Category: Top Ten 2018 Experiences

Havana Great Time, Emiquon-dn’t Ask For Better Birding!

How have those two puns slipped past my notice for this long?  I mean, it’s probably good that they have, but still, you would’ve thought I’d have caught something like that by now.

After the adventures of the last week,  I figure it’s worth refreshing people’s minds on Central Illinois’ premier natural areas, which I broadly refer to as “Glorious Mason County” even though it’s a bit broader than just that area  It could also be called the “Havana area” as that’s the name of the largest town in the region.

Random fields

I could go into a very deep discussion about the complex geology of this area, and because I wouldn’t understand any of it, I won’t.  However, I’ll try to pass on the limited, simplified view that I do understand, and illustrate this with a map:

Mason County Map

Basically, most of the area is covered in sand dumped there by glacial runoff- the Kankakee Torrent flooding that drained Lake Michigan down to its current water level and carved the canyons in Starved Rock State Park. The primary area of sand is surrounded by a yellow highlight on the map.  To the west, the Illinois River  runs in a valley carved by the former path of the Mississippi River in pre-glacial times.

Field in mist

The sand deposits encouraged the growth of more Western plant and animal populations.  Bullsnakes, Pocket Gophers, Silvery Bladderpod, Prickly Pear cactus, Western Kingbirds, and Lark Sparrows  comprise some of the many “Western” animals and plants found here.  More “Southern” plants and animals, like Pawpaw, Ozark Milkvetch, Prothonotary Warblers  and Northern Mockingbirds also dwell in Mason county and the surrounding regions.  Just across the river, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, usually restricted to the Gulf Coast, have been discovered breeding in Fulton county as of 2017 and 2018.

Indeed, the wetlands along the Illinois River attract millions of migrating ducks and geese every year, as well as rarer species like King and Black Rails, Least Bitterns and Black-necked Stilts.  Strange vagrant birds like Sabine’s Gull, Anhinga, and Ruff have appeared in this area on multiple occasions.The two red areas are the largest wetlands in the region- Chatauqua and Emiquon.  Emiquon is on the left, Chautaqua on the right.

Grasshopper Sparrow

More  common birds like Eastern Meadowlark, Indigo Bunting or the  Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)  above have hung on here in numbers exceeding those of surrounding areas.   In recent years (early 1900s) someone looked at the sand dunes and thought “You know what this needs?  A large pine plantation!”  Sand Ridge State Forest (the large area circled in blue, top center of the map), and a few other localized areas, are the result.  Another fun introduction about the same time was the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a small bird imported from Europe and released in St. Louis.  It’s since made its way upriver slowly into this region.

Random field

I think that’s enough for background.  Of late I’ve been spending time in southern Mason county, which hasn’t  been explored enough compared to the Sand Ridge – Chautauqua – Emiquon area to the north.  However, it has its rewards.  For instance, abundant Grasshopper Sparrows:

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrows are vanishing across most of Illinois.  Sure, they’re a little brown bird of limited interest to someone not interested in birds, but if they disappear something will be lost from the world- a bird that both sounds like and eats grasshoppers.  Thankfully there’s still a healthy population of Grasshopper Sparrows in most of Mason county.

Random weed

Another advantage of wandering around the backroads of southern Mason county is the occasional population of Cannabis sativa.  Mind you, this isn’t the kind generally smoked (though it is a controlled substance).  This is more or less hemp.  (I also don’t smoke anything- I generally think human lung tissue is not designed to take in smoke of any kind.)  Wild Cannabis is an actual weed in moist areas throughout this part of the state, though fairly uncommon.

Five-lined Skink

Also uncommon is the Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), especially one of this considerable size (approximately eight inches long).  This female was sitting on a mattress dumped at the marijuana spot photographed above.  It then ran up a post to be photographed.  Five-lined Skinks have an unusual range- they are close to their northern edge in Illinois at this spot, but they also occur in eastern Wisconsin.  It was my first time seeing one this far north, at any rate.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Across the road, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)  sat in a bush quietly, in pursuit of caterpillars.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in this area, probably because of all the caterpillars from the ever-present butterflies.  There are a lot of butterflies in Mason county- far more than in the surrounding agricultural wastelands.  Yellow-billed Cuckoos are primarily caterpillar predators, devouring caterpillars in the hundreds, so they do well here.  Thankfully they miss enough caterpillars to leave plenty of butterflies.

Poppy Mallow sp?

Growing on the side of the road was Clustered Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe triangulata), a fairly uncommon plant of dry soil and sand prairie.  I’d never found it in the wild before!  We pressed on to Revis Hill Prairie, spotting Northern Mockingbirds, Henslow’s Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers on the way, as well as NINE American Kestrels in one field.

Revis Hill Prarie

Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve is the area on the map circled in blue EAST of Kilbourne.  This contains the region’s highest hills, rising about 250 feet above the Sangamon River Valley.  I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation as to why there are hills here, but there are.  On top of these hills are multiple old hill prairies which have grown here since presettlement times.  Less common birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, White-eyed Vireo and Baltimore Oriole are abundant here.  However, Revis is very little-known for birds- most people come here for insects.  There’s a species of walkingstick and a species of leafhopper only known from here in Illinois.

Tiger Beetle

A number of burrowing wasps and tiger beetles (Cicindelidia spp.) take up residence in the sand and/or loess prarire sections of the preserve.  I don’t think I’ve ever stopped here and not found a new species of insect to me (except in the winter, of course).

Fowler's Toad

All of these insects serve as excellent food for Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri).  Growing above it was this unusual flower, the Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella), one of the hundreds of species of plants present at this incredibly biodiverse site.

Asclepias viridiflora

After driving through Revis, I drove my friend Kyle to see his first Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) in Illinois.  Birds of the Great Plains and further west, Western Kingbirds expanded into St. Louis (where dozens can be seen in industrial areas!) and upriver into Havana, Illinois, showing a strangely consistent fascination with power substations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Western Kingbird in Illinois on a natural perch- they have done well with manmade structures.

Western Kingbird

The Havana power substation where these Western Kingbirds nest also has a population of Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), and I managed to get both in a photo together.  Eurasian Tree Sparrows resemble the much more common House Sparrow, but they have an all-brown cap and black dot on their cheek that differs from the House Sparrow (unspotted cheek, gray cap with brown sides).  Eurasian Tree Sparrows also tend to be found on the edges of town in scrubby areas, and I find it rare to see them in backyards.

EUTS and WEKI

A levee at Chautaqua National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, is the perfect spot to find Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and that’s where I went on the previous day with a different friend.

Eagle Bluffs

Hundreds of  American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and some shorebirds were present here.  Most of the shorebirds were far out- it’s been a bad breeding season up in the Canadian Tundra from whence they come,  so the numbers of shorebirds migrating this year are likely to be uncomfortably low.

Pelicans and Gulls

Thankfully, not all is going horribly in the bird world because the pelicans are doing well.  Large flocks like this are becoming more and more common, and they are a delight to watch, gliding nd whirling about in the air.  Pelicans aren’t particularly graceful, but their colossal size makes them readily watchable. While not as long-winged as Bald Eagles, tall as Whooping Cranes, or heavy as Trumpeter Swans, American White Pelicans overall seem to me to be Illinois’ biggest bird.

AMWP flock

The wetlands here and across the river at Emiquon are being drained to allow seed plants to grow on them, providing food for ducks in the winter and mudflats for migratory birds.  Both Chautauqua and Emiquon are carefully managed by pumping water in or out at the right times of year to maximize the benefit for animals, especially waterfowl.

This Chautauqua-Emiquon area has become a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, one of several Ramsar Wetlands Illinois has.  (The others are Chiwaukee Illinois Beach up in Lake county (seen here)  Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (seen here) the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands (not seen yet, but definitely on my list for later) and the Cache River-Cypress Creek Wetlands (seen here). Hey, I’ve been to all but one of those this year!  A Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designation is basically like winning a conservation Oscar, and it’s great that Illinois has five of them- among US states, only California has more than Illinois does.

Emiquon North Globe Units

Over at Emiquon, we found many Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) and other shorebirds wading around in the mudflats looking for insects and worms, and squabbling with each other.  Black-necked Stilts are particularly quarrelsome.

Black-necked Stilt

By contrast, these Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) were content to work together and hunt down prey.  They’ve recently arrived from far northern Canada, so I imagine they’re fairly hungry.  The Greater Yellowlegs still have far to go- all the way to South America!

Greater Yellowlegs

Just as Illinois is a flyover state for many people, so it is a flyover state for birds on their way to other places.  Still, sometimes they stop in and visit, and we’re glad when they do.  Especially when, for instance it’s a Sanderling (Calidris alba) and I haven’t seen one since 2016.  The pale fuzzy bird on the left is, I believe, a Sanderling.  They like sandy beaches and as a result are uncommon inland, away from the Great Lakes (which DO have sandy beaches).  This is one of the world’s longest-distance migrants, traveling from the High Arctic (think top of Greenland) all the way to southern South America or Australia in the winter.

Not bad for a bird seven inches long!

Sanderling I think

We spent two days and saw over a hundred bird species in Glorious Mason County- not easy to do in late July, when many of them have stopped singing and many more have yet to migrate south.  Despite moving to ostensibly a better spot for nature (southern Illinois)- which IS really good despite what certain Ryans who’ve never been there may say about it – I always end up missing this area when I’m away from it.  It’s the first area I really explored away from my hometown when I got into birding, and it’s a place I can’t help but return to time and again.

I really am Havana great time.

Thompson Lake

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

Dunes Parking Lot

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

Eastern Hognose #1

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

Eastern Hognose #2

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

PROW

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

Ruby-throated Hummer

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

Dwarf Ginseng

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

Rue Anemone

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

Stream, Indiana Dunes

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

Great White Trillium

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

White-crowned Sparrow

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

Wild Lupine

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

Dunes Oak Savanna

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

Birds-foot Violet

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

Forest- Indiana Dunes

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

Blueberry

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

False Solomon's Seal

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

Wild Geranium

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

Wood Phlox

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

Lead-phase Red-backed Salamander

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

Hummer at feeder

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

Red Squirrel

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

Red and Gray Squirrels

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

Blurry- How Birds Migrate Indiana Dunes

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

Behind the tower

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

Tower

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

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

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

Tower bird list- 2018

Ebird Checklist:

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

 

 

 

 

Oh My That’s A LOT of Birds (Chicago Trip, Part 1)

So, last month I went to Chicago to see birds. That may seem odd to most people, that I would go to a big city to do so.  However, when that city and its environs are alongside a massive lake and have more nature preserves than all of the Central Illinois nature preserves put together, it suddenly starts to make sense.

And I haven’t even talked about Montrose yet.  Montrose Point is arguably the best birding spot in Illinois.  It’s a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan.  The northern section is a beach with a dunes/swale community, including a small marshy wetland, while the southern part is a tangle of bushes and small trees with a grassland section just between that part and the lake itself.  This mix of habitats on a north-south lakeshore along which birds migrate, providing some of the only good habitat for miles around… yeah, it’s a MASSIVE bird spot.

I drove up Monday afternoon and got up at 4-something in the morning to drive into the city to see birds at Montrose Point.  The weather had shifted from south to north winds with storms in the middle of the night, during mid-May- a great combination for birdwatching.  Basically, birds flying north during the night (and most of the smaller ones like warblers and sparrows migrate during the night) are pushed forwards by the south winds.  The north winds and storms cause them to drop down and seek shelter.  They also make the lake very foggy and the sky very cloudy- which doesn’t help with photos.

We arrived and could already tell that there were a ton of birds, as Common Yellowthroats and White-crowned Sparrows hopped about in the open grass.

As we walked under a tree, we looked up to find this Black-crowned Night Heron( Nycticorax nycticorax), just above our heads.  The pre-dawn, misty weather made it rather difficult to get anything better than this photo. I’m sure an actual photographer would have done a better job:

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Two Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) wandered about for a bit, and we kept our distance and I took a video, calling out new birds as we heard/saw them.

Montrose Skunk

We then went to the beach, watching flocks of shorebirds  fly in, land and depart as people spooked them.  The fog obscured them pretty well, but it was apparent on closer inspection that several Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) and many Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) were among the flocks:

Blurry Shorebirds

As the sky lightened, many of the shorebirds took off, including a flock of 24 Short-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).  Two remained for a bit, along with Least Sandpipers and a Dunlin (Calidris alpina,  larger sandpiper straight down from the right end of the knoll with the Dowitchers in the midground)

More Shorebirds at Montrose

One of those Least Sandpipers is below:

Least Sandpiper

After about 8:00 most of the shorebirds departed.  Remaining behind were ten Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) , breeders in Montrose’s interdunal wetlands.  If you can’t tell, I very much enjoy sandpipers, and on sandy beaches they let you get close enough for photos:

Spotted Sandpiper

Perhaps the best beach find was a small plover.  We noticed it, Kyle thought it was a Semipalmated, and I insisted that it was too light, and it was a Piping Plover.  Closer inspection revealed the truth, it WAS a Piping Plover!  Hurrah!  Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) are awesome.  There’s only about 6500 of them in the entire world.  This one is of the interior breeding circumcinctus  subspecies, which is slightly darker overall in coloration and has slightly larger, thicker black markings than the Atlantic Coast’s melodius subspecies.  Both subspecies are extremely cute, a fact that needs to be noted more often in scientific articles.

Piping Plover #1

Federally threatened, this particular bird is from the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, where a small but healthy population of these rare little plovers nest every year.  The little colored bands help to identify each individual plover, as records are kept of each bird.  Thanks to research by Fran Morel that he posted on the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group, we have this individual’s life story:

“Very cool sighting! Of,B/OR:X,L just hatched last year in the captive rearing center. Its mother was a long-time breeder at Sleeping Bear Dunes (and one of the few females that has attempted and successfully raised 2 broods in one season!!), but was killed by a suspected dog off leash about a week prior to the expected hatch date.

The eggs were taken into captive rearing, and 3 chicks successfully fledged and were released at Sleeping Bear on July 5 (including this guy). So, long story short, we don’t know where this bird will show up to breed – likely Sleeping Bear. What’s really exciting is that she looks to be female to me, which we could always use more of, so fingers crossed she makes it across the lake and finds a mate to settle down with!”

Piping Plover #3

A pair of Piping Plovers is attempting to nest at Waukegan Beach in Lake county Illinois this year. Hopefully they make it and no stray dogs or people interfere.  The world needs more adorable Piping Plovers.  If I cooed over this bird any more, I’d turn into a dove.  Let’s move on.

BABY Killdeer

Oh, but we’re not done with cute plovers!  This is the even rarer Stilt-legged Fuzzy Plover.  They associate with Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) and are only seen for a few weeks or so in the springtime.  They’re flightless and move everywhere by running.

(Before I mislead anyone, this is a baby Killdeer).

Chicago Fogline

Looking south from the “point” of Montrose Point, the Chicago skyline began to loose its veil of fog. Palm Warblers danced about everywhere, and I ignored them, heading up into the “Magic Hedge”- a bunch of tangled bushes and trees that had hundreds of warblers, off to my right in the photo.  I do mean hundreds.  It was insane.

Terrible Photo of Blackburnian Warbler

We noticed several Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) , including this one.  I was highly amused by watching the antics of other birders at Montrose- mostly old men dressed in full camo with camera lenses the length of my arm, wandering about, heads jerking from side to side with every bird, in the middle of a city park.  I did see some people I’d interacted with online- most of those were dressed in somewhat fashionable clothing and slightly less old.   Being from downstate Illinois, it’s rare for me to encounter other birders when I’m out.  Seeing dozens of birders was as impressive as all the birds, even if they were a faintly ridiculous spectacle.

Magnolia Warbler

Of course, when you see dozens of birds almost at arm’s length, like this Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), just hopping around in the brush, it’s amazing.  That’s why Montrose has the reputation it does.  We saw at least 25 of these Magnolia Warblers, by the way.  Insane.

Tree Swallow

Look, a photo that doesn’t appear to have been taken with a potato!  This is a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), sitting on a rope around the “forbidden” section of the Montrose Dunes, closed to prevent trampling of the rare plants present.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Back up in the Magic Hedge, Kyle and I just walked around every corner, bumping into people Kyle knew or lifer birds for me.  Canada Warbler and then this Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) fell rapidly, and a Hooded Warbler was an additional treat, seeing as those aren’t very common up this far north.

Male American Redstart

By far the most common warbler was the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male shown above. We stopped counting after 52, which is almost certainly an underestimate.  Other birds we had counts of 52 of include White-crowned Sparrow (exact) and Palm Warbler (again, stopped counting after a certain point).  Redstarts are glorious, especially in numbers.

Female American Redstart

Here’s a female or young male American Redstart showing off its unique crossbow-shaped tail pattern. This color form was nearly as common as the adult males in their black and orange.

While looking at all the Redstarts and another Canada Warbler, Scott Latimer walked up to us with a photo of a “strange looking shorebird”.   It was a King Rail!  He’d just taken a photo of it on the trail adjacent to the Magic Hedge, walking through what is basically an overgrown lawn.  We, along with about a dozen of the birders present, went to try and find it again.  King Rails are probably one of the best players of hide-and-seek in the animal kingdom (after most Australian desert fauna*) so of course we didn’t see it again. It’s been at Montrose up to the time of this writing (6/14), showing itself every couple of days and otherwise hiding out in the grasses.

Black-capped Chickadee

People fed some of the bolder seedeating birds here, including this Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and the Red-winged Blackbirds that dive-bombed Kyle and I.   One pecked him on the head, and the same bird got me a day later.

Having gone on at length about the birdlife, I feel compelled to show off a few plants.  Plants don’t move much, which helps considerably in their getting recorded for posterity by me.

Indian Paintbrush

This reddish “flower” (actually colored leaves) is the Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a partial parasite of the dune grasses and one of my favorite plants.

Lousewort

Another partial parasite (hemiparasite; see, I do know the correct term) is this Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis)-what a lovely set of names!  Both of these plants steal water and nutrients from other plants, but they also obtain and make their own.  Partial parasitism is a very good strategy in the arid, sandy dunes- the soil dries out quickly, so these plants get water by any means necessary for their survival.  Other plants try different strategies to thrive here:

Pitcher's Thistle

Federally-threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) have silvery foliage to reflect sunlight and conserve water loss, as well as a deep taproot (six feet or more) that grows downwards in search of water.  Unfortunately, just like the Piping Plover, development and trampling on Great Lakes beaches has led to Pitcher’s Thistles becoming increasingly rare.  Thankfully, a few survive, even in this fairly busy urban park in the heart of Chicago.

Alright, this is a migrant trap, so that’s enough plants.  Back to birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

For the longest time, Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) eluded me.  They’re not rare, I’m just bad at finding them.  Having failed to find a King Rail, I turned back to looking for warblers and finally got a picture of this nemesis bird, as well as even better binocular looks.

Mourning Warbler #1

Also showing off well was this Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia).  It was my last lifer of the day… wow!  It actually stopped and posed!  Mourning Warblers are probably one of the shyer warbler species, so seeing one as well as I did was a gratifying experience.

Mourning Warbler #2

At this point, Kyle and I had spent over six hours at Montrose, and seen 91 different species.  That’s quite a lot!  I hated to leave, but I had limited time in Chicago and I really wanted to find a Clay-colored Sparrow and/or Yellow-headed Blackbird, two birds not present at Montrose though they had been over the weekend.

Bobolink

Our spots for Clay-colored Sparrow turned out to be a bust, and while we did see a Least Bittern at the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, that ended up being a bust also.  Still, any field with Bobolinks(Dolichonyx oryzivorus) flying along and giving their weird calls gets my approval.

One of our last stops was at a power station for one of the more unique birds of Chicagoland- the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).  Native to southern South America, this parrot species escaped into the wild and now resides in small colonies throughout the Chicago area:

Monk Parakeet Nest

The following morning, Kyle had to work in Indiana. I was back up and at it early, but the weather had shifted.  While there were still a few interesting birds (new to me for the county were Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and SOMEHOW Chipping Sparrow), the main attraction was seeing a few young birders I’d not met before- Ben Sanders, Isoo O’brien, and Eddie Kaspar.

Montrose Red-headed Woodpecker

We wandered about for a bit, down to the beach and back (beach picture below) , but there wasn’t as much as they wanted so they left. I decided to go forth and wander about Lake county…

Montrose Point ebird checklists:

Day 1 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46011312

Day 2 https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45728571

Montrose Beach

*I’ve discussed this before, but Australian animals, particularly in the deserts of the Outback, tend to disappear for decades before being rediscovered.  Night Parrots, Nothomyrmecia ants, and the Inland Taipan (most venomous snake in the world) come to mind as species that have been lost and reappeared after decades in Australia.

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

Baby Cottonmouth

This is the spring snake post, if you hadn’t figured that out by now.  I’d recommend leaving if you don’t like snakes, salamanders or Scarlet Tanagers.

Above is a baby Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). As usual, I have to make the disclaimer that I have a camera with fairly good zoom. If you tried to get that same photo with a cell phone, you’d be an idiot. Baby Cottonmouths are just as venomous as regular Cottonmouths, only smaller and sneakier.  (More on that topic later).

Broad-headed Skink

Much less sneaky is this Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps).  It was a cooler April day when I found him, and everyone was up on logs or walls trying to catch a bit of heat.

Black/Gray/Western Rat Snake

Rat Snakes (Whateveritisnow changeswaytoofrequentli) love to be in odd spots, so of course one was hanging on the side of a cliff.  It’s seriously impressive how they manage to do so with no arms and legs.  Also, I have no idea how it got there.

Green Watersnake

More obvious in its mobility was this on-the-ground Green Watersnake (Nerodia cyclopion), my first state-endangered herp of the year. “First” implies that I’ll find more.  I don’t actually know that, but I assume I will.  This is one of the rarest snakes in Illinois, only found at Snake Road.  It certainly looks boring enough to be rare, that’s for sure.

Angry Cottonmouth

Less boring and more alarming was this Cottonmouth, a few days later, which decided to show off as a number of them usually do.  You basically have to pick one up for them to bite you, however.  I don’t know that from personal experience, so take that with a mild grain of salt and give them a bit of space (body length of the snake, is the bare minimum for me).

Whatever Rat Snake

This same day, we found a Rat Snake up in a tree. These are very good climbers- I see them up on something as often as I see them on the ground.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

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

Western Ribbon Snake

A Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) crossed the road nearby.  This is one of my favorite snakes.  It’s like an Eastern Garter Snake, but…better.  I’d say some random fact about why it is, but it just is, and that’s all there is to it.

Northern Parula

I am, of course, continually distracted by other things than snakes at Snake Road.  Those distractions usually have either chlorophyll or feathers.  In this case it was feathers, belonging to a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana).  Warblers at Snake Road this year seemed to be closer to the ground than usual, probably due to the colder-than-average temperatures.  This of course means better-than-usual viewing.  In one notable case, a herper friend of mine photographed the reclusive, canopy-dwelling, state-threatened Cerulean Warbler ON THE GROUND- and it’s a good photo, too!  The most irritating thing is that he doesn’t really care, because “it’s just a bird”.

No, it’s a feathered reptile that’s flown thousands of miles for you to see it and enjoy it, and even more rarely, it’s at a height where you actually CAN enjoy it.

Doubly irritatingly, one was seen at a low height on my Spring Bird Count at Snake Road by a herper, while I was looking the wrong direction.  It then flew away, and I saw it fly, but not well enough to be sure of the species for personal counting.

Cave Salamander, lost.

In the meantime, near Snake Road I found a couple of interesting salamanders, including this Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) that apparently had no problem hiding out in the middle of a brook several yards from anything resembling a cave.

Nearby, I located a Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). Yes, they’re very slimy.

N. Slimy Salamander

On Saturday, May 5, I undertook a Spring Bird Count at Snake Road.  Along the way, a friend and I were treated to a plethora of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) we helped  cross the road:

Eastern Box Turtle- Wow!

Eastern Box Turtles are not graceful.

Get out of the road, you idiot!

We then met up with several herpers from across the state- all certifiably insane, of course.   (I mean, with all due respect, anyone who goes looking for venomous snakes for fun usually has a few wires crossed.)  For starters, I was instructed to call anything I saw a Copperhead, as a running inside joke, the origins of which I do not recall, a month later.   It’s hard to remember other specific examples- it’s been a busy month. They were enjoyably mad, however, so it was a fun trip in one of the best nature preserves in the Midwest- in a word, glorious!

Prothonotary Warbler

As it was May, the herping was slower, so I focused on things with feathers, to the mild amusement and/or irritation of the other herpers.  Woe to anyone who attempts to approach this Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), for it is well-guarded by Poison Ivy (Toxidendron radicans).  It didn’t elect to pop out for a better photo, unfortunately.

Beware

It was a slower day, but that didn’t mean nothing was out, and one of the “Copperheads” we saw was this juvenile Cottonmouth, carefully concealed in a tuft of grass about seven feet away from the path. Unfortunately for me, a blade of grass decided to photobomb in front of the snake.

Plain-bellied Watersnake

Along the path, we discovered this Plain-bellied Watersnake about ready to shed its skin, something snakes do every so often because their skin doesn’t grow with them as they grow.  The reason I know this snake is about to shed is that it has blue on its eyes- a traditional snake

Scarlet Tanager

The snakes were few and far between, and the birds were abundant, at least in voice, one of which was my lifer Golden-winged Warbler.  So I slowed down the group by stopping and calling them out every so often  (every five feet on a 2.5 mile walk).  Whatever. Birds are cool. There’s more of them to see, they’re easier to see, and they do more interesting things.  Sometimes they even let you almost get a good photo of them, like this Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) decided to do.  Oddly, the more common tanager was Summer, but I have no good or even mediocre photos of them from this trip.

Two-Hander

We flipped over a log and uncovered this large Northern Slimy Salamander, which, after some consideration, I think might actually be my first Northern Slimy Salamander at Snake Road.  It was a “two-hander”- if it had been legal to handle it, and if hypothetically we had done so, it would have required two hands to hold it.

Jack-in-the Pulpit

Distractions of the chlorophyte kind prevailed- this Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a species of which I am indubitably fond.  I haven’t used the word indubitably in awhile, and it feels good to try it out again.

We walked down the road, and collectively looked at a number of rocks.  As one group, we all decided without much speaking that we should flip the rocks, and we let the Canadian in our group go first.  He flipped this and we flipped out.  It’s a Midwestern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus helenae) – a lifer for me, and the Canadian guy, and my friend I’d driven there with, and a fun snake to find generally!  These are actually one of the more common snakes within their range, but they tend to be underground hunting and living like worms, so they’re rarely seen.

Worm Snake

Even more abundant are Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus) like the one below: Interestingly, at this location, three subspecies mix (Mississippi, Prairie, and Northern) resulting in unusual intergrades with patterning matching all three subspecies on the same snake.  This patterning is on the underside and is therefore not visible in the photo below:

Ring-necked Snake

Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus) crawled about on old cut stumps (as seen below).

We also scared up a less-than-photogenic Broad-headed Skink that was a three-hander- nearly a foot long!  None of us had ever seen one so large at Snake Road before, and considering how often Snake Road gets visited by this crowd, that’s a surprise!

Five-lined Skink

I was technically supposed to count birds as part of the official Spring Bird Count, and I was the only one who never discovered a reptile first, as a result. Furthermore, I found flowers distracting on occasion. Larue-Pine Hills has about 1,200 species of plants recorded from it, which is a LOT:

Phlacia?

The other herpers, somewhat tired of having to wait for me while I counted birds and photographed flowers, moved on ahead.  I fell behind. My friend who’d ridden with me had stuck with me, and another herper had joined us- one of the original gang who’d arrived later and seen less of the road. I checked my phone and notices a message:

“We found a Rough Green Snake.”  A Rough Green Snake is arguably the best snake. Note the period after that sentence.

“Ok”- My traditional response to everything, which I have been informed is sometimes not helpful to the person on the other end.

“Do you want to see it or should we move on?”- The friend I’d brought along had never seen a Rough Green Snake, and I hadn’t seen one this year.  This was a no-brainer.

“See it”- I typed back.

“Run”- was the reply.

So we ran.  It was at that moment I discovered how out of shape I am.  But we did see it:

The Best Snake (Rough Green Snake)

It turns out that that last hour was apparently idea for Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)- we ended up seeing FOUR of them, which made my friend and I and virtually everyone there very happy.  This snake is a brilliant green, eats mostly bugs, and is completely docile and harmless. Therefore it is in a population decline (pesticide-induced lack of bugs, habitat destruction and overcollection are the big three.)  Indeed, if you ever see a snake in the wild, don’t give its exact location, especially if it’s colorful or venomous, as someone’s likely to either kill or capture it.

The Best Snake

I noticed my lifer Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) along the path as I walked.  It’s an overdue species for me, and I was glad to finally see one in the wild:

Zebra Swallowtail

While walking along the path, having caught up to the other herpers, we looked down and saw a young Ring-necked Snake, not much longer than my middle finger, hiding among the gravel:

The Cutest Snake

One last Rough Green Snake saw us off nearby.  They are called Rough Green Snakes because their scales have a “keel” or ridge on them, which makes their scales feel “rougher”.

The Best Snake

I took one last look at a flower, Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii, named for the Miami tribe of the Shawnee, not Miami, Florida), and then we prepared to leave.

Miami Mist

Snake Road wasn’t done with us just yet.  One Cottonmouth decided to sit in the middle of the road and block conscientious traffic (though many people would’ve just run it over).  Attempts to get it to shift, using the traditional implements of hats and sticks, resulted in it going under a car and disappearing.

Looking under the car, all we found was a toad we hadn’t noticed was there before.  The whole thing seemed like a bizarre magic trick, and we didn’t find the Cottonmouth despite extensive searching. The grass on the side of the road was therefore off-limits (venomous snake + tall grass = dumb idea to walk through it) and we gave up.

The guy whose car it went under later found the Cottonmouth’s remains crushed in his tire- apparently it had crawled up in the tire from underneath the car. When he’d started to move his car again, it had been killed, unfortunately.

So, this post is in dedication to this unfortunate Cottonmouth, whose persistent violation of road safety laws led to its demise.  Don’t be like this Cottonmouth- don’t crawl into a stranger’s tire.

Tragedy of the Cottons

As of this writing, I still haven’t seen an Eastern Garter Snake, Illinois’ most common snake.  For some reason, I’m not disappointed by this.

The final results of the Spring Bird Count: I had 79 bird species, my then-highest ever one-location total.  Ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45312902