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Catching up with the early migrants!

Cook County, IL

all seasons in one day 70 °F

So I have been a bit behind in posting due to being very busy with multiple musical projects, but I have been able to squeeze in a bit of birding — particularly in leading bird walks. My first walk of the season was with the Chicago Ornithological Society at Miller Meadow and I led the walk with Larry Krutulis who is a great birder and a very friendly guy overall. We enjoyed a couple nice looks at EASTERN BLUEBIRDS:
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EASTERN MEADOWLARK:
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AMERICAN GOLDFINCH:
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A few days later Tian and I headed to the Palos area for some herping as well as chasing the AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS which were easily visible on the slough right before Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.
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I also did a little bit of birding with Isoo at Gillson Park. AMERICAN TREE SPARROW:
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GREATER SCAUP flying by:
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My first Oak Park Bird Walk of the season I led at Thatcher Woods in search of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS, which we did manage to find! Here are two female blackbirds — a Rusty on the right and the more common Red-winged on the left. Thatcher Woods is, in my opinion, one of the most reliable places to find Rusty Blackbirds in the early spring.
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WILSON’S SNIPE were also great to see!
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As was this female BELTED KINGFISHER:
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And a COOPER’S HAWK with a meal:
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Two BLUE-WINGED TEAL:
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More walks since then in my neighborhood have yielded classic early-season passerine migrants such as BROWN CREEPER:
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And YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER:
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A visit to Big Marsh on sunday yielded GREATER YELLOWLEGS:
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CASPIAN TERNS with BONAPARTE’S (left) and RING-BILLED GULL (right):
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MUTE SWAN:
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BROWN THRASHER:
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Good stuff and can’t wait for the migrants to keep on building — this is always an exciting time of year to be a birder!

Good birding,
Henry
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 03:34 Archived in USA Comments (1)

S. IL Day 4: Wildcat again, then back to Snake Rd!

Southern IL

semi-overcast 72 °F

TUESDAY, MARCH 30:

Simon, Peter, Oliver and I started off the day herping Wildcat Bluff today before heading to Snake Road and eventually heading home. We started off the day with a nice Little Brown Skink:
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And Midwestern Wormsnake:
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And an even tinier Northern Slimy Salamander than yesterday’s!
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Simon had a crazy flip on the hillside with both a Ring-necked Snake:
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And a Marbled Salamander!!!
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The best flip of the morning was done once again by Simon, my second red Eastern Milknsnake of the trip and his lifer of the Red subspecies! Super cool!!!!
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Yet another Wormsnake:
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Common Five-lined Skink:
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The view from Wildcat Bluff is one-of-a-kind in Illinois, looking out high over a vast swamp:
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And one last flip from Wildcat Bluff yielded an Eastern Fence Lizard which I was super happy to be able to have actually caught since they are incredibly fast:
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At Snake Road unfortunately we missed our target snake for the day, but we did manage to find a good number of Salamanders including a nice Spotted:
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And Zigzag:
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This Long-tailed was the Tolzmann’s 19th salamander species for the year — very cool!
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Simon spotted this large, dark snake in a rock crevice — it is either a Black Ratsnake (more likely) or a Black Racer — a little too hard to ID with just this angle through the rocks, and handling of snakes is prohibited at Snake Road.
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So, with that, Oliver, Ben and I headed back to Chicago after a wonderful four days of herping southern Illinois. I ended the trip with 41 herp species including ten lifers, and this trip tied Simon, Peter and I for most salamander species ever observed in Illinois in one calendar year!
1. Long-tailed Salamander
2. Spotted Salamander
3. Eastern Red-backed Salamander
4. Central Newt
5. Southern Two-lined Salamander
6. Cave Salamander
7. Tiger Salamander
8. Marbled Salamander
9. Northern Slimy Salamander
10. Mole Salamander
11. Northern Dusky Salamander
12. Spotted Dusky Salamander
13. Northern Zigzag Salamander
14. Four-toed Salamander LIFER
15. Western Lesser Siren LIFER
16. Green Frog
17. American Bullfrog
18. American Toad
19. Spring Peeper
20. Green Treefrog
21. Southern Leopard Frog
22. Blanchard’s Chricket Frog
23. Boreal Chorus Frog
24. Western Chorus Frog LIFER
25. Midland Watersnake
26. Plain-bellied Watersnake
27. Mississippi Green Watersnake LIFER
28. Gray Ratsnake
29. Shawnee Kingsnake LIFER
30. Black Racer LIFER
31. Northern Cottonmouth
32. Dekay’s Brownsnake
33. Midwestern Wormsnake LIFER
34. Ring-necked Snake LIFER
35. Eastern Red Milksnake LIFER
36. Red-eared Slider
37. Spiny Softshell Turtle
38. Eastern Box Turtle
39. Five-lined Skink
40. Brown Skink
41. Fence Lizard LIFER

Stay tuned for more, and especially as we near May, much more birding!!

Good birding,
Henry
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 05:10 Archived in USA Comments (0)

S. IL Day 3: Salamander sweep?

semi-overcast 66 °F

Still catching up...bird folks, don’t lose hope, this day had a great avian surprise between all the herps!

MONDAY, MARCH 29:

Ben, Oliver, and I started the day by meeting the Tolzmann family who had also come down for a few days in the Shawnee National Forest to try for another new salamander species for the year, Northern Dusky Salamander. Interestingly enough, this population is introduced yet still protected in Illinois for some reason. Salamander #15 for the year! Hard to see due to the glare but they’re there!
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There were some cool crawadads in the stream as well:
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On the drive out we got the best bird of the trip, the LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE! This is a long-overdue Illinois lifer for me and I was stoked to get it as Isoo and I had spent hours searching for this bird in southern Illinois last summer. They are uncommon and declining in the state due to habitat degradation.
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The next place we drove to was for the other Dusky Salamander found in the state, the Spotted Dusky, which we again immediately found after descending into the ravines where I had them last year. Salamander #16 for year and a lifer for all except me!
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We also got Oliver his lifer Southern Two-lined Salamander, #17 for the year!
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At this point, we only needed Marbled, Siren, and Mudpuppy for the salamander big year so we headed to nearby Heron Pond Preserve to look for Marbled Salamanders — it is probably the most reliable place in the state to find Marbled. While hiking the trails there we spotted a beautiful, large Midland Watersnake which is a different subspecies of the Common Watersnake than the Northerns we have up in Chicago, so a lifer subspecies was pretty cool.
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There were also two Plain-bellied Watersnakes sunning on the same group of branches!
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Also sunning were some huge Spiny Softsell Turtles which were the largest I’ve ever seen — easily larger than dinner plates.
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And finally, after about two hundred flips, I flipped a Marbled Salamander, #18 for the year! This was so gratifying since Tony had warned me these are much harder to find in the spring than in the fall.
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After lunch, we walked around Tony’s property at Wildcat Bluff to see if we could refind the Kings, Racer, or Milksnake for the others that I had yesterday with Isaiah and Tony. As you can see, we very quickly found a gorgeous Eastern Kingsnake right by where I had my first yesterday. As you can see, I was intent on a new fashion and it was amazingly obliging!!
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We couldn’t photograph any more snakes other than a Dekay’s Brownsnake — we had a few Ring-neckeds that escaped down holes too quickly for photos.
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Northern Slimy Salamanders were out in numbers on the rocky hillside
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But, we did flip a Mole Salamander under a board in Tony’s yard which was a huge, awesome surprise! It was great for us to see a terrestrial individual since we were thinking we would’ve had to resort to only finding the neotenic, aquatic individuals we had found yesterday.
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Next, we all headed to Grantsburg Swamp to check for any snakes or salamanders that could be found there, and almost as soon as we stepped out of the car we got Oliver, Ben, Simon, Peter, and Andrea their lifer Green Tree Frog! Awesome! It was a nice group of people: the six of us, plus Isaiah, Tony, and his friend Steve who is basically a walking encyclopedia of herps. I flipped this beautiful Cave Salamander, new for the year for the Tolzmanns:
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And a teeny tiny Northern Slimy Salamander:
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Oliver flipped this nice Midwestern Wormsnake which was a lifer for the Tolzmanns:
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Spotted Salamander was nice:
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And Isaiah flipped this neonate (young) Northern Cottonmouth which he handled with his hook and eventually put in his hat, despite being a venemous species! Isaiah has harped since he was 7 so has a great deal of experience with herping venemous snakes.
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I much prefer the smaller, fossorial, non-venemous snakes like this Ring-necked Snake which was a photographic lifer for the Tolzmanns:
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After dinner, the same group drove forty-five minutes in the opposite direction to check for Western Lesser Siren, salamander species 19/20 we ended for the year. After getting lost once, we arrived at a roadside swamp/ditch where we immediately started wading around in the water with nets. Within five minutes, Oliver and Simon had both spotted individuals darting away through the water, much too fast to catch.

But then, Isaiah smashed the net down on a ripple in the water both of us saw, and after bringing it up and picking through the weeds for a few seconds, we had a FREAKING WESTERN LESSER SIREN! By far the most longshot herp goal of the trip, we were absolutely stunned to net this elusive, aquatic salamander species. Just look at this incredible creature — it looks like an eel but is indeed a salamander:
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And it was crazy to touch — all I can describe is a cross between overly slimy tofu and overly watery jelly. We moved it to a bucket for better observation:
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Anyway, the Western Lesser Siren was the herp-of-the-trip so far and an absolutely insanely cool way to end the day!

Good birding and herping,
Henry
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 14:20 Archived in USA Comments (0)

S. IL Day 2: More gorgeous lifer herps!

Wildcat Bluff, IL

semi-overcast 57 °F

Still catching up on the recent herping trip to southern Illinois...snake lovers, this post is for you!

SUNDAY, MARCH 28:

Oliver, Ben, and I started the day a little late because of the crazy night we had before, but we ended up arriving to Tony’s place at Wildcat Bluff, where we would camp for the next two nights, around 10am. Pretty soon, Oliver and I were herping underneath Wildcat Bluff and before we knew it, Oliver exclaimed and he had come up pretty suddenly on a Northern Cottonmouth that seemed like it had just come out of hibernation.
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Central Newt eft (terrestrial form):
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A nice Long-tailed Salamander, a pretty noteworthy species for Wildcat Bluff:
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And BOOM! A brilliant Cave Salamander, my favorite salamander species, and #12 for the year out of 20 possible Illinois salamander species. Look at those colors!
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BLACK VULTURES were a pleasantly common sight throughout the weekend — you can separate them from Turkey Vultures by their gray wingtips:
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And around mid-day, Ben and Oliver left to chase their Illinois lifer Barn Owl an hour north of Wildcat Bluff, and I stuck around to herp the property. I was itching to flip Tony’s tin pieces he has laid out over his 80-acre property and hopefully find something like Black Kingsnake, Black Racer, Black Ratsnake, or Eastern Milksnake.

And soon enough, I flipped a piece of tin and my eyes popped out of my head when I saw my lifer Black Kingsnake. I was rather hesitant to grab it at first considering I hadn’t touched a snake in months, but soon I pulled it out from the weeds it was nestled in and found this absolutely immaculate individual. What a stunner — Tony’s property is the #1 place to find a Black Kingsnake in Illinois, and find it I did! Hell yeah!
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Here it is with one of Tony’s crazy dogs passing underneath, lol.
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Eastern Box Turtle completely tucked into the shell was awesome too:
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Then, I saw ANOTHER snake laying in the grass and it turned out to be my lifer Black Racer! This was a species I thought was a longshot so I was super stunned to get this one and happy to catch it before it was able to race away — these things can really move if they choose to do so.
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I then met up with Tony and his buddy named Isaiah and we harped even more on his property, flipping an Eastern Tiger Salamander in his garden, super awesome!
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And Isaiah pulled a pair of Eastern Kingsnakes out of a rock pile!!! Incredible! He got some cool footage of these for his superb youtube herping channel, Loopy Toopy.
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Next, we hit the actual bluff itself and flipped the rocks, yielding a Northern Slimy Salamander, species #13 for my big year.
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And Isaiah had the best flip of the day with this Red Eastern Milksnake, possibly the snake I was most dreaming about finding on this trip. Milksnakes spend most of their lives underneath rocks on steep hillsides so they are understandably elusive and absolutely earth-shatteringly beautiful creatures. Lifer!
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And yet another lifer snake for the day, a Ring-necked Snake — amazing!
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Look at that gorgeous underside!
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Not a lifer, but absolutely a noteworthy find for the day was this huge Black Ratsnake Isaiah put onto a snag that it promptly climbed up. Here is Oliver admiring it:
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Then, we caravaned over to the Herond Pond railroad tracks to try for Marbled Salamander again. U Unfortunately, we came up empty despite flipping sooo many logs, but did have some consolation in the form of a pretty Spotted Salamander:
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And when we got back to his property, we went dipnetting for another salamander we needed for the year, a Mole Salamander! We found one immediately — these individuals are probably neotenic which means that unlike most of their species, they retain their juvenile gilled form through adulthood and never leave the water. Awesome! This one looks so much different from the black and blue-spotted terrestrial morph I flipped here last year. Salamander #14 for the year!
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Adult Eastern Newt also found in their pond:
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An amazing, amazing day of herping! Bird-of-the-day to all the Black Vultures, with herp-of-the-day to the Red Eastern Milksnake and runner-up to the Black Kingsnake. An absolutely incredible day!

Henry
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 06:01 Archived in USA Comments (1)

S. IL Day 1

Illinois

all seasons in one day 71 °F

Well, I have to admit I’m pretty badly behind in posting here, but better late than never. Warning: if you are not into amphibians and reptiles, this may not be the post for you since the focus of my recent trip was HERPING!

SATURDAY, MARCH 27

On saturday, Oliver, his father, and I headed downstate to Snake Road and other herping hotspots to hopefully clean up the majority of the remaining salamanders for our salamander big year, as well as to try to to catch the incredible snake migration at Snake Road and other places.

Our first herping location was the forests of eastern Illinois where we were after Eastern Red-backed & Four-toed Salamanders, the latter of which would be a lifer for me. It took minimal effort to find the more common of the two, Eastern Red-backed in its “lead back” phase:
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We saw many in the darker phase and only this one with a red back! Interesting.
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And finally I flipped our lifer Four-toed Salamander, the smallest ‘mander in Illinois and a state-endangered species! Cool!
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It was a great first stop!

At a gas stop in Mt Vernon we spotted this NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD, a bird much easier to find down here and very scarce up by Chicago:
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TURKEY VULTURE:
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Finally, after reserving a camp site at Pine Hills Campground in far southern Illinois, we made it to nearby Snake Road where Oliver’s Illinois lifer FISH CROWS flew over with their characteristic nasal calls. Amazing!
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Not too far into the walk I flipped Oliver’s lifer Northern Zigzag Salamander, an absolutely tiny one! Very similar to the Red-backed except for the fact that the red extends the entire length of the tail on this species as opposed to stopping to make way for a black tail on the Red-backed. Thanks for the ID tip, Simon!
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And soon after that I also flipped Oliver’s lifer Long-tailed Salamander! These are really good additions to our salamander big year (up to eleven species for me) and we were stoked to see them.
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And before long, Snake Road started living up to its name. We saw the most common snake of the area, the Northern Cottonmouth, again and again as these slithery serpents crossed the road and clung to the bluff faces. We made for certain to keep our distance since a bite from one of these is a direct ticket to the emergency room, and possibly the deathbed.
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We ended up seeing thirty-even Northern Cottonmouth throughout our hike! Incredible.
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We also met up with a herper named Steve who happened to know our friend Tony who will be herping with the rest of this trip. It was great talking with him and he had some good insight into our herping locations for the weekend. At one point he pointed out a Black Rat Snake (harmless, unlike the Cottonmouth) so I took the opportunity to take a selfie with it! They tend to be very docile.
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The best sighting of the day by far was this youngish MISSISSIPPI GREEN WATERSNAKE, an Illinois threatened species — Snake Road is the only reliable place in the state to find this uncommon species! It was a lifer for us all and super awesome to see.
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We ended up seeing 32 snakes today: 30 Northern Cottonmouth, 1 Black Rat Snake, 1 Mississippi Green Watersnake.

One heard-only noteworthy bird from Snake Road were a number of singing LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH, my first of the year and usually one of the earliest-arriving breeding warblers!

Frogs were also common including the tiny Blanchard’s Cricket Frog:
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Southern Chorus Frogs:
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Central Newts are to be expected for a keen observer at Snake Road, and we saw about four.
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One other huge treat was a Green Treefrog after it got dark, as well as a Long-tailed and a Northern Zigzag Salamander under the same log!
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Two BARRED OWLS duetting rounded off a wonderful evening hike of Snake Road. Bird-of-the-day to the Louisiana Waterthrush with runner-up to the Barred Owl, which we also heard from the campground while we were waiting to see if the surrounding tornado warnings would effect our immediate area. Lol — it was an eventful night for sure! Herp-of-the-day to the Mississippi Green Watersnake with runner-up to the Four-toed Salamander — it is a rare day one gets to see these two species in one day. It was an incredible day!

The one crazy thing that happened is that it started storming after our Snake Road excursion, and to our surprise there were even tornado warnings surrounding the area. So, we hesitated in setting up camp and instead did a little bit of road cruising in the rain, finding many American Toads crossing the road. In this photo you can see the incredible variation found in this species at more southern latitudes. Unfortunately about half of the hundreds of toads we saw were recently crushed — quite a shame as amphibians play a vital role in their ecosystems.
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Southern Leopard Frog:
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And Spring Peeper:
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And then when we finally tried to set up our tents, everything got soaked in a pinch so we deemed it uninhabitable to sleep in our drenched tents. We commenced calling every single motel in an hour radius to constantly hear “No, sorry, we’re all booked.” It was incredibly frustrating and we think it was due to various factors: campers moving to motels due to storms like we did, families driving down for Florida and stopping short of the even-worse storms to the south of us in Kentucky, and apparently a large volleyball tournament in Cape Girardeau, MO just cross the river from us. Finally, we snagged two rooms down in Metropolis, IL after being on the phone for twenty minutes with the most ridiculous agent who spent the majority of the time asking the most inane questions. Just icing on the cake of a rather crazy evening! We ended up checking into the motel shortly before 2am.

More to come tomorrow — we will be after more salamanders (fingers crossed for Marbled, they are harder to find in the spring) near Tony’s place, as well as any snakes we can get our hands on!

Good birding and good HERPING!
Henry
World Life List: 1125 Species

Posted by skwclar 06:22 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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