As much as I love exploring all over the state, sometimes unique species can be had right in my own backyard of Sangamon county, Illinois, despite the majority of the county being a wasteland of agriculture.
The stout Common Snapping Turtle does fairly well in the creeks and lakes here, and they’ve started to emerge in order to lay eggs, with the recent flooding. This one ended up with a Dock leaf on it during its travels. I usually help turtles across the road in the direction they’re going, but I make exceptions for turtles that can bite off my fingers. Snapping Turtles definitely earned their nickname, and they can whirl around on their belly surprisingly fast.
The flooding has disturbed some of the local residents, including this ground-nesting Ovenbird. I’m worried its oven-shaped nest might’ve been destroyed by the 3.5 inches of rain we’ve gotten in the last few days here. The flooding made all my usual bottomland stomping grounds inaccessible, as well as a few roads, but thankfully that’s all at this time.
On the plus side, all this rain pinned a few migratory birds down, including a flock or so of these gorgeous Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpoll Warblers live in the spruce forests of Canada, even as far north as the stunted conifers along the edge of the taiga and the tundra. I’ve had a difficult time finding them up to now, and while they indicate the beginning of the end of spring warbler migration, I do enjoy seeing them.
A much more sedentary local, the Graham’s Crayfish Snake hangs out along the water’s edge and basks on sunnier days. As their name implies, Graham’s Crayfish Snakes eat mostly crayfish, especially freshly-molted crayfish. Completely harmless to humans, this species has locally suffered from habitat destruction and locals killing them out of misplaced fear of a “Cottonmouth”. Thankfully, at least of late I’ve seen more of them in Sangamon county than I had in the last several years.
I’d encourage everyone to take the time to check out their local lakes and patches. You never know what might appear!
It’s been a good year or so since I really wrote much on this blog. In that time I graduated from college, saw over 2,000 North American species, got really really really into iNaturalist, visited Florida, had a summer job working for the Critical Trends Assessment Program of the Illinois Natural History Survey, won second place for species in the 2019 Illinois Botany Big Year, and stumbled my way into 2020. I’ve decide to resume this blog for now, starting with my most recent adventures. If you want to go through a DETAILED list of everything I found in 2019, I recommend looking through this list on iNaturalist of my 820-odd 2019 lifer species: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=any&q=Wildlandblogger%27s%202019%20lifers&search_on=tags
Let’s just say I had a full 2019, and 2020 is shaping up to be quite entertaining as well. I’m moving to another state soon, so I’ll be finding quite a lot of new plants, and some new insects, birds, fish, snakes, etc.
Obviously, certain events have happened in 2020 that make outdoor exploration a bit more complicated. We’re not living in the end of the world or the darkest timeline or whatever other nonsense people might say, but we must do our duty to be inconvenienced for health reasons. For me, this has resulted in fewer camping trips out-of-state than I had initially planned on this spring, especially in Missouri, southern Illinois, etc.
My being restricted to areas within close driving distance, however, has led to a crazy number of reptiles and a few new plants being found by me locally this spring. Illinois has more snakes than I’d given it credit for having, and in 2020 I’ve seen 23 species of snake so far.
Above is a lovely Eastern Milksnake, one of my goals for this year, and one thankfully I didn’t have to travel too far to see. I’ve missed this one repeatedly for years, so it’s become a bit of a nemesis, like the other snakes discussed below.
The sandy prairies of Illinois have many Great Plains Species not found elsewhere east of the Mississippi. One of those is the unique Corydalis curvisiliqua, the Curvepod Fumewort, present mostly in the southern Great Plains. Despite its limited range in Illinois, this species thrives on roadside edges and disturbed habitats in the sandy bottomlands of Morgan county, Illinois. Bizarrely, Curvepod Fumewort does not occur further north in the Havana-area sand prairies despite a considerable amount of ideal habitat.
Near-ish to the Curvepod Fumewort, a Plains Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus) roamed about the sand prairie. State-threatened, Plains Hognose Snakes require decent-quality sand prairie with plenty of toads to eat and deep sand to burrow in. Plains Hognoses tend to stick close to their burrows, retreating underground during hot or cool weather. This sedentary, stay-at-home behavior is all well and good for avoiding predators, but it leaves the species’ populations isolated when the habitat nearby is developed or altered.
One of the more fun things about all hognose snakes is their elaborate death-faking behaviors. This one was no exception, crapping all over itself and flipping upside down with tongue out, in a performance from the William Shatner school of acting.
My most wanted species of all time is Kirtland’s Snake, named for scientist, politician, and generally cool guy Jared Kirtland. These rare Midwestern snakes take incredibly crappy habitat, so long as it’s wet and grassy. Originally, they would’ve been quite common in central Illinois thanks to the expanses of wet prairie here, but habitat destruction strikes again here. Kirtland’s Snakes are also State-threatened, and restricted to a few sites scattered throughout Illinois. Nocturnal snakes that hide in crayfish burrows, Kirtland’s Snakes are difficult to find, and it’s only taken me a good ten years to find one near my hometown, even though they’ve been recorded five minutes from my house before. (Quite frankly, I doubt they’re present at that site anymore, but you never know.)
At any rate, that’s some of what I’ve seen this spring. I’ll share more as I head off to Virginia, potentially even a few past finds I considered especially neat. In the meantime, I’m back for now!
Many years ago (it feels like at this point) I ventured over to Missouri in May. I got a lot of ticks and even more lifers. (When out naturalizing, always keep the lifer species/ticks ratio above 2:1, or you should get out of there as quickly as possible.) Given a chance to go to Missouri just before finals week, my friends and I, as part of the Southern Illinois University Herpetology Club, decided to go back to the same areas and look for reptiles, amphibians, and whatever we could find.
… or none of the above because it was cool and rainy much of the weekend. Furthermore, I failed to pack a sleeping bag, and decided to sleep in my car instead with a spare blanket I’d packed . This proved to be a brilliant idea when thunderstorms struck up at 3 AM. We eventually drove over to a nearby state park, Johnson’s Shut In’s State Park *cue my friend Kyle saying “what a weird name for a state park!”* and waited for the rain to pass a bit before venturing out into the trail system.
Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park lies in the St. Francois Mountains of the Ozark Plateau. These low mountains have deep, carved valleys through hard igneous rock, and in some spots the rock has decided not to erode entirely, forming unique formations that “shut” the rivers “in” to narrow channels between large masses of stone:
As it was still quite damp post-rain, we quickly found… nothing, as with the damp was cool, cloudy weather. We did eventually find a Central Newt under a log, near where I found the Fire Pink flower above. Central Newts live in water as tadpoles and fully-grown adults, but in between they are terrestrial and live as efts, shown below. They’re basically the determined young adult who moves out of the dull, boring Midwest off to “somewhere else” before deciding they have to come back here for a job and family, and reluctantly settle down anyway.
This time away from the newt homeland is a brief period of rebellion during which the newt is quite toxic to anyone in contact with it (well, I wouldn’t rub newt skin on a cut or put it in my mouth, at any life stage.) The newt advertises its toxins by having orange skin with brighter orange spots as a warning. If you want to be really scientific, that’s aposematic coloration… I’m toxic, don’t touch me. Some people would do well to have aposematic coloration, for the benefit of those around them. Moving on.
On the nearby oak trees we found strange inflated ball-like structures attached to the leaves. Splitting one open revealed a bizarre urchin-like structure hiding within, fusing around a central core.
These unique galls are the result of a wasp, the Spongy Oak-Apple Gall Wasp, which forms these unique “oak-apples” as some people call them. Inside the center is the larval wasp, feeding on plant tissues until it grows to be an adult. While not exactly beneficial to the tree, these growths rarely become a serious harm, either.
Walking further along the trail, we came to rocky openings in the woods, known as glades. This is a rhyolite glade, if I recall correctly. Glades are formed due to thin soils on rocky hillsides, and they support unique animals and plants from all over the Midwest, both endemic and otherwise.
They are often full of herps hiding under the rocks, and we got lucky with this coiled-up Yellow-bellied Racer hiding peacefully under a rock. Yellow-bellied Racers are a subspecies of North American Racers, including the Southern Black Racers and Blue Racers I’ve seen previously.
Another new form/species/genetic variation of a species I’ve seen already is this Western Slimy Salamander. Western Slimy Salamanders are close relations to the Northern Slimy Salamanders I’m used to finding in Southern Illinois, potentially even the same species although they were recently split thanks to genetics.
In similar fashion, the Prairie Lizard above is split off from the Eastern Fence Lizard over genetics and range. There’s a lot of this sort of thing when it comes to reptile and amphibian taxonomy in the last two decades, and I wonder how much of it will remain intact in the next two decades.
Skinks scuttled about as the sun rose and cleared away the clouds. We came down to a blue pool of the Black River and rested by it.
From there it was a haul back to the beginning, where we stopped at an overlook and spotted an overlooked turtle.
This is a River Cooter, one of our most-wanted to see turtles and a reptile of clean water systems in the Southeast. It was a pleasant surprise as we left.
Oh, but the blogpost doesn’t end here… I know. We next went to a beautiful glade on a nearby mountaintop, from which the St. Francois Mountains were visible as low ridges, typically miles long and only a thousand or so feet high. Look, the term mountains is generous, I know.
On the thin glade soils prairie plants bloomed, such as these Birdsfoot Violets with their two-toned petals. We looked about for lizards and snakes with limited success in terms of lizards and no success in terms of snakes.
Just as we were about to leave, Shawn found this Three-toed Box Turtle male in full Darth Maul colors. The shells of Three-toed Box Turtles are far plainer than those of Eastern Box Turtles, but the head stands out like a burning coal. It was an excellent find to wrap up our first full day in Missouri, and we pulled off a few ticks and wandered back to the campsite.
Look, I know spring is “technically” over on the 21rst of June but I don’t really care. It’s summer when May is over, and May 2019 is dead and gone.
In the meantime, I graduated from college, spent a few days down looking for cool stuff in Southern Illinois, and I’ve now landed a job working for the Critical Trends Assessment Program of the Illinois Natural History Survey doing plant surveys, which is honestly one of the best jobs I could ever have. In the meantime, I’m going to share more blogposts, but now I’m behind. Yay.
On one of my last field trips for my ornithology class, we stopped by the warbler spot Pomona-Cave Creek Trail in the Shawnee National Forest, and I happened to notice this Cerulean Warbler singing from a nearby branch. This is a long-time photo lifer I’ve wanted. A State-Threatened species, Cerulean Warblers tend to sing only from the very tops of the tallest trees in old woodlands. This one was slightly more obliging.
Another, more common treetop singer, the Yellow-throated Vireo, also deigned to show off. This warblerlike bird can be distinguished from the warblers by a larger thicker beak. It too prefers old-growth woodlands.
As Pomona-Cave Creek is a large wetland stuck between two ridges of the Shawnee Hills, lowland species like this Swamp Darner could be found perched on nearby trees. Swamp Darners are one of the largest dragonflies in the United States, and it’s difficult to get them to sit still, typically.
Nearby, a lifer dragonfly, the Lancet Clubtail, perched on the ground. This little guy is a member of a large, confusing dragonfly family, the Clubtails, and they intimidate me a little as I get into this process of learning dragonflies. I haven’t seen a ton of new species yet as many emerge in June or later on in May, and with finals I haven’t been looking as much as I could.
Another unique species, the Pipevine Swallowtail, decided to sit and show off its glossy, reflective wings. Now, if only I could find its host plant… I’ve never seen any wild pipevines in Illinois.
Still, I have found a few plants I’ve been after, among them this Adder’s Tongue fern which has been one of my longtime nemeses. This fern is supposedly more common in old fields and untreated cemeteries in the South, but I found it in a random patch of pine forest offtrail. A member of the odd Moonwort family, it emerges for a brief time in the spring, spreads its spores, and then settle down to live out much of its time underground.
Speaking of brief springtime emergence, the mating movements of the salamanders earlier in the year have resulted in young Spotted Salamanders like the one above, found in an area nearish the spot I named earlier. Soon they will lose the gills and scurry back under the logs and rocks of the surrounding woods, graduating from their larval stages into an adult form to do adult stuff.
In similar fashion, I’ll be graduating soon, and going out to do “adult stuff” myself! I’ve gotten a temporary job with the Illinois Natural History Survey for the summer, and I look forwards to finally working in my field.
I’ve gotten a wee bit interested in fish of late. This all started when I saw a few Orangethroat Darters down in a creek in Trail of Tears State Forest while looking around there for plants.
Orangethroat Darters are one of the most common fish in shallow rapids in the creeks of the Shawnee National Forest, as you can see from how many I caught below:
Darters get their name from their habit of darting between hiding places to move. Between “darts” they lay still, propped up by their pectoral fins (the fins we think of as “arms”). Hundreds of species live in the US, most of these in the Southern Appalachians. The great appeal of darters is the male darter’s colorful appearance, as you can see in the next two photos.
Darters are not the only residents of the streams, however. I also got this Central Stoneroller below, a type of minnow common in flowing creeks in parts of the Midwest.
Stuck on a rock in the middle of the creek was an American Giant Millipede, one of our most attractive invertebrates. Sure, it may have more legs than I’m comfortable with, but it’s somehow cute anyway. A couple of years ago, I could’ve ID’d this simply as Narceus americanus, but apparently that’s a species complex and you can’t ID them without DNA or something. Yay.
A much more easily ID’d animal, and one that made me yell “WHOO BOY” when I landed it, is this Banded Sculpin. Sculpins are basically insect hunters who lie in wait for insects to get too close, although they’ll eat quite a variety of animals. Anything that fits into their mouth is fair game. I removed the darters from the tank before photographing this little beast.
While I was landing the Banded Sculpin, my friend Cody found us this Virile Crayfish. Crayfish have become a fun bycatch in many dipnetting attempts, and I’ve tried to figure out how to ID all the species I catch- not always the simplest process!
As part of my interest in crawdads and fish, I bought two field guides. I’d just ordered my fish guide and mentioned this casually to my parents, who immediately owned up to the fact they’d bought me the same guide as a birthday present. Thanks to them for doing so!
Due to my lack of experience with that field guide, however, I ended up just ID’ing these two minnows by asking someone on a Facebook page and then looking it up in the field guide to confirm. Turns out these are Striped Shiners- just not particularly stripy I guess!
Nearby ditches in the lowlands had a few other species, including this Dwarf Crayfish:
It may surprise you to know that shrimp exist in Illinois. I’ve only found this one species, which goes by a variety of names, but I’ve found it in many of the floodplain pools, lakes, and ditches. I could call it Mississippi Grass Shrimp, Mississippi Glass Shrimp, etc. but I’d rather call it the Kadiak after the first part of its species name.
My friend Cody and I ventured across the river to Missouri, where we found even more cool fish, but also one of my most-wanted plants. Above is a Featherfoil, an unusual plant that uses its inflated flowering stems to stay afloat on the still waters of swamps. It’s one I’ve waited a long time to see, and I managed to see it on my birthday.
I’ll round off this first of many fishing posts with a Northern Starhead Topminnow photographed at Larue-Pine Hills. This State-listed fish is one I’ve found lately, and I hope to find many more fish in the coming months. I’ve got another blogpost’s worth to show off so far!
I may have bent the Internet a little lately by posting a photo of some Cottonmouths. I’ll discuss that as an addendum to this initial post. Cody and I, doing one of our usual excursions, decided to wander over to Hawn State Park in Missouri and look around for the usual mix of reptiles, amphibians, birds, weird insects and plants that make up our average adventures.
On the roadside we ran across a large patch of blooming Rose Vervain, a floriferous plant of dry open rocky areas.
Once at Hawn we swiftly discovered this Goatweed Leafwing, or as I like to call it the Flying Dorito, accompanying a few other butterflies.
As we rounded a corner, the third of my most-wanted butterflies came into view (Goatweed Leafwing, Pipevine Swallowtail, and now this:)
Falcate Orangetips, lifer butterflies for me, are locally common Southern butterflies that only emerge early in the spring. This beautiful male (only males have orange wingtips) stopped its near-constant flying to show us its intricate side pattern. Unusual fact about these butterflies- unlike most butterfly species, the larvae of Falcate Orangetips are cannibalistic.
Another unusual insect in the area is the Bess Beetle. Bess Beetles are social to an extent, often living and raising young together, even communicating with squeaking noises (which they will also do as an alarm call when handled.) This Bess Beetle decided to go up and wave about on a log, for reasons only explicable by beetle logic. While taking this photo, something scurried noisily in the leaf litter behind the log, my lifer…
Southern Coal Skink! Missouri has tons of lizards, compared to any state I’ve visited outside of Florida. I don’t know what it is about the Ozarks that results in such a plethora of lizards, but I definitely like it. Coal Skinks use their brown and black coloration to hide in plain sight among leaves, as shown above quite readily.
Among the most common is the Prairie Lizard, the more abundant replacement of the Eastern Fence Lizard west of the Mississippi, and we found several of these guys head-bobbing on nearby logs.
Skinks can be quite hard to ID so many of the lizards we saw remained unidentified. After a bit, we decided to climb up into the hills and look for things under the rocks.
A lifer Western Slimy Salamander was a highly welcome surprise under a rock I flipped. Slimy Salamanders used to all belong to the same species but someone decided that there needs to be 13 different species of Slimy Salamander, based mostly on range and genetics. This is my second member of that complex… eleven to go.
Nearby, a Common Gartersnake cruised about hungrily. If I was writing a nature documentary like all the BBC ones, I’d cut back and forth with ominous music between the Western Slimy Salamander and the Common Gartersnake, until nothing ends up happening because the two individuals are widely separated by distance and edited to look closer together. Unfortunately, I don’t have the BBC funding me, so this is as good as it gets.
Cody and I continued to flip rocks, and we managed to find a decent number of lizards in between all the ants and wolf spiders.
As this is Missouri, there’s a few things present here under rocks that aren’t in Illinois and are more typical of the Southeast or Southwest. One of those is scorpions, specifically Striped Bark Scorpions. Cody was treated to the suprise of five scorpions under one rock, an individual of which is below. Flipping rocks is like gambling- you never know what your luck is going to be and sometimes you hit a jackpot (of scorpions).
The sun began to set more and more, so we moved off to home, strolling back through the filtered sun of pine-scented woods (that made Cody sneeze nonstop from the pollen.) Etc. etc. drove home the end.
Alright, now I’ll get to the Cottonmouth story.
I enjoy wandering about the Shawnee National Forest, and I found a location that looked good for plants, potentially- a pond deep in the hills. I ended up getting lost multiple times and stumbled across the pond, looking down to this sight below. Words were said, to the tune of “Holy s–t!” I then proceeded to put my hand down six inches away from Cottonmouth #31, coming in to join the pile.
Since I’d never seen a thick pile of Cottonmouths like this before, I figured I’d post the image online. It blew WAY up. I presume they’ve just emerged from a den I didn’t know they had. Since juveniles and adults were mixed in together, I presume it’s more communal basking and not the proverbial “mating ball of Cottonmouths”. This presumption was supported by a few commenters on my online posts. Well, time to send it back out once more into the net, with the statement that this is very rare to see, none of the Cottonmouths chased me or anything, and you’d have to be well off the beaten path to find this. Don’t ask for locations. Have a good day!