Category: Top Ten 2017 Hikes

Top Ten Birds, Herps, Plants, Trips, and Photos of 2017

I did several top tens as separate blogposts last year. This year I’m going to restrict it to one somewhat longer post.  Let’s get into it, and start off with birds!  (Caution, Snakes at end)

 

Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

I do have three honorable mentions, a lost Cinnamon Teal (Illinois),  two American Dippers (Colorado), and one Hurricane Irma-blown Sooty Tern (Kentucky).

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#10 Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)-  I saw these both in Illinois and in Colorado this year.  The Illinois one was on an extremely fun trip, and I’m hoping to get a couple more this winter.

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#9 Whooping Crane (Grus americana), southern IL -Easily the rarest worldwide of the birds I saw this year (with 600 or so in the wild), the Whooper is North America’s tallest bird.

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#8 Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), CO- It’s a Burrowing Owl.  Need I say more?

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#7 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), IL, KS- Not only is it a bird with an insanely long tail, I saw several over the course of the year.

#6 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (no photo), IL – Sure, I didn’t get photos, but I set a county record when they flew over my apartment in Jackson County.  What better way to see  new birds?

#5 Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), IL (photo by Colin Dobson, computer destroyed quality) -A Eurasian gull that often wanders to the Northeast, this was my first mega rarity of the year, and a fun one to find.  Unfortunately I have no photo, so I borrowed this one.

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#4 Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) central IL- The second of the two Eurasian wanderers, this one is a little more in doubt (though I’m 99% sure it’s wild).  If accepted, it will be the state’s first or second official record (though there’s plenty of unofficial records).

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#3 Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis), western KY- This bird is the rarest- it’s supposed to migrate from Siberia to Australia twice yearly, and how it ended up in a flooded cornfield in western Kentucky no one knows. It did- on Eclipse Day- and I chased it at 7:00 AM.  It is probably the best bird I’ve seen this year, easily a first state record (of any kind) for Kentucky, but it isn’t my favorite, because there’s two birds just a little higher on the scale…

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#2 Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), KY/TN/IL- I’ve spent so much time looking for these, that in November I drove 7 hours round-trip to see a few in far southwestern Kentucky/far northwestern Tennessee.  This one posed ten feet from my car.  And then, driving back home in December- a Loggerhead Shrike flies across the highway in southern Illinois.  Shrikes are unusual, rare, and charismatic birds with the tendency to impale other, smaller animals on thorns.

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#1 Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) MO/IL – My 300th US bird of the year (debatably- I’m not sure when I first saw Broad-winged Hawks) and my 100th or 101st lifer of the year (again, Broad-winged Hawk- I probably saw them in September 2015, but I can’t say for sure.)  The timing- just after finals- couldn’t have been better!  I then went on to find one in IL.

Top Ten Lifer Plants

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#10 Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), central IL- It’s pretty.

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#9  Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera), southern IL- It’s an orchid.

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#8  Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii ), CO –  Other than two following plants, this was the most interesting plant I found in Colorado.  It looked like something someone might grow in a garden, instead of on a talus slope in the Rocky Mountains.

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#7 Silvery Bladderpod (Lesquerella ludoviciana),central IL-  It only grows on one sand dune in Illinois, which I checked a couple of times until I found it in bloom.

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#6 Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda)(IL state champion tree), southern IL- This is the biggest tree I’ve seen this year.  It’s absolutely massive, which you can see with my hat as a comparison.

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#5 Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus),central IL – Another rare plant in Illinois, this one I had the distinction of discovering exactly where it grew by using a website.  It’s at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, one of my favorite spots to visit.  That’s honestly why I put it so high on the list.

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#4  Spring Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), Missouri Ozarks- This is an orchid that steals nutrients from fungi. It was a somewhat unexpected find in the Ozarks.

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#3 Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), CO- Even more unexpected was this orchid in Colorado, which also steals nutrients from fungi and is much prettier than its cousin.

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#2 Orange-fringed Orchid (Platanthera cillaris), northern IL – The most beautiful and rare plant I’ve found in Illinois this year, the Orange-fringed Orchid grows in a spot guarded by giant mosquitoes and hidden from the world.  In that spot, there are thousands.  It was fascinating, and I got to see it with the Fenelon, one of my close friends.  That’s not easy to top… is it?

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#1 Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis), CO  Evidently it is.  I got to see this with my family.  One of the most unexpected finds of the year, this unusual, somewhat rare orchid is widely praised in nearly every guide to orchids. Much of this praise is for the rarer Eastern form, but the Western form, while less rare, is still the best plant of 2017 for me.

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

#10 Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge/Four Corners, May 31… I almost put the trip with the Illinois Golden Eagle in southwestern central Illinois on as #10, but this trip, also with V.S., had a lot of unexpected species.  I went for Red-necked Phalaropes, an oceanic vagrant, and ended up finding a state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoo.  It got me over 200 species-wise for the year.

#9 Southern IL/Riverlands, November 11- On this trip I saw my first Red-throated Loon and had a blast birding all day with Chris Smaga and Kyle Wiktor.  I’ve been to Riverlands three times between November 11 and December 15.  The last trip got me the Snowy Owl, but the first trip was probably the most fun, even if the first half of that trip was an unsuccessful Greater Prairie-Chicken search.

#8 Snake Road, September 15- This is the trip where I found the Mud Snake.

#7 Southern IL, August 17-20- When I first moved down to Southern Illinois, I got to see so many unusual plants, animals, and natural areas in that first weekend, culminating in my trip to see the Red-necked Stint and the eclipse.  It’s unforgettable- and it was really hot!

#6  Three Weekend Days in Emiquon, April 10, 16, and 23- One of these was with the Lincoln Land  Environmental Club, one was with Mom, and one was by myself.  I saw a lot of unusual species on all three days, and it was interesting to see all the changes week-to-week.

#5  Lake Carlyle Pelagic Trip, September 30- I met many birders and got to see four lifer birds, as well as the most bird species I’ve ever seen in one day (88?).

#4  Kankakee Trip  with the Fenelon, August 1- Orange-fringed Orchids!  Thousand-acre prairies! Philosophical discussions in the car!  It was perfect.

#3Snake Road, October 13-14-  I saw 80 snakes over these two days.  That’s pretty awesome.  I also got to meet a LOT of herpers.

#2 Ozarks Trip, May 17-19- The Lincoln Land Environmental Club trip- that was so much fun.  We had skinks, a nesting Eastern Phoebe, and a Luna Moth on our front porch.  The ticks were a little annoying, but everything else- weather, sightings, lodging, people- couldn’t be topped… well, I guess it could, by #1…

#1 Colorado, June 5- 14- Family vacation in Colorado.  Snow-capped mountains, family, orchids, all kinds of animals (including 30 lifer birds)- I had so much fun here. I’ve had a great year.

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

Honorable Mention- the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an elusive bird and I finally got one good photo:

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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————————————CAUTION, SNAKES BELOW THIS LINE!!!——————————————

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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#10 Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), southeastern Missouri- This was an unexpected find on a fun trip to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (that’s not an exact location).  Since Broad-banded Watersnakes are almost certainly extirpated from Illinois, Missouri is the closest I’m going to get to seeing one locally.

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#9 Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca), Snake Road, Illinois-  A State-Threatened species of treefrog in Illinois, the Bird-voiced has been a species I’ve wanted to find for a long time.

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#8 Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), southern Illinois-  Another amphibian I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this salamander was even on its nest.  Bonus points to you if you find the Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) hiding in the photo.

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#7 Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), Missouri – My only rare lizard of the year, this was one of the highlights of one of my Missouri trips. Overcollected for the pet trade, Eastern Collared Lizards are uncommon to find.

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#6 Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri Ozarks-  This was in a parking lot, about ten minutes after we got to the location where we found it.

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#5 Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), Missouri Ozarks- About fifteen minutes after finding the Eastern Hognose, this slithered across our path about three feet from my foot. Some people would freak out- I did, but exclusively from joy.

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#4 Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), central Illinois- This is a snake I’ve always wanted to see, and I found it at a special spot to me, which I cannot state because collectors.  It was also up a tree, which I did not expect and which proved a photographic obstacle.

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#3 Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Snake Road, Illinois- My long-standing nemesis snake decided to randomly crawl out in front of me one fine October day. 58 snakes later, that was still the best snake of the day.

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#2 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), southern Illinois- I’ve managed to see three of these this year in Illinois.  The photographed one was the best of the three.

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#1 Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Snake Road, Illinois- It was a slow day at Snake Road, on September 15, the day after a nice rain… Suddenly, I spot a snake crossing the road at the first marshy spot on the north end.  I figured it was a Cottonmouth… but the red was a giveaway.  This is a snake that people at Snake Road who’ve been looking for 20 years haven’t found. (Don’t judge that sentence’s verbiage too harshly.)

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

My First “Pelagic” Trip- IOS Lake Carlyle

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“I’m not talkin’ ’bout pleasure boatin’ or day sailin’. I’m talkin’ ’bout workin’ for a livin’. I’m talkin’ ’bout sharkin‘ (pelagic birdin’)!”- Quint, Jaws (1975).

There’s few occasions where I’ve birded sunup to sundown.   In fact, the only one I can think of was my first Christmas Bird Count last December.  My aborted Big Day back in March wasn’t all-day since I only got to my first spot at 8 A.M. (one of the reasons it was aborted, although having 75 species in early March isn’t too bad.  More on the Big Day at my old blog, here, and my first CBC, here.)  I had decided a month ago to participate in the Illinois Ornithological Society’s Carlyle Lake Pelagic Trip.  I’d never visited Carlyle Lake before, having only driven past at night and at twilight.  It has the third-highest hotspot list of species on Ebird for Illinois, probably due to its proximity as the closest large reservoir to St. Louis and to the variety of habitats present.  See Dan Kassebaum’s website for more details about and photos of Carlyle Lake birds: http://www.kassedan.net/report.htm

I woke up around 4:30 AM, and wondered why my alarm was going off.  As I drifted back to sleep, I suddenly realized why- I had a birding expedition!  I was supposed to be there at 6:30 AM, and it was over an hour and a half away, not including the time it takes me to get my lunch packed, etc.  One slow van in front of me put me as the last of 16 birders to arrive at the McDonald’s in Carlyle, our meeting place.  I then carpooled onwards with Craig Taylor and Kimberly Rohling, until our entire group stopped near the entrance to Eldon Hazlet State Park.

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Pulling off at the entrance area, warblers proved to be abundant, if fleeting.  Thankfully, a half-dozen Black-throated Green Warblers decided to take pity on the photographers* in the group, and showed themselves well as they bounced around the top of a planted Baldcypress tree.

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Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) are a favorite of mine, mostly because they’re easily recognized.  Few other birds have such a bright yellow head combined with dark stripes underneath.  We moved on from these, picking up several more species along the way.  I had my first miss of the day with Blackburnian Warbler, when Colin saw one well enough to get a photo.  That would’ve been a lifer if I’d seen it.

We moved to a spot where someone spotted a would-be LeConte’s Sparrow in the brush, and all but myself and two birders went down to look for it.  The three of us continued talking and mentioned that we’d love to find a Nelson’s Sparrow.  I spotted what I thought was the LeConte’s Sparrow in the bush and took a record photo (what I call photos where the bird isn’t easy to find or particularly well-photographed).  Curiosity got the better of me, and I went down to see what was so fascinating.  Keith McMullen mentioned that they’d found a Nelson’s Sparrow.  I double-checked my photo of the “LeConte’s Sparrow”- it’s a lifer Nelson’s:

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With this Nelson’s Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni) , I’ve seen all but one of the regularly-occurring sparrow species in Illinois.  That one exception is the Clay-colored Sparrow, difficult to find except in certain spots in Northern Illinois in the spring and summer. In the fall, the vast majority of Clay-colored Sparrows migrate south via the western Great Plains.  To be fair, the Nelson’s Sparrow is also somewhat difficult to find outside of the sand dunes, beaches, wetlands, and parks along Lake Michigan. I was very happy with this very unexpected find!

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I laid on my back on the ground to look at this male Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), arrayed in fine red, the only completely red bird in the US.  Unlike male Scarlet Tanagers, male Summer Tanagers stay red all year long.  They are currently expainding their range northwards, being a Southeastern species.  Formerly, they were on the edge of their range in Central Illinois.  Now, however, they are found even as far north as Chicagoland. I got good looks, and despite being directly underneath the bird, it chose not to poop on me.  I wish gulls were so kind.

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I strongly appreciate Eastern Wood-Pewees (Contopus virens) for their willingness to grant an excellent photo opportunity.  These were the only flycatchers of the day, besides Eastern Phoebes.  Evidently, the rest of the flycatchers have moved on.

Another stop found me my second lifer of the day, a Philadelphia Vireo, the last of the commonly-occurring vireos for Illinois that I wanted to find.  The second irritating miss of the day came when someone else found a Chestnut-sided Warbler and it got away before I could find it.  Honestly, the whole day was someone finding a bird I could barely even see, and my glimpsing it just well enough for ID purposes before it flew away into the undergrowth.  Well, most of the day…

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A female Summer Tanager is far more drab than the male, even without the odd lighting in this photo.  We spotted several more species, including TEN species of warblers  for me, a personal record for one morning. I was definitely the least-experienced birder on the trip, which is why I’ve elected myself to write it up.  I believe the count was ~70 species seen by the group when we left Eldon Hazlet State Park, which is quite respectable for one morning!  (I had 64 species.)

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Hundreds, if not thousands, of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) and American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) were present on Carlyle Lake that day.

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It’d been awhile since I’d seen so many American White Pelicans.  There’s something so comical and yet so majestic about a flock of pelicans, and there’s certainly little else to match their size.

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It was a mostly birding day, as intended.  With the drought affecting southern Illinois, not much was stirring that didn’t have feathers. A few good butterflies were present, including this Cloudless Sulpher (Phoebis sennae), which I always enjoy seeing.

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This Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) at Whitetail Access decided to demonstrate how to do the splits upside down and eat bugs off a leaf at the same time.  Northern Parulas are a special bird for me- my first ever warbler was a dead Northern Parula at the base of the windows of a hospital in downtown Springfield.  After that, I heard a few, but I didn’t see one in the wild until the one I saw at Eldon Hazlet State Park, and this one at Whitetail Access proved far more interesting to watch up close- well, about fifteen feet.

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A Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius), a Wilson’s Snipe, and an Eastern Screech-Owl (heard only) proved to be three of the four best finds at Whitetail Access, almost entirely devoid of birds on  its mudflats.  Shorebird season is wrapping up.

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So is butterfly season, unfortunately.  I’ve seen quite a few  new and colorful butterflies this year, and I’m certain I’ll see many more next year.  This one is a Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus), on what I believe is a Stickseed (Bidens spp.)

The next great bird we found was a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), the last breeding species of wren I hadn’t found in Illinois until now. (We’re going to ignore Bewick’s Wren in this discussion, despite the possibility that they reside in far western Illinois still.)  The Marsh Wren is half a lifer for me- I heard one singing in Indiana in August, but I never saw it, and it’s hard for me to really count a bird as a lifer until I see it. So, this is lifer 2.5 for the day. This little wren is very unusual- it creeped through the brush until being flushed into a nearby bush, where it scolded us from a partially-concealed perch.  This behavior is unusual for someone used to Carolina and House Wrens, but isn’t uncommon for this species.  Have fun finding it:

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I think the juxtaposition of these two photos show why I prefer to look for shorebirds over songbirds.  Sure, shorebirds are hard to tell apart, but much of the time they let you sit and try to figure it out!  This one below is a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) at Patoka Access, where we stopped to find some shorebirds when Whitetail Access proved to be rather poor in that respect. My first Black-bellied Plover was spotted across the bay.  A third lifer for the day!

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Alongside the Black-belled Plover, three American Golden-Plovers and several Sanderlings made for an interesting mix of shorebirds.  I have never seen those three species together before.  A few Cliff Swallows flew past, severely overdue to migrate south.  They were quite early this year and have stayed equally late.  I’m really not sure what they were doing there.

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I did mention there were tons of Pelicans, right?

We boarded two rented pontoon boats to participate in the actual “pelagic” part of the trip.  A pelagic in birding terms is a boat trip, usually out to the middle of an ocean or a big lake, after birds that only live on the open ocean (or large open inland water body, like Carlyle Lake, during migration).  A Sabine’s Gull, one of those species that can only be found rarely on open bodies of water like this, had been seen the night before, but we all struck out on that one, the third big miss of the day.  At least I saw Sabine’s Gull last year on Lake Springfield.

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Throwing bread off the back of the boat to bring in any rare gulls, we only found three species- Ring-billed, Bonaparte’s, and two Herring Gulls.  Still, as you can see, we had some of the best eyes in the state looking for it, in two boats.  From left to right above, we had Tyler Funk, Keith Mcmullen, Craig Taylor, ? (sorry about forgetting your name), and Colin Dobson, all scanning for whatever we could find.  Sitting on a boat for three hours or more, doing nothing but looking through what seems like an endless colony of Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) is not for everybody.  I enjoyed it, but the pelagic section was definitely much slower-paced than birding on the shoreline of Carlyle Lake.  Pelagic trips are not for people who prefer instant results.

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We did have the other boat to help spot birds.  Occasionally the gulls would swarm us, and it was at this point that I’d wear my hat to keep the shower of gull crap from hitting me.  Our pilot, Tyler Funk, spotted something in the water that the rest of us didn’t.  In addition to steering the boat and looking for Sabine’s Gulls, he’d spotted this little guy on the water:

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It was the fourth lifer for the day, (I’ll just say fifth by combining the “half-lifers” Northern Parula and Marsh Wren), a Red Phalarope  (Phalaropus fulicarius).  This was somewhat unexpected.  Red Phalaropes, despite their small size, almost entirely live far out at sea, only flying up to the tundra in far northern Canada to breed.  These are the rarest of the three phalaropes in Illinois (all three of which are the only phalaropes in the world, which means I’ve seen all of the phalaropes in the world).  This Red Phalarope was incredibly tame, allowing for close approaches as seen here:

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It got within about eight feet of the boat, and if there had been no waves and a better cameraman behind the camera I’m sure my pictures would be better.  As it was, I’m still impressed with how well we saw this bird.  It even called and did a little feeding as we watched, the black and white pattern helping to hide it  surprisingly well in the waves once it flew further away.

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We caught up to it again, and took even more photos.  This bird is rusty-red in the spring- it’s in fall plumage currently.  If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ll know that I saw a similar looking bird, the Red-necked Phalarope, which has a similar life cycle and can look quite similar. However, that bird has a dark, striped back and a thinner bill and body shape.

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We let the Phalarope go back to its merry spinning (they spin in a circle to concentrate plankton in the water, and then eat the concentrated plankton), while we paid attention to the nearby tern flocks.  Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) congregated in large numbers off to the east- I’ve never seen anything like it!  We saw not a single other species in the flocks of hundreds of birds (the other boat did see a lone Black Tern some time before this, but we didn’t).  We watched them fly off as we made our way back to the boat docks, to end the day.

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With 89 species, I did pretty well.  That may or may not be the greatest number of bird species I’ve seen in one day, though I’d have to double-check.  Either way, I strongly enjoyed meeting all the birders and I couldn’t have asked for more lifers!  There were three subjects of discussion that dinner- southern Arizona dream trips, birding stories, and horseshoes- that last, the famous Springfieldian “burger” with Texas toast, fries, and cheese sauce.  We all split up around 8:00 PM, to get back to our usual lives.  And thus concluded my first “pelagic” trip.

Thanks to Craig Taylor for driving me and Kim Rohling around all day,  Tyler Funk for finding the best bird of the day in the Red Phalarope, for steering my boat, and for organizing the trip, and to Keith Mcmullen.  It was wonderful to meet a few of my longtime readers, and even better to met those whose Ebird checklists I’d read in the past with considerable envy. I’m already planning to return next year- we’ll have to see what happens then!

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Ebird Checklists:

West Access Marina:  http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39488242

Eldon Hazlet State Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39488414

Grasher Creek: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39488430

Whitetail Access: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39488513

Patoka Access: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39488564

Pelagic: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39488660

*Photographers in the sense of birders with cameras.  There is an ongoing war between “birders” and “photographers”, the “birders” seen as the more stuck-up, holier-than-thou snobs who go out of their way to be irritating to those who simply want to take pictures of birds, and the “photographers” as irresponsible, bird-scaring jerks who regularly disturb sensitive birds like owls solely for the sake of am Instragram-worthy photograph.  Both stereotypes are equally true and false, in that there’s a minority of jerks in both groups, as with most hobbies.  I’m a birder- I don’t know half my camera’ settings.  However, as is obvious, I like to take pictures.  It’s about exploration and discovery for me, and if someone gets that out of camera settings, as long as they’re ethical about what they do (not doing this, for starters), then I don’t have a problem if they’re not interested in adding to their life, state, county or yard lists, chasing rare birds, participating in events like Christmas Bird Count,  or complaining about other people’s supposed finds, Ebird, and records committees- more traditional “birder” activities.

Snake Road- Holy Farancia!!!

So, my snake luck has been rather- well, I’ve seen a lot of snakes lately.   Part of this has to do with Snake Road.  Part of it is just my extreme luck at this time of year.  First, it was  this, sticking up out of the grass along a road in the Shawnee National Forest as I drove by:

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This morphed into a lifer, two-foot long Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), a State-Threatened species and the third venomous snake species I’ve found this year- just sitting in the grass on the side of a random road.  I maintained a safe distance- this is the most venomous of Illinois’ snakes, albeit also the least likely to bite a human in Illinois.

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Timber Rattlesnakes can grow to about double this length or more.  Snakes never stop growing- they just usually die at about a certain length.  They do slow down once they reach maturity.

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I took a video as the snake crossed back into the woods to get away from me.  The battery of my camera ran out as I took the video, but I still managed a decent clip:

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While off and about, I also discovered this skink, probably a Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), on a rock ledge.  I’m still not used to just finding lizards while hiking.

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Not far from it,  someone I was hiking with found an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) in the undergrowth.  They are quite active this time of year, looking to build up food reserves before winter.  One sign of their existence is triangle gaps bitten off a mushroom, though a Box Turtle will eat a wide variety of food, including mushrooms, leaves, berries, insects, worms, and even carrion.  One Box Turtle even ate a live bird that was trapped in a banding net!

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We took it out for a brief look before replacing it in the undergrowth where we found it:

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After this, I wandered over to Grand Tower Island for some birds:

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Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have begun to appear widely. I suspect these are migrants.

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Immature Bald Eagles  (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) cruised overhead, though the mature bird seems to have left for other waters.  This individual is growing some white in the tail.

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Hundreds of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) have congregated here of late.  While not a rare bird, seeing more than a hundred of such a large species is always an impressive sight! I suspect this is a staging sight (a spot where migrants gather to form into flocks), or perhaps just a stopover site for food and shelter as the egrets migrate southwards.

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Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) have declined in number, however as the fish population has died off in the drying sloughs nearby..  This one decided to fly off.

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Several Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), along with hundreds of Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus), congregated to eat dead fish.   The sloughs here are filled with Asian carp (Hypophthalmichthys spp.) that died as the water quality and food supply dwindled out.  It reeks, and it also attracts plenty of wildlife…

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Raccoons (Procyon lotor)  seem to be considerably more abundant in these lowlands than I am used to.  Perhaps they’re just more diurnal in the absence of humans.  Either way, I saw this one well before sunset, having a nice meal of rotting fish.  I’ve named it Smeagol.

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Did I mention there were hundreds of Great Egrets?

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I then went over to Snake Road, a road closed twice a year for snake migration.  I’ve talked about it before, but to recap- snakes live in the swamp on one side of the road, and hibernate in the cliffs on the other side of the road.  They cross over the road in great numbers in spring and fall to get wherever it is they want to be for the next season.  Occasionally, there’s water on both sides of the road, as seen above, but for the most part, a strip of woodland accompanies the roadside.

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It’s here that I found boulders covered lushly with Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum).

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A large American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) hopped along, oblivious to any potential dangers…

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I was not.  Someone had messed with a couple of the Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on Snake Road, and as a result they immediately went into defensive mode.  This involves a lot of gaping and tail-shaking, as if it wanted to be a rattlesnake.  Many of Illinois’ snakes shake their tails in defensive postures- I presume as a way of imitating rattlesnakes.  However, Cottonmouths are plenty dangerous enough on their own- they don’t need to pretend!

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This open mouth, the whitish lining deriving the name “cottonmouth”, shows the fangs very well- which is the idea.  Cottonmouths have potent-enough venom to kill a human.  While that happens rarely, amputations and extremely costly medical bills are also known side effects.  Thankfully, almost all they do is bluff- you’d have to get within striking range (half the snakes’s body length, though I give it more) or handle one (illegal here, and it should be illegal everywhere).  Almost all bites are the result of someone trying to catch or kill the snake.   Cottonmouths are fascinating, but it’s a fascination that comes with serious respect and a little bit of personal space.

Notice how thick the body is.  One feature that distinguishes a Cottonmouth is its incredibly thick body.  The very angular head, usually held up at a steep angle, is another ID feature.  Cottonmouths are pit vipers, having sunken “pits” behind their nostrils, containing heat-sensing organs for detecting prey.  Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are also pit vipers.

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It is said that Cottonmouths chase and attack people.  If that were true, I would be dead.  In fact, they are the laziest snakes I’ve ever seen.  Since Cottonmouths know they have venom glands, they can take all the time they want in crossing a trail, confident in their power.

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Because of their small, vulnerable size, baby Cottonmouths do not have this luxury and are therefore skittish, albeit with a tendency to only be seen once nearly underfoot. A Cottonmouth this size is referred to as a neonate, as it was just born this year.

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It was hot and humid, and it had rained overnight. I walked down the road, spotting a snake in the distance as it crossed the road. It was too thin for a Cottonmouth, and I had no idea what it was.  In point of fact, it was the last thing I ever thought I’d see…

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IT’S A MUD SNAKE!!!  The Mud Snake (Farancia abacura) is the “best” species to find at Snake Road, one that most people never see.  I know people who have looked for Mud Snakes here for 20+ years without success- and this is the fifth species I find here (after Copperhead,  Ring-necked Snake, Cottonmouth,and Plain-bellied Watersnake).  Mud Snakes spend the vast majority of their life underwater in a swamp, preying on aquatic salamanders.  To see one on land anywhere is great.  To see one on Snake Road itself is nearly a miracle.

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Despite what I’ve just said, Mud Snakes are not considered rare in population- they just live a life cycle that renders them almost completely hidden from humans.  They’re not small either- an old Mud Snake in the right habitat can be over four feet long.  This one was three feet or so in length.  I recorded a video almost as soon as I found the snake.  It’s mostly a reaction video, but enjoy:

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Right after this, the snake curled up, lashed out at me, and then it slithered away back into the swamp.  I then walked onwards, scaring up a Barred Owl along the way, though it vanished into the trees without a photo.  It was about ten or fifteen minutes later that I ran into someone herping. The man I met had been looking for Mud Snakes for ten years, and it was the only Illinois native snake species he had not seen in Illinois.  That man was very disappointed.

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However, he did find me my first Snake Road Black/Grey Rat Snake, an animal for which there is essentially no  good scientific name.  (It’s changed five or six times since 2000, and I’m waiting it out to see what scientific name sticks.)  Because the scientific name changed, scientists insist that the common name must also change from Black Rat Snake to Grey Rat Snake- despite it being black (the lighting above makes it appear more grey, but it was black).  That is, unless it’s on the other side of the Mississippi River, where it is now a Western Rat Snake automatically.  Snakes can swim large bodies of water, including this species… more data is needed.

Whatever you call it, this is one of the more common snakes throughout the Shawnee National Forest.   A day later, while surveying plants for a botany lab, a member of our class came across this one, and after releasing it at the base of a tree we watched it climb, and I took a video.  Black Rat Snakes have impressive climbing skills, especially for animals with no limbs!

Video does have some language.

"Grey" Rat Snake Climbing Tree

Now that I’ve demonstrated the climbing skills of the Black Rat Snake, I will mention that the Black Rat Snake photographed at Snake Road, in order to get away from the herper who found it, decided to climb up my legs.  In defense for its lack of wisdom, I was standing still and taking photos, at least until it tried to go up my shorts.  There are limits to what I’ll put up with from a wild animal, and the snake was set on the side of the road, where it vanished into the grass.

I ran into another guy, and we decided to check the cliffs.  We found no snakes, but a State-Threatened Bird-voiced Treefrog  (Hyla avivoca) was a lifer for me.  These are only found in a few swamps in Southern Illinois, the northern edge of their range, though they are much more common further south:

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A spectacular sunset is  the perfect way to end a spectacular day.  However I settled for this moderately good one. Nothing was going to top that Mud Snake, anyway.

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A Grand Little Grand Canyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You Dip, Don’t Trip On The Cottonmouths

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It’s time to introduce the word “dip” to nonbirders, and I don’t mean something you’d put on chips.  Nor do I mean the substance that seems to be the subject of every YouTube ad I see lately. Dipping on a bird means missing it.  I don’t know where that originated, but it’s a thing.

On August 17, a  Swallow-tailed Kite, one of the most beautiful hawks in the world, was seen at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Missouri, less than two hours from where I live.  Due to a lack of internet information about the bird (it’s in a weird gap zone where it’s common enough to not be reported widely and rare enough that it ought to be)  the Swallow-tailed Kite was not seen again until the 24th, and then it was seen the 24th through the 27th.  I heard about it on the 26th of August, but I wasn’t able to go and look for it until August 31- several days after any reports.  For a rural area like Stoddard County, Missouri, that’s not a surprise.  It’s the edge of the Ozarks, near significant wetlands but not near population centers.  The closest city of more than 20,000 people is Cape Girardeau, about an hour away.   So, I had a chance, if I got out early in the morning and checked for it flying about in the rising air currents. This would be my 300th species of wild bird I’ve seen in the United States.  Mentally, I couldn’t wait, but…

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Cut to August 31.  I wake up, groggily, and look at my alarm, faded memories of turning it off some hours previously running through my brain.  It’s 9:30 AM.  I wanted to be on the road at 8 AM.  Well, I massively screwed up.  The weather was gray and cloudy as I drove over to Duck Creek Conservation Area, arriving around 12:00 PM.  Gray and overcast skies, lightly drizzling with cold rain, the edge of the old Hurricane Harvey storm system- terrible weather for hawks and singing migrants, and depression inducing for me.  And that’s before reflecting on the fact that this storm killed 51 people and displaced thousands, including a few people I know.

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Whenever you’re complaining, it’s always good to remember there’s people in worse situations.  I stopped complaining, and I stopped the car, at the spot.  No Kite in sight- nothing moving.  Well, there was still plenty to see.  I waited for several minutes, scanning the nearby area, which had a few Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis).  I decided to go check out Duck Creek Conservation Area’s main section after waiting for awhile with no sightings, and so I did.

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It turned out to contain a 1,800 acre lake, 2/3 of which was American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea).  That’s 1,200 acres of American Lotus.  Back in late July, the main bloom season, that had to have been a spectacle!  Even now, it was still impressive, the massive platter-sized leaves floating on the water or emerging up en masse, a little worn from a long growing season.

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If there’s any spot north of Texas where a Northern Jacana could show up, it might be here.  A Northern Jacana, for the unaware, is this little Central American bird with huge feet that wades around on lily-pads and lotus leaves.  They have the largest feet, relative to body size, of any bird.  It’s a bird I’ve always wanted to see,  but almost certainly none will ever show up here.  Anyway, that was a tangent of hypothetical nonsense.  I just like Jacanas.  Back to more photos of the lake.

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Duck Creek Conservation Area, and the nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, sit in an odd location.  To the southeast is Crowley’s Ridge, a raised line stretching over 150 miles from southwest of Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas, on the border of the Mississippi River and Mississippi itself.  On both sides of Crowley’s Ridge are floodplains, and several miles west of the floodplains at this point, the edge of the Ozarks rises up.  It’s odd geography, because in the middle, at Duck Creek and Mingo, you can see a chain of not-very-distant hills looking either northwest or southeast, as you can see above and below:

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Those trees in the lake itself are Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), the quintessential Southeastern swamp tree.  They grow here in large numbers, though none of them are the giants they can be on old-growth forests.  This entire area was logged, and if it had stayed dry it would be farmland or ranchland like the surrounding area.  Continued flooding ensured its survival.

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This 1800-acre lake is a perfect rectangle (of course it’s artificial) with roads all the way around.  It was built to control water flow in the area, holding water during wet seasons and releasing it in dry seasons.  This conservation area, as well as Mingo NWR, is built around providing winter food for duck populations.  And, of course, duck hunting.  During duck season, the conservation area is closed to non-hunters.  Next February, I think this might be a really fun place to visit for ducks.

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White Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) bloomed among the lotus.

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I moved away from the lake, and decided to venture into the back 40 of the conservation area.  I was met with a scene out of National Geographic- a ton of herons in a tree.  Specifically, these are Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), a species which is moving through Southern IL and MO currently:

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I then decided, mapless, to try taking a back way over to Mingo.  While inevitably lost in the edge of the Ozarks, I spotted three beat-up graffiti-ed trailers – and one perfectly large, healthy, tropical banana tree growing in a pot in the middle.   Owing to my unfortunately persistent ethnic stereotypes of trailer-dwelling Ozarkians as shotgun-wielding meth users, I didn’t stop for a photo.  It does fascinate me how in our “politically-correct” society, no one cares if you mock country people in the hills who live below the poverty line.  But I digress.

Anyway, I bring up the banana tree as part of my rule of country driving.  “If you drive for two hours in the country, not on the interstate, you’ll see something weird.  Sometimes the weird is a bird.  Most of the time it’s not.”  There’s also the Southern Wilderness and Carbondale Addenda, as follows:  “In the Ozarks, Cumberland Plateau, and Shawnee Hills, the finding-something-weird time is one hour- and in Carbondale, Illinois, it’s five minutes.”

Getting myself un-lost by turning around and driving to the Kite spot yet again (with no luck), I proceeded over to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.  I found a calling Least Flycatcher, an early migrant, on the way when I pulled off at a marsh overlook to check Google Maps.  I also learned that Mingo charges admission: $3 per day or $12 per year.  It’s a giant swamp. That’ll be $12.

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The Visitor’s Center proved to have very helpful staff.  In fact, it was one of the nicest visitor’s centers I’ve ever explored.  They told me that Yellow-crowned Night Herons are common on the refuge in the spring- the last Midwestern heron I have yet to see.  At that point, I was glad I’d bought the year pass, without knowing yet what was to come.  A Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) l butterfly landed outside, on the pavement, as did something else:

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I had no idea that Robber Flies, feared insect predators of mosquitoes, were also able to hunt dragonflies like this Green Darner (Anax junius).  This fly was over an inch long, and completely harmless to humans.  In fact, Robber Flies eat mosquitoes, so we want them around.

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On the edge of the roads, I found masses of Sneezeweed (Helenium amarum), so named because settlers used it to cure colds and because it blooms as the same time as Ragweed, thus making people think they are allergic to it.  The scientific name is better- Helenium refers to Helen of Troy- according to Greek myth the most beautiful woman in the world.  Helenium isn’t the most beautiful flower in the world (Showy Lady’s Slipper is), but it is a pleasant one I quite enjoy.

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A Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) , Missouri’s official state reptile, wandered about on the path.  I’d seen a couple before, but this is my first time seeing one well.

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Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) were everywhere.  I was hoping to find maybe a rarer turtle, but as this is slow-moving muddy waters, few unusual turtles were visible.

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Another animal that was everywhere was the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerula)- the white immature form.  I found exactly one adult Little Blue Heron, in the photo above.  After this, I drove up to one of several overlooks on the edge of Crowley’s Ridge.  Far off is the eastern Ozarks.

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If you don’t like snakes, and you somehow tolerated the Robber Fly, this is the perfect spot to end off.  From here on in, it’s a lot of snakes- albeit four lifer snakes!  These were all found someplace within or near Mingo- not the same place, and I’m not saying where.  Mingo National Wildlife Refuge is over 21,000 acres of habitat, and combined with the 2,400 acres of Duck Creek, it’s a massive tract of wilderness.  Snake poachers can have fun figuring all that out, although most of the species I saw aren’t exactly the most popular for collecting.  If I’d seen Kingsnakes, Rattlesnakes, or Milk Snakes, the most popular snakes to be collected, I’d be considerably more elusive about the locations.  If you ever seen a large, colorful or venomous snake in the wild, don’t announce specifically where it is, or there’s a good chance it will be taken away.

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Western Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis proximus) are common in wetlands here, and this neonate was hiding in such an area- the only flipped snake of the day.  By flipped,  I mean that I turned something over to find it.  Everybody else was out and about.

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That includes my first lifer snake of the day,  a Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata confluens).  Hiding in the woody tangles along one of the many ditches, this Southeastern species is one of several species of snakes whose Southern ranges curve upwards along the Mississippi River Valley floodplain, of which this is technically a part.  I had forgotten these live in Missouri- they’ve been extirpated (died out) from what was once a very limited Illinois range.

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Another lifer  was the Diamondback Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer), one of North America’s larger watersnake species,  generally found in the southern parts of the Great Plains and Mississippi River drainage.  This particular specimen was at least three and a half feet long!

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Unsuprisingly, the third one was another Nerodia watersnake, the Plain-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythogaster).  It was in the middle of a road and decided to quickly cross that road and get away from me. So, the above photo is the only one I have.

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Later down that same road, a large, thick-bodied snake with a very angular head began to cross- my very first Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), forty feet away.  Cottonmouths have much thicker bodies and far more angular heads than any other snake I’ve ever seen in the wild.   There’s so many myths about these, one of North America’s more common venomous snakes, that I feel I may have to do a little mythbustering here.  Cottonmouths are reluctant to bite- handling, harassing or stepping on a Cottonmouth hard are the best ways to get bitten.  I’ve been told on multiple occasions that Cottonmouths will chase people, but that isn’t entirely true.  If a Cottonmouth sees a threat,  its first instinct is to escape, preferably into nearby water.  If the person happens to be between the nearest water source and the Cottonmouth, it may slip right by the person en route to the water.  So, a Cottonmouth may appear to be chasing a person, while doing nothing of the sort- the exact opposite, in fact.

Also, the range of a Cottonmouth does not extend past the Shawnee Hills in Illinois.  I occasionally end up in arguments with people whose all-knowing “country uncles” say they see Cottonmouths throughout central or northern Illinois.  I usually end those by offering to get bitten by said snake, sight unseen.  (I won’t be saying that in southern Missouri or where I live now.)  There’s a joke that all snakes in the US have been called Cottonmouths at some point.  The sad part about this is that nearly all US snakes, especially watersnakes, have been killed as “Cottonmouths”.  I understand if you don’t like snakes- I’m not too fond of spiders or wasps.  But please let them be. Leaving a snake alone is the surest way to not be bitten.

(Then again, if you don’t like snakes, how did you make it this far?)

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After all of this, I decided to drive around the refuge, and see the sights:

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Currently my best photo of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) is this one above.   These birds are my photographic nemesis, as I’ve mentioned previously.

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I ended up driving all of the Wildlife Loop, scaring up some turkeys, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and a few scenic views, all the way from Crowley’s Ridge across the floodplains to the Ozarks -three different natural divisions in less than twenty miles!  Crowley’s Ridge is considered to have flora more characteristic of the Appalachians than the Ozarks, and the wetlands between are similar to those of the Gulf Coast or Lower Mississippi River Valley in general.

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From here to southern Indiana, centered on the Shawnee Hills is a major transition zone.  The edge of the Great Plains is a little bit north of here, and the edge of the Gulf Coastal Plain natural division is right up against this- in fact, in the photo above, you’re looking at a little bit of it.  To the west, the Ozark Mountains form their own unique natural division, while to the east the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and by extension the edge of the Appalachian Mountain range, just barely misses Illinois, but much of its flora and fauna are present.  As I mentioned, Crowley’s Ridge, which you can see below,  is, to some degree, an extension of that area.

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Northern prairies meet southern swamps, and eastern forests meet western woodlands- and it’s all happening here!  Add to this the fact that the world’s third largest river flows through the middle of it, and that many North American birds use this area to migrate- well, it’s just all very, very, exciting for me, that I get to live in this area now.

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The Wildlife Loop proved to have some wildlife, with three Raccoons (Procyon lotor) at various spots.  One individual, roaming along the banks of a ditch, remained for a photo in the dying light of a clouded sunset.  I ended up out of the Loop, to find:

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A thicker-than-usual line appeared in the grass in the middle of a road.  Neonate (young) Cottonmouth!   The angled head, when it popped up, was a dead giveaway.  I approached to within six feet- it’s a snake that’s a foot long, after all, and I have leg protection in the form of snake guards.  (Sometime I’ll do a blog showing all the gear I have.)  It watched me- I watched it.  Neither of us moved for a minute, but neither approached the other.  I then backed away, and the snake took off for the side of the road, away from me.  Good luck out there, young Cottonmouth.

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After this, I checked the Kite spot, yet again, and saw nothing.  It was getting dark, and driving exhausts me.  I stopped in a rural town for gas, which was $2.26.  A couple hours later, my new hometown had it for $2.59.  Always stop for gas in Missouri, if you live in Illinois.

I may have dipped on the Swallow-tailed Kite, but I’ll take four lifer snakes, a few good birds, and two amazing areas to explore in exchange.  In order to make the cost of that Mingo year pass worthwhile, I have to visit three more times…

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Ebird Checklist for Mingo NWR:  http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38942057

 

Grand Tower Island- and Finally, the Anhinga.

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Grand Tower Island is one of the best spots I’ve ever birded.  Sweeping views, a large number of wetlands, quiet conditions and a lack of irritating insects past the occasional horsefly make this spot downright amazing.  The only downside is that you sort of have to invent your own parking spots- it’s a road on a decently wide levee, surrounded by acres of private land.

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This is the story of my first trip here, despite it being a bit “spoiled” for readers in earlier posts.  Still, it’s hard to spoil such a beautiful and wondrous place completely!

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Grand Tower Island gets its name from Grand Tower, Illinois, a town which gets its name from Grand Tower, an island in the Mississippi (not to be mistaken with Grand Tower Island) that looks like someone took Starved Rock and stuck it in the middle of the river.

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Looking out from Grand Tower-the-city boat launch, just across from Grand Tower-the-rock, and just north of Grand Tower-the-island-but-not-the-rock,  you can see Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) with Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) and other butterflies all over it.  Fun fact:  Buttonbushes are in the same taxonomic family as  the coffee tree.

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In the riprap along the edge of the Mississippi River at the boat lauch, I found this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius).  It posed well for photos before flying downriver.  Spotted Sandpipers are found by moving water far more often than most sandpipers, and they often hunt for food along riverbanks.  I’ve just never seen one on a river quite this large before!

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I drove down Grand Tower Island, looking for whatever I could see.  At this time, I’d never been there before, so the numbers of herons were overwhelming. Many of these were Cattle Egrets (Bulbulculs ibis), either resting in the fields or playing a sort of “leapfrog” over one another, presumably to stir up insects to eat.

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Cattle Egrets in North America are a new development- and yet not deliberately introduced, unlike House Sparrows or Starlings- both of which were brought over and set free on this continent.  In 1877, Cattle Egrets appeared in South America, evidently having flown across the ocean.  In the 1930s, they began expanding their range rapidly, and by 1953 they were breeding in Florida.  Now they live as far north as Canada, and appear on every continent.

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This is something they did themselves- no people introduced them.  Cattle Egrets like cattle habitat, feeding on insects that livestock stir up. No cattle live on Grand Tower Island, but it seems to be popular with this species anyway.

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Cattle Egrets are uncommon in Illinois, and there were hundreds here- in Missouri!  Due to a change in the shape of the river, Grand Tower Island is actually part of Missouri.  However, anything seen on Grand Tower Island usually flies over Illinois at some point.  It’s a benefit of the local geography that favors listers- birders who try to record as many birds as possible in as many counties, states, and countries as they can.   I’m somewhat of a “lister “- I like getting new birds for my home counties (Jackson and Sangamon) and my state (Illinois) as well as Missouri, the state I’ve decided I want to live in someday if possible. (Well, either Missouri or North Carolina.)

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Seven species of heron were present, including a lone juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and these two immature Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerula), which are bright white as youngsters.  If this seems confusing to you, know that it also is to me!

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After Cattle Egret, the next largest number of a species goes to Great Egrets (Ardea alba), above.  In the evening, these birds all congregate on some of the ponds to roost together.  Some people have recorded five hundred or more Great Egrets at once here, on the Illinois side.

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Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) are also quite common here, splashing about in the shallows.  While they all look like white herons, each species has a different foraging behavior as well as bill shape and pattern. Snowy Egrets, which have thin black bills, like to run about.  Little Blue Herons, which usually have silvery bills, tend to “lean” forwards as they move slowly but steadily through the shallows, occasionally snatching up an unfortunate frog or fish.  Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons sit and wait, striking at whatever fish comes too near.  Cattle Egrets play leapfrog or stand still.  Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons hide in tree branches, leaning far over the water, waiting for a fish to swim underneath.

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Another excellent feature of Grand Tower Island is its proximity to the Mississippi River and the bluffs of that river that border the Shawnee National Forest.   North of here is Fountain Bluff and Devil’s Backbone, two hills running north-to-south.  This combination of air currents provided by the geography and proximity to the river provides for some good thermals- excellent for watching hawks fly overhead!  Sometimes even better than that…

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This is an immature Bald Eagle (Halialeetus leucocephalus).  That gigantic bill and the broad, big wings held flat- like a flying surfboard, I always think-  make this a fun bird to identify at great distance.  I’ve seen four at one time here, not bad for the summer months.  In the winter, when hundreds of Canadian Bald Eagles come south to Illinois, this place is going to be FUN.

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A new bird for me was this, the Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis).  I got a brief look at one some months ago in the Ozarks, but essentially the Illinois ones have really been my introduction to this species.  Mississippi Kites are EVERYWHERE in the summer months here, though they’ll migrate in a month or two.  Social and insect-eating, they enjoy flying in groups over the river bottoms  in pursuit of dragonflies, cicadas, and more.  These kites used to be far more common in Illinois, but as they like large insect populations coupled with large woodlands, they declined to the point of being State-Threatened.  However, the population is growing again.  A few have settled far to the north, near Rockford, Illinois, just barely south of Wisconsin.  Sooner or later they’ll be delisted and considered a species more-or-less safe in numbers here.

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A group of Mississippi Kites, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, an American Kestrel, three Cattle Egrets, a Great Egret and one other bird decided to come together and soar overhead about 10:00 AM.  That one other bird was the Anhinga I wanted to see.  A bird of the Deep South, not to be expected anywhere without alligators, Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) are somewhat similar to Cormorants in appearance.  However, Anhingas have a long thin spearlike bill, a long, pizza-slice shaped tail, and broader wings, and they are furthermore not considered relatives.  If you haven’t figured it out, the Anhinga is the bird in the upper right corner above and the only one below.  The other bird in lower left above is a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), for size comparison.

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Back in the 1800s, Anhingas may have been more common in far Southern Illinois, but the removal of the cypress swamps they like to live in caused them to vanish.  The strip of land south of the Shawnee Hills is actually considered part of the Gulf Coastal Plain ecozone- having many of its species and habitats more in common with Louisiana than with much of the rest of Illinois.  In this area, Anhingas were rediscovered in about 2009 or 2010, in a spot known as Snake Hole Lane.  The head honcho of Illinois birding, Greg Neise, went down to find them, in one of the more amusing stories about chasing a rarity that I’ve read.   Amusing, of course, because I wasn’t there:

http://blog.aba.org/2017/03/episode-v-a-new-hope-or-unhinged-for-anhingas.html

By contrast, all I had to do was sit on a levee and wait for about fifteen minutes, in the meantime watching all of the herons I talked about earlier, as well as a few other birds:

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I’ve talked about my favorite group of birds, shorebirds, ad nauseum, but still, anything that weighs about an ounce, is six inches or less long, and flies from Alaska to Argentina twice a year on its own power, is an impressive animal.  That’s what these little birds in the photo above do.  With a couple of seabird exceptions, there’s not much to rival shorebirds at migration!

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Nearby lurked one of the great waterfowl predators in Illinois and Missouri, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  These don’t go after shorebirds, but they’ve been known to attack ducks from underneath, dragging them down under the water to be eaten.  Pleasant, I know.   Still, it came as a shock to me.  If you’re squeamish, don’t look up the Youtube videos of it.

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Of course, in that case also never look up herons eating things.  There’s videos of herons hunting moles in fields, hunting other birds, and even hunting venomous snakes!  However, this concentration above was mostly after fish in a flooded slough on the Illinois side.

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Perched behind me in a tree was a young Mississippi Kite, trying to figure out how to use a dead tree branch.  It was not succeeding with the vertical one, but it kept trying.

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Eventually, after a few minutes, it gave up and flew away.   Still, it was very amusing to watch!

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Nearby,  a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), one of the few I’ve seen here, perched, waiting for mice to appear.  Larue- Pine Hills Research Natural Area, the wetlands of the Big Muddy River, Grand Tower Island,  Oakwood Bottoms, and the wooded slopes of Fountain Bluff occur within five or ten minute’s drive of each other.  Few of these are the open agricultural areas Red-tailed Hawks like.  Surprisingly, I have yet to see a Red-shouldered Hawk here, a species far more fond of wooded floodplains.  I’ve heard them a couple times, however.

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One Bald Eagle on the north end of Grand Tower Island was a regular, however, perched in one of the same few trees every time.  In the first photo, it is “panting” from heat. Birds cannot sweat- they must expel excessive heat by panting and by holding their wings away from their body, as this Bald Eagle is doing.  I’d never observed this kind of behavior before.

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The nearby area around the Illinois edge of Grand Tower Island has similar habitat, if much reduced, to the island itself.  It’s here that a White Ibis had been spotted in July, a visitor from the South.  Another visitor, in addition to the Anhingas, was a Neotropic Cormorant.  I’ve tried several times to bring a smaller-than-usual cormorant to species, but failed to correctly identify or identify enough distingusing marks on several birds, as you might have seen previously.

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A few days later, I was driving down here, looking for whatever I could find.  Several Turkey Vultures flew right over the tops of some trees, apparently startling a small cormorant.  It took off- and it had a long tail and no yellow in the face, signs of a rarity.  My camera was tightly in its case, unable to record the Neotropic Cormorant I’d tried to find for months.  Well, that’s how it goes.

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I pulled off along Route 3 later in the day to photograph some sandpipers, and I stumbled across what I believe is a Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) in the middle in the photo above, which in addition to a Baird’s Sandpiper from the day before, makes this the fifth new species of bird and third new sandpiper I’ve found since moving down here.  I would be very OK if this trend continued!   Western Sandpipers migrate from Alaska to Florida and Peru, but they rarely arrive in Illinois.  The Western Sandpiper made an excellent Fifth Orchid* to the day.

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Another day’s Fifth Orchid was a Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), one of the world’s most “feminist” birds. Basically, traditional bird gender roles are reversed in the phalaropes.  The less colorful males, up to four of them, have to take care of one female’s eggs and young while she fights with other females for the right to keep those males.   So much else is reversed with these birds, too!  Most shorebirds live on the edge of mudflats, but for much of their lives, phalaropes live out in the open ocean, far at sea, spinning in circles.  I mean that- they spin in a circle in the water to concentrate plankton on which to feed.  Here’s more details on a related species, the more common Wilson’s Phalarope.  Red-necked Phalaropes are less common, but they do occasionally migrate inland.  Still, this was the first Red-necked Phalarope ever seen in Jackson County, Illinois, according to Ebird.

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I also took a photo of a Great Egret eating a shad in the shallows.   The wait and ambush method works well for these herons, it seems.   Personally,  I prefer the Snowy Egret, always darting about from place to place- not unlike me, sometimes!

I look forwards to seeing many more of them here, at my new favorite birdwatching (and eclipse-watching) spot.  Come for the rarities, stay for the view:

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*Fifth Orchid- an unexpected last find at the end of the day.  I haven’t used this personally-created term in awhile, but I figure it comes in handy here.