Category: Indiana

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.


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.


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:

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.


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:

Tower bird list- 2018

Ebird Checklist:





The Sad Tale of the Slaty-backed Gull… And Three Stupendous Surprises!


So, I went on a brief trip up to Chicagoland over January 8-11.  At the time, a rare Siberian gull, the Slaty-backed Gull, had appeared in southern Chicago, in the Calumet area.  I figured I’d start out my year with a rare bird, so I decided to look for it with some friends; Kyle, Lucas and Oliver.  Lucas and Oliver share a blog, linked here.


We started out at Turning Basin #3 on Monday.  Immediately, we spotted a dark-backed gull that appeared to be the Slaty-backed Gull, directly in front of us on the ice.  It was roughly the same size as the nearby Herring Gulls, had pink legs, dark streaking around the eye, and what appeared to be the correct back color to our inexperienced-in-Slaty-backed eyes.   Some banded Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) were also present:


Happy that we’d seen the gull, and unaware of the looming catastrophe, we blissfully left the spot, pictured below, after finding a Glaucous Gull for Lucas.   This area, the Calumet River area, smells nasty, is full of industrial buildings, and is basically the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings, but with more gulls and ice, and fewer wraiths and ghosts.


Next we visited a Monk Parakeet colony, but due to the cold weather the birds hid inside their nests, only flushing briefly when a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipter cooperii) showed up.  Yes, I said Parakeet. There are wild parrots in Chicago.  Having escaped from captivity, Monk Parakeets began to colonize Hyde Park in downtown Chicago in the 1970s.  They reside throughout the area in several colonies, including this one under the Chicago Skyway.  And they were lifer birds for me, so I was happy to see them, albeit briefly and unphotographed.


From there, we moved to the Lake Michigan shoreline.  The ice was so blue behind the breakwater, and we watched mergansers fly low over it.


The waves lapping against the shoreline covered the breakwaters and pilings with ice.  As a freshwater lake, Lake Michigan can freeze over, and the sides of it do.


In the lake itself is an endless supply of mergansers- especially Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), of which this is a female:


Suprisingly, on the day we visited, Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) like this male were… well, more common!  We spotted a Snowy Owl on the breakwater, and I didn’t get photos of it because it was too far out.


However, we were at this area, Park 566, for a certain winter finch.  Here’s Lucas spotting the finches we were after with a scope:


Those finches were Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea), little red-capped birds of the Arctic that consider the Chicago lakefront an adequate winter home.  They were stupendous birds #1:


They’re both shy and cute, which is an impossible combination to resist:


We said goodbye to Lucas and Oliver at this point, and continued on into Indiana.  Oliver sent his pics of our “Slaty-backed Gull” to a gull expert.  This is where things suddenly went wrong.


Oliver began texting me that people online said we hadn’t seen the gull, and after a bit of arguing, Kyle and realized we hadn’t. Here’s the problems with that gull, in terms of it being Slaty-backed:

  • The mantle is too dark
  • The bird shows large white wingspots, not a “string-of-pearls”.
  • The black on the wingtips is too large
  • The bill is too large
  • Not enough streaking around the eyes
  • Not enough streaking around the head
  • Build is too thick
  • Legs are not bright pink enough

These points all  make this a Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), or GBBG, albeit a runty one.  Ordinary, a GBBG should be noticeably larger than a Herring Gull, and this one wasn’t.


So, we went back to Turning Basin #3.  One unusual dark-backed gull, streaky-headed gull with pink legs caught our attention… We never did ID that bird as a species, but I have my suspicions, and they are not that it was a Slaty-backed… more on that later.


An adult Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) at the same spot was a welcome find.  These are the second largest gull species in the world:


The following day we went to Fermilab.  A friend of mine, Glenn, the man who actually put Kyle and I in contact with each other, is the bird monitor at Fermilab and has access to bring himself and guests behind some of the restricted areas at Fermilab, had invited us to visit. So we did.

We got to see the main particle accelerator ring (and no, none of us gained superpowers, unlike the television show The Flash).  This water-cooled ring has open water because the heat of the accelerator keeps the temperature of the water from freezing, and ducks like this stunning male Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) were swimming about on top, taking advantage.


One of the better finds was a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) in one of the cooling rings:


The five Coyotes (Canis latrans) were also a good find!  This one watched us from the middle of  frozen Lake Law.  It’s unfortunate the lake was frozen over, as it’s held a wide variety of rarities over the years.  More details at the link here.  We checked the edges for Northern Shrikes- no luck!  Even checking reliable spots didn’t turn up any shrikes.  The fog was intense- perhaps they were hiding just out of view?


Crawling along the snow was a winter-adapted insect, the Snow Scorpionfly, pictured.  I have no idea what species it is.  We thought it was odd.  The fog began to let up, and we decided to have one last look for the Northern Shrike, my nemesis bird of the last year and a half.


Sitting far off, on top of a tree… Northern Shrike (Lanius borealis)!  The GREAT SHRIKE HUNT is ended!  I’ve seen both North American shrikes… unless I want to get even more crazy and try to see ALL shrike species in the world…. which is tempting…and probably a really dumb idea…


We watched as the bird finished eating one animal and then unsucessfully attempted to catch another. Shrikes are known for impaling prey they catch on thorns, to save it for later.  A friend of mine actually found the body of a shrike that had been impaled by another shrike, recently.  Shrikes like this Northern Shrike are awesome.


After this, I tried Portillo’s for the first time.  That is a spectacular hot dog place.  Full of excitement, and bolstered by a report of the Slaty-backed Gull, we returned to look for it, spotting a Peregrine Falcon on the drive back.  When we got to the spot- nothing! – except this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), which was a bit of a surprise for northern Illinois in January:


We watched as the tugboat pushed ice out of the way, scaring up gulls as it chugged along:


The following morning at 10:00 AM, someone found the Slaty-backed Gull.  I was at the same  spot at 11:10 AM.  When I arrived within a minute someone had pointed out what they said and what looked to me like a Slaty-backed Gull.  It flew off downriver, unphotographed.  The birder who pointed this out to me showed me a photo that appeared to be the bird I wanted to see, containing all of the features I’d listed above- pink legs, “string-of-pearls”, “black eye”, the whole kit and caboodle.  He reported this to Ebird and it was confirmed.

I assumed I’d seen it and could go home happy.  About ten minutes later a similar gull flew in, landed briefly on the ice, and then flew downriver.  We all rejoiced that we’d seen the “Slaty-backed Gull” again, and gotten better photos.  Yet fate had another cruel trick to play:


In truth, this is the well-known “Gull Nasty”, and it’s a Chandeleur Gull, which is a fancy way of saying a hybrid of a Herring and a Kelp Gull (Larus argentatus x dominicanus). Herring Gulls are commonplace in this region, if not so downstate.  Kelp Gulls, native to South America, are significantly less so.  Actually, a pure-bred Kelp Gull has never been seen anywhere in Illinois, though they did live on some Louisiana islands for a bit last century and one did show up just over the border in Hammond, Indiana in 1996. This hybrid, usually dwelling in Indiana, decided to come along and mess with us.  It is probably the most similar bird to a Slaty-backed Gull that we could have POSSIBLY seen.  That’s not annoying at all!

Shortly after this, we all mistook a runty Great Black-backed Gull (probably the same one from before) as the same Slaty-backed Gull, having come from left to right just like “Gull Nasty”.  At this point, I’m not even sure if I saw the correct gull the first time.  It looked like it to me, more than the other two, but without a photo I can’t be sure.  The uncertainty’s worse than missing it entirely.  I’ve gotten to the point that when I finally find a 100% for certain Slaty-backed Gull, I will yell profanities at it in significant quantity.  I’ll start out by darning it to heck, and go from there.


I returned to Sangamon County, IL, full of brooding and discontent over the end of my Chicago trip, the return of school, and the disappointment of the Slaty-backed Gull.  About this time, rumors came from the west of a great white owl in a field.  I set off in quest.


A Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) was less unexpected, but still a joy to see. This bird is only present in Illinois in the winters, flying back to Arctic cliffs to nest each year.


It has feathered legs- hence, “Rough-legged”.  I stopped to watch it land in a field, and to see what was ultimately a plastic bag.  That’s when I spotted it… an apparition in the field far behind:




I was told in Cub Scouts “When you can’t sing good, sing loud.”  So, by the same principles, when you have no good photos, post lots of them. Besides, before Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) showed up there’d been no records of a Snowy Owl in Sangamon County since 2004.  I got to show this bird off to my parents (from a safe distance, of course).  It’s so nice to finally find a bird I’ve been looking for in Sangamon County for a VERY long time.  This was the last and best of the stupendous finds, and it got me out of my funk.


A Long-tailed Duck (that dove before I could get my camera out and on it) was the best bird following this one, and I saw it on Lake Springfield.  I guess this is all to say I had a fun winter break… I’m back in Southern IL now, doing my County Big Year that I’ve talked about.  To track my progress, you can see what bird names are bolded on this list, linked here.  The unbolded ones are species I’m hoping to find.  I do a daily post about what I see on my County Big Year on Facebook, at this link here.

Thanks to Glenn, Oliver, Lucas and especially Kyle for showing me around Fermilab and a few areas in Chicagoland!  I say especially Kyle because he did most of the driving.

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).


#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.


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


#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.


#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).


#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…


#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.


#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


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


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


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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?


#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:


Inspiration Point, IL:


Western Wood-Pewee, CO:


Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:


Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:


Black-necked Stilt, IL:


Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:


Rocky Mountains, CO:


Compass Plant, IL:



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




Black Rat Snake, IL:


Cottonmouth, IL:


Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.


#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.)

My First Trip To Kankakee Sands!

(This is a longer post than usual)

For the last few years, I’d heard of the Kankakee Sands as someplace where Illinois herpers would go to visit for rare reptile species, where Illinois botanists would go to see plants found nowhere else in the state, and where Chicago birders would go to see such incredible rarities as Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and Northern Bobwhites.  That last part made me laugh a bit, because a visit to the sandlands of the Illinois River  should get you all three species within a few hours in the summertime.  However, I was curious about the rest, and how it would compare to the sandlands of the Illinois River that  I know better…


Indeed, the Kankakee Sands were generally held up as better than my beloved Mason County sandlands… something I wanted to argue with.  So, I asked several very good friends of mine to come along and visit.  I had three lined up, and only one, Jesse, actually came along.  This is usually how life works. We drove up to the Kankakee Sands, roughly a three hour drive from home.  For comparison, it would take about the same length of time for me to drive to the Ozark foothills.  Sangamon County may not have much going for it in and of itself, but it is within half a day or so of a great number of amazing natural areas- the Shawnee Hills, Driftless Area, Chicago-area preserves, the Illinois River Valley, the eastern Ozarks, Indiana Dunes, and more.


Kankakee comes from a Native American word meaning open country, specifically in reference to the second largest swamp in the U.S., the Great Kankakee Swamp.  If it doesn’t sound familiar to you, that’s because it no longer exists.   What is now the Kankakee Sands used to be sandy dunes surrounded by marshland, almost all of which has been drained and farmed.  There was a chain of  massive swamps in this part of the Midwest, and this was the largest one.  To the northwest lay the Great Winnebago Swamp, to the west the backwaters along the Illinois river, to the north along Lake Michigan’s south shoreline were large interdunal wetlands, and to the east lay the Great Black Swamp- a belt of wetlands stretching, with several gaps, from Wisconsin to Ohio.  While all of this may be long gone, this particular area still contains a number of original, unaltered natural areas as well as MANY restorations:


The marshes are gone, but many of the dunes remain, covered in oak savanna and sand prairies.  At our first stop, we walked through several of these, noticing grassland birds such as the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) … but we were here for something else, a bright-orange flower.  I kept seeing yellow flowers in the distance, a hundred feet away from the rut in the grass serving as a “trail” .  However, none of them appeared to be what I was after, once I looked closer.


As I began saying “We aren’t seeing any Orange-fringed…” I spotted what I was after, directly alongside the “trail”, and in great numbers!


Orange-fringed Orchids (Platanthera ciliaris) are a State-Endangered species of orchid found only in two Illinois counties.  They almost become common in parts of the the Southeast, and its presence in the Kankakee Sands is what is referred to as a disjunct population, separated by a number of miles from any other populations of these orchids.


I spent a good amount of time photographing the orchids.  The “fringed” part of their name becomes quite obvious when you look at the flowers.


These flowers are exclusively pollinated by butterflies, but I didn’t see any land on a flower while we were there.   To be fair, I was distracted by another type of insect, but we’ll get to that…


If you’ve noticed, I don’t give out  exact locations on orchids.  That’s because, in addition to their rarity, North American orchids are often taken by poachers to be sold to unscrupulous or unknowing gardeners.  The reason they have to be taken out of the wild in the first place is that native orchids do not do well in gardens, and almost invariably die.  Orange-fringed and other native orchids are beautiful plant that are best left in the wild, for everyone to enjoy.


There were tons of other unusual or new-to-me plants at this site, too, like the Royal Fern (Osmunda spectabilis) growing behind/left of the Orange-fringed Orchids above.


Another disjunct more common in the Southeast is this, the Colicroot (Aletris farinosa), which is in seed and bloomed a month ago.  In flower, its white spikes are occasionally confused for orchids, and it often grows in the same habitats as Orange-fringed and other orchids.


Another oddity of the same habitats was this, Virginia Meadow Beauty (Rhexia virginica).  This community of plants has a lot of Southeastern disjunct species, or species at least more common in the Southeast, whose habitats are far more common on the Gulf Coastal Plain than in Illinois.  One of the defining features that all these plants like is acidic soil.  If you’re familiar with the PH scale, these plants prefer acidic soils.  Other rare plants, including some carnivorous ones, can be present in the same habitats- wet, sandy acidic soils with some peatmoss mixed in.

Of course, when you have Florida-esque plants, you also get other Florida-esque life, too, what I like to call the orchid defenders, though some call them gallinippers and worse names:


The American Giant Mosquito (Psorophora ciliata), or Shaggy-legged Gallinipper, is a mosquito the size of a quarter.  That may not seem large, until you realize how big the average mosquito is, about four to six times smaller.   These are, in fact, the largest mosquitoes in the entire world. Despite their size, Gallinippers are stealthier than the average mosquito, at least in my personal experience.   A few dozen swarmed us, biting through our clothing and caring nothing for the fact that we had Deep Woods OFF on. (The ticks cared, though.  I’ve never had zero ticks in a sand prairie before!)  Gallinippers are thankfully limited by their habitat- they lay their eggs in temporarily-flooded areas.  Once those areas flood, the larvae emerge and devour other mosquito larvae, as well as even small tadpoles and other small water creatures.  Tied to wet areas, these giant mosquitoes left us when we went away from the orchids.


Other, nicer insects also lived here, including this grasshopper that landed on Jesse’s arm.


There was also this beautiful little red dragonfly, whose name I do not know.


We ventured along the roads for awhile and spotted a prairie, which we visited.  Having found the goal species, I hadn’t planned anything for the rest of the day.  This was deliberate, as planning too much sort of ruined the joy of my last big Northeast Illinois trip for me.  I knew what was in the area, but unlike most trips I hadn’t come up with a list of things I wanted to see.


This pink flower is Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), one of the little bonuses I didn’t expect up here and a relative of garden spirea.  It likes wet sandy acidic soils- sensing a pattern?


Field Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) also bloomed in this field, another new plant that likes acidic sandy soils.  Acidic sandy soils are almost entirely restricted to this part of Illinois, which is why many of these plants are found only here or mostly here .  However, Field Milkwort ranges across the state.  I’m not sure why I missed it before, but I found it this time!


We went over to Indiana, and into Willow Slough State Fish and Wildlife Area.


This frog with a tail is a very young Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), converting from tadpole to adult.  In order to get better views of it and the rest of the area, which looked  worthy of  further exploration in rubber boots, I decided to jump to the base of a tree four feet out in the water.


I told Jesse to hold my camera while I leapt for it.  I don’t say “Hold my beer” if I’m about do something dumb.  I say “Hold my camera.”


But, I made it without falling into the water, and in doing so got much closer to some American White Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata) in full glorious bloom, which is, I believe, a first for me.


So too was the sight of a Bullfrog on a lilypad.  I had always thought that frogs on lilypads was more of a poetical convention than the petrified truth.  (I found that phrase, “the petrified truth” in a Mark Twain short story the other day, and I intend to go on using it.)


The thousands of waterlilies on this pond were too far off for good views, so we went onwards to the main lake of Willow Slough, which has even more waterlilies:


It also had a few Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri), which I did not expect, far off on buoys.


One of the more interesting bird encounters I’ve ever had occurred while we were eating our lunches by the shores of the lake.  A Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) approached us, closer and closer, far closer than this normally somewhat skittish bird should ever do. To test out my theory further, I dropped a piece of my sandwich on the far side of the table, and it swooped down and took the bread crumb.  No!  Bad!


This is the first time I’ve ever seen or heard of a woodpecker begging for food from people.  Googling it, it appears to be extremely uncommon. I hope so, because overdependance on people food is never good for wild animals.  Bears for instance, are more likely to attack people if they associate people with food.  I doubt that this woodpecker would attack me, but I also don’t think bread is healthy for it.  Geese and ducks, when fed bread too much, develop more diseases, become obese, become more aggressive towards people and, most important of all, they poop a lot more.  I doubt there’s been any study about woodpeckers being fed bread, but I’d imagine that similar problems and concerns might arise.  At any rate, despite the ethical concerns, the Red-headed Woodpecker’s close approach did allow for better photos to be taken.


Next, we ventured to the Kankakee Sands Nature Conservancy preserve.  This area lies in the sight of a giant former lake, Beaver Lake.  In the middle is a large sand dune, Bogus Island, where, back in the days when a lake was here, counterfeiters would hide out.  Nowadays it serves as a lookout spot for bison, though the herd was hiding out in the brush when we visited.


Spotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata) bloomed atop Bogus Island, with a Six-lined Racerunner lizard running into it before photos could be had.  A Northern Harrier had flown past on the way here, earlier, so the wildlife was around, just not the bison.  I also heard a lifer Marsh Wren, too!


Here’s a closeup of the real flowers of the Spotted Horesmint- the majority of the “flower” is actually a colored leaf!  These are close relatives of Bee Balm- even if they don’t look it.


We stopped briefly by the Wet Prairie Trail, near the visitor’s center, which had a gate that was to be kept shut.  I don’t know why that was, but when about a hundred American Giant Mosquitoes descended on us fifty feet down the trail, I began to theorize about its purpose much harder.   I don’t know how many of my readers remember the scene from the first Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones and his hired guide, Satipo, are walking through the temple at the beginning of the film.  Indy knocks off a couple of spiders, and then his guide turns around:

I’m Indy, and Jesse is Satipo, in this scene.  I’ve never seen so many mosquitoes on someone’s back before.  We literally ran back to the gate, stopping only to photograph the female Dickcissel in the photo above the video.  The gate, I feel, is to keep the mosquitoes IN, as none of them went past it, despite their ability to literally fly over the top.


We then went off to our last stop, Conrad Station Savanna, an oak savanna growing over the ruins of an old town.  The trail stared out beautifully marked, running through open savanna.  The only problem was that some sort of gnat kept making a determined effort to fly into Jesse’s eyes, though they left me alone.  We wandered out to the far side of the savanna…


… where we scared up some young Ring-necked Pheasants and found a few blooming Prairie Blazing Stars (Liatris sp.).  Then the trail rapidly narrowed.  It was still marked, but thorny briars had crept across the trail and made it rough going through certain bits.  And Jesse’s eye-flies never let up, which really annoyed him.


Still, there were a few good finds, including this lingering Leadplant (Amorpha canescens).  However, we were greatly disappointed when we came to the ruins of the town:


A single wall remained unobscured by the foliage- the rest was hidden or gone!  We stopped to look at it and beat away a few mosquitoes and “eye-flies”, before crashing through to the parking lot.  The drive back through the hundreds of acres of prairies, and a stop at a local diner in St. Anne for burgers and ice cream, renewed our spirits for the journey home, where we discussed everything from the new Doctor Who to whether Jesus was ever married, to what the ultimate purpose of humanity should be.  (My answers were, in order, I don’t care, possibly yes… actually no, and very inconclusive.)  It was a great conversation, but you had to be there.

As for the Kankakee Sands, I’ve decided it’s one of the great natural areas of Illinois, especially for plants.   I definitely think interesting birds are unquestionably easier to find in the Illinois River, but a Northern Harrier in the summer is always a good find, and so is a lifer like the Marsh Wren. The jury’s out on reptiles- I can’t find them anywhere, so one spot’s as good as another.  Overall, despite a few giant mosquitoes, I can’t wait to return and find more here!