Category: Herps

Yes, Chicago, There Are Armadillos in Illinois

Black Vulture

On the second day of spring break, my good friend Cody and I went out a-wandering across the Mississippi floodplains, searching for whatever we could find.  We first stumbled across this Black Vulture feeding upon a Nine-banded Armadillo, in an image that demands y’all’s sweet tea, it’s so Southern.    For the heck of it, I posted the image to Illinois Birding Network on Facebook, where it blew up.  I recieved over 60 comments, mostly to the tune of “THERE’S ARMADILLOS IN ILLINOIS?!”  Now, most members of that group are from Chicago, and as with anything else in Illinois the rest of the state gets a bit forgotten in comparison to whatever’s going on in Chicago.   So, “Yes, Chicago, we do have Armadillos in Illinois.”

Nine-banded Armadillo

Indeed, Cody and I went on to find two more Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) out foraging in muddy fields.  Armadillos are a recent addition to Illinois’ mammals, the earliest specimens found in 2002 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  It’s part of a range expansion going on since the early 1800s, when the first Nine-banded Armadillos illegally immigrated into Texas from Mexico in 1849.  They’re thick on the ground along Route 3 and the nearby backroads here in southern Illinois, especially in floodplain areas.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

Thick in the trees- for now- are Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata), starting to move north for spring. By late May they’ll be gone, off  nesting in the North Woods of Canada.

Great Waterleaf

The springlike weather has encouraged the Great Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) to begin coloring up and producing a few more leaves.   Waterleaves get both their common and scientific names from their unique markings that somewhat resemble water stains.

Broad-headed Sharpshooter

The warming weather also encouraged a few overwintering insects to emerge, like this unique little Broad-headed Sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), a planthopper capable of jumping great distances to avoid photography.  Thankfully, it decided to sit mostly still for us instead.

Cave Salamander

A recent rainstorm had encouraged the Cave Salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) out of their usual crevices  and directly into view for us. These shy, light-avoiding salamanders were visibly present in the low hundreds at this location. They often are here, but they generally don’t like to leave their spring too much, until the water gets too high for them as it had lately.

Cave Salamander 2

In a hole off to the side of the salamander spring, a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) glowered at us, seemingly unwilling to leave its den. YAY!  First snake of the year.

Cottonmouth

Outside the cave, we noticed a few Cut-leafed Toothworts (Cardamine concatenata) just beginning to bloom, the first of a long series of flowering plants we’ll see over the coming weeks.

Cut-leaved Toothwort

Flipping a stone nearby yielded this pair of Northern Zigzag Salamanders (Plethodon dorsalis), cousins to the Eastern Red-backed Salamanders found in most of the eastern US far more widely and abundantly.  This species is seemingly localized to a handful of sites in Illinois, although as with most salamanders it’s hard to know the exact range thanks to their quiet and secretive ways.

N. Zigzag Salamanders

Cody and I just about stumbled over a few Cottonmouths sunning themselves next to a den site, a spot where they go into holes and hide to overwinter.  Thankfully, we backed away reasonably well.  Still, understandably they got a bit defensive, and here we see a Cottonmouth in defensive posture. This particular individual has gorgeous chin patterning compared to many I’ve seen.

When moving around a probable Cottonmouth (or other venomous snake) den site, there’s a few things to keep in mind.  Wear foot protection of some kind (thick socks and especially thicker shoes, don’t reach into any crevices you can’t see all the way into, and look before you move.  I prefer going with a friend and moving slowly through the area, watching out for each other as we go along.  This avoids unintended injuries to both the snakes and ourselves.  Cottonmouths are not particularly aggressive, and nearly all injuries are from trying to pick up or kill them.  That being said, Cottonmouths know what a wallop they can deliver and they’ll let you know about it ahead of time by showing off in a threat display.  Rattling tails, hissing, and open, upturned mouths are a good sign not to come closer!  Cottonmouths and most other snakes can strike within half of their body length, and I generally recommend keeping out of the full snake’s body length from an individual, just for extra buffer.   If you follow this advice, you’ll be quite safe.

Cottonmouth 2

After appreciating the Cottonmouths, we drove home, wrapping up a second wonderful day of spring break.  I’m writing this on the third day,  just about to head out and I’m about to see what I find today!  Have a safe Daylight Savings Time, everyone!

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!

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

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

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

Random fields

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

Mason County Map

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

Field in mist

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

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

Grasshopper Sparrow

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

Random field

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

Grasshopper Sparrow

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

Random weed

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

Five-lined Skink

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

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

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

Poppy Mallow sp?

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

Revis Hill Prarie

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

Tiger Beetle

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

Fowler's Toad

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

Asclepias viridiflora

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

Western Kingbird

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

EUTS and WEKI

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

Eagle Bluffs

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

Pelicans and Gulls

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

AMWP flock

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

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

Emiquon North Globe Units

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

Black-necked Stilt

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

Greater Yellowlegs

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

Not bad for a bird seven inches long!

Sanderling I think

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

I really am Havana great time.

Thompson Lake

Indiana Dunes Almost Birding Festival (Chicago Trip, Part 3)

Dunes Parking Lot

Indiana Dunes  State Park was the last day of my Chicago trip. After hearing a Prairie Warbler from this parking lot,  I met up with Kyle around 10:30 AM  (no early rising!) and we immediately stumbled across an Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platirhinos):

Eastern Hognose #1

This is easily the best snake I’ve seen this year.  I love Hognoses and their goofy-grinning faces.  The “Hognose” refers to the upturned scale on the top of their upper jaw that they use to dig though sand in search of toads.  Pretty much all a Hognose eats is toads.  Feeling threatened, the snake flattened out and pretended to be a cobra for a bit.

Eastern Hognose #2

We let it be and wandered over to some trails.  Along one of them, a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nests in a little box, putting on a good show for us and a couple other birdwatchers. Thislocation is fairly far north for a Prothonotary, which is primarily a southern bird that creeps north in Illinois along the river valleys.  Pretty much everyone else had binoculars, because that afternoon was the start of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.  It was like Montrose all over again, except fewer giant cameras and ridiculous clothes.

PROW

Above the Prothonotary Warbler, a little Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sat up in a tree.  I’ve not seen very many hummingbirds this year, so it’s a joy to see.  I don’t know if my lack of hummingbirds is a personal coincidence or just an actual lack of them.  Time will tell.

Ruby-throated Hummer

Into the woods, and the late spring plants were in full flower.  My first Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) bloomed along a creek- hundreds of small white flowerheads.  This plant somehow doesn’t grow wild in Illinois, so it’s a treat to see here.

Dwarf Ginseng

Also a treat was Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) another lifer plant:

Rue Anemone

The woods here resembled late April back in Southern Illinois, right down to the Cerulean Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes calling from the trees above:

Stream, Indiana Dunes

However, the plants proved it to be distinct… this Great White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) doesn’t grow wild in southern Illinois, for instance.  It’s more of an Appalachian plant.

Great White Trillium

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were abundant, migrating back to the tundra from which they came.  One was enjoying the picnic area:

White-crowned Sparrow

Kyle had to go to a lecture, so I went off and explore by myself.  Several migrant warblers were calling and seen as I went down one of the longer trails, stumbling across Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) on the way.  This is another calling-card of this area’s biodiversity- Wild Lupine is a plant of the Atlantic Coast and sandy sections of the Great Lakes area.

Wild Lupine

The sand dunes and their environs have over 1400 species of plants, making them some of the most biodiverse habitat in the Midwest.  It’s a joy to walk here- you never know what’s around the next bend, and it can be wildly different from what came before!

Dunes Oak Savanna

For me, around the next bend was a Golden-winged Warbler pair, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and this Bird’s Foot Violet (Viola pedata), a plant of the Great Plains and open dry areas in the South.

Birds-foot Violet

Just behind the dunes, a wet area held many Swainson’s Thrushes, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and multiple tall trees sandwiched between a full wetland and the dryer landscape of the sand dunes themselves.  I love the golden look of trees leafing out- it’s Lothlorien in the real world. (I haven’t referenced J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings in awhile… it’s been too long.)

Forest- Indiana Dunes

Up on the sand dunes again, and a Least Flycatcher called.  Lowbrush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) covered a dune, their little white bells sweet-smelling and everywhere.

Blueberry

Alongside the blueberries, Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bloomed, also one of the most abundant plants in the dryer sandy woods of the dunes.

False Solomon's Seal

Back down in the woodlands, and I met up with Kyle. Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) bloomed abundantly- a sign of the woods in late spring.  Tennessee and Blackburnian Warblers called above us, not caring that it was one in the afternoon.

Wild Geranium

Alongside the geraniums, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) bloomed, something I’d seen two weeks before in equally full flower down in Southern Illinois, and which didn’t seem to be up yet at Illinois Beach State Park. Acadian Flycatchers called above us as we flipped a couple logs…

Wood Phlox

The log-flipping proved successful, as Red-backed Salamanders (well, lead-phase ones) stumbled out into the sunlight.  We carefully replaced their logs- the herping was going well!

Lead-phase Red-backed Salamander

All too soon, it was time to return to home, and so I stopped by the visitor’s center to watch their feeders briefly.  Another Ruby-throated Hummingbird fed as I watched from the window:

Hummer at feeder

Below the seed birdfeeders, my first Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) in the eastern United States foraged about.  Indiana Dunes has a bit of everything (East- Wild Lupine.  West- cactus.  North- Red Squirrels.  South- Prothonotary Warblers).  It’s a meeting ground for Western prairies, northern boreal forest, southern swamps and eastern hardwood forests.

Red Squirrel

I could tell you how Red Squirrels differ from Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), but why not just show you instead?

Red and Gray Squirrels

Behind the observation window, a map shows why this area has a birding festival, and to a lesser extent, birds to see.  I didn’t really get a great photo of this map, so I’ll explain- basically, birds don’t want to fly over the middle of Lake Michigan because there’s nothing there except water.  So they stick to the edges, east and west, that meet up at Indiana Dunes.  Birds then go north and south from Indiana Dunes, often using this spot to rest and refuel on their journey north.

Blurry- How Birds Migrate Indiana Dunes

After this, we went to the Observation Tower, where my friend Kyle worked as a bird counter.  He would take note of all the birds passing by the observation tower, which could be in the thousands and often was, on many days.  To learn more about this, read the official blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/

Behind the tower

Here’s Kyle in position, waiting for something to fly by.  Not much did at that time- it was 2 in the afternoon, which is basically nature’s siesta time.  It gets much more active at dawn and dusk.

Tower

Below the tower, a sign shows all the birds counted from the tower this season (mid-March to the end of May, though this sign was photographed in mid-May).  After saying goodbyes, I then booked it out of town, as I had a four-hour drive home.  By the time I’d left, I’d seen 81 species- it’d been a great several hours!  Now, I could do the same thing at Montrose, probably, but to see all the plants and life- this is by far the best birdwatching or nature-anything location near Chicago.  I will not be moved on that.  Indiana Dunes is a glorious spot, and I look forwards to my next visit here.

I had intended to stay a further two days and go on a big day of birding with some friends of mine.  However, work got in the way.  That being said, here’s their blogpost about that big day, which I did help to plan slightly:

https://whimbrelbirders.org/2018/05/20/2nd-annual-wbc-big-day/

Tower bird list- 2018

Ebird Checklist:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45783464