Poison Ivy

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While visiting southern Illinois, I had several instances when I came across this plant, which belongs to the same family as mangoes and cashews. All three of these types produce urushiol, the compound that causes an itchy rash.

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Every part of the Poison Ivy (leaves, stems and roots) is poisonous, so not only should it not be touched, it should not be burned. With burning, the urushiol becomes volatilized in the smoke and you can get it in your lungs, which is very dangerous and can even lead to death.

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Scientists speculate urushiol evolved as an antimicrobial defense agent. Birds, deer, squirrels, reptiles and insects are not affected by it. In humans, contact with Poison Ivy causes a reaction known as a cell-mediated immune response. The rash it causes is a result of your immune system attacking its own skin cells.

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Poison Ivy fruit, called drupes, are an important food for wildlife. Over 60 types of birds eat Poison Ivy berries. Deer and insects eat the leaves.

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“Leaves of three, let it be; berries white, take flight” is a familiar saying to help identify and avoid Poison Ivy, though its characteristics are very diverse and change in different habitats.

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This plant often follows civilization, cropping up in disturbed sites like cut banks, roadsides and old fence rows. It prefers woodland borders and clearings and shuns the dense forest. Despite its common name, it is not a true ivy.

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For those who are allergic to the plant, its benefits are often overlooked. Poison Ivy is an early colonizer, often taking hold in areas disturbed by humans and it begins the slow process of rebuilding the landscape. It requires very little nourishment or moisture and it attracts and sustains a variety of wildlife.

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Snowy Tree Cricket

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I often find this insect in the Autumn, not only when visiting southern Illinois, but also in my home state of Ohio.

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This pale green species occurs over a wide distribution in the northern United States and parts of southern Canada.

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The Snowy Tree Cricket is known for having a chirping rate highly correlated with ambient temperature. This relationship is known as Dolbear’s Law and was published in 1897 in an article called “The Cricket as a Thermometer.”

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As their name implies, these creatures live in trees and shrubs, for which they are well camouflaged. The bodies of tree crickets are long and skinny compared to the bodies of other types of familiar crickets.

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Like other species of in their family, they feed on a wide range of items like plant parts, other insects and even fungi.

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The call of the Snowy Tree Cricket is commonly used as a background sound in movies and on television in order to depict a warm Summer evening.

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This is a neat, delicate-appearing invertebrate that I enjoy coming across, whether while doing yardwork or out herping.

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Pied-billed Grebe

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While visiting a lake in southern Illinois, I noticed a pair of these water birds that I have occasionally seen in my home state of Ohio.

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This is the most widespread grebe in the New World, and the most familiar in temperate parts of North America. Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked.

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Although it swims like a duck, the Pied-billed Grebe does not have webbed feet. Instead, each toe has lobes extending out on the sides that provide extra surface area for paddling.

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When disturbed or suspicious, it may sink slowly until only head is above water. This bird is rarely seen in flight. It prefers to escape predators by diving and it migrates at night.

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The Pied-billed Grebe emits a series of hollow cuckoo-like notes “cow-cow-cow-cow, cow, cow, cowp, cowp, cowp,” that slows down at the end. They are often heard before they are seen.

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This bird is also known as the American Dabchick, Carolina Grebe, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper, Dipper, Hell-diver and Water Witch.

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Eastern River Cooter

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Walking along the Cache River in southern Illinois, I spotted this “lifer” reptile basking on a log. It was a lucky find, as it is endangered in Illinois. This one was a male, as evidenced by its long claws on its front feet. The Eastern River Cooter resides in sloughs and rivers, especially where aquatic plants are abundant. Though aquatic, like other water turtles, it will leave the water to bask on logs.

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They can grow to a shell length of around 12 inches. As part of their mating ritual, the male uses his long claws to flutter at the face of the much larger female. Like many other basking turtle species, they are very wary and quickly slide off their basking spot and into the water if approached. The term “cooter” may have come from the African word “kuta,” which means turtle.

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Not long afterwards, while visiting Virginia, I saw this young example of an Eastern River Cooter. Aquatic plants seem to make up almost 95% of their diets. Like many other freshwater turtles, they have a sleek but protective shell. This allows them to withdraw when threatened, but still efficiently reduce water drag while swimming. It was neat to see this creature for the first time in the wild, both as an adult and a juvenile.

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Orange Mycena

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In the dark, damp swamps of southern Illinois, this fun fungus really stands out. Its bright orange coloration can be noticed from a distance.

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Though their caps are rather small (usually less than an inch), because they are typically found in clusters, Orange Mycena make for an eye-catching addition to the environment.

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This mushroom tends to grow on deciduous logs, which contain the moisture it needs to thrive. When handled, its orange pigment may stain your skin.

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Their brilliant hue fades as the mushrooms mature and the surface of the caps are sticky, especially in damp situations.

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Orange Mycena is a North American species and has been reported throughout the eastern and central United States and Canada.

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This striking and colorful mushroom provides the same service as many others – breaking down and digesting organic matter and in doing so, returning nutrients to the soil.

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Crab Spider

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This is a fun little invertebrate that I found on my latest trip to southern Illinois. I have also seen examples in California, as well as in my home state of Ohio.

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Many species on this family of arachnids are referred to as “Flower Crab Spiders,” though not all members are limited to ambush hunting in flowers.

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Crab Spiders get their common name for the way they hold their two front pairs of legs, their flat shape and their ability to scuttle sideways or backwards.

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Some types frequent promising positions among leaves or bark, where they await prey, while others sit in the open, well camouflaged and using stealth by matching their surroundings.

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Instead of spinning webs, they are hunt-by-surprise predators that wait motionless for flies, bees and similar prey. These spiders tend to be quite small, only about a half of an inch in body length, and go largely unnoticed.

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Although not especially dangerous to humans, scientists think that the venom of certain Crab Spiders is more potent than that of most other spiders and this allows them to quickly paralyze the large and tough bees that often visit flowers (or in this case, a cicada).

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Their cool shape and wide variety of colors make Crab Spiders fun photography subjects that also present a challenge to find.

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Central Newt

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I often see this amphibian on my visits to southern Illinois. Sometimes it is out and about (especially during rainy weather), sometimes it is found hiding under logs and sometimes I see it in the water (especially at night when walking around the edges of ponds).

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They look similar to the Eastern Newts that I find in my home state of Ohio, with olive backs covered in black spots and sporting a bright yellow belly. Two rows of small red spots may be present along the back, though in some cases this little salamander lacks the red spots entirely.

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The Central Newt’s habitat is woodland ponds, swamps and occasionally water-filled ditches. Its diet consists of small aquatic invertebrates such as worms, mollusks, insects and crayfish. They may also eat tadpoles and the larvae of other salamanders.

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In the Spring, adults mate and females lay their eggs in water. The eggs hatch out into one-half inch tadpole-like larva. Like the Eastern Newt, the Central Newt has a land dwelling “eft” stage that spends 2 to 3 years wandering the forest floor before returning to water and leading a primarily aquatic life.

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After completing their aquatic larval stage, efts emerge onto land in Autumn. Their skin as an eft is rough, rather than smooth, like most salamanders. Their skin becomes smooth again when they become adults and return to the water. It is thought that the eft stage allows them to investigate new territories to spread to.

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Efts are bright orange to advertise that they are toxic to most predators. The Central Newt produces toxins in all its life stages, but the toxin is strongest during its eft stage. Their poison is tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin, which makes this species unpalatable to predatory fish and crayfish.

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Although usually only about four inches in total length, these creatures have a surprisingly long lifespan of well over 10 years in the wild.

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Pawpaw

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While walking along the edge of a cypress swamp in southern Illinois, I encountered this iconic tree. It’s the only member of a large, mainly-tropical plant family naturally residing in the United States, and it produces the largest edible fruit native to North America.

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Pawpaw is a small tree, typically growing to a height of 35 feet. It tends to grow in the understory or at woodland edges, and is often found in moist places such as the bottoms of ravines, steep hillsides and on the banks of creeks.

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The fruit is fragrant and has a distinctly bright, tropical flavor, often compared to bananas, but with hints of mango, vanilla and citrus. It has the inelegant appearance of a small green potato and may occur in clusters on the tree.

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The dark green leaves (which turn yellow in Autumn) of the Pawpaw have a tropical look, with their large, shiny blades that are widest just behind the leaf tip. The leaves often hang down like “dog ears” from the twigs.

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The smooth, thin, gray bark of Pawpaw becomes more warty and rough with increasing trunk girth.

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Larvae of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly feed exclusively on young leaves of Pawpaw, but never occur in great numbers on the plants.

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This tree is also known as Quaker Delight or Hillbilly Mango.

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Southern Leopard Frog

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This is one of the most conspicuous herps that I see on my visits to southern Illinois. At night they are often out and about and seen crossing roads. In the daytime I’ve encountered them in a range of habitats, including deep in the woods and high up in limestone bluffs.

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It is also one of the most variable amphibians in the area in regards to appearance. It can be green or brown in color with varying amounts of spots – and sometimes no spots at all.

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Although Southern Leopard Frogs are often found close to water, they are more terrestrial than other frogs in their genus and can stray far from water. They are active both by day and night and can be seen in large numbers on rainy nights.

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They are powerful, agile jumpers and may flee away from water rather than toward it. When being pursued, they leap in haphazard, zigzag patterns that make they very difficult to successfully pursue and capture.

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Southern Leopard Frogs search for food mainly on land. Insects make up the majority of their diet, but they also feed on spiders, pillbugs and worms.

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Despite is being quite common, I always enjoy coming across this beautiful amphibian – no two are alike!

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European Hornet

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While searching for snakes in southern Illinois this month, I flipped a rock and under it was this large (over an inch long) insect. This the only true hornet found in North America, having been introduced by European settlers in the 1800′s.

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Most examples I’ve seen have been in the Autumn and are probably females (mated queens) looking for a place to overwinter before starting a new colony the following Spring. Only overwintering queens survive in protected sites such as under loose bark, in tree cavities, under rocks and in buildings. All other colony members produced in the current year perish.

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I have seen European Hornets in my home state of Ohio as well. They are mainly carnivorous and hunt insects such as beetles, caterpillars, moths, dragonflies and crickets. They also feed on fallen fruit and other sources of sugary food. I saw this one at a hummingbird feeder. These insects have been observed stealing prey from spiders, which can be classified as an example of kleptoparasitism.

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Though they probably have a painful sting, they usually aren’t particularly defensive when not protecting their nest. This woodland species constructs its large paper hive in natural cavities, especially in hollow trees. The nests typically have 200-400 workers.

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It’s always a neat experience to observe one of these impressive invertebrates while out on a hike.

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