Category: SNAKE!!!

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!

Indiana Dunes Almost Birding Festival (Chicago Trip, Part 3)

Dunes Parking Lot

Indiana Dunes  State Park was the last day of my Chicago trip. After hearing a Prairie Warbler from this parking lot,  I met up with Kyle around 10:30 AM  (no early rising!) and we immediately stumbled across an Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platirhinos):

Eastern Hognose #1

This is easily the best snake I’ve seen this year.  I love Hognoses and their goofy-grinning faces.  The “Hognose” refers to the upturned scale on the top of their upper jaw that they use to dig though sand in search of toads.  Pretty much all a Hognose eats is toads.  Feeling threatened, the snake flattened out and pretended to be a cobra for a bit.

Eastern Hognose #2

We let it be and wandered over to some trails.  Along one of them, a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nests in a little box, putting on a good show for us and a couple other birdwatchers. Thislocation is fairly far north for a Prothonotary, which is primarily a southern bird that creeps north in Illinois along the river valleys.  Pretty much everyone else had binoculars, because that afternoon was the start of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.  It was like Montrose all over again, except fewer giant cameras and ridiculous clothes.

PROW

Above the Prothonotary Warbler, a little Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sat up in a tree.  I’ve not seen very many hummingbirds this year, so it’s a joy to see.  I don’t know if my lack of hummingbirds is a personal coincidence or just an actual lack of them.  Time will tell.

Ruby-throated Hummer

Into the woods, and the late spring plants were in full flower.  My first Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) bloomed along a creek- hundreds of small white flowerheads.  This plant somehow doesn’t grow wild in Illinois, so it’s a treat to see here.

Dwarf Ginseng

Also a treat was Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) another lifer plant:

Rue Anemone

The woods here resembled late April back in Southern Illinois, right down to the Cerulean Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes calling from the trees above:

Stream, Indiana Dunes

However, the plants proved it to be distinct… this Great White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) doesn’t grow wild in southern Illinois, for instance.  It’s more of an Appalachian plant.

Great White Trillium

White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) were abundant, migrating back to the tundra from which they came.  One was enjoying the picnic area:

White-crowned Sparrow

Kyle had to go to a lecture, so I went off and explore by myself.  Several migrant warblers were calling and seen as I went down one of the longer trails, stumbling across Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) on the way.  This is another calling-card of this area’s biodiversity- Wild Lupine is a plant of the Atlantic Coast and sandy sections of the Great Lakes area.

Wild Lupine

The sand dunes and their environs have over 1400 species of plants, making them some of the most biodiverse habitat in the Midwest.  It’s a joy to walk here- you never know what’s around the next bend, and it can be wildly different from what came before!

Dunes Oak Savanna

For me, around the next bend was a Golden-winged Warbler pair, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and this Bird’s Foot Violet (Viola pedata), a plant of the Great Plains and open dry areas in the South.

Birds-foot Violet

Just behind the dunes, a wet area held many Swainson’s Thrushes, a Bay-breasted Warbler, and multiple tall trees sandwiched between a full wetland and the dryer landscape of the sand dunes themselves.  I love the golden look of trees leafing out- it’s Lothlorien in the real world. (I haven’t referenced J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings in awhile… it’s been too long.)

Forest- Indiana Dunes

Up on the sand dunes again, and a Least Flycatcher called.  Lowbrush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) covered a dune, their little white bells sweet-smelling and everywhere.

Blueberry

Alongside the blueberries, Starry False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) bloomed, also one of the most abundant plants in the dryer sandy woods of the dunes.

False Solomon's Seal

Back down in the woodlands, and I met up with Kyle. Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) bloomed abundantly- a sign of the woods in late spring.  Tennessee and Blackburnian Warblers called above us, not caring that it was one in the afternoon.

Wild Geranium

Alongside the geraniums, Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) bloomed, something I’d seen two weeks before in equally full flower down in Southern Illinois, and which didn’t seem to be up yet at Illinois Beach State Park. Acadian Flycatchers called above us as we flipped a couple logs…

Wood Phlox

The log-flipping proved successful, as Red-backed Salamanders (well, lead-phase ones) stumbled out into the sunlight.  We carefully replaced their logs- the herping was going well!

Lead-phase Red-backed Salamander

All too soon, it was time to return to home, and so I stopped by the visitor’s center to watch their feeders briefly.  Another Ruby-throated Hummingbird fed as I watched from the window:

Hummer at feeder

Below the seed birdfeeders, my first Red Squirrels(Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) in the eastern United States foraged about.  Indiana Dunes has a bit of everything (East- Wild Lupine.  West- cactus.  North- Red Squirrels.  South- Prothonotary Warblers).  It’s a meeting ground for Western prairies, northern boreal forest, southern swamps and eastern hardwood forests.

Red Squirrel

I could tell you how Red Squirrels differ from Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), but why not just show you instead?

Red and Gray Squirrels

Behind the observation window, a map shows why this area has a birding festival, and to a lesser extent, birds to see.  I didn’t really get a great photo of this map, so I’ll explain- basically, birds don’t want to fly over the middle of Lake Michigan because there’s nothing there except water.  So they stick to the edges, east and west, that meet up at Indiana Dunes.  Birds then go north and south from Indiana Dunes, often using this spot to rest and refuel on their journey north.

Blurry- How Birds Migrate Indiana Dunes

After this, we went to the Observation Tower, where my friend Kyle worked as a bird counter.  He would take note of all the birds passing by the observation tower, which could be in the thousands and often was, on many days.  To learn more about this, read the official blog: https://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/

Behind the tower

Here’s Kyle in position, waiting for something to fly by.  Not much did at that time- it was 2 in the afternoon, which is basically nature’s siesta time.  It gets much more active at dawn and dusk.

Tower

Below the tower, a sign shows all the birds counted from the tower this season (mid-March to the end of May, though this sign was photographed in mid-May).  After saying goodbyes, I then booked it out of town, as I had a four-hour drive home.  By the time I’d left, I’d seen 81 species- it’d been a great several hours!  Now, I could do the same thing at Montrose, probably, but to see all the plants and life- this is by far the best birdwatching or nature-anything location near Chicago.  I will not be moved on that.  Indiana Dunes is a glorious spot, and I look forwards to my next visit here.

I had intended to stay a further two days and go on a big day of birding with some friends of mine.  However, work got in the way.  That being said, here’s their blogpost about that big day, which I did help to plan slightly:

https://whimbrelbirders.org/2018/05/20/2nd-annual-wbc-big-day/

Tower bird list- 2018

Ebird Checklist:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45783464

 

 

 

 

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

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.

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).

IMG_3392

#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.

IMG_4511

#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.)

Cottonmouths In November- I Forget That I Live In The South!

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This is basically a summary post of three trips at Snake Road, covering the last few days of October and the first week or so of November.

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At this time, Central Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis) efts (young) were everywhere.

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Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) were understandably happy about this.  Ribbon (and other types of garter) snakes and newts are in a toxic relationship- as the newts increase the amount of toxins on their skins, the snakes increase their immunity to such toxins.  I took a friend along to this area- this was his first Snake Road snake.

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His second was a Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake along the bluffs.  I posted online that this would be the last Rat Snake of the year.  I figured it would be the best snake on that particular day…

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It was upstaged by a Mississippi Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion)- a State-Threatened species in Illinois found only at Snake Road.  Frankly, I think these should be called Olive Watersnakes- their color and head shape both resemble olives to some extent.

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I have no problems with the common name Green Treefrog for Hyla cinerea.  We walked along the bluffs, looking hard for Cottonmouths and finding surprisingly none.  Where were they?

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Flipping a log in a creek did get us a Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda) and a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).  That this frog hasn’t eaten the salamander is a bit surprising to me.

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Wandering back to the Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) spot proved fruitful, as usual, with 15-20 salamanders present.  A crevice in this area yielded our first and only Cottonmouth of the day, and we watched the little Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans) hop out of our way as we left:

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A few days later, I returned with other friends.

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While looking for salamanders, we found this exotic blue fungus and an unusual type of harvestman (Vonones ornata) at the very bottom of the picture (I didn’t notice it until writing this blogpost, actually!)  We also went over to Grand Tower Island:

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Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius) have arrived at Grand Tower Island for the winter.

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Driving backroads nearby, we found a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on November 3, in the middle of the road, miles from a den site.  This encouraged us to get over to Snake Road ASAP.

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The Cottonmouth was a real nicely-patterned one that posed nicely for us.

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So did a Western Ribbon Snake, just down the road.  I’m not used to just having snakes cross the road all the time in front of me.  Perhaps it’s because I never really looked before, but there do seem to be a LOT more snakes down here.

Once we reached Snake Road, we found nine Cottonmouths.  At one point, we were going down a steep slope on the bluffs, with some brush on one side and leaf piles and the bluff on the other.  I told my friend we need to move very slowly to ensure that we don’t step on a Cottonmouth.  That’s when I saw one in the bushes three feet away from my leg.  My friend and I backed up rather quickly and let it slide by into a hole.  We considered whether or not it would be worth it to go down, and that’s when I looked into the brush to see this:

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Needless to say, we didn’t go down that way!

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Northern Harriers perched in nearby crop fields.  I presumed they were hunting mice.  However, apparently there were other animals to hunt, also:

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A Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) juvenile, my first one of the year (and probably my last new snake species for the year, haha!) crossed the road and hid in the grass as I drove up.  The amount of dust on the snake’s body indicates that it had been on the road for some time. Racers are one of the fastest and most aggressive snakes in Illinois.  They’re also completely harmless unless you’re a hemophiliac or have some other weird blood disorder where receiving any tiny cut would kill you.

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To be fair, aggressive isn’t the right word-  defensive is. Like all snakes, Racers only bite if handled, stepped-on, or cornered, and the last two are extremely hard to do with a Racer, because they can slither away at speeds faster than most humans usually run.  I said this was a juvenile- an adult will be considerably longer and black with a white belly.

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Nearby, on Grand Tower Island, the last of the shorebirds were feeding in the mud.  Baird’s Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii), Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), and Least Sandpipers(Calidris minutilla) scurried about, eating the last few insect larvae as they fueled up for a flight to the Gulf Coast, where most of them will spend the winter.  The last few Baird’s had the farthest to fly- they have to get to South America!

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I say it a lot, but the distance which these tiny, robin-sized birds fly twice every year amazes me.

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One last trek out here, with a few friends from my apartment, brought us tons of frogs and salamanders moving on a light, misty Sunday.   Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) hopped about on the forest floor, the X on their backs making them instantly identifiable.

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In crevices, Long-tailed Salamanders lurked about.  I always wonder how many salamanders there are- I’d guess we only see a tenth of the ones present in the cracks at the most.

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We had to watch our step on that day, though- Central Newt efts were everywhere, in the dozens:

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I’d never seen so many salamanders at one spot.  I suspect the rain had gotten them moving.

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The last snake on Snake Road I saw was this Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster).

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I did mention there were lots of salamanders, right?  Here’s the full length of a Cave Salamander, tail and all.  They almost deserve the “Long-tailed” name!

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My possible last lifer salamander of the year was this Northern Zigzag Salamander (Plethodon dorsalis)- these are fairly common in parts of Southern Illinois, I just don’t see them often.  They replace the Eastern Red-backed Salamander in the Shawnee Hills, though in far eastern Illinois the Red-backed is the dominant species. “Zigzags” vary in their zagginess by range, with this form being one of the least zaggy.

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In crevices nearby were the last few snakes of the year, three Cottonmouths (pictured) and… a rat snake.  Well, even though none of the photos turned out, it was the last snake of the year (I expect).  We’ll see if that pans out- I’ve said it before, and I may end up saying it incorrectly again.

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I saved these last two photos for the end- I’m so happy with how they turned out.  There’s not much cuter in the herp world than this Western Ribbon Snake, and there’s not much better in the scenic overlook department in Illinois than Inspiration Point, especially with good clouds.  It’s a joy to live in such a beautiful place, with so many creatures.  This is probably the last herping post of the year, and while the herping year started out slow for me, it’s really gotten great.  Hoping for even more next year- I’ve still got plenty of herps (and everything) I haven’t found yet!

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80 Snakes, 12 Hours, 2 Days…

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After spending 5 and 7 hours, respectively, at Snake Road over the last weekend on Friday and Saturday, I think I’ve found more snakes over those two days than I’d ever seen before in my life.  22 (Fri) and 58 (Sat) = 80 snakes!  That, and a few amphibians, made for a spectacular day along the bluffs at this unique natural area.

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Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) were the dominant species, representing 80% of all snakes found (64 snakes)!  About half were immatures (neonates) a foot or so long.

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Above is one of those neonates, demonstrating why no one jumps into leaf piles at Snake Road.

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If you couldn’t find the neonate in the previous photo, the snake was successful.  This other neonate on the road isn’t quite as effective at blending in.  Neonate Cottonmouths have a pattern of camouflage that matches fallen leaves, enabling them to hide in plain sight on the forest floor. Adults, more aquatic, have darker coloration that more closely matches the shaded waters of the swamps wherein they live.  Furthermore, adult Cottonmouths, simply due to their size, have fewer predators.  Both neonates and adults are quite venomous, however.

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Additionally, both are remarkably good at vanishing into  the thick grasses along the edge of the road.  For this reason, constant vigilance and walking with a companion or two is highly recommended.  That way you don’t just happen upon one of these guys:

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My usual method at Snake Road, when I’m on my own, is to meet someone on the road (this time of year there’s a few dozen-safety in numbers and plenty of eyes to find everything) and I’d hang with them for a bit until they had to leave or I had to leave.  This sort of thing, combined with my usual hiking/birding, probably puts me at greater risk of  being murdered by a serial killer than the average person.

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That was a minor factor in why I went with a buddy on the first of the two trips to Snake Road discussed in this blog.  Before going to the Road itself, we stopped off along the way at a nearby “waterfall.”  Points will be awarded if you know where this is, and say so in the comments.

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An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus)  hid off to the side of the path.  I’ve realized lately how often the mystery bird calls I hear are chipmunk or squirrel noises.

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Another tier of the three at the “waterfall”.  Yes, there’s a reason it’s in quotation marks.

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So, my friend had never visited Snake Road before.  Nor had he seen a genuine Cottonmouth.  I showed him both.  At one point, we were looking at a Cottonmouth, when another one slithered out of the grass a few feet away from his shoe and scared the crap out of both of us.  The snake then dove for the water, leaving us hyperventilating on the shoreline.  That’s when the third Cottonmoth chose to appear, albeit more slowly.  We decided it was time to move on.

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We went up to the edges of the bluffs, but these are not free of snakes…

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Never stick your hand in a crevice at Snake Road, unless you really WANT it amputated. A serious Cottonmouth bite can require amputation, although usually you’d deserve the bite to provoke that serious of a defensive response from the snake.  Generally, Cottonmouths are very passive and will watch you from a distance as they slowly move out of your way.   Reaching into a hole with a snake that has no escape route (fight or flight), however, is a really bad idea, almost as bad as wearing sandals here… which I also saw people doing.

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More than Cottonmouths lived in the rock crevices, however.  Our lifer Cave Salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) hid in a small wet grotto along the road.  We got good looks at them after double-checking the grotto for small Cottonmouths.  A flashlight is highly recommended here.

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The following day, a bunch of Canadians from Ontario and I ended up looking for Cave Salamanders under a rock in a creek, which proved to have several.  Generally, this species is found in caves, but they do belong to the brook salamander genus for a reason.

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Another odd dweller in the rock crevices was this spider-hunting wasp, hauling a large wolf spider.  The lighting was a bit poor to photograph the animal- in retrospect, I should’ve taken a video.  I don’t like large spiders, and I also don’t like wasps.  Therefore I skedaddled.

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Back to the road, where Cottonmouths were… well, somewhat less abundant, actually.  The majority of snakes we saw were along the edge of the bluff.

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However, our only Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster) of that day lurked just off the road.  A somewhat-ok, not really all that- funny joke about these:  “How do you tell the difference between a Cottonmouth and a watersnake?  The Cottonmouth’ll still be around a second after it sees you.” Not that funny, but Plain-bellied Watersnakes do seem to have a faster acceleration than the average Ferrari, if they realize they’ve been spotted.

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The last good find of the day, just as sunset began, was the eft stage of our lifer Central Newt  (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis).  The eft (immature) was about as long as its scientific name in this font size (including tail).  Newts, unlike most of the rest of the salamanders, live in water as tadpoles, then turn into immature efts and go about on land, before going back to the water and becoming fully adult.   This seems unnecessarily complicated to me, but it provides a newt with great variety and life experience, and builds character.  That, and in the land-based eft stage a newt can travel from one pond to another, enabling dispersion.

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The following day, I tried to study, and when that failed to produce much in terms of results, I decided to take a brief trip outside.  Cut, to me talking to a man at the entrance of the road about the State-Threatened Mississippi Green Watersnake, found ONLY here in Illlinois.  He’d seen one earlier that day, and they tend to migrate all at once from the swamps to the bluffs.  People had been seeing them for the last week- my time was running out to find this lifer for me.   The man also mentioned seeing a Northern Watersnake in a puddle in the middle of the road, a species I’d never seen here before.  I thanked him, and it was noon.  Time to go looking.

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The very first snake of the day was a different “green snake”, an actual Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), in the middle of the road- the only spot where I know how to find them.

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Ordinarily, Rough Green Snakes are hiding in trees, hunting insects and being incredibly stealthy.  This snake proceeded to do that a few minutes later when other people showed up.  However, I knew where it was, and watched it slither up the tree without rustling any leaves or generally letting its presence be known.  Compared to this, a Cottonmouth’s a bull in a china shop.

I showed this snake to a mother and her daughter, (Rough Green Snakes being one of the most interesting and harmless in all of Illinois) and I hiked with them for a little bit before parting ways.

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I walked right past a second Rough Green Snake somewhat later, only for a group behind me to see it.   I did get a video of it as it crossed the road, demonstrating the unusual movement patterns of this species.

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That’s pretty cool, I think.

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Nearby was a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea), sleeping on a branch.  While taking photos of it, someone again mentioned seeing the rare Mississippi Green Watersnake… the mom and daughter I’d just hiked with had seen it.  Well, you can’t see them all.  Reports of Black Racers, Ring-necked Snakes, Copperheads and even a Timber Rattlesnake were repeated by everyone I talked to, which, because it’s me, was everyone.  I even met a bunch of unattended kids and kind of watched them for a bit, because whoever they were with was not wise.  I learned later they’d gone off from their large group on their own.  We all found an unphotographed Black Rat Snake.

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One of the more unusual sightings I saw, and the second snake of that day, was an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) (the photo above was actually taken in Central Illinois, but put here to consolidate all snakes into one blogpost).  These are not often seen here, their ecological niche taken over by the related Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus):

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Note the brighter colors and lack of vertical patterning on a Western Ribbon Snake.

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Here’s an even better look at the head of a Western Ribbon Snake, hiding along the bluffs.  These aren’t rare, but they’re a favorite of mine in this area.  Towards the end of the day, I met up with the president of the Hoosier Herpetological Society, because you meet everybody here.  He mentioned finding a trampled, dying Copperhead near the bluffs- a casualty of the road’s popularity and people not being careful enough.  We herped for a bit and then encountered one of the rarest sights ever seen on the road…

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It’s a Plain-bellied Watersnake, sitting still.  Ok, it’s not really THAT rare, but considering how much these snakes dislike people, it’s still kinda cool.  Notice how it flattens out its head and puffs up its body a little to resemble a Cottonmouth.  This resemblance does the watersnake no favors- they are regularly killed by people who think  they’re Cottonmouths.

It was sundown-  just a bit after 6:15 PM, and we were walking back to our cars.  I saw another guy I know, and we joined up with them.  In the middle of a puddle, where the Northern Watersnake had been reported from earlier, we found another watersnake… my lifer Mississippi Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion)!  Hallalujah! Finally!  Great timing!

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For some reason, Green Watersnakes are a common species all the way up the Mississippi River from the South through far western Kentucky- until you get to Illinois and Missouri.  In Illinois, they only survive here.  In Missouri, they’ve apparently been extirpated- killed off in that state (which is odd, because Missouri would theoretically have more habitat for them than Illinois, since it has more of the lower Mississippi River floodplain than Illinois).

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I departed shortly after this, though several more snakes crossed my path afterwards, including a well-curled Plain-bellied Watersnake:

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I even had two more snake driving back home, at 7:00 PM- seven hours, not bad for a brief trip.

I think the following photo best sums up both why Cottonmouths are called Cottonmouths, and what Snake Road is all about- seeing cool, hard-to-love animals go about their day.  While in pursuit of snakes, I got to meet people from all over- Indiana, Ohio, Ontario, and even England.   I don’t think anyone who went out to Snake Road that day had a bad time- unless, of course, they dislike snakes.  With happy faces like this Cottonmouth’s, how could you?:

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(Sarcasm implied.  I didn’t harass this snake to get it to open its mouth, it was just a little surprised by me and wanted me to back off, which I did.  It then slithered away.)

Day 1- 22 snakes

20 Cottonmouths

1 Plain-bellied Watersnake

1 Western Ribbon Snake

2 Cave Salamanders

1 Central Newt

1 Green Treefrog

1 Bird-voiced Treefrog

1 Spring Peeper

X Cricket Frogs

X Southern Leopard Frogs

Day 2- 58 snakes

42 Cottonmouths

5 Plain-bellied Watersnakes

1 Mississippi Green Watersnake

5 Western Ribbon Snakes

1 Eastern Garter Snake

1 Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

2 Rough Green Snakes

16 Cave Salamanders

3 Long-tailed Salamanders

2 Green Tree Frogs

X Cricket Frogs

2 Dwarf American Toads

X Southern Leopard Frogs