A Travellerspoint blog

Biggest herping day EVER!

Southern Illinois

semi-overcast 69 °F


Today was the greatest day of herping in my life so far. And it is almost all in part to my wonderful mentor for the day, Tony Gerard, who was recommended to me by Simon Tolzmann. Targets for the day: Northern & Spotted Dusky, Marbled, Mole, Northern Slimy, & Northern Zigzag Salamander, as well as literally any snake (I’ve only seen a few species from this area).

After I made an unsuccessful attempt at Northern Dusky Salamander at a beautiful location in far southern Illinois (one of their only locations in the state)—

—I headed to Tony’s place and we met up for an absolutely insane day of herping. I won’t give locations online due to herp poachers out there, but the main 2 locations covered today included Wildcat Bluff & Snake Road. His place is awesome and they have some equally-awesome domestic turkeys. Some of them are for eating, some of them for pets. Incredible.

Camel Cricket while Tony and I were beginning to herp.

You know it’s a great day when your first herps of the day are lifers — MARBLED SALAMANDERS!!! Quite possibly one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen.


Next on the docket was another lifer: NORTHERN SLIMY SALAMANDER, our only of the day — cool!

Giant millipede:

Short-tailed Shrew:

And an absolute stunner of a CAVE SALAMANDER. Coooool!

This LONG-TAILED SALAMANDER was Tony’s first at this particular location — amazing! We sure were having a lucky day.

A lifer snake was unexpected given the habitat but totally welcome — SMOOTH EARTHSNAKE!!!! This is typically a snake of more upland habitats but we surprisingly found it in a bottomland swamp habitat.

My lifer GREEN TREE FROG! A darker green due to the colder temps, Tony said.

CENTRAL NEWT, Southern IL’s bland subspecies of the Eastern Newt. Lifer subspecies!

AMERICAN TOAD, told from a Fowler’s because each dark spot on the back only has 1-2 warts as opposed to 3-4.

A really wonderful surprise was my lifer MOLE SALAMANDER in a super dry area — this Ambystoza sp. is typically closer to wet areas than where we found this one.

Pose with the Mole.


Beautiful view from today with fall colors.


BLACK VULTURES found alongside the road between locations were a fun southern Illinois specialty bird to see!

Next stop, Tony brought me back to try to find the Northern Duskies I had missed earlier in the morning. Turns out I had just gone to the wrong stream — just one stream over had plenty Duskies to spare! Awesome, localized lifer! This species was actually introduced to Illinois incidentally by fisherman and now resides in a few isolated Illinois streams and is protected despite its nonnative status.

Then, we drove about 40 minutes to the OTHER Dusky Salamander species in the state, Spotted Dusky Salamanders which are native to Illinois and on the far northern tip of their native range. We pulled up, hiked down into a different rocky stream and immediately found these guys, too! SPOTTED DUSKY SALAMANDER, possibly one of the most localized/rare amphibians in the state!!!

Another big treat was finding a couple of SOUTHERN TWO-LINED SALAMANDERS in this same tree — I had no success photographing this species three weeks ago at Kankakee River State Park, so it was great to finally get this species as a photographic lifer.

On the way out I found my lifer FOWLER’S TOAD — notice that it has 3-4 warts in every black spot on the back. Cool! Subtle field marks like these are super helpful in blth herp and avian identification.

It was an amazing day with Tony. By that time I had 9 salamander species, and the day wasn’t over yet! Next, my family and I headed to the world-famous Snake Road in hopes for more snake species for the day as well as maybe, just maybe, Zigzag Salamander. Tony told me that these are super challenging this time of year so I was just hoping to mainly snag some snake species for the day.

And that we did! This quick WESTERN RIBBON SNAKE dove into the cliff face only allowing for this one horrible but diagnostic pic of its streamlined black and yellow streaking with one single more orangeish ventral stripe (it would be yellow on an Eastern, or on Garter Snakes).

And a little while later, I hit the jackpot — I actually found one of the elusive little NORTHERN ZIGZAG SALAMANDERS! I wasn’t even flipping over everything I saw due to tiredness from the day so this one was just an extremely lucky flip! This is definitely one of the hardest species to track down as they range all up and down Snake Road (which is LONG), but they are not too common, particularly this time of year. INCREDIBLE!!! Ten salamander species in one day! This one is a look-alike to Eastern Red-backeds which are common out east.

BLANCHARD’S CRICKET FROG was a lifer today:

As was this PLAIN-BELLIED WATERSNAKE which allowed for a very close approach and then it suddenly bolted away through the grasses at an alarming speed. Crazy!

Oh, and a trip to Snake Road isn’t complete without its venemous cousin the NORTHERN COTTONMOUTH (or “Water Moccasin”) which is a dangerous snake and rather alarmingly, the most common snake on and near the road. I admired this beautiful specimen from a distance (one photographer made a surprisingly close approach to this dangerous creature). A long-overdue lifer!

And later I found an even larger specimen nestled along the cliff face, inching its way toward a hole in the cliff, presumably getting ready to hibernate for the winter:

On the way out I spotted this tree frog clinging to the inside of one of the posts of the gate blocking off Snake Road. Gray Tree Frog, maybe? Who knows...it was far down, in the dark.

Snake Road in the evening.

Later, my mom mastered the art of improvisation with what we are given as we didn’t have electric at our site for cooking in the hot pot. So, she brought the instant pot to cook by plugging it into an outside plug of the park’s headquarters! Crazy cool! I stayed with her during the process of making a gourmet chicken dinner using INSTANT POT in the one outlet we could find in this campground. Amazing. And the dinner was delish.

So once again it was an incredible day. Thanks SO SO MUCH to Tony for being so generous with his time and showing me some amazing herps!!!! Herp-of-the-day to the surprise lifer Zigzag Salamander at Snake Road with runner-up to the slightly -out-of-place lifer Mole Salamander. I attached the final herp list for the day below.

Good birding (and herping):
World Life List: 1120 Species (no recent life birds)

Salamander list: (26+ individuals, 10 species)
1. Marbled Salamander — LIFER 7
2. Northern Slimy Salamander — LIFER 1
3. Cave Salamander 1
4. Eastern Newt 2
5. Long-tailed Salamander 1
6. Mole Salamander — LIFER 1
7. Northern Dusky Salamander — LIFER 4+
8. Spotted Dusky Salamander — LIFER 6
9. Southern Two-lined Salamander 2
10. Northern Zigzag Salamander — LIFER-1

Snake list: 6 individuals, 4 species
1. Smooth Earthsnake — LIFER 1
2. Northern Cottonmouth — LIFER 3
3. Western Ribbon Snake — LIFER 1
4. Plain-bellied Water Snake — LIFER 1

Frog/toad list: 13+ individuals, 6 species
Green Tree Frog — LIFER 1
Tree Frog sp — 1
Blanchard’s Cricket Frog — LIFER 4+
Green Frog — 4+
Fowler’s Toad — LIFER 1
American Toad — 1+
Spring Peeper — 1

Eastern Box Turtle — 2

Posted by skwclar 23:04 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Riverside private bird tour & Saganashkee Slough, Part 2

Cook County, IL

semi-overcast 75 °F

Tuesday morning I gave a private guided tour to a wonderful birder named Stephany and her mom in Riverside, a few suburbs down the street from Oak Park. We started off with a bunch of YELLOW-RUMPED and this single ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER which was nice:


A bend in the Des Plaines River held some more water-related species like KILLDEER:


And the surprise of the day was these two female COMMON MERGANSERS roosting on a rock in the middle of the torrent. Not only is it early for this species, but it is an odd location as the Des Plaines isn’t particularly wide (and presumably not too deep) here.

First-year WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW lacking the white of an adult:

My favorite passerine of the walk was this lively WINTER WREN:

It was a great, enjoyable walk! Yesterday, after my dad came back with the car, I hopped in and drove back down to the Palos region — specifically Saganashkee Slough, to hopefully find the Red-necked Grebes I had missed there this past weekend. This would be a photographic life bird AND an Illinois lifer if seen!

RUSTY BLACKBIRD along the shore of the slough:

Grebes — but they were PIED-BILLED:

And then, I saw them. Two long-necked, large grebes with dagger-like bills and buffy necks. Hell yeah! My almost-lifer RED-NECKED GREBES! The only other one I’ve seen was from a distance on the coast of Long Island two winters ago.

After a successful twitch, I headed over to the nearby location where Oliver, Simon, and Peter had their beautiful Eastern Milksnake last saturday. I felt like I’d give it one last shot since it would be the last over-70-degree day of the year. Here is what the crazy habitat looked like — lots of rocks to flip for certain, I definitely didn’t flip them all, but flipped well into the hundreds today!

Welp, I didn’t get a single snake of any kind (cmon, not even a Garter?!) but on the way back I did catch this mid-sized American Bullfrog:

Next, I explored some rocky ravines in hopes of discovering some salamander populations, but unfortunately came up empty with only some earthworms, slugs, and this Green Frog (which still is a good indicator species for ravine habitats). The Palos preserves have a lot of “unexplored” woodland that has great potential for finding herps — for the rest of the year, snakes will be harder to come by though, and I am expecting to focus more on salamanders (in addition to birds, of course).

Bird-of-the-day to the Red-necked Grebes with runner-up to the Rusty Blackbird. A very successful birding trip, even if the herping was dead. STAY TUNED: this weekend I head to southern Illinois with family for a three-day camping trip. Herping targets will include: Black Kingsnake, Northern Cottonmouth, Northern Dusky, Spotted Dusky, Marbled, Zigzag, Northern Slimy, and Mole Salamander. We’ll see how it goes!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1120 Species

Posted by skwclar 22:23 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Miller bird walk & Palos birds & herps

Cook County, IL

semi-overcast 71 °F

Saturday I spent the whole day out birding and herping. I started out with an Oak Park Bird Walk at Miller Meadow Forest Preserve for eight lovely participants. YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS abounded in the many edge habitats found there:

As did PALMS:

Everybody admired this beautiful female AMERICAN KESTREL:

Any ideas for this flyover passerine with a grayish head, yellow underside, and black tail?

This FOX SPARROW was a lifer for bird walker Kris G which was cool:

A PEREGRINE FALCON flew over at one point:

A quick stop back home yielded a cute AMERICAN GOLDFINCH at our thistle feeder.

Then, I couldn’t believe my eyes as Simon and Oliver had found a Sabine’s Gull at Saganaskee Slough in the Palos region of Cook County — an unbelievably rare bird for the county and the first chase-able one in decades. DANG! So I was off in a hurry as this would be a life bird for me. Upon arriving at the Slough, I met an array of birders scanning the water (including infamous birder Jeff Sanders who is lying his way through a Cook County big year — he is a birder who is famous for “stringing” — reporting birds that actually aren’t there, and other birders have found devious methods to prove his fickle habits). Moral of the story: DON’T STRING!

Anyway, I saw a raft of RING-NECKED DUCKS out on the slough:

And then, I saw it. Out in the distant line of gulls, a noticeably smaller bird with a dusky smudge on its head and brown wings: LIFE BIRD SABINE’S GULL!!! Woot woot! HELL YEA! This was one I missed down in southern Illinois two weeks ago so I was super excited to run into this one.

It soon took flight, showing us its beautiful, unique wing pattern:

Congrats to Oliver’s dad for finding the bird, and to Oliver and Simon for clinching the ID and getting the word out. A super rare bird and impressive find! Simon, Peter, Oliver, his dad and I spent the rest of the day social-distanced herping Palos and we had a blast. Unfortunately they all had a super-rare Eastern Milksnake before I arrived that would have been a lifer for me! Dang it.

Well, at least I picked up a neonate (juvenile) NORTHERN WATERSNAKE:

We checked a preserve along the Des Plaines River for snakes but came up empty despite several miles of walking in appropriate habitat. Dang! At least we snagged a BLUE-SPOTTED and this UNISEXUAL MOLE SALAMANDER:

Oliver had needed his lifer Newt so we all headed to a nearby preserve that has at least four salamander species including Newt in hopes of snagging this new herp for him. Blue-spotteds abounded — we had 14 in total:

And Simon flipped a log and snagged Oliver his lifer EASTERN NEWT! And it was a tiiiiny one! Here is a picture with size comparison.

We also found a lemon-yellow eft Newt.

And a CHICAGO GARTER SNAKE near a dried-up vernal pool:

Unisexual Mole:

SPOTTED! These guys are suuuuper gorgeous and we were stoked to get four salamander species.

Oliver and his dad left for the afternoon and the Tolzmanns and I continued to another preserve we had heard has salamanders, and we did end up finding some Blue-spotteds, but the real highlight was this gorgeous SPRING PEEPER. Note the X on the back.

It was a great day out in the wilds! Bird-of-the-day to the Sabine’s Gull, with a very far runner-up to the Ring-necked Ducks. As usual it was great to be out enjoying nature with like-minded people.

Good birding,
World Life List: 1120 Species (1 life bird: Sabine’s Gull)

Posted by skwclar 16:26 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Bird walk & Yellow Rail chase

Cook County, IL

sunny 75 °F

This morning I led my final Oak Park Bird Walk from in front of my house for four wonderful participants. YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS were prolific, as expected:


TENNESSEE WARBLER was nice, but brief:

WHITE-THROATED SPARROW. A nice array of classic October migrants.


This leucistic (partial albino) AMERICAN ROBIN was a striking individual, wowing the walkers present:

And throughout the walk, we counted upwards of forty PINE SISKINS! Finally, on the way back, Lori and I had one sit up at the top of a conifer for a good view finally:

It was an enjoyable walk. Later in the day, I headed to Rainbow Beach in Chicago to meet me friends Isoo, Simon, and a few others to chase a reported Yellow Rail reliably reported from there this morning by Steve H. We were hoping this third try for the species this season would finally be fruitful. Yellow Rail would be a lifer for all three of us if seen, so fingers crossed!!!

I arrived around 4:30 and we immediately began scouring the dune area surrounding where the Yellow Rail had been seen earlier by Steve. We made sure to avoid trampling rare plants that call that preserve home such as the Prickly Pear Cactus, one of which was in bloom:

We were occasionally distracted from the Yellow Rail search by many NELSON’S and a single LECONTE’S SPARROW in the dunes, as well as waterfowl out in the harbor including GREATER SCAUP and REDHEAD:


By far the rarest duck we saw was this SURF SCOTER, which I think is my Illinois lifer for this species! A really cool and uncommon find for Chicago, particularly this early in fall.

Unfortunately, the odds were against us since it was one tiny Yellow Rail against a bunch of hopeful birders: the rail almost always wins! So, after a while of thorough searching, everyone was tired of combing the dunes and the group split up. The Tolzmanns and I headed to a nearby park where there is some good herping opportunities: we were hoping to catch a Five-lined Skink!

And as you can see, that I did! The first herp I laid eyes on was this beautiful COMMON FIVE-LINED SKINK, and as soon as I saw it, I put my hand down on it so it couldn’t get away from us this time. Bingo! A super cool creature that is limited to one tiny area in Cook County.

That wasn’t all, though! I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and yelled “snake!” and thankfully Peter with a quick hand grabbed a beautiful DEKAY’S BROWN SNAKE which had also been resting under the board with the skink. A very cool creature and only the second one I’ve ever seen.

We walked a little ways to an area we flipped last week and had one more Skink which got away from us and I scooped up two beautiful PLAINS GARTER SNAKES including this nice-sized individual!

Anyway, the Tolzmanns had to hurry home and I was getting hungry so we called it a day. Even though we dipped on the Rail, it was a successful day of birding and herping nevertheless and nice to see the likes of Isoo, Simon, Peter, Andrea, Josh, Matthew, Ted W, Glenn G, and Craig T among others. Bird-of-the-day to the SURF SCOTER with runner-up to the unphotographed LECONTE’S SPARROW. Stay tuned: I have a herping adventure with the Tolzmanns planned this weekend!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 20:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Outing with Isoo & OP Bird Walk

Cook County, IL

overcast 60 °F

Last thursday I went out with Isoo to try to find a Yellow Rail at Bartel Grassland (their most “reliable” place in Cook County, if you want to even use the term reliable for that species given they just have a handful of county records). This species certainly passes through every year but is plain uncommon and, when compounded with its extremely retiring habits, proves almost impossible to detect. But we were gonna give it a shot for his Cook County big year!

Unfortunately we didn’t flush a single Rail of any species at Bartel, and apart from a few distant migrating raptors and geese, it was quiet there. So after a bite to eat, we headed to nearby Helmick Marsh for waterfowl and shorebirds. NORTHERN SHOVELER among plenty others seen there, though at a distant:

We then headed to Orland Grassland where we again didn’t flush any rail of any species, so we continued northward to McGinnis Slough, again for shorebirds and waterfowl. Isoo said he almost definitely had a Snow Goose fly over at one point, which would have been new for his year, but we lost it to due to the birds’ distance. Dang! We did have a fair amount of shorebirds and more common waterfowl, including STILT SANDPIPER (left) and LESSER YELLOWLEGS (right):






TRUMPETER SWAN were giving sweet, close views which was great.

Soon, Isoo and I partied ways as I headed to a nearby preserve to do some herping and he planned to go all the way to Montrose Point on the lakefront, until he got a call that there was a rare bird in his hometown of Evanston: Harris’ Sparrow! I was happy he got this much-needed tick for his Big Year, inching him that much closer to the record for Cook County. I did not regret not joining him, however, as the homeowner for this bird’s temporary “residence” was only letting in certain birders see and the addition of Evanston would have made the day into an even larger driving day than it already was. I enjoyed the herps that Palos has to offer, including a BLUE-SPOTTED SALAMANDER & EASTERN NEWT on one of my first flips!


And this gorgeous SPOTTED SALAMANDER. Good stuff! As usual, all herps were handled with care and placed back next to their logs and rocks afterwards. What cool creatures.

Bird-of-the-day thursday to the beautiful Trumpeter Swans with runner-up to the Stilt Sandpiper which I don’t get to see all that often.

A bird walk from my house saturday yielded just a little in the way of songbirds, including this YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER:

But the real star of the show was this MERLIN which was devouring some recent prey at the top of a dead snag. Awesome! I think my second record for Oak Park, ever. My bird-of-the-day for saturday!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1119 Species

Posted by skwclar 19:25 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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