Category: Rare Plants

Winter 2019 Sort of Recapped

Right, I’m a wee bit behind here.

Last actual post I did on here was of the Carlyle Lake Trip.   I’m going to pass over Fall 2018- a lot happened but it’ll take too long to recap. Let’s move into January and February 2019.

I stayed up in central Illinois and spent early January 2019 with my parents, with very few plans of what I would do this year besides studying for the GRE, graduating college, finding a job, etc.  On January 7 I decided to get out and about on a warmer day and go looking around a nearby marsh in the Lick Creek Wildlife Area.  This resulted in my finding two unusual records.

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First up was a turtle- in particular, one of Illinois’ more common turtles, the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  I’ve never had a reptile before an amphibian in January.  This turtle, however, can be winter-active when it wants, and as this day exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature the turtle, one of a few, was out basking in the sun.

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The second and far more ridiculous of my two finds was a wintering Common Yellowthroat (Geoythypis trichas).  This warbler species is supposed to be down on the Gulf Coast at this time of year- not hanging out by the side of a creek in central Illinois!  This was one of TWO I found in January, the second down at Larue-Pine Hills Research Natural Area in Union co. Illinois, both in marshy grasslands with open water.

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After a couple of weeks, I went south for my last semester of college, to the Shawnee Hills.  I’ve earned a reputation in certain corners of the internet for praising Southern Illinois a lot, and this isn’t unearned.  As the landscape above shows (taken from Grand Tower Island) the Snow Geese wander around this area in January, and in great numbers, and with great scenery as a backdrop, and everything is “great” and I’m overusing that word now and this is a run-on sentence and I don’t know how to end it.  Ope, there we go.

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Here’s those Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens), along with a few Greater White-fronted Geese (foreground, orange bills and brown bodies, Anser albifrons), hanging out in a nearby shallow wetland just off Route 3 in Jackson co Illinois.  They’ve all mostly migrated out of here by now, but for two months the air was thick with Snow Geese down here.

Snow Geese aren’t the only large, mostly white birds to pass through this area…

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WHOOPING CRANES!  A pair of these incredibly rare, endangered birds (Grus americana) overwinter in a secret location in Southern Illinois.  This pair will fly back to Wisconsin in the summertime, where they’ve been reintroduced. Note that they were photographed from inside a car and we used a decent amount of zoom.  Don’t approach Whooping Cranes too closely, as there are less than a thousand of them in the world and scaring them could potentially do considerable harm.

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Another quite rare bird I found (this one personally) in January was a pair of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) , one of which is photographed.  I found a third one at Larue-Pine Hills a month later, in late February. These birds are uncommon migrants through southern Illinois.  Back in the 1970s, Golden Eagles were recorded annually in parts of southern Illinois, following massive flocks of Canada Geese as they made their way south to forage here.  However, more recently farmers have started plowing their fields in the spring, leaving some corn remaining in their fields overwinter, and geese distributions shifted.  Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese came in and now feed upon the remains of corn in the area, while Canada Geese remain much further north. (This is potentially oversimplifying the shift in geese, to see some more causes read this article linked here) The Golden Eagles shifted their range also, although some still come down this far south after ducks and geese.

GHOW on nest

In addition to the rarer birds, I found this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) occupying a nest somewhere in the Mississippi River Valley.  Unlike many bird species, Great Horned Owls nest during the winter and typically take over other bird’s former nests.

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While driving around looking for salamanders the other night, some friends and I came across this Barred Owl (Strix varia) sitting on a road side and quite willing to pose for photos.

Little Gull

One of the rarest birds I’ve gotten to see of late, and the only new one (lifer!) for me was this Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), the bird with the black underwing in the blurry photo above.  A predominately Eurasian species that rarely nests in the US and Canada, Little Gulls sometimes tag along with large flocks of other gull species and migrate through Illinois.  I’ve tried and failed to find several over the years, and I finally found this one at Carlyle Lake with a friend last week.

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Alright, after spamming all those rarer birds, let’s cool off with some ice formations from Trillium Trail at Giant City State Park, before moving on to small and cute birds.

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Over this winter, an unprecedented irruption (winter movement) of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) occurred in the Eastern United States.  This species of bird lives in the boreal forests of Canada and feeds upon pine and spruce seeds.  In years of a poor seed crop (like this year) they move south in numbers to feed on pine seeds.  As the Shawnee Hills have many pine plantations and naturalized pines, Red-breasted Nuthatches thrive here during the winter.  Coming from the Canadian wilderness, Red-breasted Nuthatches have limited fear of people.

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Unlike the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Warblers (Setophaga pinus) are found predominantly in the Southern US and up until the last few years they did not winter in Illinois regularly.  However as the climate warms just a bit and the pine plantations grow up and age, Pine Warblers become more and more frequent in Southern Illinois over the winter.

Birds are not my sole interest in life, however, and while they’re one of the few things to look at in January that will look back at you and show signs of life, I have looked for

On iNaturalist, I’ve joined the Illinois Botanists Big Year.  This is a competition to see who can observe the most plant species in Illinois over the course of this year.   I have a decent start going, mostly due to the fact that in residing near the Shawnee Hills I have access to a wide swath of biodiversity and far less snow cover than Northern Illinois.  Actually,  I might be downplaying my lead a little too much.  As of 3/4/19, I have 299 plant observations of 143 species.  The second highest observer in the competition is at 95 observations of 87 species.  I don’t expect to win overall- there’s a lot of time left and far more experienced botanists participating- but it definitely feels great to be #1 for now.  For more information visit this link here to go to the project’s homepage.

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Arguably the best plant I’ve seen this year was the Appalachian Filmy Fern above (Vandenboschia boschiana).  This bizarre fern with fronts one cell layer thick only grows in fully shaded, south-facing sandstone or other acidic rocks, with constant high humidity. It’s a VERY specific microhabitat, and as a result this fern is state-endangered in Illinois and only found in a few locations. I took a walk back to one of the locations in February and found it hiding there.

Cypressknee Sedge

Another rare plant in Illinois is Cypressknee Sedge (Carex decomposita) which grows on stumps, fallen logs, cypress “knees”, the sides of dead trees, and other dead masses of wood in slow-moving waters.   Plants can grow in some bizarre locations.

Asplenium pinnatifidum

This Asplenium pinnatifidum was a wonderful find, an uncommon fern growing in sandstone in Giant City State Park.  Half the leaves in that photo belong to an unrelated plant.

Harbinger-of-Spring

While many people semi-seriously use the prognostications of “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog to predict the end of winter, a far better sign of spring is the so-called Harbinger-of-Spring (Eregenia bulbosa), an early-flowering woodland plant shown above.  That being said, I went out and found this plant in late February.  It’s early March and there’s currently snow on the ground.   Plants and groundhogs say what they will, winter doesn’t end until it wants to.

In all seriousness, I was quite glad to find this plant, and while it might be cold now winter does come to an end soon and it will be spring.  The woods along Hutchins Creek (below) will be green before long, and I look forwards to it!

Hutchins Creek

Many people are not aware of the number of salamanders that can move on warm, rainy nights in the late winter.   This causes mass deaths of salamanders when they reach a road and have to cross it on a rainy night.  Thus, friends and I go out and move the salamanders across the road in the direction they’re trying to go, in order that they may survive to reproduce.

Spotted Sal

One of the first salamanders of the year is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), found in high-quality woods locally.  A friend and I spent a night moving a half-dozen of these from a busy state highway, including the gorgeous individual shown above.  Salamanders require fishless wetlands, typically large vernal (springtime-only) pools in woodlands, in order to reproduce.  Many die each year during their trek to the pools, and I’m glad we helped a few.

Crawfish Frog

Another specialist of fishless wetlands is the Crawfish Frog (Lithobates areolatus).  This species gets its name from its residence inside crayfish burrows, from which hundreds emerge every February-March in order to spend a week reproducing out in flooded fields.  Crawfish Frogs are extremely light sensitive and will retreat underwater or underground at the approach of light.  Thus, the only way to see one is to drive along a road slowly in an area where the Crawfish Frogs breed and hope for a “dumb” one to remain on the road for a minute when it sees lights.  Thankfully the lights it saw were ours and we got it off the road before it was run over.

Marbled Sal

In lowland swamps, another salamander that moves on warm rainy nights is the Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), perhaps the most beautiful of Illinois salamanders.

PSA, if you can’t tell by now, don’t go driving on warm (40s-50s), rainy nights in wooded or lowland areas, or if you do, keep an eye out for salamanders and other amphibians crossing the road.  If you encounter a salamander on the road, wear plastic gloves (preferentially) and move it across the road in the direction it was initially facing when you first encountered it.

Northern Dusky Salamander

To switch up, here’s a couple individuals of the Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus).  These salamanders originated in Tennessee, but they are used as fishing bait and as a result were transported to Illinois.  They have since taken over a couple hundred feet of a spring-fed stream and now live there in an isolated colony, the only Northern Dusky Salamander population in the state.  An older one below shows how good they are at hiding on the creekbed.

Hidden N. Dusky Sal

While looking for other salamanders in another spot, a friend accidentally flipped this Blackspotted Topminnow (Fundulus olivaceus) out from under a rock.  I grabbed it and after a quick photo released it straight back into the creek.  This is, so far, the most interesting fish I’ve seen this year, and a first state record on iNaturalist.  It’s nice to get that database in agreement with official data, and it’s nice to get a new fish species I’ve not encountered before.

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Is this shorter? Probably not. It’s recap of two months worth of observations, however.  Considering that I’ve left out much of what I’ve seen (which y’all can view on my iNaturalist page at this link here) I feel it’s a good length.  That being said, I will try to keep it shorter from now on. Until then, have a good week!

Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.

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.

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.

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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.)

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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…

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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!

A Cache of Good Finds

I’m having so much fun with the titles lately.

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South of the Shawnee Hills in Illinois (yes, you CAN go that far south) lies an entirely new ecosystem, the Gulf Coastal Plain- several hundred miles from the Ocean.  However, thanks to the Mississippi River Valley, this ecosystem extends as far north as Southern Illinois. The Cache River Valley is the northern outpost of the Gulf Coastal Plain.  Here Southeastern species like the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) live.  This bird is actually a bit late- it should have left for South America in August!  Next spring, it will be pure yellow, with dark wings.

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Pink Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is an uncommon wetland plant of the Wabash River Valley in Indiana and Illinois, the southern Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  In between, it’s very patchily distributed.  This is one of those plants where the range map fascinates me, with wide, seemingly-random gaps between populations.

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Spiny Softshell Turtles (Apalone spinifera) were fairly common, I saw about five or so.  They enjoyed basking in the nearby creek.

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Spiny Softshell Turtles get their name from the spiny growths on their shells, above their necks.  You can see this on the big turtle above.

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Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is fairly common in the swamp down here, though not forming pure stands of red flowers as it does in other parts of Illinois.

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Wild Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) grew in a nearby parking lot, the last phlox of the year.

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A  boardwalk ran through dried Heron Pond- the late summer has brought its usual drought, and the swamp was nothing but mud and tall trees.

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Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) forests like this one are at the edge of their native range in southern Illinois.  While these aren’t the giant Baldcypress trees found in other parts of the Cache, I was impressed with this grove, the yellow-green needles like a forest of gold.

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And here be giants.  This is the State Champion Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda) tree- the biggest tree I’ve ever seen in Illinois!  Cherrybark Oaks, like Baldcypress, are Coastal Plain trees that swing north here in their distributions.

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My hat is over a foot wide at the brim.  This is a massive tree.

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I then raced over to Cave Creek Glade, where IDNR had arranged a guided hike.  All four of us (one guide, three people) climbed up the steep glade (rocky, grassy slope surrounded by woodland).

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Cave Creek Glade Nature Preserve is one of the most well-preserved in Illinois. Regular fires and volunteer maintenance make for a plant community nearly-identical to that of Native American times.  I do find it funny how keeping an area “natural” involves so much work!

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Yellow Horse-gentian (Triosteum angustifolium), with its axillary (between the leaves and main stem) flowers and seedpods, was a favorite of our guide’s for this unusual flower placement.

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I think this is Eastern Marbleseed (Lithospermum parviflorum).  At any rate, it’s a Marbleseed.  The small, rock-hard white seeds provide the name for this plant.

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Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) butterflies live upon Asters.  They’re common favorites of mine, though I believe I saw more back home where Heath Asters are more common.

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A Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus) sat in a tree. (If I’m obviously wrong, let me know, but the call sounded like it and it looked like one to the best of my limited ability to discern such things.  Empidonax flycatchers lead to ID anxiety for even the best birders.)

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One of the most “natural” areas in Illinois, there’s virtually no non-native plants beyond a certain point on Cave Creek Glade.  This is one of the best-maintained natural areas in Illinois because of how uninvaded it is.  As Cave Creek Glade is a dry rocky hillside so hot that on an 80°F day,  no insects hid under its rocks, (I checked, hoping for the bizarre Vonones ornatus harvestmen), I suspect the conditions are too extreme for most  introduced, nonnative species.

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If I remember correctly, this is  Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve ).

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This Blue Sage (Salvia azurea) is a State-Threatened plant species restricted to far southern Illinois.  It grows more commonly in the southern Great Plains and the southeastern coastal plains.   This area’s Blue Sage are part of a disjunct population centered around far western Kentucky, and this is one of the few spots in Illinois where they are present.

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Another find was this odd small-flowered plant with blue flowers.  I believe it’s Fluxweed (Trichostema brachiatum), after some internet research.

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Crinoid  and brachiopod fossils could be found in some of the limestone rocks of which the glade was composed.  However, as this is an Illinois Nature Preserve, there is NO collecting of any fossils here. If you visit and you find fossils here, please leave them for other people to enjoy, or else you are actually breaking the law.  That being said, I’d never considered fossil-hunting in Southern Illinois as something I could potentially do in areas where this is permitted.

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The views from Cave Creek Glade were something we could take home, in the form of pictures and memories.  In a month or less, this will be a spectacular place for fall colors.

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Meanwhile, in the vicinity of these areas, on a trail, I spotted this Cottonmouth crossing.  A family with their three kids and dog came along, as did one of the people from the Cave Creek Glade hike.  The Cottonmouth lazily got out of their way as they passed along the side of the trail behind it and well out of the strike range (half the snakes body length). Cottonmouths are not aggressive, but there’s no sense in getting too close to a venomous snake.  The snake departed into the woods, evidently disdaining the sudden amount of traffic on its quiet path.

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While I didn’t see much more of the Cache than this, I enjoyed what I got to see, and there will be many more visits in the future.  The largest and oldest tree in Illinois, a Baldcypress, grows in this area- and I plan to make a trip back to find it sometime soon!

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A Grand Little Grand Canyon

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There is a widespread belief that Starved Rock State Park has the best canyons in Illlinois.  In addition to being wrong, this belief is usually held by people not acquainted with the Shawnee Hills.  I am fast becoming acquainted, and enjoying it immensely.  Speaking of immense, the Little Grand Canyon is the longest trail I’ve hiked in the Shawnee National Forest.  Let’s talk about that.

(Yes, that was a reference to Good Mythical Morning.)

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Little Grand Canyon is a box canyon, so named because it’s flat on the sides and flat on bottom.  The length of the trail varies between 2.9 and 3.6 miles, depending on what source you use.  It’s a long trail with >300 feet of elevation change both down and back.  That’s difficult in Illinois terms, if not really difficult anywhere else in the US.  Little Grand Canyon is worth the hike, however.  For instance, in the photo above the dark stems are Beechdrops (Epifagus virginianus), an unusual parasite of beeches that never produces leaves.  Furthermore, the small paired round leaves growing below it are Partridge Berry (Mitchellia repens), an uncommon plant in Illinois.  These two are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to life here.

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A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) drank moisture from a moist boulder.

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Yellow Passion Flower (Passiflora lutea)  trailed over the slope of the canyon. This lifer plant is a relative of the tropical Passion Flower vines commonly grown in gardens.

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The entry is a very round, shaded, wet trench of slick rock.  Little Grand Canyon is on my ever-growing list of places you should never hike alone, for several reasons.

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Life throughout the canyon was fascinating.  It’s a large area, and we found much in it…

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In dry cracks in the sandstone, Cave Crickets hid.  These are also colloquially called “Sprickets” for their long legs and generally unnerving appearance, resembling a spider/cricket hybrid.  However, they don’t bite and are generally non-hostile.

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Wetter crevices in the surrounding area, and the use of a flashlight, turned up a few Long-tailed Salamanders (Eurycea longicaudata), a lifer for me. Long-tailed Salamanders are “cave salamanders”- considered one of an informal group of salamanders whom prefer dark damp crevices and cave entrances.  The other informal group Long-taileds belong to, the “brook salamanders”, refers to the fact that they also can be found under stones along streams.

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Long-tailed Salamanders, whatever their name is, proved to be amazingly elusive.  I had always believed that salamanders were slow-moving creatures, and in comparison to lizards, they are.  The speed of sound is slower than the speed of light, but both outpace a man.  It’s the same here.  I also have some moral issues with catching salamanders- unlike reptiles, which have scales, amphibians have skin that is very easily damaged.  Handling amphibians is not recommended.

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A Gray Treefrog (Hyla sp.) perched along the edge of the bluffs, in a little niche.

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Walking Ferns (Asplenium rhizophyllum) grew in a mossier section.  This is a species of fern I hadn’t seen in Illinois before.  They grow small plantlets at the tips of every leaf, which root into the moss to grow new plants which then grow leaves with plantlets on the end, and so on.

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Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) hid in mossy niches and cracks down low near the base.  There were plenty of these in a wide variety of color forms.

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In sheltered spots, clubmosses grew, my first for IL.  Clubmosses look like large mosses, but they have a different anatomy which includes a vascular system.  They prefer wet acidic rocky, high-quality natural areas- which most of Illinois isn’t, but Little Grand Canyon is, in parts.

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On the canyon floor, Southern Leopard Frogs (Rana spenocephala) hopped about along the various pools.  The rocky creekbed along the canyon only remained in the form of small pockets of water, each holding a unique group of fish, frogs and other animals and plants.  No two pools had the same species composition- depth, shade, substrate, and proximity to the walls of the canyon varied greatly.  The diversity of microhabitats here is impressive.  Microhabitats are small patches of varied terrain, soil type, moisture, light, etc. within one major habitat.  Knowing microhabitats is usually more important in finding a species than just knowing general habitats.

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Crayfish hid under rocks along the streambed and waved their claws menacingly whenever their rocks were disturbed.

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There were over a dozen clearly distinct fish species in the pools, including this Orangethroat Darter (Etheostoma spectable).  Orangethroat Darter is a fairly common species of rocky creeks in the Midwest, but this is my first time finding one in Illinois.  Darters, which mostly like unpolluted rocky creeks, generally dislike Illinois, which is full of polluted muddy creeks except on its edges.  Darters get their name from the way they move- they rest on the bottom among rocks and swim rapidly from rock to rock, before settling again.  All Darter fish are found in North America only, where two hundred and thirteen species thrive, many restricted to only one or two river drainages.  The Ozarks and the Cumberland Plateau are especially noted for this, with almost every river in those areas having its own unique species of darter.  This led to one of the first major conservation battles back in the day, Snail Darter vs. Tellico Dam. See link for details.

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Unusual rock formations in the bluffs indicate Little Grand Canyon’s ecological past and present usage by animals.  This area’s cracks and crevices play a vital role for snakes and other creatures that need to overwinter underground.   At one point, Little Grand Canyon was known as Rattlesnake Den for its large population of Timber Rattlesnakes.  These were overcollected and/or killed here and throughout the state, leading to a severely diminished population statewide.  Timber Rattlesnakes are now State-threatened in Illinois, and while they are not present in large numbers anywhere in this state, a few  secret, protected hibernation den sites still persist.

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In addition to venomous snakes (Copperheads persist in fairly decent numbers throughout the Shawnee Hills, including this site), Little Grand Canyon’s  steep, slick rock cliffs are the other reason this place shouldn’t be hiked alone.  People have died from falling over the edge of the cliffs here.  It’s amazing, but not the safest place in the world.

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The tree in the center, along with other plants surrounding it, were notably darker than everything else around it.  I have no idea why this is.   Perhaps some sort of fungus?  If so, it’s affecting all of the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the tree… I should investigate this.

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We climbed back up the canyon, past an area rich in plants and also in poor lighting- hence the lack of photos from our way out of the canyon.

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Well above a waterfall, I flipped two rocks.  One yielded this tiny crayfish, ~150 feet above the valley floor.  I wish there was a guide to Crayfish of Illinois- I haven’t found one yet.  I might have to make one… that’d be a project.

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At the top, a Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)  sat on a wooden fence.  What a surprise.  The fence was at the top of one of the finer overlooks in Illinois.  It’s a solid No. 6 behind Fults Hill Prairie, Inspiration Point,  Grandview Drive, Meredosia Hill Prairie, and Pere Marquette State Park.  I will someday come up with a list of the best scenic overlooks in Illinois. This will be on it.

After this overlook, the trail undulates up and down a ridge for a mile back to the parking lot.  If I hadn’t been spoiled by the trail I’d just hiked, the upland forest here might have been enjoyable.  As it was, I was a bit too tired and running a bit late to notice.  I would recommend taking this path in reverse order, starting out going west (left) and going in a clockwise loop back. However, no matter how you walk it, Little Grand Canyon is one of the finest places to visit in Illinois and currently holds the title of best canyon I’ve ever visited in Illinois.  If you’d like Starved Rock with a tenth of the people, a slightly longer trail,  a bigger, wilder canyon, and far more diverse flora and fauna, visit Little Grand Canyon… with a friend or two.

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Ebird Checklist (It’s back!): http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39074990

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…

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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?

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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!

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.)

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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:

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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… 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.

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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:

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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!

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