Category: Ozarks

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).

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#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.

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#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.

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

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#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.

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#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).

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#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…

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#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.

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#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

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

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

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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?

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#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:

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.)

When You Dip, Don’t Trip On The Cottonmouths

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It’s time to introduce the word “dip” to nonbirders, and I don’t mean something you’d put on chips.  Nor do I mean the substance that seems to be the subject of every YouTube ad I see lately. Dipping on a bird means missing it.  I don’t know where that originated, but it’s a thing.

On August 17, a  Swallow-tailed Kite, one of the most beautiful hawks in the world, was seen at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Missouri, less than two hours from where I live.  Due to a lack of internet information about the bird (it’s in a weird gap zone where it’s common enough to not be reported widely and rare enough that it ought to be)  the Swallow-tailed Kite was not seen again until the 24th, and then it was seen the 24th through the 27th.  I heard about it on the 26th of August, but I wasn’t able to go and look for it until August 31- several days after any reports.  For a rural area like Stoddard County, Missouri, that’s not a surprise.  It’s the edge of the Ozarks, near significant wetlands but not near population centers.  The closest city of more than 20,000 people is Cape Girardeau, about an hour away.   So, I had a chance, if I got out early in the morning and checked for it flying about in the rising air currents. This would be my 300th species of wild bird I’ve seen in the United States.  Mentally, I couldn’t wait, but…

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Cut to August 31.  I wake up, groggily, and look at my alarm, faded memories of turning it off some hours previously running through my brain.  It’s 9:30 AM.  I wanted to be on the road at 8 AM.  Well, I massively screwed up.  The weather was gray and cloudy as I drove over to Duck Creek Conservation Area, arriving around 12:00 PM.  Gray and overcast skies, lightly drizzling with cold rain, the edge of the old Hurricane Harvey storm system- terrible weather for hawks and singing migrants, and depression inducing for me.  And that’s before reflecting on the fact that this storm killed 51 people and displaced thousands, including a few people I know.

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Whenever you’re complaining, it’s always good to remember there’s people in worse situations.  I stopped complaining, and I stopped the car, at the spot.  No Kite in sight- nothing moving.  Well, there was still plenty to see.  I waited for several minutes, scanning the nearby area, which had a few Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis).  I decided to go check out Duck Creek Conservation Area’s main section after waiting for awhile with no sightings, and so I did.

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It turned out to contain a 1,800 acre lake, 2/3 of which was American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea).  That’s 1,200 acres of American Lotus.  Back in late July, the main bloom season, that had to have been a spectacle!  Even now, it was still impressive, the massive platter-sized leaves floating on the water or emerging up en masse, a little worn from a long growing season.

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If there’s any spot north of Texas where a Northern Jacana could show up, it might be here.  A Northern Jacana, for the unaware, is this little Central American bird with huge feet that wades around on lily-pads and lotus leaves.  They have the largest feet, relative to body size, of any bird.  It’s a bird I’ve always wanted to see,  but almost certainly none will ever show up here.  Anyway, that was a tangent of hypothetical nonsense.  I just like Jacanas.  Back to more photos of the lake.

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Duck Creek Conservation Area, and the nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, sit in an odd location.  To the southeast is Crowley’s Ridge, a raised line stretching over 150 miles from southwest of Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas, on the border of the Mississippi River and Mississippi itself.  On both sides of Crowley’s Ridge are floodplains, and several miles west of the floodplains at this point, the edge of the Ozarks rises up.  It’s odd geography, because in the middle, at Duck Creek and Mingo, you can see a chain of not-very-distant hills looking either northwest or southeast, as you can see above and below:

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Those trees in the lake itself are Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), the quintessential Southeastern swamp tree.  They grow here in large numbers, though none of them are the giants they can be on old-growth forests.  This entire area was logged, and if it had stayed dry it would be farmland or ranchland like the surrounding area.  Continued flooding ensured its survival.

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This 1800-acre lake is a perfect rectangle (of course it’s artificial) with roads all the way around.  It was built to control water flow in the area, holding water during wet seasons and releasing it in dry seasons.  This conservation area, as well as Mingo NWR, is built around providing winter food for duck populations.  And, of course, duck hunting.  During duck season, the conservation area is closed to non-hunters.  Next February, I think this might be a really fun place to visit for ducks.

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White Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) bloomed among the lotus.

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I moved away from the lake, and decided to venture into the back 40 of the conservation area.  I was met with a scene out of National Geographic- a ton of herons in a tree.  Specifically, these are Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), a species which is moving through Southern IL and MO currently:

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I then decided, mapless, to try taking a back way over to Mingo.  While inevitably lost in the edge of the Ozarks, I spotted three beat-up graffiti-ed trailers – and one perfectly large, healthy, tropical banana tree growing in a pot in the middle.   Owing to my unfortunately persistent ethnic stereotypes of trailer-dwelling Ozarkians as shotgun-wielding meth users, I didn’t stop for a photo.  It does fascinate me how in our “politically-correct” society, no one cares if you mock country people in the hills who live below the poverty line.  But I digress.

Anyway, I bring up the banana tree as part of my rule of country driving.  “If you drive for two hours in the country, not on the interstate, you’ll see something weird.  Sometimes the weird is a bird.  Most of the time it’s not.”  There’s also the Southern Wilderness and Carbondale Addenda, as follows:  “In the Ozarks, Cumberland Plateau, and Shawnee Hills, the finding-something-weird time is one hour- and in Carbondale, Illinois, it’s five minutes.”

Getting myself un-lost by turning around and driving to the Kite spot yet again (with no luck), I proceeded over to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.  I found a calling Least Flycatcher, an early migrant, on the way when I pulled off at a marsh overlook to check Google Maps.  I also learned that Mingo charges admission: $3 per day or $12 per year.  It’s a giant swamp. That’ll be $12.

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The Visitor’s Center proved to have very helpful staff.  In fact, it was one of the nicest visitor’s centers I’ve ever explored.  They told me that Yellow-crowned Night Herons are common on the refuge in the spring- the last Midwestern heron I have yet to see.  At that point, I was glad I’d bought the year pass, without knowing yet what was to come.  A Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) l butterfly landed outside, on the pavement, as did something else:

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I had no idea that Robber Flies, feared insect predators of mosquitoes, were also able to hunt dragonflies like this Green Darner (Anax junius).  This fly was over an inch long, and completely harmless to humans.  In fact, Robber Flies eat mosquitoes, so we want them around.

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On the edge of the roads, I found masses of Sneezeweed (Helenium amarum), so named because settlers used it to cure colds and because it blooms as the same time as Ragweed, thus making people think they are allergic to it.  The scientific name is better- Helenium refers to Helen of Troy- according to Greek myth the most beautiful woman in the world.  Helenium isn’t the most beautiful flower in the world (Showy Lady’s Slipper is), but it is a pleasant one I quite enjoy.

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A Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) , Missouri’s official state reptile, wandered about on the path.  I’d seen a couple before, but this is my first time seeing one well.

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Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) were everywhere.  I was hoping to find maybe a rarer turtle, but as this is slow-moving muddy waters, few unusual turtles were visible.

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Another animal that was everywhere was the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula)- the white immature form.  I found exactly one adult Little Blue Heron, in the photo above.  After this, I drove up to one of several overlooks on the edge of Crowley’s Ridge.  Far off is the eastern Ozarks.

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If you don’t like snakes, and you somehow tolerated the Robber Fly, this is the perfect spot to end off.  From here on in, it’s a lot of snakes- albeit four lifer snakes!  These were all found someplace within or near Mingo- not the same place, and I’m not saying where.  Mingo National Wildlife Refuge is over 21,000 acres of habitat, and combined with the 2,400 acres of Duck Creek, it’s a massive tract of wilderness.  Snake poachers can have fun figuring all that out, although most of the species I saw aren’t exactly the most popular for collecting.  If I’d seen Kingsnakes, Rattlesnakes, or Milk Snakes, the most popular snakes to be collected, I’d be considerably more elusive about the locations.  If you ever seen a large, colorful or venomous snake in the wild, don’t announce specifically where it is, or there’s a good chance it will be taken away.

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Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) are common in wetlands here, and this neonate was hiding in such an area- the only flipped snake of the day.  By flipped,  I mean that I turned something over to find it.  Everybody else was out and about.

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That includes my first lifer snake of the day,  a Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata confluens).  Hiding in the woody tangles along one of the many ditches, this Southeastern species is one of several species of snakes whose Southern ranges curve upwards along the Mississippi River Valley floodplain, of which this is technically a part.  I had forgotten these live in Missouri- they’ve been extirpated (died out) from what was once a very limited Illinois range.

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Another lifer  was the Diamondback Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer), one of North America’s larger watersnake species,  generally found in the southern parts of the Great Plains and Mississippi River drainage.  This particular specimen was at least three and a half feet long!

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Unsuprisingly, the third one was another Nerodia watersnake, the Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythogaster).  It was in the middle of a road and decided to quickly cross that road and get away from me. So, the above photo is the only one I have.

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Later down that same road, a large, thick-bodied snake with a very angular head began to cross- my very first Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), forty feet away.  Cottonmouths have much thicker bodies and far more angular heads than any other snake I’ve ever seen in the wild.   There’s so many myths about these, one of North America’s more common venomous snakes, that I feel I may have to do a little mythbustering here.  Cottonmouths are reluctant to bite- handling, harassing or stepping on a Cottonmouth hard are the best ways to get bitten.  I’ve been told on multiple occasions that Cottonmouths will chase people, but that isn’t entirely true.  If a Cottonmouth sees a threat,  its first instinct is to escape, preferably into nearby water.  If the person happens to be between the nearest water source and the Cottonmouth, it may slip right by the person en route to the water.  So, a Cottonmouth may appear to be chasing a person, while doing nothing of the sort- the exact opposite, in fact.

Also, the range of a Cottonmouth does not extend past the Shawnee Hills in Illinois.  I occasionally end up in arguments with people whose all-knowing “country uncles” say they see Cottonmouths throughout central or northern Illinois.  I usually end those by offering to get bitten by said snake, sight unseen.  (I won’t be saying that in southern Missouri or where I live now.)  There’s a joke that all snakes in the US have been called Cottonmouths at some point.  The sad part about this is that nearly all US snakes, especially watersnakes, have been killed as “Cottonmouths”.  I understand if you don’t like snakes- I’m not too fond of spiders or wasps.  But please let them be. Leaving a snake alone is the surest way to not be bitten.

(Then again, if you don’t like snakes, how did you make it this far?)

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After all of this, I decided to drive around the refuge, and see the sights:

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Currently my best photo of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) is this one above.   These birds are my photographic nemesis, as I’ve mentioned previously.

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I ended up driving all of the Wildlife Loop, scaring up some turkeys, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and a few scenic views, all the way from Crowley’s Ridge across the floodplains to the Ozarks -three different natural divisions in less than twenty miles!  Crowley’s Ridge is considered to have flora more characteristic of the Appalachians than the Ozarks, and the wetlands between are similar to those of the Gulf Coast or Lower Mississippi River Valley in general.

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From here to southern Indiana, centered on the Shawnee Hills is a major transition zone.  The edge of the Great Plains is a little bit north of here, and the edge of the Gulf Coastal Plain natural division is right up against this- in fact, in the photo above, you’re looking at a little bit of it.  To the west, the Ozark Mountains form their own unique natural division, while to the east the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and by extension the edge of the Appalachian Mountain range, just barely misses Illinois, but much of its flora and fauna are present.  As I mentioned, Crowley’s Ridge, which you can see below,  is, to some degree, an extension of that area.

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Northern prairies meet southern swamps, and eastern forests meet western woodlands- and it’s all happening here!  Add to this the fact that the world’s third largest river flows through the middle of it, and that many North American birds use this area to migrate- well, it’s just all very, very, exciting for me, that I get to live in this area now.

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The Wildlife Loop proved to have some wildlife, with three Raccoons (Procyon lotor) at various spots.  One individual, roaming along the banks of a ditch, remained for a photo in the dying light of a clouded sunset.  I ended up out of the Loop, to find:

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A thicker-than-usual line appeared in the grass in the middle of a road.  Neonate (young) Cottonmouth!   The angled head, when it popped up, was a dead giveaway.  I approached to within six feet- it’s a snake that’s a foot long, after all, and I have leg protection in the form of snake guards.  (Sometime I’ll do a blog showing all the gear I have.)  It watched me- I watched it.  Neither of us moved for a minute, but neither approached the other.  I then backed away, and the snake took off for the side of the road, away from me.  Good luck out there, young Cottonmouth.

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After this, I checked the Kite spot, yet again, and saw nothing.  It was getting dark, and driving exhausts me.  I stopped in a rural town for gas, which was $2.26.  A couple hours later, my new hometown had it for $2.59.  Always stop for gas in Missouri, if you live in Illinois.

I may have dipped on the Swallow-tailed Kite, but I’ll take four lifer snakes, a few good birds, and two amazing areas to explore in exchange.  In order to make the cost of that Mingo year pass worthwhile, I have to visit three more times…

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Ebird Checklist for Mingo NWR:  http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38942057