bird lives in the boreal forests of Canada and feeds upon pine and spruce seeds.  In years of a poor seed crop (like this year) they move south in numbers to feed on pine seeds.  As the Shawnee Hills have many pine plantations and naturalized pines, Red-breasted Nuthatches thrive here during the winter.  Coming from the Canadian wilderness, Red-breasted Nuthatches have limited fear of people.

PIWA

Unlike the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) are found predominantly in the Southern US and up until the last few years they did not winter in Illinois regularly.  However as the climate warms just a bit and the pine plantations grow up and age, Pine Warblers become more and more frequent in Southern Illinois over the winter.

Birds are not my sole interest in life, however, and while they’re one of the few things to look at in January that will look back at you and show signs of life, I have looked for

On iNaturalist, I’ve joined the Illinois Botanists Big Year.  This is a competition to see who can observe the most plant species in Illinois over the course of this year.   I have a decent start going, mostly due to the fact that in residing near the Shawnee Hills I have access to a wide swath of biodiversity and far less snow cover than Northern Illinois.  Actually,  I might be downplaying my lead a little too much.  As of 3/4/19, I have 299 plant observations of 143 species.  The second highest observer in the competition is at 95 observations of 87 species.  I don’t expect to win overall- there’s a lot of time left and far more experienced botanists participating- but it definitely feels great to be #1 for now.  For more information visit this link here to go to the project’s homepage.

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Arguably the best plant I’ve seen this year was the Appalachian Filmy Fern above (Vandenboschia boschiana).  This bizarre fern with fronts one cell layer thick only grows in fully shaded, south-facing sandstone or other acidic rocks, with constant high humidity. It’s a VERY specific microhabitat, and as a result this fern is state-endangered in Illinois and only found in a few locations. I took a walk back to one of the locations in February and found it hiding there.

Cypressknee Sedge

Another rare plant in Illinois is Cypressknee Sedge (Carex decomposita) which grows on stumps, fallen logs, cypress “knees”, the sides of dead trees, and other dead masses of wood in slow-moving waters.   Plants can grow in some bizarre locations.

Asplenium pinnatifidum

This Asplenium pinnatifidum was a wonderful find, an uncommon fern growing in sandstone in Giant City State Park.  Half the leaves in that photo belong to an unrelated plant.

Harbinger-of-Spring

While many people semi-seriously use the prognostications of “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog to predict the end of winter, a far better sign of spring is the so-called Harbinger-of-Spring (Eregenia bulbosa), an early-flowering woodland plant shown above.  That being said, I went out and found this plant in late February.  It’s early March and there’s currently snow on the ground.   Plants and groundhogs say what they will, winter doesn’t end until it wants to.

In all seriousness, I was quite glad to find this plant, and while it might be cold now winter does come to an end soon and it will be spring.  The woods along Hutchins Creek (below) will be green before long, and I look forwards to it!

Hutchins Creek

Many people are not aware of the number of salamanders that can move on warm, rainy nights in the late winter.   This causes mass deaths of salamanders when they reach a road and have to cross it on a rainy night.  Thus, friends and I go out and move the salamanders across the road in the direction they’re trying to go, in order that they may survive to reproduce.

Spotted Sal

One of the first salamanders of the year is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), found in high-quality woods locally.  A friend and I spent a night moving a half-dozen of these from a busy state highway, including the gorgeous individual shown above.  Salamanders require fishless wetlands, typically large vernal (springtime-only) pools in woodlands, in order to reproduce.  Many die each year during their trek to the pools, and I’m glad we helped a few.

Crawfish Frog

Another specialist of fishless wetlands is the Crawfish Frog (Lithobates areolatus).  This species gets its name from its residence inside crayfish burrows, from which hundreds emerge every February-March in order to spend a week reproducing out in flooded fields.  Crawfish Frogs are extremely light sensitive and will retreat underwater or underground at the approach of light.  Thus, the only way to see one is to drive along a road slowly in an area where the Crawfish Frogs breed and hope for a “dumb” one to remain on the road for a minute when it sees lights.  Thankfully the lights it saw were ours and we got it off the road before it was run over.

Marbled Sal

In lowland swamps, another salamander that moves on warm rainy nights is the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), perhaps the most beautiful of Illinois salamanders.

PSA, if you can’t tell by now, don’t go driving on warm (40s-50s), rainy nights in wooded or lowland areas, or if you do, keep an eye out for salamanders and other amphibians crossing the road.  If you encounter a salamander on the road, wear plastic gloves (preferentially) and move it across the road in the direction it was initially facing when you first encountered it.

Northern Dusky Salamander

To switch up, here’s a couple individuals of the Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus).  These salamanders originated in Tennessee, but they are used as fishing bait and as a result were transported to Illinois.  They have since taken over a couple hundred feet of a spring-fed stream and now live there in an isolated colony, the only Northern Dusky Salamander population in the state.  An older one below shows how good they are at hiding on the creekbed.

Hidden N. Dusky Sal

While looking for other salamanders in another spot, a friend accidentally flipped this Blackspotted Topminnow (Fundulus olivaceus) out from under a rock.  I grabbed it and after a quick photo released it straight back into the creek.  This is, so far, the most interesting fish I’ve seen this year, and a first state record on iNaturalist.  It’s nice to get that database in agreement with official data, and it’s nice to get a new fish species I’ve not encountered before.

Blackspotted Topminnow

Is this shorter? Probably not. It’s recap of two months worth of observations, however.  Considering that I’ve left out much of what I’ve seen (which y’all can view on my iNaturalist page at this link here) I feel it’s a good length.  That being said, I will try to keep it shorter from now on. Until then, have a good week!

Christmas Bird Count 2017! (And The END OF 2017)

Tis the Christmas season, and for bird obsessives that means Christmas Bird Counts.  Over a hundred years ago, people used to go on Christmas hunts, and some conservation-minded people decided to instead count the birds they could find within a circle of diameter 15 miles.   This has happened for over a hundred years, and while Christmas Bird Counts have been surpassed by Ebird and other forms of data collection, they still provide a hundred-year record of species shifts and changes across certain areas in the US.

Logically, I would go to a CBC near where I live.  However, I don’t.  I instead go to the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area CBC, one of the best ones in Illinois.  With a large, shallow lake usually packed to the banks with ducks, I figured if nothing else I’d see some waterfowl.

On the way, of course, I intended to see a very special duck.  If you recall my trip to Carlyle Lake in the past, I’ve mentioned that it’s a good spot for rarities.  I think I said that.  I may not have, but at any rate, it IS a good spot for weird things, mostly birds and bad drivers, to show up.  (I’m not kidding about the bad drivers.  I think I’ve had someone pull out in front of me every single time I’ve been around Carlyle.  I’m not sure what it is about that place- perhaps it’s the same person every time in different vehicles.)

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Anyway, on the way there I spotted a couple of Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus, above) and a Rough-legged Hawk, as well as a few Northern Harriers.

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The latest rare bird to show up at Carlyle Lake was a Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus).  This is a bird of rocky shores and rapid rivers, not usually placid Midwestern lakes.  It was up against a breakwater, with some small waves, so it wasn’t completely out of place.

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Twas a cute little duck, and not very shy. The male Harlequin Duck (link here) is all dressed up in orange, blue, and white- it’s a sight to behold.  This was a female, but still fun to see.

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Many American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) also lingered on Carlyle Lake, moving south as the ice froze them out up north.  Further out, some 15,000 Snow Geese flew up, looking like a mushroom cloud of white and black as they moved further out into the lake.

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Hundreds of gulls too flew about, stirred up by Bald Eagles.  Many of these are the common Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis), but a few dozen Herring Gulls, a  couple of Iceland Gulls and a Lesser Black-backed Gull hid among the flocks.

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Here’s a good look at a Ring-billed Gull, a rather tame one accustomed to stealing bread from the hands of babes at a park in central Illinois.

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Further down the road, a large flock of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) also held a few Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) (the two birds on the right in the photo above). These two species completed the trifecta of swans that are possible to find in Jackson County.

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Unlike last year, there were more than enough volunteers, so a friend and I were assigned to Sector #5, an area of low hills and brushy thickets with mixed woods,  at least five cemeteries, a few meth labs, and some farmfields.  There’s a topographical map above, and Google Maps below:

Of course, everything froze over due to temps in the 10s Fahrenheit at night.  That’s highly unpleasant and made for a significant lack of ducks.  However, my section wasn’t badly affected by this, since it was mostly woodland.  The day started by meeting up and assigning territories from the gas station in Olive Branch at 6:30 AM- close to the center of the count circle. From there, we drove along the levees in the southern portion of the CBC, where we watched a Coyote run across the road and two Hooded Mergansers fly overhead.  Those were the only ducks we saw and could identify all day long.

We had a few dozen species driving the levee roads in the southern part of our sector, mostly sparrows, juncos and cardinals.  One of our bigger surprises was a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), black-masked brown berry-munchers:

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We went up into the hills after this, where flock after flock of juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and cardinals grazed by the side of the road.  Less common birds like Hermit Thrushes, Fox Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees occasionally joined in.  Red-bellied, Downy, and Northern Flickers (woodpeckers) sat on the side of trees and flew as we passed.   Red-shouldered Hawks perched on trees at every second bend in the road.  We were up to about thirty species by the time we’d driven through Shiloh Road, including a surprise Chipping Sparrow and Oregon subspecies of Junco.  However, we had a few misses… where were the robins, the doves, the pigeons?  Bluebirds, too… those should be everywhere.  At the village of Villa Ridge we found House Sparrow.  We also learned that in the hills here “lane” indicates a private, dead-end road.

After a Pileated Woodpecker flew off a tree nearby, we’d gained four of the seven woodpeckers necessary for WOODPECKER SHUTOUT- finding all the woodpeckers usually present in Illinois.  WOODPECKER SHUTOUT is only achievable when the migratory Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius, below) is present.  My friend in the car hadn’t seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in five years.  We found five -one for each year that he’d missed them!

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We may or may not have accidentally witnessed what appeared to be a drug deal just north of Mounds, Illinois, the only town on our route and one of the saddest places I’ve ever visited.  Just under half the town is below the poverty line.  Symptoms of meth were apparent, including on one of those in the suspected drug deal.  I also smelled a smell that I’ve been told is the smell of a meth lab north of town.  Southern Pulaski County (and the adjacent city of Cairo)  is one of the poorest areas in Illinois, though the northern part is somewhat better off and contains many of the Cache River sites visited by tourists.  Bypassed by the highway, forgotten by industry, and too distant from tourism sites, this area is poor and in severe need of trade.  I suspect manufacturers don’t want to settle here because of the potential for flooding from the two nearby rivers, the Ohio and Mississippi, which converge at Cairo.  Anyway, I’m here to discuss birds, not socioeconomic problems.

The gas station in town had bars over the windows, multiple locks, and a sign saying “No ski masks, scarves, or sunglasses inside.”  Evidently they’d been robbed a few times.  We got our gas and left.  On the north end of town was a cemetary with our only kinglets.  Just below it was a refinery or factory of some kind, and I decided to drive in and see if I could drive around it and find a Rock Pigeon.  We were nearly to the end of the road when “Hallelujah!”  Rock Pigeon!  That’s the only time I’m ever going to say that about those birds!

Eastern Bluebirds began to emerge as the temps climbed, and so did Turkey Vultures- lots of Turkey Vultures.  Black Vultures should also be present… where were they?

I drove the whole day, down roads marginally better than this (though, yes, I drove down this road, and it was a decision that got us our first Killdeer and some of our few Bald Eagles):

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I got out to look for Wilson’s Snipe in a flowing ditch, and was startled to discover Killdeer.  We’d had one flyover Killdeer at this time, but these and another, larger flock down in the bottomlands helped to bring us to 47- the high count among all sectors on that day, if I remember correctly. Also present was a Hairy Woodpecker, the only one we found that day.  With two Red-headed Woodpeckers seen earlier in the day flying among oaks on the eastern side of our sector, that brought us to WOODPECKER SHUTOUT.

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We spotted an incredibly pale hawk in a tree, and hoped it was a Snowy Owl.  This proved incorrect, but it does appear to be a pigment-deficient Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis):

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A random Mourning Dove was seen while backtracking through old territory, and we found two robins by going down a dead-end road not marked as a lane. The Black Vultures still eluded us, while 36 Turkey Vultures had flown by over the course of the day.

We walked down the banks of the Cache River to the Mississippi River, spotting almost all of our Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Brown Creeper, and our only Tufted Titmouse.  We then went back and picked up Savannah Sparrows on the levee.

An hour before sunset,  I went up a road that I thought was just a lane, but it turned out to be more than that- for it brought us dark shapes huddled on a water tower- the Black Vultures we sought. Just down the road were seven Mourning Doves.

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We spent our sunset time watching Snow Geese fly overhead, while Northern Harriers danced in the fields and a Red-tailed Hawk watched from a perch.  Attempts to find Short-eared Owls in a large grassy field nearby were unsuccessful, but a Barred Owl called nearby.

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We looked into this Barred Owl, and saw another one only twenty feet from the roadside.  Playing owl calls provoked a response from three Eastern Screech-Owls and another Barred Owl.  We ended the day with 57 species, as you can see in the checklist below.  Our biggest misses were waterfowl- our CBC as a whole got most of the expected species, but it was a struggle and a few species were represented by only one individual.  Our rarest species in our sector were the Chipping Sparrow, the Oregon Junco, and the pigment-troubled Red-tailed Hawk, and the three rarest species found on the CBC were an Indigo Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Sandhill Crane.  The first two are quite frankly ridiculous- they should be well south of us by now!

We had dinner at a local greasy spoon, and since I’m back in central IL over winter break it was a long drive back home for me, broken up over two days.

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I did a little more birding New Year’s Eve, and found a lifer Glaucous Gull on Lake Springfield (above and below) as my last species (#304 for the year), though I don’t have photos of it.  I’m happy with 2017- over 100 lifer birds, many of them unusual, rare, and unexpected, several lifer snakes and I survived living on my own for four months.  That last one is the most impressive, even though everyone does it at some point.  As the sun has set on 2017, I look forwards to 2018 (five days in and I’ve seen 56 species so far!)

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Full list of birds seen on Christmas Bird Count: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41414553

Top Ten Birds, Herps, Plants, Trips, and Photos of 2017

I did several top tens as separate blogposts last year. This year I’m going to restrict it to one somewhat longer post.  Let’s get into it, and start off with birds!  (Caution, Snakes at end)

 

Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

I do have three honorable mentions, a lost Cinnamon Teal (Illinois),  two American Dippers (Colorado), and one Hurricane Irma-blown Sooty Tern (Kentucky).

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#10 Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)-  I saw these both in Illinois and in Colorado this year.  The Illinois one was on an extremely fun trip, and I’m hoping to get a couple more this winter.

Whooping Crane #2

#9 Whooping Crane (Grus americana), southern IL -Easily the rarest worldwide of the birds I saw this year (with 600 or so in the wild), the Whooper is North America’s tallest bird.

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#8 Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), CO- It’s a Burrowing Owl.  Need I say more?

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#7 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), IL, KS- Not only is it a bird with an insanely long tail, I saw several over the course of the year.

#6 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (no photo), IL – Sure, I didn’t get photos, but I set a county record when they flew over my apartment in Jackson County.  What better way to see  new birds?

#5 Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), IL (photo by Colin Dobson, computer destroyed quality) -A Eurasian gull that often wanders to the Northeast, this was my first mega rarity of the year, and a fun one to find.  Unfortunately I have no photo, so I borrowed this one.

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#4 Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) central IL- The second of the two Eurasian wanderers, this one is a little more in doubt (though I’m 99% sure it’s wild).  If accepted, it will be the state’s first or second official record (though there’s plenty of unofficial records).

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#3 Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis), western KY- This bird is the rarest- it’s supposed to migrate from Siberia to Australia twice yearly, and how it ended up in a flooded cornfield in western Kentucky no one knows. It did- on Eclipse Day- and I chased it at 7:00 AM.  It is probably the best bird I’ve seen this year, easily a first state record (of any kind) for Kentucky, but it isn’t my favorite, because there’s two birds just a little higher on the scale…

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#2 Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), KY/TN/IL- I’ve spent so much time looking for these, that in November I drove 7 hours round-trip to see a few in far southwestern Kentucky/far northwestern Tennessee.  This one posed ten feet from my car.  And then, driving back home in December- a Loggerhead Shrike flies across the highway in southern Illinois.  Shrikes are unusual, rare, and charismatic birds with the tendency to impale other, smaller animals on thorns.

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#1 Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) MO/IL – My 300th US bird of the year (debatably- I’m not sure when I first saw Broad-winged Hawks) and my 100th or 101st lifer of the year (again, Broad-winged Hawk- I probably saw them in September 2015, but I can’t say for sure.)  The timing- just after finals- couldn’t have been better!  I then went on to find one in IL.

Top Ten Lifer Plants

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#10 Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), central IL- It’s pretty.

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#9  Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera), southern IL- It’s an orchid.

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#8  Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii ), CO –  Other than two following plants, this was the most interesting plant I found in Colorado.  It looked like something someone might grow in a garden, instead of on a talus slope in the Rocky Mountains.

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#7 Silvery Bladderpod (Lesquerella ludoviciana),central IL-  It only grows on one sand dune in Illinois, which I checked a couple of times until I found it in bloom.

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#6 Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda)(IL state champion tree), southern IL- This is the biggest tree I’ve seen this year.  It’s absolutely massive, which you can see with my hat as a comparison.

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#5 Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus),central IL – Another rare plant in Illinois, this one I had the distinction of discovering exactly where it grew by using a website.  It’s at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, one of my favorite spots to visit.  That’s honestly why I put it so high on the list.

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#4  Spring Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), Missouri Ozarks- This is an orchid that steals nutrients from fungi. It was a somewhat unexpected find in the Ozarks.

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#3 Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), CO- Even more unexpected was this orchid in Colorado, which also steals nutrients from fungi and is much prettier than its cousin.

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#2 Orange-fringed Orchid (Platanthera cillaris), northern IL – The most beautiful and rare plant I’ve found in Illinois this year, the Orange-fringed Orchid grows in a spot guarded by giant mosquitoes and hidden from the world.  In that spot, there are thousands.  It was fascinating, and I got to see it with the Fenelon, one of my close friends.  That’s not easy to top… is it?

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#1 Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis), CO  Evidently it is.  I got to see this with my family.  One of the most unexpected finds of the year, this unusual, somewhat rare orchid is widely praised in nearly every guide to orchids. Much of this praise is for the rarer Eastern form, but the Western form, while less rare, is still the best plant of 2017 for me.

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

#10 Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge/Four Corners, May 31… I almost put the trip with the Illinois Golden Eagle in southwestern central Illinois on as #10, but this trip, also with V.S., had a lot of unexpected species.  I went for Red-necked Phalaropes, an oceanic vagrant, and ended up finding a state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoo.  It got me over 200 species-wise for the year.

#9 Southern IL/Riverlands, November 11- On this trip I saw my first Red-throated Loon and had a blast birding all day with Chris Smaga and Kyle Wiktor.  I’ve been to Riverlands three times between November 11 and December 15.  The last trip got me the Snowy Owl, but the first trip was probably the most fun, even if the first half of that trip was an unsuccessful Greater Prairie-Chicken search.

#8 Snake Road, September 15- This is the trip where I found the Mud Snake.

#7 Southern IL, August 17-20- When I first moved down to Southern Illinois, I got to see so many unusual plants, animals, and natural areas in that first weekend, culminating in my trip to see the Red-necked Stint and the eclipse.  It’s unforgettable- and it was really hot!

#6  Three Weekend Days in Emiquon, April 10, 16, and 23- One of these was with the Lincoln Land  Environmental Club, one was with Mom, and one was by myself.  I saw a lot of unusual species on all three days, and it was interesting to see all the changes week-to-week.

#5  Lake Carlyle Pelagic Trip, September 30- I met many birders and got to see four lifer birds, as well as the most bird species I’ve ever seen in one day (88?).

#4  Kankakee Trip  with the Fenelon, August 1- Orange-fringed Orchids!  Thousand-acre prairies! Philosophical discussions in the car!  It was perfect.

#3Snake Road, October 13-14-  I saw 80 snakes over these two days.  That’s pretty awesome.  I also got to meet a LOT of herpers.

#2 Ozarks Trip, May 17-19- The Lincoln Land Environmental Club trip- that was so much fun.  We had skinks, a nesting Eastern Phoebe, and a Luna Moth on our front porch.  The ticks were a little annoying, but everything else- weather, sightings, lodging, people- couldn’t be topped… well, I guess it could, by #1…

#1 Colorado, June 5- 14- Family vacation in Colorado.  Snow-capped mountains, family, orchids, all kinds of animals (including 30 lifer birds)- I had so much fun here. I’ve had a great year.

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

Honorable Mention- the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an elusive bird and I finally got one good photo:

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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————————————CAUTION, SNAKES BELOW THIS LINE!!!——————————————

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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#10 Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), southeastern Missouri- This was an unexpected find on a fun trip to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (that’s not an exact location).  Since Broad-banded Watersnakes are almost certainly extirpated from Illinois, Missouri is the closest I’m going to get to seeing one locally.

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#9 Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca), Snake Road, Illinois-  A State-Threatened species of treefrog in Illinois, the Bird-voiced has been a species I’ve wanted to find for a long time.

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#8 Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), southern Illinois-  Another amphibian I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this salamander was even on its nest.  Bonus points to you if you find the Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) hiding in the photo.

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#7 Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), Missouri – My only rare lizard of the year, this was one of the highlights of one of my Missouri trips. Overcollected for the pet trade, Eastern Collared Lizards are uncommon to find.

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#6 Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri Ozarks-  This was in a parking lot, about ten minutes after we got to the location where we found it.

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#5 Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), Missouri Ozarks- About fifteen minutes after finding the Eastern Hognose, this slithered across our path about three feet from my foot. Some people would freak out- I did, but exclusively from joy.

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#4 Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), central Illinois- This is a snake I’ve always wanted to see, and I found it at a special spot to me, which I cannot state because collectors.  It was also up a tree, which I did not expect and which proved a photographic obstacle.

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#3 Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Snake Road, Illinois- My long-standing nemesis snake decided to randomly crawl out in front of me one fine October day. 58 snakes later, that was still the best snake of the day.

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#2 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), southern Illinois- I’ve managed to see three of these this year in Illinois.  The photographed one was the best of the three.

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#1 Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Snake Road, Illinois- It was a slow day at Snake Road, on September 15, the day after a nice rain… Suddenly, I spot a snake crossing the road at the first marshy spot on the north end.  I figured it was a Cottonmouth… but the red was a giveaway.  This is a snake that people at Snake Road who’ve been looking for 20 years haven’t found. (Don’t judge that sentence’s verbiage too harshly.)