Category: Snake Road

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!

Snake Road in Recap (Part 2) (Herpers are weird)

Baby Cottonmouth

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).

Broad-headed Skink

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.

Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

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.

Green Watersnake

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.

Angry Cottonmouth

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).

Whatever Rat Snake

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 Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) crawled around on the rocks nearby.

Western Ribbon Snake

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.

Northern Parula

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.

Cave Salamander, lost.

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.

N. Slimy Salamander

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:

Eastern Box Turtle- Wow!

Eastern Box Turtles are not graceful.

Get out of the road, you idiot!

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!

Prothonotary Warbler

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.

Beware

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.

Plain-bellied Watersnake

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

Scarlet Tanager

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.

Two-Hander

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.

Jack-in-the Pulpit

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.

Worm Snake

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:

Ring-necked Snake

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!

Five-lined Skink

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:

Phlacia?

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:

The Best Snake (Rough Green Snake)

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.

The Best Snake

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:

Zebra Swallowtail

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:

The Cutest Snake

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”.

The Best Snake

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.

Miami Mist

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.

Tragedy of the Cottons

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

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.

Racing Rains, Chasing Cranes

Hey, let’s try doing a shorter blogpost for once, instead of these two-week-long megaposts that I finish at 1:13 AM!

Friday:  I find my first-ever Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa), one of our earliest native spring wildflowers.  It’s remarkably pretty for being related to carrots:

Harbinger-of-Spring

Saturday:  I spent most of the afternoon showing a British guy from my apartment around southern Illinois. We stopped at Kinkaid Lake Spillway, among other spots:

Kinkaid Lake Spillway

I found several yearbirds and introduced the guy to Snake Road.  Oh, and by the way, here’s the first Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster) of the year:

Plain-bellied Watersnake

A Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) also posed for us, a new and happy occurrence for this hider-in-tree-stumps.  Seriously, I’ve never seen a Winter Wren away from dead wood:

Winter Wren

As we left, I played Neil Diamond’s “America” and drove down a bumpy pothole-covered levee road in a Ford Ranger pickup truck. Felt pretty American to me.  For all the problems our country has, I’m still glad to live here.

Sunday:  I decided to venture up to Carlyle Lake and it’s OK-ish.  I missed one of the rarest bird finds in Illinois so far this year in Mottled Duck, which was fifteen minute’s drive away from me at the time.   I also missed out on a breeding-plumaged Laughing Gull ten minutes’s drive away.  I did get several yearbirds, including my first ever photos of a Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus).  To be clear, that’s a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the background.

Brewer's Blackbird and Killdeer

And this lovely Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus)- yes, that’s it, sitting on top of the concrete structure WAYYY out there in the middle of Carlyle Lake:

Osprey

I came down through Washington County, spotting my lifer Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) on the way.  If I’d counted dead ones, I’d have seen one many years ago, but somehow the live ones always eluded me.  Skunks aren’t that rare.  Thankfully this one was distant:

Striped Skunk

I then ended up birding the fish farms in Jackson County, which ended the day well with my first of the year Barn Swallow an hour before sunset and American Golden-Plovers half an hour before sunset.  The Gorham fish farms were productive as well, with many dabbling ducks like these:

Gorham Duck Ponds

Monday: Rage and screams of agony in the morning when I found out about the Mottled Duck (from the Missouri email group MObirds, the last place I expect reports of Illinois rare birds to reach me.) An internet acquaintance of mine and fellow birder discovered a pair of Whooping Cranes near him.  The forecast looked like rain the following day.  I called off an appointment for reasons unrelated to birds, leaving me free after 11:30 AM on Tuesday.

Tuesday- I finished class at 11:15 AM, a bit early.   The Whooping Cranes are an hour from me, and the Mottled Ducks and Laughing Gull are an hour and a half away.  I will get hit by the rain one way or the other, and it looks like about 1:00 PM is when it will hit the Whooping Crane spot, whereas it’s already beginning to rain at Carlyle Lake.  This makes it unfortunately easy to decide- it’s the Whooping Cranes.  I throw everything in a car and drive off in pursuit.

It began misting as I crossed the county line, but the hard rain held off and I got to the spot.  And:

IMG_1188

Whoop Whoop.  Grus americana.  There’s 600 or so of these birds in the entire world.  It’s such a special feeling to see something so rare, so close.  I used my truck as a blind to not disturb the birds as they foraged and even cleaned their feathers (preened).  The cranes had set up shop next to a fairly busy road, so evidently they weren’t too concerned, barely looking at me twice.

Whooping Crane Preening

I’ve now seen four Whooping Cranes since January 1, 2017, and zero Sandhill Cranes.  (That would be the continuing Randolph County birds and these new ones.)  This is either great or sad, considering hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes pass through Illinois- northern Illinois.  I plan to change my Sandhill Crane luck in May.

Whoop Whoop

Wednesday- I find out that the Mottled Ducks were in fact not rediscovered on Tuesday when someone checked before the rain, so the drive would have been for nothing if I’d pursued them.  Well, that was fun.  Time to go back and do school.