Category: River Bluffs

Yes, Chicago, There Are Armadillos in Illinois

Black Vulture

On the second day of spring break, my good friend Cody and I went out a-wandering across the Mississippi floodplains, searching for whatever we could find.  We first stumbled across this Black Vulture feeding upon a Nine-banded Armadillo, in an image that demands y’all’s sweet tea, it’s so Southern.    For the heck of it, I posted the image to Illinois Birding Network on Facebook, where it blew up.  I recieved over 60 comments, mostly to the tune of “THERE’S ARMADILLOS IN ILLINOIS?!”  Now, most members of that group are from Chicago, and as with anything else in Illinois the rest of the state gets a bit forgotten in comparison to whatever’s going on in Chicago.   So, “Yes, Chicago, we do have Armadillos in Illinois.”

Nine-banded Armadillo

Indeed, Cody and I went on to find two more Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) out foraging in muddy fields.  Armadillos are a recent addition to Illinois’ mammals, the earliest specimens found in 2002 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  It’s part of a range expansion going on since the early 1800s, when the first Nine-banded Armadillos illegally immigrated into Texas from Mexico in 1849.  They’re thick on the ground along Route 3 and the nearby backroads here in southern Illinois, especially in floodplain areas.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

Thick in the trees- for now- are Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata), starting to move north for spring. By late May they’ll be gone, off  nesting in the North Woods of Canada.

Great Waterleaf

The springlike weather has encouraged the Great Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) to begin coloring up and producing a few more leaves.   Waterleaves get both their common and scientific names from their unique markings that somewhat resemble water stains.

Broad-headed Sharpshooter

The warming weather also encouraged a few overwintering insects to emerge, like this unique little Broad-headed Sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), a planthopper capable of jumping great distances to avoid photography.  Thankfully, it decided to sit mostly still for us instead.

Cave Salamander

A recent rainstorm had encouraged the Cave Salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) out of their usual crevices  and directly into view for us. These shy, light-avoiding salamanders were visibly present in the low hundreds at this location. They often are here, but they generally don’t like to leave their spring too much, until the water gets too high for them as it had lately.

Cave Salamander 2

In a hole off to the side of the salamander spring, a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) glowered at us, seemingly unwilling to leave its den. YAY!  First snake of the year.

Cottonmouth

Outside the cave, we noticed a few Cut-leafed Toothworts (Cardamine concatenata) just beginning to bloom, the first of a long series of flowering plants we’ll see over the coming weeks.

Cut-leaved Toothwort

Flipping a stone nearby yielded this pair of Northern Zigzag Salamanders (Plethodon dorsalis), cousins to the Eastern Red-backed Salamanders found in most of the eastern US far more widely and abundantly.  This species is seemingly localized to a handful of sites in Illinois, although as with most salamanders it’s hard to know the exact range thanks to their quiet and secretive ways.

N. Zigzag Salamanders

Cody and I just about stumbled over a few Cottonmouths sunning themselves next to a den site, a spot where they go into holes and hide to overwinter.  Thankfully, we backed away reasonably well.  Still, understandably they got a bit defensive, and here we see a Cottonmouth in defensive posture. This particular individual has gorgeous chin patterning compared to many I’ve seen.

When moving around a probable Cottonmouth (or other venomous snake) den site, there’s a few things to keep in mind.  Wear foot protection of some kind (thick socks and especially thicker shoes, don’t reach into any crevices you can’t see all the way into, and look before you move.  I prefer going with a friend and moving slowly through the area, watching out for each other as we go along.  This avoids unintended injuries to both the snakes and ourselves.  Cottonmouths are not particularly aggressive, and nearly all injuries are from trying to pick up or kill them.  That being said, Cottonmouths know what a wallop they can deliver and they’ll let you know about it ahead of time by showing off in a threat display.  Rattling tails, hissing, and open, upturned mouths are a good sign not to come closer!  Cottonmouths and most other snakes can strike within half of their body length, and I generally recommend keeping out of the full snake’s body length from an individual, just for extra buffer.   If you follow this advice, you’ll be quite safe.

Cottonmouth 2

After appreciating the Cottonmouths, we drove home, wrapping up a second wonderful day of spring break.  I’m writing this on the third day,  just about to head out and I’m about to see what I find today!  Have a safe Daylight Savings Time, everyone!

Spring in Recap (Part 1)

Spring is pretty much over. Well, technically it doesn’t end for a month, but the spring flowers are mostly done and the spring birds are pretty much north for now (a few shorebirds and flycatchers are still passing through, of course.)

Pectoral Sandpiper

Speaking of shorebirds, I’ll begin with Santa Fe Bottoms.  This section of flooded fields just a bit southwest of Carlyle Lake, was a brief stop on multiple drives north and south.  I didn’t see much rare there, but lots of sandpipers like the Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) are welcome.

Sunset at Santa Fe Bottoms

The sunset over those flooded fields isn’t half-bad, either!

American White Pelicans

On Carlyle Lake itself, the American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) had gathered in numbers, sitting on the flooded breakwater.  There was quite a bit of excessive rainfall early this spring, so the lake was over its banks.  This provided habitat for a rare bird I chased:

Cinnamon Teal

The rusty-red duck is a Cinnamon Teal (Spatula cyanoptera) that’s wandered a bit too far east from the western Great Plains, moving in with a flock of Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) like the female at left. This was one of the rarer birds I was able to see this spring, and one of my personal favorite ducks.  After spotting it, over a hundred feet away, I watched it for a bit, before checking out some of the rest of the park… where I encountered a bird from even further away:

Ring-necked Pheasant

Meet the Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus).  It’s a native of Asia that’s been imported to the US for hunting. This particular individual was up against the roadside due to the flooding, allowing for close photos. Those gorgeous patterns on its back are so easily observable under those conditions.  I was just plain flabbergasted by such a close view.

Flooding

Speaking of flabbergasting, the amount of rain this spring, at times, proved to be so.  Flooding was quite common and more than one trip involved a surprise turnaround to avoid water-covered roads.  This flooding even extended to Kinkaid Lake Spillway:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway, Flood Stage

This did turn it into a minor Niagara:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway

Delphinium tricorne

Spring was rather cold well into April, but most of the flowers came up regardless, including these Dwarf Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne) at Snake Road.

Opossum

Also out and about in the cold was this Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). A few friends and I were visiting to look at all the wildflowers… I suggested that we climb all the way to the top and my friend Ava agreed to come along.  I’m not sure who was the bigger fool.   After climbing up 250+ feet to the top over steep slope and sliding gravel, we looked out over the view, with rare Shortleaf Pines (Pinus echinata) surrounding us. It was worth it, I think.

Shortleaf Pines

It’s rare in Illinois to be able to look at such a large expanse of unmodified habitat (aka a place that’s mostly the same as it’s always been):

Overlook from Pine Hills

We then hiked back down a slightly less steep grade (it still involved climbing down a small waterfall) and back to the vehicle, where it started to snow… this was mid-April in SOUTHERN Illinois. Despite fewer natural areas and the Midwest’s predictably unpredictable weather, somehow  the wildlife makes it work.

As an example, I went on to find tons of ducks in a flooded farm field in the Mississippi River Valley (mostly Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis).  This was the site of a former lake bed that farmers try to farm every year.  It’s been underwater for over a month and a half now as of this writing (5/23/18).  This flock of scaup, estimated at 325 birds (more to the left and right of this) is the new eBird high count for Jackson county, Illinois.

Mississippi River Valley in a photo

The snow shifted into summer over the course of a week, bringing with it the usual Deep South species on the edges of their range, like this Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula).  I’d like to blame all graininess in the photo on the humidity that came with that temperature increase:

Little Blue Heron- the REAL Blue Heron

Other birds, like this Sora (Porzana carolina), were just passing through:

Sora just out of focus

Joining the Sora in the same flooded field were these two sandpipers, a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), the former clearly much bigger than the latter:

Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper

My best find of late, however, was this lifer American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), one of a few I came to find at Oakwood Bottoms.  This ordinarily shy heron decided to wander up and take a look at me, allowing for great photos:

American Bittern, Round 1

It’s been a busy spring.  I made this post for people who don’t like snakes, to have a last breath of fresh air before recapping Snake Road. Beware, snake-fearing people, of my next post.  Then again, if you don’t like snakes, I’d question what you’re doing reading this blog in the first place.

Hardin County Showdown

It was Kyle Wiktor and I, the”Look Here, It’s Cranes”, versus the “Grumpy Old Men” (their team name, not insulting them here)  in a showdown for the highest number of species in Hardin County on April 28, 2018, as part of the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, a competition to see the most birds and raise the most money for charity.  (The charity in question is the restoration of  the Cache River watershed.)  The “Grumpy Old Men” were the dominant champions, with three of the best birders in Illinois (Mark Seiffert, Andy Sigler, and Craig Taylor) competing against me and Kyle, two of the birders in Illinois.  Actually, at present Kyle’s not even in Illinois- he’s the migratory bird counter at Indiana Dunes.  To see what he does, check out this blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/. The “Grumpy Old Men” had access to a secret wetland spot, and we had no idea where it was.  We assumed it was a quarry pond.  They’d scouted out the area to a limited extent, and so we followed their notes, having no time or money to do any of our own scouting.  As a result, we knew it’d be hard for us to beat them, and so therefore we were just doing what we were doing for fun.

The day started off with indecision over vehicles, but we eventually chose Kyle’s minivan.  At 4:30 AM we were stopped in Harrisburg, getting gas.  First two birds of the day were American Robin and Song Sparrow at the gas station while I filled up the tank.  Kyle missed the Song Sparrow.  We were off to a great start.

We turned down some road west of Hicks (Yes, there’s a town called Hicks in southern Illinois.) about 5:00 AM.  Immediately we were greeted by calling Eastern Towhees.   Barred Owls, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, a Field Sparrow, and a few Northern Cardinals joined in.  The Whip-poor-wills got louder and became one of the loudest birds present.  Whip-poor-wills are strange birds known as nightjars, with large eyes, mottled gray bodies and stubby bills.  They’re rapidly declining throughout their range, so hearing lots of them is a great sign.  Pictures of Whip-poor-wills can be found here:  https://lakecountynature.com/2013/07/29/campfire-serenade/

We spotted eyeshine on the road, and stopped to see what it was.  The eyes rose up and started flying- it was a pair of Whip-poor-wills on the road!  They flew right over our heads.  It’s rare to see such a well-hidden bird in flight.

The day only got better and better as we drove into our dawn spot.  Every Big Day requires a great dawn spot, and we chose Illinois Iron Furnace Park based on our hopes that it would be good.  We’d driven past the area back in February and noticed that it had a good mix of woodland habitats.  It proved to be ideal- we had about 40 species immediately.  The best were three Cerulean Warblers, calling from high up in the treetops.  I got to see one, but it flew off before photos.  In addition to Cerulean,  for the warblers we had Hooded, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Prothonotary, Kentucky, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Northern Parula (Setophaga americana, pictured):

Northern Parula

The Cerulean Warblers were lifer birds, so I was happy.  The day had started well, and it continued as we backtracked slightly towards a road we’d seen branching off from ours.  Google began to panic, and I checked… this road wasn’t on Google at all.  Yet it was well maintained and clearly had been here for awhile.  What on earth was going on?

This road doesn't exist, according to Google.

Despite the oddity of the road, it proved great.  We added Worm-eating Warbler,  Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager as we drove along through one of the finest woodlands I’ve ever seen in Illinois. Eventually we came to a road that Google recognized, part of Kyle’s original route.  This netted us several more birds, including Blue Grosbeak, Barn Swallow,  and a slightly unexpected Dickcissel.  Lots of breeding birds had shown up… very few migrants had, however. The cold had kept them away for the most part.

Dodecatheon (IDC about taxonomy)

Breeders everywhere, migrants nowhere.  I spotted a Nashville Warbler, a migrant, but it eluded Kyle.  The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) were blooming abundantly along the roadsides, as were many other flowers. Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) were moving through in flocks:

Indigo Bunting

We drove 225 E south to Peters Creek Tower Road down to Rock Creek Road, cutting through small farms and thick woods, with Louisiana Waterthrushes and Northern Parulas calling everywhere. This Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) posed in a tree as we drove past:

Broad-winged Hawk

On 225 E, we had the windows down listening for birds.  “Te-slick” something called. Kyle went “That’s a Henslow’s Sparrow!” We stopped, and found not only five Henslow’s Sparrows but also a Yellow-breasted Chat. Elated at our luck, we continued onwards, stopping by a set of sinkhole ponds adjacent to Rock Creek Road that looked good to us previously.   Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Boring Swallows, would be a better name) and this glowing Prothonotary Warbler  (Protonotaria citrea) greeted us, as did many other species:

Prothonotary Warbler

The sinkhole ponds got us Wood Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Orchard Oriole, House Wren,  Palm Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and more.  It’s a good migrant trap to remember for later.   Southern Hardin County is dotted with ponds like these, formed by sinkholes in the limestone bedrock underlying the area.  This particular one is directly adjacent to the road, so it’s somewhat publicly accessible, unlike the vast majority of sinkhole ponds.

We got Cliff Swallow a few minutes later down the road, at a spot where we missed Wilson’s Snipe and a Pectoral Sandpiper.  With that, Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Purple Martin, we were only missing one swallow… and Bank Swallow came just a few minutes later at a wetland called the Big Sink that we’d stopped by briefly (more on that later).  We had a Swallow Shutout!   We drove into Cave-in-Rock happy about this, and saw House Finch, House Sparrow, and Chimney Swift upon entering. Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) were quite abundant in the area, still “blue-ing” up for spring:

Blue Grosbeak

Cave-in-Rock is a cave in a rock adjacent to the Ohio River, accessible when the Ohio lets it be.  It wasn’t feeling generous today, so we contented ourselves with Red-headed Woodpecker, Nashville Warbler (heard by both), and a couple lunches at the eponymous state park.

Cave-in-Rock

We did see a Black Vulture flying over Kentucky from the park’s cliffs.  I have now seen two species in Kentucky this year- both vultures.  Other wildlife was to be had, also, including this Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) enjoying the sun at the restaurant.

Five-lined Skink

Down the road, we turned east and kept going.  A small marshy spot was our reward, with Swamp Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, and several Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria):

Solitary Sandpiper

The spot wasn’t much to look at, but it’s hard to find this type of wetlands in Hardin county:

Small Wetlands in Hardin

We drove down more backroads.  Afternoon had set in and it was slow going, with a  Gray Catbird and Swainson’s Thrush on one particularly difficult road.  We had to rebuild that road using rocks before we could keep going.  The lovely flowers of Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) rewarded our trip, though our efforts didn’t.

Hoary Puccoon

We drove back and forth along the river, picking up Blue-winged Teal and Summer Tanager at one stop, but no Mallards.  No Mallards, no Ruby-crowned Kinglets, no Northern Flickers, and no Fish Crows.  Where were they?  Those should be easy birds to find.

A stop at a fish farm got us an unexpected Osprey, Double-crested Cormorants, an Eastern Meadowlark, and the overdue Northern Flicker, at about 1 PM.

We drove northeast to find that the shorebird habitat we’d hoped for had dried up, with only a few Solitary Sandpipers remaining.  Oh well.  We then decided to check a spot that looked like open pine trees, in hopes of Brown-headed Nuthatches expanding their range into Illinois.  Apparently last year the Shawnee National Forest people did logging here, so there wasn’t much to see… but it got us our Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  This is state land, to be clear, and it wasn’t marked with any obvious No Trespassing signs, nor were there any signs of recent activity.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Spot

Saline Landing was our next stop, which proved to be a very unique riverside town that Kyle said reminded him of Alaska. It only had one road in and out, and was likely an hour from the nearest Walmart.  I’ve never seen a more isolated community anywhere in the US.  And yet, unlike many southern Illinois river towns, it was fairly clean and well-maintained, despite the flooding of part of the town by the Ohio River.   However, it had no new birds  and the drive there took about an hour out of our day.

After this, we decided to take a slight break because Kyle wanted to see Garden of the Gods, just over the border in Saline co. We did that, got ice cream in Hardin, and sat out eating it while we planned out our night. We’d given up hope on Mallard and Fish Crow.  We hadn’t added any new birds in hours, and had basically wasted about three or four hours of time, something to not do on a Big Day.

To make up for lost time, we decided to try seeing the Big Sink again, a spot we’d popped in and out of earlier to get Bank Swallow.  It’s the largest wetland in Hardin county, and the only water lost from it is through evaporation- it flows nowhere.  The only access was down a narrow dead-end road between farmfields, which we assumed was public because there were multiple houses and a church connected to it.   As we arrived, we spotted the “Grumpy Old Men” scoping out things, as pictured below.  We realized that large flocks of ducks were on the opposite bank, just a bit too far off for us to identify with 100% certainty.  I did manage to pick out a Pied-billed Grebe.  The “Grumpy Old Men” came back up the road and told us we were trespassing.

Trespassing?  There wasn’t any purple paint, signs, or gates that we saw. What?

Big Sink + "Grumpy Old Men"

The owners of the property came out and confirmed this. We were trespassing!  Apparently this was a private lane, though neither Kyle or I had seen any signs of this.  Well, we got out of there, but it didn’t leave a good impression on the other birders and we weren’t thrilled about not being able to see the ducks well enough for ID. For a bit, we even thought the other birders had called up the owner and had us kicked us out just to keep us from seeing what they were seeing.  Of course, it did kick in that we’d actually been doing something massively illegal, and we could’ve been fined, arrested or shot. Thankfully the owners did none of those things, and just escorted us off their property.  We found out the next day that the “Grumpy Old Men” had taken time to get to know the owners well, but since the owners were private people dealing with their own issues they didn’t want a bunch of birders they didn’t know all over their land.  And then we showed up… twice…

Next time,  we won’t assume!  Our sincerest apologies, again, to both the “Grumpy Old Men” for jeopardizing their access to the spot and giving birding a bad name, and to the owners of the “Big Sink” for trespassing on their property and causing them a hassle they definitely didn’t need.

Our next plan was to go get American Woodcocks, but instead of going to the spot where the other team had definitely had woodcocks on scouting trips, we instead decided to try for them at the Henslow’s Sparrow spot and avoid any further interactions for a bit.  This proved to be a costly mistake, since we missed American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-Widow at the other spot, birds the other team had recorded there that morning.  Since they’d gotten all three of those nocturnal birds in the wee hours of the morning, the “Grumpy Old Men” felt no compulsion to return. We would have been alone and had three species, one of which, Chuck-wills-Widow, would have been a lifer for me at the time, though I’ve head one since at Cedar Lake.  Oh, well. We also got lost a bit on the way to the Henslow’s Sparrow field, which didn’t help us any.

We added nothing new, but the sheer numbers of Eastern Whip-poor-wills in this region are impressive.  I’ve never had anything like them. We tried for Chuck-wills-Widow at a few spots, but none were calling, at least not for certain.  We thought about trying harder,  but I had a rough week ahead so we stopped and went home. Our final list was 110 species.

Yeah, we didn’t win.   The “Grumpy Old Men” did, with 122 species.  That being said, we pulled 110 species out of a difficult county, with close to no preparation and with <10 species added after lunch. If we’d exerted a lot more effort in the afternoon, who knows… we might’ve pulled ahead. That being said, without more migrants and with limited wetlands, I doubt it.  There’s so many birds I’m sure we could have tried for with more effort, but we did a decent job and it was mostly for fun and charity anyway.

Our best finds were Cerulean Warbler (lifer!) and Henslow’s Sparrow, as well as the numbers of Whip-poor-wills and warblers in the area.  Our biggest misses were Mallard and Fish Crow.

Speaking of charity, several people donated to the GoFundMe campaign I’d done for this event. Thanks to Steve Bailey, Cynthia Gorrell,  Shawn Gossman, Ava Alford, and Ted Wolff for their generous contributions to conserving the Cache River Watershed.  Further credit goes to Rhonda Rothrock for running the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois.  And hats off to Craig Taylor, Andy Sigler, and Mark Seiffert for being excellent opponents.  Until next year, gentlemen.

 

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.)