Category: Orchids

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.)

It’s a Marbled I Got Out Of This After All

IMG_6188

So, I like to go off in the wilderness by myself.  It’s not wise, but I do it- too much.  If you’d like to see a complicated map of where and why, look down:

IMG_6166

The Shawnee Hills “land bridge” is one reason why this area has more tree species than the entire subcontinent of Europe, as this set of hills connects two mountainous regions of high tree diversity as well as the Gulf Coastal Plain (the lower blue area).  This isn’t the world’s most accurate map, but it captures the basics of southern Illinois’ terrain  fairly well.

IMG_6168

I was visiting the Cache River, one of the best natural areas in Illinois… although “natural areas” is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the Cache.   Above is the map of the Cache River drainage and the old Ohio River floodplain through which it flows.  Below you can see all the manmade “improvements” to the basin.

IMG_6169

I walked the banks of the Mississippi cutoff on last year’s Christmas Bird Count.  The Cache River basin has been significantly altered from what it used to be, and yet it remains one of the most scenic areas in all of Illinois. Heck it even has great shorebird habitat:

IMG_6157

Here, at Easter Slough,  I spotted a few ducks and shorebirds  foraging with Baldcypress trees growing wild in the background.  To most people, this is a flooded field.  To a birdwatcher in an inland state, this is shorebird habitat.

IMG_6153

Here they are, the shorebirds.  There’s a Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus) , a few Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), one Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), and one Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes).  There were a few more species out of frame, and the ones I listed aren’t all easy to see above as they are hiding together.  I’ve missed seeing something like this.  However, I wasn’t here for shorebirds.

IMG_6175

The swamps of the Cache River area provide habitat for Marbled Salamanders. Post-shorebirds, I stopped off to see the biggest trees in Illinois.  The large trunk in the center back is…

IMG_6181

…the trunk to the biggest Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) tree in Illinois.  Seeing it reminded me that I’d never identified a Water Tupelo before, so this is therefore my lifer Water Tupelo.  Strange, but that’s basically how lifering works.  Until you can put a name to it, it doesn’t count- or does it?  I’m sure most people on the planet couldn’t give the “scientific” common name for this tree, but they could appreciate it regardless as a great tree.  There’s too much obsession with accurate names and shaming other people for not knowing them.  But I digress.

IMG_6179

Here’s a thousand-year + old Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)- this forest is one of the oldest in Illinois.  I spend some time here just looking up, but I soon realized there were only trees.  The birds weren’t spectacular on this day, and what I had come to see- salamanders- still awaited me.

IMG_6105

A few warblers did appear, including this Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) which should be in Florida soon.  This bird gets the name Palm Warbler from where it lives in the winter,  not the summer, and it spends neither one in Illinois.

I went over to the salamander spot (location: classified) and parked my car.  I walked along a path, then down along a gravel-covered slope briefly, flipping logs and finding absolutely nothing as I went along.  I decided to turn around, and I took a quick photo of an orchid leaf as I wandered through several acres of woodlands (finding zero salamanders) back to my car around sunset.  I called my dad to see how he was doing while out, and then reached into my pocket for my keys…

Nothing.

After quickly looking in my car, I realized I’d lost my keys in several acres of wet forest- and the sun was setting- and all of my friends were an hour away.

I ran back into the forest, looking for the small blue strap attached to my keyring that should help me to find it again.  After some raging, praying, and crying, I found them again- at the only spot where they would be obvious- the small spot of gravel where I’d walked earlier.  Evidently the praying worked, and after going back to the car, I double-checked my photo of the orchid leaf, to reveal my first Illinois  Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor).  These unusual plants grow a  single leaf in the fall, overwinter, and then the leaf dies in the spring before flowers are produced.

IMG_6200

So- I didn’t get any salamanders from what I’ve been told is one of the best spots in Illinois, but I did get a state lifer orchid.  I’ll take it.  Also, I wasn’t lost in the largest swamp in Illinois overnight, probably the best part. The sunset from Easter Slough on the way back was a welcome reward.

IMG_6236

HOWEVER- I still hadn’t found any salamanders.  While mentioning this online, a friend of mine gave me an even more top secret spot to go to that should definitely get me my Marbled Salamander.  It’s such a secret location, that if I tell anyone, this friend is going to have to kill me.  Ok, not really, but I did promise to never tell, and I’m a man of my word.

IMG_6135

After finding a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius),  I knew the spot was going to be good.  Well, it wasn’t bad for birds, but what about amphibians?

IMG_6357

I flipped a log over- and I found a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus).  This wasn’t the target species, but it IS a salamander, albeit with fewer lungs than the one I was after.  Slimy Salamanders actually have NO lungs- they breathe through their skin.

IMG_6361

Nearby rock cliffs had close to twenty Slimy Salamanders.   They didn’t like my light much.  I went back down to some lower areas, and was about ready to give up after flipping log after log and finding nothing.  Then, as I was about to call it…

IMG_6373

Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)!  On a nest!  With a Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) in the background!  Marbled Salamanders live an unusual life cycle for an amphibian- they lay their eggs in the fall under rotting logs and the larvae hatch as small versions of the adults.  This may seem normal for humans  (except for the  laying-eggs and rotting-logs part), but salamanders and other amphibians in Illinois tend to lay their eggs in ponds in the spring, produce gilled tadpoles, and these grow legs, lose the gills, and come onto land in the summer.  I’ve never seen a salamander nest before, and I carefully replaced the log to avoid disturbing this habitat any more.  Finally!  After everything, I found a Marbled!

Back To Central Illinois! No Snakes This Time!

Hey, I’m going to write a post without herps in it for once!  (There was a snake, but it was moved to a previous blogpost so the ophidiophobes [people afraid of snakes] could enjoy these again.  If you’re one of those people, just don’t go to prior posts from the last two months.) So, a couple weeks ago, I went up to visit my family in Central Illinois.  While there, I decided to talk both my parents into visiting Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve.  A prior expedition up there didn’t end well with Mom and I… we got lost for about 2-3 hours in brush and grasses well over our heads.  By comparison, scaling the loess (windblown sediment) cliffs below was a walk in the park.

IMG_5227

Oh, and last time Mom and I visited, which I didn’t write about because I took less than 20 photos and there wasn’t much to write about, we never ended up where the scenic views were.  Here, we did, and this is why I come back to such a challenging place time and time again:

IMG_5226

In a remote spot near this preserve, Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) bloomed a little, defying my attempts to get a photo.  My last flowering orchid of the year, I figured it would be my last orchid in Illinois for the year.  I was wrong, more on that in the future.

IMG_5240

As we walked back to our car, on a route not back down the cliff, a route rather reminiscent of all the brush, vines and thorns Mom and I’d visited previously, we stumbled across one of my favorite Illinois invertebrates, an American Giant  Millipede (Narceus americanus), usually found in nicer-quality woodlands (at least, that’s where I find it).  Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve also has some old-growth ravine forests, which while not as interesting as the prairies visually, do contain a wide variety of birds and other animals.

IMG_5248

Speaking of great woodland birds, here’s a new one for the fall, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  These birds migrate south to overwinter in Illinois, because for them, Illinois is warm.  I suspect I’ll be seeing more of these as the year goes on.

IMG_5256

Sapsuckers are a type of woodpecker, just like this Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens):

IMG_5268

I’m sure people are wondering why this bird is being handled- it is, after all, illegal to pursue, hunt, take (which legally includes handle), capture, kill, or sell one of these birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act…. and without a waiver or permit that act applies to all but three of the United States of America’s birds.  (Those three are Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow and European Starling.)  However, in this case, the holder has a wavier- it’s bird banding!

IMG_5277

Bird banding involves the permitted legal capture of birds like this Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) using safe methods by well-trained volunteers, who then tag every bird they capture with a loose-fitting metal or plastic band (like the one above, tight enough to remain on the bird and loose enough to not impede it or cause discomfort).  Very quickly afterwards, they release it.  If  the banded bird is recaptured, they write down the band number and learn from that where the bird was last captured, how long ago it was captured, etc. Much of what we know about bird migration comes from bird banding operations.

IMG_5281

For instance, the first White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) of the fall 2017 season was banded the day I arrived.  The banding station is at Lincoln Land Community College, open roughly 7 to 11 AM Monday- Saturday,  late August- early November and late March- May.

IMG_5289

Not all the interesting birds were banded- a migrating Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) flew over and fished at the lake.  That was likely the best bird of the day.

IMG_5292

The bird fished for awhile at the pond- I believe it was still in the area when I left, but that was two weeks or more ago.  Ospreys aren’t common birds in Illinois, but they become more common during migration.

IMG_5259

Speaking of migration and data, this American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) was running a bit later than usual for migrating out of Illinois.  After it was banded, under careful instruction and the watchful eyes of the banders, I was allowed to hold and release the bird.   Releasing a bird is a very satisfying and enjoyable thing to do, and it’d been awhile since I’d been able to do it.

IMG_5323

My dad got to release a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) before we left, his first time doing so.  It was one of my favorite moments of the year… I’m glad he had the day off to do so.  I’m back in Southern Illinois now, getting into trouble… more on that in a future post also!

Ebird Checklists:

Revis Hill Prairie: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39691586

Lincoln Land Community College: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39788030