Category: Kentucky

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).

IMG_3392

#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.

IMG_4511

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

IMG_0286

#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.

IMG_8736

#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).

IMG_2733

#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…

IMG_7319

#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.

IMG_8692

#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

IMG_0719

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

IMG_3143

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

IMG_3452

#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.

IMG_1350

#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.

IMG_4015

#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.

IMG_1268

#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.

IMG_2053

#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.

IMG_3593

#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.

IMG_1366

#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?

IMG_3914

#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:

IMG_4600

Inspiration Point, IL:

IMG_6400

Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

IMG_4220

Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

IMG_0357

Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

IMG_1382

Black-necked Stilt, IL:

IMG_1489

Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

IMG_4485

Rocky Mountains, CO:

IMG_3822

Compass Plant, IL:

IMG_0900

 

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

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

IMG_5135

Cottonmouth, IL:

IMG_6832

Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

IMG_3577

#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.

IMG_4358

#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.

IMG_6373

#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.

IMG_2509

#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.

IMG_2028

#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.

IMG_2044

#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.

IMG_0809

#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.

IMG_5589

#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.

IMG_4694

#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.

IMG_4310

#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.)

Total Lunacy Eclipsed By a Stint In Kentucky

I’m not often satisfied with what I put out on this blog, but that title makes me happy.

I live in Southern Illinois.  There was a recent event there involving an eclipse and some extra three hundred thousand people in Southern Illinois, coming to see it.  I suppose the moon sort of (but not quite) blocking out the sun is worth seeing. On Sunday afternoon, while people were paying money to set up tents in backyards, residents were hawking  $1 eclipse-viewing glasses for ten or twenty bucks each in small towns, and some new friends were entertaining me with the game of”Guess what country I’m from?”, a Red-necked Stint was reported in Kentucky.

IMG_2729

Now, I presume the vast majority of the people reading this have never heard of Red-necked Stints, let alone seen one.    The Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) is a shorebird from the Asian Pacific Coast that migrates from Siberia down past Japan and China to Australia and the South Seas- 2/3 of the way around the world!  Notably, Kentucky is not located in that area.  In fact, a Red-necked Stint has never been seen in Kentucky before.  And, the remote field where it was found is roughly two hours from where I live.   I have about a two-hour cap on how far I want to travel to see a single bird, and this was right on the edge.  However, I’ll probably never see one of these in the United States again (excluding a few islands off Alaska where they’re more common).

Time to chase my rarest bird of the year.

But, how would I do this?  Eclipse traffic was going to be horrendous. (As an example, it’s usually a six-hour drive from here to Chicago.  After everyone left Southern Illinois at once, it took 13 hours.)  The solution?  Get up early, like 4:00 AM, and go looking for it.  I compromised- I got up at 4:30 AM, was out the door around 5:00 AM, and went to go see the Red-necked Stint first thing. So did eight other people, one from Massachusetts (though he was coming for the eclipse also).  Well, eight other people at the same time that I did.

IMG_2723

It took considerable amounts of driving to get here, most of which was spent playing “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah several times on repeat.  (It’s a song played in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.)  Some songs remind me of certain trips- for instance,  Maurice Ravel’s”Bolero” reminds me of my adventure with Jesse up after the Orange-fringed Orchid, Russian folk song “Kamarinskaya” reminds me of looking at Snow Geese on Lake Springfield, and Jack Nitzsche’s theme from Starman reminds me of the worst storm I’ve ever driven through, all because these songs were playing when I experienced those events.  (I know I have eccentric musical tastes.)

“Lake Shore Drive” is permanently fixed to this adventure.  It conjures up a view just before I crossed over into Kentucky, with the mists along the Ohio River dissipating as the sun came low over the horizon while I drove past.  I crossed the Old Shawneetown Bridge to get to this:

IMG_2816

The spot itself was concealed from view by cornfields, but a narrow path through the weeds on the edge of the field brought us to the view above.

IMG_2721

Several Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) were readily apparent when I  arrived as were two birders, intensely focused on one spot across the pond:

IMG_2733

THERE IT IS!

IMG_2734

In addition to the faded patch of rusty color on its neck,  the Red-necked Stint was also slightly longer-legged.  This helped when it went to feed with the Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) around it- we’d lose track of it, distracted by other birds, and refind it again using those field marks.  A few of the guys there had seen this species before in the far Alaskan islands, where Eurasian birds regularly end up during migration, so they knew what they were looking for.

IMG_2754

Two of the better distractions were a pair of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), and a Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus).  I rarely get a good look at a Short-billed Dowitcher, and Black-necked Stilts are uncommon in Kentucky.  I was very happy when the two ended up in the same spot.  The Short-billed Dowitcher is the one in brown with the long bill.  (Its bill is shorter than the Long-billed Dowitcher’s… most of the time).

IMG_2769

A Black Tern (Chilidonias niger) fishing on the pond also proved to be a good find.

IMG_2795

Here is the Black Tern at rest, next to a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) slightly underwater.

IMG_2772

Suddenly, we all went back to check for the Red-necked Stint, and it was gone.  We then looked down to the far end- this tiny bird had slipped to the end of the pond right under our noses!

After some more photos, we left, and I left behind a souvenir, the lens cap to my scope.  I then raced in a wide arc around the main spots in the Shawnee National Forest, driving up to West Frankfort and back down to Grand Tower Island to view the eclipse from the levee.  It began as  I drove south, but I got to my spot just a little before 12:30 PM, joining a few others from Cape Girardeau, Chicago and even California in gazing at the sky.

IMG_2858

A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a nearby tree proved a decent distraction.

IMG_2838

Absentmindedly, I took photos of some flying cormorants.  This proved to be bad, as the one on the left may be the smaller, longer-tailed, and rare Neotropic Cormorant.  The photos are inconclusive, but there’s a good chance that this is the third time I’ve seen one this year.  I haven’t mentioned the other two times before, mostly because it wasn’t worth bringing up, due to lack of evidence and the fact that I really can’t rule out small Double-crested from the other sightings.

IMG_2859

IMG_2860

IMG_2861

A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) proved to be more conclusive.  This species is so much fun to watch as it scampers about in pursuit of fish.  This one still has some head plumes:

IMG_2922

Hordes of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) bunched together as the lights dimmed.  I saw over two hundred between the Missouri and Illinois parts of the island, and they all left the following day.

IMG_2863

Just then, the sky began to darken, as if it was sunset in every direction.  Cicadas called everywhere for a bit, then silenced as it got darker.  The moon passed over the sun, the time of the total eclipse.  I zoomed in to get an obligatory eclipse shot:

IMG_2878

What was far more interesting, and I don’t think this was posted as much, was the way everything around us looked like sunset, though it made my camera’s settings completely freak out:

IMG_2881

I don’t think there’s any better place I could have watched the eclipse from, to be honest!  Once the sky lightened again, half the Cattle Egrets flew off, leaving behind the other half.

IMG_2885

I even got a video of the event, just to show how dark it got.  It’s a bit choppy, though:

Eclipse Video

Before all three of my readers show up and make it crowded here in seven years, I do have a reason to stay away…  If you’re familiar with the Youtube channel Brave Wilderness’ Coyote Peterson (and if you’re not, it’s reminiscent of the glory days of the Animal Planet TV channel back when Animal Planet was about animals instead of Bigfood hunts and treehouse building.)  For those unfamilar with it, here’s his video on being stung by a Cow-killer:

So, would you like to guess what ran across the picnic blankets of one of the families watching the eclipse next to me?  Cow-killers, also known as Velvet Ants (Dasymutilla occidentalis), have the most painful sting of any animal in Illinois, though they not necessarily the most dangerous.  They are actually the female, flightless form of a wasp, and not an ant at all.

IMG_2896

The Velvet Ant, more afraid of us than we were of it, scurried off into the grass.  We said our goodbyes, and half-joked that we should all do it again in seven years.  I decided to wait and see more birds, instead of trying to get back home in all the traffic.

Out in the main part of the chute, Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) formed up into a group and began diving after fish, as usual.  They even making a few grunting, croaking noises, something they rarely do.  I guess they were talking about the eclipse, too!

IMG_2980

Here’s the whole flock, one of the last sights I saw before leaving.  None of them were the desired Neotropic, but I’d just seen a Red-necked Stint and an eclipse. I have nothing to complain about!

IMG_2981

And there ain’t no road just like it
Anywhere I found
Running south on Lake Shore Drive heading into town…

… And it’s four o’clock in the morning and all of the people have gone away
Just you and your mind and Lake Shore Drive, tomorrow is another day
And the sunshine’s fine in the morning time, tomorrow is another day.

-Aliotta Hanyes Jeremiah, “Lake Shore Drive”.