This is the spring snake post, if you hadn’t figured that out by now. I’d recommend leaving if you don’t like snakes, salamanders or Scarlet Tanagers.
Above is a baby Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). As usual, I have to make the disclaimer that I have a camera with fairly good zoom. If you tried to get that same photo with a cell phone, you’d be an idiot. Baby Cottonmouths are just as venomous as regular Cottonmouths, only smaller and sneakier. (More on that topic later).
Much less sneaky is this Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps). It was a cooler April day when I found him, and everyone was up on logs or walls trying to catch a bit of heat.
Rat Snakes (Whateveritisnow changeswaytoofrequentli) love to be in odd spots, so of course one was hanging on the side of a cliff. It’s seriously impressive how they manage to do so with no arms and legs. Also, I have no idea how it got there.
More obvious in its mobility was this on-the-ground Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion), my first state-endangered herp of the year. “First” implies that I’ll find more. I don’t actually know that, but I assume I will. This is one of the rarest snakes in Illinois, only found at Snake Road. It certainly looks boring enough to be rare, that’s for sure.
Less boring and more alarming was this Cottonmouth, a few days later, which decided to show off as a number of them usually do. You basically have to pick one up for them to bite you, however. I don’t know that from personal experience, so take that with a mild grain of salt and give them a bit of space (body length of the snake, is the bare minimum for me).
This same day, we found a Rat Snake up in a tree. These are very good climbers- I see them up on something as often as I see them on the ground.
Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) crawled around on the rocks nearby.
A Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) crossed the road nearby. This is one of my favorite snakes. It’s like an Eastern Garter Snake, but…better. I’d say some random fact about why it is, but it just is, and that’s all there is to it.
I am, of course, continually distracted by other things than snakes at Snake Road. Those distractions usually have either chlorophyll or feathers. In this case it was feathers, belonging to a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana). Warblers at Snake Road this year seemed to be closer to the ground than usual, probably due to the colder-than-average temperatures. This of course means better-than-usual viewing. In one notable case, a herper friend of mine photographed the reclusive, canopy-dwelling, state-threatened Cerulean Warbler ON THE GROUND- and it’s a good photo, too! The most irritating thing is that he doesn’t really care, because “it’s just a bird”.
No, it’s a feathered reptile that’s flown thousands of miles for you to see it and enjoy it, and even more rarely, it’s at a height where you actually CAN enjoy it.
Doubly irritatingly, one was seen at a low height on my Spring Bird Count at Snake Road by a herper, while I was looking the wrong direction. It then flew away, and I saw it fly, but not well enough to be sure of the species for personal counting.
In the meantime, near Snake Road I found a couple of interesting salamanders, including this Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) that apparently had no problem hiding out in the middle of a brook several yards from anything resembling a cave.
Nearby, I located a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). Yes, they’re very slimy.
On Saturday, May 5, I undertook a Spring Bird Count at Snake Road. Along the way, a friend and I were treated to a plethora of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) we helped cross the road:
We then met up with several herpers from across the state- all certifiably insane, of course. (I mean, with all due respect, anyone who goes looking for venomous snakes for fun usually has a few wires crossed.) For starters, I was instructed to call anything I saw a Copperhead, as a running inside joke, the origins of which I do not recall, a month later. It’s hard to remember other specific examples- it’s been a busy month. They were enjoyably mad, however, so it was a fun trip in one of the best nature preserves in the Midwest- in a word, glorious!
As it was May, the herping was slower, so I focused on things with feathers, to the mild amusement and/or irritation of the other herpers. Woe to anyone who attempts to approach this Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), for it is well-guarded by Poison Ivy (Toxidendron radicans). It didn’t elect to pop out for a better photo, unfortunately.
It was a slower day, but that didn’t mean nothing was out, and one of the “Copperheads” we saw was this juvenile Cottonmouth, carefully concealed in a tuft of grass about seven feet away from the path. Unfortunately for me, a blade of grass decided to photobomb in front of the snake.
Along the path, we discovered this Plain-bellied Watersnake about ready to shed its skin, something snakes do every so often because their skin doesn’t grow with them as they grow. The reason I know this snake is about to shed is that it has blue on its eyes- a traditional snake
The snakes were few and far between, and the birds were abundant, at least in voice, one of which was my lifer Golden-winged Warbler. So I slowed down the group by stopping and calling them out every so often (every five feet on a 2.5 mile walk). Whatever. Birds are cool. There’s more of them to see, they’re easier to see, and they do more interesting things. Sometimes they even let you almost get a good photo of them, like this Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) decided to do. Oddly, the more common tanager was Summer, but I have no good or even mediocre photos of them from this trip.
We flipped over a log and uncovered this large Northern Slimy Salamander, which, after some consideration, I think might actually be my first Northern Slimy Salamander at Snake Road. It was a “two-hander”- if it had been legal to handle it, and if hypothetically we had done so, it would have required two hands to hold it.
Distractions of the chlorophyte kind prevailed- this Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a species of which I am indubitably fond. I haven’t used the word indubitably in awhile, and it feels good to try it out again.
We walked down the road, and collectively looked at a number of rocks. As one group, we all decided without much speaking that we should flip the rocks, and we let the Canadian in our group go first. He flipped this and we flipped out. It’s a Midwestern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus helenae) – a lifer for me, and the Canadian guy, and my friend I’d driven there with, and a fun snake to find generally! These are actually one of the more common snakes within their range, but they tend to be underground hunting and living like worms, so they’re rarely seen.
Even more abundant are Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus) like the one below: Interestingly, at this location, three subspecies mix (Mississippi, Prairie, and Northern) resulting in unusual intergrades with patterning matching all three subspecies on the same snake. This patterning is on the underside and is therefore not visible in the photo below:
Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) crawled about on old cut stumps (as seen below).
We also scared up a less-than-photogenic Broad-headed Skink that was a three-hander- nearly a foot long! None of us had ever seen one so large at Snake Road before, and considering how often Snake Road gets visited by this crowd, that’s a surprise!
I was technically supposed to count birds as part of the official Spring Bird Count, and I was the only one who never discovered a reptile first, as a result. Furthermore, I found flowers distracting on occasion. Larue-Pine Hills has about 1,200 species of plants recorded from it, which is a LOT:
The other herpers, somewhat tired of having to wait for me while I counted birds and photographed flowers, moved on ahead. I fell behind. My friend who’d ridden with me had stuck with me, and another herper had joined us- one of the original gang who’d arrived later and seen less of the road. I checked my phone and notices a message:
“We found a Rough Green Snake.” A Rough Green Snake is arguably the best snake. Note the period after that sentence.
“Ok”- My traditional response to everything, which I have been informed is sometimes not helpful to the person on the other end.
“Do you want to see it or should we move on?”- The friend I’d brought along had never seen a Rough Green Snake, and I hadn’t seen one this year. This was a no-brainer.
“See it”- I typed back.
“Run”- was the reply.
So we ran. It was at that moment I discovered how out of shape I am. But we did see it:
It turns out that that last hour was apparently idea for Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)- we ended up seeing FOUR of them, which made my friend and I and virtually everyone there very happy. This snake is a brilliant green, eats mostly bugs, and is completely docile and harmless. Therefore it is in a population decline (pesticide-induced lack of bugs, habitat destruction and overcollection are the big three.) Indeed, if you ever see a snake in the wild, don’t give its exact location, especially if it’s colorful or venomous, as someone’s likely to either kill or capture it.
I noticed my lifer Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) along the path as I walked. It’s an overdue species for me, and I was glad to finally see one in the wild:
While walking along the path, having caught up to the other herpers, we looked down and saw a young Ring-necked Snake, not much longer than my middle finger, hiding among the gravel:
One last Rough Green Snake saw us off nearby. They are called Rough Green Snakes because their scales have a “keel” or ridge on them, which makes their scales feel “rougher”.
I took one last look at a flower, Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii, named for the Miami tribe of the Shawnee, not Miami, Florida), and then we prepared to leave.
Snake Road wasn’t done with us just yet. One Cottonmouth decided to sit in the middle of the road and block conscientious traffic (though many people would’ve just run it over). Attempts to get it to shift, using the traditional implements of hats and sticks, resulted in it going under a car and disappearing.
Looking under the car, all we found was a toad we hadn’t noticed was there before. The whole thing seemed like a bizarre magic trick, and we didn’t find the Cottonmouth despite extensive searching. The grass on the side of the road was therefore off-limits (venomous snake + tall grass = dumb idea to walk through it) and we gave up.
The guy whose car it went under later found the Cottonmouth’s remains crushed in his tire- apparently it had crawled up in the tire from underneath the car. When he’d started to move his car again, it had been killed, unfortunately.
So, this post is in dedication to this unfortunate Cottonmouth, whose persistent violation of road safety laws led to its demise. Don’t be like this Cottonmouth- don’t crawl into a stranger’s tire.
As of this writing, I still haven’t seen an Eastern Garter Snake, Illinois’ most common snake. For some reason, I’m not disappointed by this.
The final results of the Spring Bird Count: I had 79 bird species, my then-highest ever one-location total. Ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45312902