Today actually felt like one of our photo excursion/bird trips. We are up at 5 a.m. and on the road by 5:40. As I drive I watch the sky go from gray to pink. No real sun until past Effingham; instead, clouds and fog.
I remember safaris or bird trips where we are up before “first light” for birds, mammals, or the best photo ops. Unfortunately, this is my adventure this year, as both our out-of-country trips were postponed or canceled. Heading somewhere and then going back home in a day is now normal.
Usually, I am just a passenger during this time frame, finally waking up as I enjoy the early morning offerings and the sunrise. Just like on our adventure trips, we have a packed breakfast—it will be eaten at Green Creek Rest Area, outside of Effingham. During the adventure trips, breakfast can be consumed while still dark or even as a brunch if things are happening too fast. Unlike the crepuscular timeframe, where eventually darkness takes over—early a.m. often stretches to noon!
At 6:15 a pair of great blue herons are dark silhouettes against the lightening sky. Periodically, I spy patiently-waiting red-tailed hawks—road sentinels. By 8:30 we pass a calm, albeit higher, Rend Lake. Swamp mallow is in peak bloom.
At 9 a.m. we enter Crab Orchard Lake NWR. It is 82° with a hazy sun. A field of pink blooming liatris is cause to spray up with repellant and explore the edge (we go no further due to memories of past chiggers), taking advantage of posing dragonflies, a monarch, and just out-of-reach goldfinches. The drone of dog-day cicadas is our soundtrack here, along with a chatty yellow-breasted chat.
We move on.
Is that a downed tree limb? No, it’s four turkeys, this year’s poults grown and testing their tails. Turkeys with half grown poults will be a common sighting today. A gravel area yields hackberry, red admiral and red-spotted purple butterflies.
Before stopping at a known porta-potty (all bathrooms are locked down here), we pass a short grassy field with nine grazing turkeys. I come out of the potty and Michael is gesturing “Come here”, “Come here”, “Hurry up”! A silvery checkerspot (butterfly) had flown in the open window and was basking on the windshield. This was a species I had wanted to see and it would be the only one we find today.
We leave Crab Orchard at 10:40 and the humidity has spiked.
Our next stop is the “famous” Dongola gas station; famous as it usually yields insect treasures attracted to its lights. On our way we see an armadillo roadkill. Unfortunately, the gas station has lost its luster—nothing at the windows—though I did spy a snout butterfly on the gallon jug of hand sanitizer at the door.
At 11:30 and 87° we reach Cairo, IL. Gray clouds have appeared and I hope there isn’t rain. Instead, it is just more humidity. We first have lunch on our tailgate, watching fluttering white butterflies and hearing the cars and trucks go over the Illinois-Missouri bridge or the churning of nearby river barges.
Time to explore!
The recent rain has turned the river deposits—anywhere there is no grass—into sticky mud.
I head to a drier spot and examine a giant cottonwood tree. At the base of the tree is our quest—a female cottonwood borer ovipositing. She is about 2 inches long with black and white markings and blue gray legs. We will find six different females; four are ovipositing. We observe how they excavate a shallow hole, oviposit, and then cover the site. Periodically, one will head up the deeply furrowed bark and disappear. The base of the tree has several dimples (borer egg sites).
The white butterflies flitting all about are the native checkered white, not the exotic cabbage white. I witness courting, mating and flying about.
Little yellows (both yellow and white forms) and dainty dwarfs are also about in fair numbers. So intense was our observation and excitement about the borers that when I looked up near the bank I was startled to see the largest barge I’ve ever seen. It had silently grounded to wait out the passage of another barge. When the sun went in the swamp cicada began to call—a fainter call than the dog-day cicada. As I went under a tree to investigate them, one buzzed to a different tree. The air is full of bobbing and weaving wandering glider dragonflies. We leave at 1:40.
Two p.m. finds us at the Old Cache Channel Access; the water is down from two weeks ago. What’s that at water’s edge? Diving beetle? No, a Belostoma or toe bitter. As we get back on Route 37 another smashed armadillo appears on the shoulder.
We reach Heron Pond at 3 p.m. A new out-house is a welcome surprise; mosquitos throughout the trail are not. It’s almost impossible to stop and photograph, as we are assaulted by the mosquitos. A copperbelly watersnake, however, is irresistible.
Mermet is our final stop today.
It's 4:30 p.m. and 91°. The American lotus is still in bloom and a bald eagle tops a long dead tree. We discover Mermet magic at Pool D. Here an indigo bunting greets us with song from the sign while in the distance we spy a pair of deer with more turkeys.
As we begin to walk closer the deer soon spooks, but at the pool I ask Michael, “Is that a turkey feeding in the water?” Really a turkey?? NO, it’s a raccoon fishing!
Mating viceroys are along the water’s edge, their dark orange forms a better contrasting pattern than a monarch. While we are photographing the viceroys, a prothonotary warbler serenades us, an osprey flies overhead and a zebra swallowtail zips through.
Almost back at the car we spy two snakes in a drying ditch—cottonmouth and plain-bellied watersnake. Who knew all of this could be found in one spot? Oh, the magic of Mermet!
Dinner is take-out from McAlister’s and then home. Of course, during my turn to drive it rains the whole time. Prior to dinner, like any good adventure, the organism list must be done. This trip was no exception; not only was it a fun adventure, but we had a 96 species day! Not bad for 12 hours in Illinois.
Birds - 58
Amphibians and reptiles - 6
Mammals - 5
Butterflies - 22
Other interesting insects - 5