Category: Grand Tower Island

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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


A few days later, I returned with other friends.


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Snake Road- Holy Farancia!!!

So, my snake luck has been rather- well, I’ve seen a lot of snakes lately.   Part of this has to do with Snake Road.  Part of it is just my extreme luck at this time of year.  First, it was  this, sticking up out of the grass along a road in the Shawnee National Forest as I drove by:


This morphed into a lifer, two-foot long Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), a State-Threatened species and the third venomous snake species I’ve found this year- just sitting in the grass on the side of a random road.  I maintained a safe distance- this is the most venomous of Illinois’ snakes, albeit also the least likely to bite a human in Illinois.


Timber Rattlesnakes can grow to about double this length or more.  Snakes never stop growing- they just usually die at about a certain length.  They do slow down once they reach maturity.


I took a video as the snake crossed back into the woods to get away from me.  The battery of my camera ran out as I took the video, but I still managed a decent clip:

Lifer Timber Rattlesnake

While off and about, I also discovered this skink, probably a Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), on a rock ledge.  I’m still not used to just finding lizards while hiking.


Not far from it,  someone I was hiking with found an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) in the undergrowth.  They are quite active this time of year, looking to build up food reserves before winter.  One sign of their existence is triangle gaps bitten off a mushroom, though a Box Turtle will eat a wide variety of food, including mushrooms, leaves, berries, insects, worms, and even carrion.  One Box Turtle even ate a live bird that was trapped in a banding net!


We took it out for a brief look before replacing it in the undergrowth where we found it:


After this, I wandered over to Grand Tower Island for some birds:


Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have begun to appear widely. I suspect these are migrants.


Immature Bald Eagles  (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) cruised overhead, though the mature bird seems to have left for other waters.  This individual is growing some white in the tail.


Hundreds of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) have congregated here of late.  While not a rare bird, seeing more than a hundred of such a large species is always an impressive sight! I suspect this is a staging sight (a spot where migrants gather to form into flocks), or perhaps just a stopover site for food and shelter as the egrets migrate southwards.


Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) have declined in number, however as the fish population has died off in the drying sloughs nearby..  This one decided to fly off.


Several Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), along with hundreds of Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus), congregated to eat dead fish.   The sloughs here are filled with Asian carp (Hypophthalmichthys spp.) that died as the water quality and food supply dwindled out.  It reeks, and it also attracts plenty of wildlife…


Raccoons (Procyon lotor)  seem to be considerably more abundant in these lowlands than I am used to.  Perhaps they’re just more diurnal in the absence of humans.  Either way, I saw this one well before sunset, having a nice meal of rotting fish.  I’ve named it Smeagol.


Did I mention there were hundreds of Great Egrets?


I then went over to Snake Road, a road closed twice a year for snake migration.  I’ve talked about it before, but to recap- snakes live in the swamp on one side of the road, and hibernate in the cliffs on the other side of the road.  They cross over the road in great numbers in spring and fall to get wherever it is they want to be for the next season.  Occasionally, there’s water on both sides of the road, as seen above, but for the most part, a strip of woodland accompanies the roadside.


It’s here that I found boulders covered lushly with Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum).


A large American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) hopped along, oblivious to any potential dangers…


I was not.  Someone had messed with a couple of the Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on Snake Road, and as a result they immediately went into defensive mode.  This involves a lot of gaping and tail-shaking, as if it wanted to be a rattlesnake.  Many of Illinois’ snakes shake their tails in defensive postures- I presume as a way of imitating rattlesnakes.  However, Cottonmouths are plenty dangerous enough on their own- they don’t need to pretend!


This open mouth, the whitish lining deriving the name “cottonmouth”, shows the fangs very well- which is the idea.  Cottonmouths have potent-enough venom to kill a human.  While that happens rarely, amputations and extremely costly medical bills are also known side effects.  Thankfully, almost all they do is bluff- you’d have to get within striking range (half the snakes’s body length, though I give it more) or handle one (illegal here, and it should be illegal everywhere).  Almost all bites are the result of someone trying to catch or kill the snake.   Cottonmouths are fascinating, but it’s a fascination that comes with serious respect and a little bit of personal space.

Notice how thick the body is.  One feature that distinguishes a Cottonmouth is its incredibly thick body.  The very angular head, usually held up at a steep angle, is another ID feature.  Cottonmouths are pit vipers, having sunken “pits” behind their nostrils, containing heat-sensing organs for detecting prey.  Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are also pit vipers.


It is said that Cottonmouths chase and attack people.  If that were true, I would be dead.  In fact, they are the laziest snakes I’ve ever seen.  Since Cottonmouths know they have venom glands, they can take all the time they want in crossing a trail, confident in their power.


Because of their small, vulnerable size, baby Cottonmouths do not have this luxury and are therefore skittish, albeit with a tendency to only be seen once nearly underfoot. A Cottonmouth this size is referred to as a neonate, as it was just born this year.


It was hot and humid, and it had rained overnight. I walked down the road, spotting a snake in the distance as it crossed the road. It was too thin for a Cottonmouth, and I had no idea what it was.  In point of fact, it was the last thing I ever thought I’d see…


IT’S A MUD SNAKE!!!  The Mud Snake (Farancia abacura) is the “best” species to find at Snake Road, one that most people never see.  I know people who have looked for Mud Snakes here for 20+ years without success- and this is the fifth species I find here (after Copperhead,  Ring-necked Snake, Cottonmouth,and Plain-bellied Watersnake).  Mud Snakes spend the vast majority of their life underwater in a swamp, preying on aquatic salamanders.  To see one on land anywhere is great.  To see one on Snake Road itself is nearly a miracle.


Despite what I’ve just said, Mud Snakes are not considered rare in population- they just live a life cycle that renders them almost completely hidden from humans.  They’re not small either- an old Mud Snake in the right habitat can be over four feet long.  This one was three feet or so in length.  I recorded a video almost as soon as I found the snake.  It’s mostly a reaction video, but enjoy:

Mud Snake Video

Right after this, the snake curled up, lashed out at me, and then it slithered away back into the swamp.  I then walked onwards, scaring up a Barred Owl along the way, though it vanished into the trees without a photo.  It was about ten or fifteen minutes later that I ran into someone herping. The man I met had been looking for Mud Snakes for ten years, and it was the only Illinois native snake species he had not seen in Illinois.  That man was very disappointed.


However, he did find me my first Snake Road Black/Grey Rat Snake, an animal for which there is essentially no  good scientific name.  (It’s changed five or six times since 2000, and I’m waiting it out to see what scientific name sticks.)  Because the scientific name changed, scientists insist that the common name must also change from Black Rat Snake to Grey Rat Snake- despite it being black (the lighting above makes it appear more grey, but it was black).  That is, unless it’s on the other side of the Mississippi River, where it is now a Western Rat Snake automatically.  Snakes can swim large bodies of water, including this species… more data is needed.

Whatever you call it, this is one of the more common snakes throughout the Shawnee National Forest.   A day later, while surveying plants for a botany lab, a member of our class came across this one, and after releasing it at the base of a tree we watched it climb, and I took a video.  Black Rat Snakes have impressive climbing skills, especially for animals with no limbs!

Video does have some language.

"Grey" Rat Snake Climbing Tree

Now that I’ve demonstrated the climbing skills of the Black Rat Snake, I will mention that the Black Rat Snake photographed at Snake Road, in order to get away from the herper who found it, decided to climb up my legs.  In defense for its lack of wisdom, I was standing still and taking photos, at least until it tried to go up my shorts.  There are limits to what I’ll put up with from a wild animal, and the snake was set on the side of the road, where it vanished into the grass.

I ran into another guy, and we decided to check the cliffs.  We found no snakes, but a State-Threatened Bird-voiced Treefrog  (Hyla avivoca) was a lifer for me.  These are only found in a few swamps in Southern Illinois, the northern edge of their range, though they are much more common further south:


A spectacular sunset is  the perfect way to end a spectacular day.  However I settled for this moderately good one. Nothing was going to top that Mud Snake, anyway.


Grand Tower Island- and Finally, the Anhinga.


Grand Tower Island is one of the best spots I’ve ever birded.  Sweeping views, a large number of wetlands, quiet conditions and a lack of irritating insects past the occasional horsefly make this spot downright amazing.  The only downside is that you sort of have to invent your own parking spots- it’s a road on a decently wide levee, surrounded by acres of private land.


This is the story of my first trip here, despite it being a bit “spoiled” for readers in earlier posts.  Still, it’s hard to spoil such a beautiful and wondrous place completely!


Grand Tower Island gets its name from Grand Tower, Illinois, a town which gets its name from Grand Tower, an island in the Mississippi (not to be mistaken with Grand Tower Island) that looks like someone took Starved Rock and stuck it in the middle of the river.


Looking out from Grand Tower-the-city boat launch, just across from Grand Tower-the-rock, and just north of Grand Tower-the-island-but-not-the-rock,  you can see Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) with Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) and other butterflies all over it.  Fun fact:  Buttonbushes are in the same taxonomic family as  the coffee tree.


In the riprap along the edge of the Mississippi River at the boat lauch, I found this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius).  It posed well for photos before flying downriver.  Spotted Sandpipers are found by moving water far more often than most sandpipers, and they often hunt for food along riverbanks.  I’ve just never seen one on a river quite this large before!


I drove down Grand Tower Island, looking for whatever I could see.  At this time, I’d never been there before, so the numbers of herons were overwhelming. Many of these were Cattle Egrets (Bulbulculs ibis), either resting in the fields or playing a sort of “leapfrog” over one another, presumably to stir up insects to eat.


Cattle Egrets in North America are a new development- and yet not deliberately introduced, unlike House Sparrows or Starlings- both of which were brought over and set free on this continent.  In 1877, Cattle Egrets appeared in South America, evidently having flown across the ocean.  In the 1930s, they began expanding their range rapidly, and by 1953 they were breeding in Florida.  Now they live as far north as Canada, and appear on every continent.


This is something they did themselves- no people introduced them.  Cattle Egrets like cattle habitat, feeding on insects that livestock stir up. No cattle live on Grand Tower Island, but it seems to be popular with this species anyway.


Cattle Egrets are uncommon in Illinois, and there were hundreds here- in Missouri!  Due to a change in the shape of the river, Grand Tower Island is actually part of Missouri.  However, anything seen on Grand Tower Island usually flies over Illinois at some point.  It’s a benefit of the local geography that favors listers- birders who try to record as many birds as possible in as many counties, states, and countries as they can.   I’m somewhat of a “lister “- I like getting new birds for my home counties (Jackson and Sangamon) and my state (Illinois) as well as Missouri, the state I’ve decided I want to live in someday if possible. (Well, either Missouri or North Carolina.)


Seven species of heron were present, including a lone juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and these two immature Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerula), which are bright white as youngsters.  If this seems confusing to you, know that it also is to me!


After Cattle Egret, the next largest number of a species goes to Great Egrets (Ardea alba), above.  In the evening, these birds all congregate on some of the ponds to roost together.  Some people have recorded five hundred or more Great Egrets at once here, on the Illinois side.


Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) are also quite common here, splashing about in the shallows.  While they all look like white herons, each species has a different foraging behavior as well as bill shape and pattern. Snowy Egrets, which have thin black bills, like to run about.  Little Blue Herons, which usually have silvery bills, tend to “lean” forwards as they move slowly but steadily through the shallows, occasionally snatching up an unfortunate frog or fish.  Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons sit and wait, striking at whatever fish comes too near.  Cattle Egrets play leapfrog or stand still.  Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons hide in tree branches, leaning far over the water, waiting for a fish to swim underneath.


Another excellent feature of Grand Tower Island is its proximity to the Mississippi River and the bluffs of that river that border the Shawnee National Forest.   North of here is Fountain Bluff and Devil’s Backbone, two hills running north-to-south.  This combination of air currents provided by the geography and proximity to the river provides for some good thermals- excellent for watching hawks fly overhead!  Sometimes even better than that…


This is an immature Bald Eagle (Halialeetus leucocephalus).  That gigantic bill and the broad, big wings held flat- like a flying surfboard, I always think-  make this a fun bird to identify at great distance.  I’ve seen four at one time here, not bad for the summer months.  In the winter, when hundreds of Canadian Bald Eagles come south to Illinois, this place is going to be FUN.


A new bird for me was this, the Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis).  I got a brief look at one some months ago in the Ozarks, but essentially the Illinois ones have really been my introduction to this species.  Mississippi Kites are EVERYWHERE in the summer months here, though they’ll migrate in a month or two.  Social and insect-eating, they enjoy flying in groups over the river bottoms  in pursuit of dragonflies, cicadas, and more.  These kites used to be far more common in Illinois, but as they like large insect populations coupled with large woodlands, they declined to the point of being State-Threatened.  However, the population is growing again.  A few have settled far to the north, near Rockford, Illinois, just barely south of Wisconsin.  Sooner or later they’ll be delisted and considered a species more-or-less safe in numbers here.


A group of Mississippi Kites, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, an American Kestrel, three Cattle Egrets, a Great Egret and one other bird decided to come together and soar overhead about 10:00 AM.  That one other bird was the Anhinga I wanted to see.  A bird of the Deep South, not to be expected anywhere without alligators, Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) are somewhat similar to Cormorants in appearance.  However, Anhingas have a long thin spearlike bill, a long, pizza-slice shaped tail, and broader wings, and they are furthermore not considered relatives.  If you haven’t figured it out, the Anhinga is the bird in the upper right corner above and the only one below.  The other bird in lower left above is a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), for size comparison.


Back in the 1800s, Anhingas may have been more common in far Southern Illinois, but the removal of the cypress swamps they like to live in caused them to vanish.  The strip of land south of the Shawnee Hills is actually considered part of the Gulf Coastal Plain ecozone- having many of its species and habitats more in common with Louisiana than with much of the rest of Illinois.  In this area, Anhingas were rediscovered in about 2009 or 2010, in a spot known as Snake Hole Lane.  The head honcho of Illinois birding, Greg Neise, went down to find them, in one of the more amusing stories about chasing a rarity that I’ve read.   Amusing, of course, because I wasn’t there:

By contrast, all I had to do was sit on a levee and wait for about fifteen minutes, in the meantime watching all of the herons I talked about earlier, as well as a few other birds:


I’ve talked about my favorite group of birds, shorebirds, ad nauseum, but still, anything that weighs about an ounce, is six inches or less long, and flies from Alaska to Argentina twice a year on its own power, is an impressive animal.  That’s what these little birds in the photo above do.  With a couple of seabird exceptions, there’s not much to rival shorebirds at migration!


Nearby lurked one of the great waterfowl predators in Illinois and Missouri, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  These don’t go after shorebirds, but they’ve been known to attack ducks from underneath, dragging them down under the water to be eaten.  Pleasant, I know.   Still, it came as a shock to me.  If you’re squeamish, don’t look up the Youtube videos of it.


Of course, in that case also never look up herons eating things.  There’s videos of herons hunting moles in fields, hunting other birds, and even hunting venomous snakes!  However, this concentration above was mostly after fish in a flooded slough on the Illinois side.


Perched behind me in a tree was a young Mississippi Kite, trying to figure out how to use a dead tree branch.  It was not succeeding with the vertical one, but it kept trying.


Eventually, after a few minutes, it gave up and flew away.   Still, it was very amusing to watch!


Nearby,  a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), one of the few I’ve seen here, perched, waiting for mice to appear.  Larue- Pine Hills Research Natural Area, the wetlands of the Big Muddy River, Grand Tower Island,  Oakwood Bottoms, and the wooded slopes of Fountain Bluff occur within five or ten minute’s drive of each other.  Few of these are the open agricultural areas Red-tailed Hawks like.  Surprisingly, I have yet to see a Red-shouldered Hawk here, a species far more fond of wooded floodplains.  I’ve heard them a couple times, however.


One Bald Eagle on the north end of Grand Tower Island was a regular, however, perched in one of the same few trees every time.  In the first photo, it is “panting” from heat. Birds cannot sweat- they must expel excessive heat by panting and by holding their wings away from their body, as this Bald Eagle is doing.  I’d never observed this kind of behavior before.


The nearby area around the Illinois edge of Grand Tower Island has similar habitat, if much reduced, to the island itself.  It’s here that a White Ibis had been spotted in July, a visitor from the South.  Another visitor, in addition to the Anhingas, was a Neotropic Cormorant.  I’ve tried several times to bring a smaller-than-usual cormorant to species, but failed to correctly identify or identify enough distingusing marks on several birds, as you might have seen previously.


A few days later, I was driving down here, looking for whatever I could find.  Several Turkey Vultures flew right over the tops of some trees, apparently startling a small cormorant.  It took off- and it had a long tail and no yellow in the face, signs of a rarity.  My camera was tightly in its case, unable to record the Neotropic Cormorant I’d tried to find for months.  Well, that’s how it goes.


I pulled off along Route 3 later in the day to photograph some sandpipers, and I stumbled across what I believe is a Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) in the middle in the photo above, which in addition to a Baird’s Sandpiper from the day before, makes this the fifth new species of bird and third new sandpiper I’ve found since moving down here.  I would be very OK if this trend continued!   Western Sandpipers migrate from Alaska to Florida and Peru, but they rarely arrive in Illinois.  The Western Sandpiper made an excellent Fifth Orchid* to the day.


Another day’s Fifth Orchid was a Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), one of the world’s most “feminist” birds. Basically, traditional bird gender roles are reversed in the phalaropes.  The less colorful males, up to four of them, have to take care of one female’s eggs and young while she fights with other females for the right to keep those males.   So much else is reversed with these birds, too!  Most shorebirds live on the edge of mudflats, but for much of their lives, phalaropes live out in the open ocean, far at sea, spinning in circles.  I mean that- they spin in a circle in the water to concentrate plankton on which to feed.  Here’s more details on a related species, the more common Wilson’s Phalarope.  Red-necked Phalaropes are less common, but they do occasionally migrate inland.  Still, this was the first Red-necked Phalarope ever seen in Jackson County, Illinois, according to Ebird.


I also took a photo of a Great Egret eating a shad in the shallows.   The wait and ambush method works well for these herons, it seems.   Personally,  I prefer the Snowy Egret, always darting about from place to place- not unlike me, sometimes!

I look forwards to seeing many more of them here, at my new favorite birdwatching (and eclipse-watching) spot.  Come for the rarities, stay for the view:


*Fifth Orchid- an unexpected last find at the end of the day.  I haven’t used this personally-created term in awhile, but I figure it comes in handy here.