Eastern Ribbon Snake

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Although I found a number of Western Ribbon Snakes in Union County, Illinois, it wasn’t until I visited neighboring Johnson County that I found my first Eastern Ribbon Snakes.

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Ribbon snakes are semiaquatic and frequently found along the edges of lakes, bogs and marshes. A swampy area with railroad tracks running through it proved to be an ideal place for them.

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The ribbon snake gets its name from its very thin body. At maturity, it’s usually between 2 to 3 feet in length. It is a slender, dark snake with a yellow stripe down the back and one on each side. Its tail often makes up about one third of its body length.

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The Eastern Ribbon Snake is a member of the garter snake family. Not only do they look similar to garter snakes, they too are widely distributed throughout the United States.

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This species is a good swimmer and can race quickly along solid ground. It also is a good climber and are often found in the small bushes along the water’s edge. This serpent is active and nervous and relies on being wary to escape predators. Their diet consists of frogs, salamanders, toads, small fish and leeches. Like garter snakes, Eastern Ribbon Snakes give birth to live offspring in late Summer.

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Earth-Boring Scarab Beetle

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Although I’ve seen this insect in my home state of Ohio, my latest encounter with one of these interesting creatures was last month in southern Illinois.

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As their name implies, Earth-Boring Scarab Beetles dig burrows into the ground, sometimes up to 8 feet deep. An egg is laid at the end of each long tunnel and food is left there. When the egg hatches a grub (the beetle’s version of a caterpillar) emerges. The food left for the grub is consumed and it eventually pupates before transforming into an adult beetle.

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Adults Earth-Boring Scarab Beetles eat dung, hummus and rotting plant matter. They are commonly found in compost heaps and around manure piles. This is one of the last beetle species that can be seen in the Fall. While the Earth-Boring Scarab Beetle’s diet seems somewhat unsavory to people, the consumption of the nutrients left in that food source allows valuable resources to return to the food chain when the beetle itself is consumed by a predator.

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It’s nature’s way to recycle and reuse vitamins and minerals.

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Diamondback Water Snake

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While visiting southern Illinois I have occasionally come across this semi-aquatic serpent.

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They are heavy bodied with greenish-brown to brown hues and a dark net-like pattern formed by dark blotches along the back, with each spot being vaguely diamond-shaped. The blotches are connected by alternating dark bars on sides.

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Diamondback Water Snakes are non-venomous, but they can be extremely aggressive when cornered, striking and biting continuously until the danger goes away. Adults are typically three to four feet long.

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Their range tends to be concentrated along the Mississippi River, as well as west into Texas and Mexico, east to Alabama, with smaller populations in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

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A diurnal hunter, the Diamondback Water Snake trolls shallow shorelines and deeper water for prey. The diet mostly consists of frogs, toads, slow moving and small fish, which are eaten live. Carrion is also a common part of their diet.

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Like other North American water snakes, the Diamondback Water Snakes give birth to live offspring, producing 20 or more babies in the late Summer or early Fall.

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Jack-O-Lantern Mushroom

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While visiting southern Illinois, it was hard not to notice this organism that often produces its fruiting bodies in abundance this time of year in large clusters on old rotting stumps of hardwood trees.

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It may get its name bacause it’s bright orange, like the pumpkins used to make Jack-O-Lanterns. However, there’s another reason for its common name. This fungus actually glows in the dark! Not the whole fungus, but just the gills on the underside of the mushroom.

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The yellow-orange to orange cap is first convex in shape, becoming flat and then finally funnel-shaped with a margin that turns downward.

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To further add to the Halloween image, Jack-O-Lantern Mushrooms are a trick, not a treat. People sometimes eat Jack O’Lanterns thinking they are Chanterelles, which are edible. The two types of mushroom can look pretty similar, and they bloom at the same time, but unlike Chanterelles, these are distasteful.

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Eating a Jack-O-Lantern Mushroom won’t kill you. Nevertheless, it’s nice to look at, cool because it glows in the dark and useful because it performs a valuable function that only fungus can do, which is break down dead wood into useable components to be recycled into the forest.

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Thread-Legged Bug

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While walking on Snake Road in southern Illinois this month, I saw this curious looking creature on a tree. It was too thin-bodied to be a Walking Stick and it also had the ability to fly.

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Thread-legged Bugs are are a type of Assassin Bug, which means they have piercing, sucking mouthparts that look like a long, pointy straw. They pierce the exoskeleton of their insect prey and suck out the insides.

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Though the raptorial front legs are reminiscent of those of a Preying Mantis, the Thread-Legged Bug is not closely related to the mantis. This insect walks around on four long, impossibly thin legs and snatches its prey with its forelegs before stabbing it with its pointy mouth.

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Like other Assassin Bugs, Thread-Legged Bugs are beneficial predators. I had never come across one of these before and it was an awesome encounter.

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Smooth Earth Snake

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I had my first encounter with this very cool species while visiting southern Illinois. It is a small (7 to 10 inches) somewhat heavy-bodied, brown-to-gray snake with smooth scales and a pointed snout.

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The Smooth Earth Snake is found in a variety of forested habitats with plenty of ground cover, but is most common in moist deciduous forests and edge habitats. Smooth Earth Snakes mainly live underground and are most often found hiding beneath rocks and logs.

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This species feeds primarily on earthworms, but takes other small invertebrates such as insects and snails. It gives birth to to live young, producing as many as 14 offspring in the late summer.

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The Smooth Earth Snake is an uncommon secretive serpent with a scattered distribution, so I was glad to finally come across one in the field.

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Upland Chorus Frog

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While on my visits to southern Illinois, I occasionally come across these small (about an inch) brown or gray frogs, with a light line across the upper lip and a dark stripe running through the eye. This is a species with an extremely variable pattern.

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The Upland Chorus Frog was recently separated from the Western Chorus Frog (which I sometimes find in my home state of Ohio), being identified as an individual species rather than a subspecies.

These are secretive, nocturnal amphibians, and are rarely seen except immediately after rains. They spend their days hiding in damp places such as under logs or rocks, emerging at night to hunt for food.

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These are secretive, nocturnal amphibians, and are rarely seen except immediately after rains. They spend their days hiding in damp places such as under logs or rocks, emerging at night to hunt for food.

They are an almost entirely terrestrial species, and found in a variety of habitats, such as moist woodlands, meadows and wooded habitat within swamps and the edges of marshes.

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Upland Chorus Frogs are members of the frog family Hylidae, which makes them relatives of the tree frogs, cricket frogs, and other chorus frogs. The male’s mating call is a regularly repeated “creeeek” resembling the sound of running a finger along a comb.

In many parts of its range, the Upland Chorus Frog is the first amphibian to start calling in the year, and is often viewed as a symbol of the arrival of spring.

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Mississippi Green Water Snake

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Here at Snake Road in southern Illinois, I am enjoying searching for a reptile that I have found on several occasions previously; it is only found in Union County and is listed as State Threatened.

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A medium-sized, dark-colored, heavy-bodied snake, the Mississippi Green Water Snake is greenish brown with numerous small, obscure olive-brown or dark brown markings. One might describe it as “drab”. The belly is dark gray with yellow half-moon-shaped markings.

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Although not venomous, like other water snakes, it may bite viciously to defend itself as well as secrete a strong-smelling musk from glands at the base of the tail.

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A unique characteristic that differentiates Mississippi Green Water Snakes from other types of water snakes in the United States is the presence of a row of scales between the eye and upper lip scales.

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These snakes prefer large, permanent bodies of water, especially in open country and around open cypress lakes and marshes. Compared to other water snakes, they are more abundant where there’s heavy vegetation and water currents are slow.

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It’s diet is a variety of fish, frogs, toads and salamanders. Mississippi Green Water Snakes are primarily nocturnal, searching for prey along banks of ponds or slow moving bodies of water at night.

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Like other North American water snakes, they give birth to live yong, usually numbering from 8-34, though as many as as many as 101 offspring were recorded in a single litter.

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Toothache Tree

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This intriguing native plant is covered with thorns from its compound leaves right down to its twigs and bark.

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Because of its content, it has used throughout the world in medicine and folklore. It is most widely known in Louisiana for its use by both Indians and settlers, not only as a toothache remedy, but they also mixed the inner bark with bear grease and applied it to treat ulcers.

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Native Americans used this plant for a wide range of other ailments as well. Ripe berries were thrown in hot water to make a spray used to treat and throat for chest ailments. The inner bark was boiled in water to produce a lotion used to treat various itches.

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This tree’s berries have historically been considered tonic, stimulant, anti-rheumatic, and effective in relieving gas, colic, and muscle spasms.

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Modern herbalists specify the bark and berries of Toothache Tree as a treatment for rheumatism and as a stimulant for blood circulation.

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The conical to flattened bark projections are especially interesting, each with prominent layers of cork tipped with a sharp, delicate spine. Its large, compound leaves form a umbrella-shape at the tip of the poles.

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Toothache Tree has a number of common names, such as: Hercules’ Club, Southern Prickly Ash, Sea Ash, Pepperwood, Prickly Orange, Sting Tongue, Tear Blanket, Pillenterry, Prickly Yellow Wood, and Wait-a-bit.

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No matter what you call it, few woody plants have had such a varied and widespread use in American folklore.

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Turkey Vulture

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Turkey Vultures are majestic but unsteady soarers. Their teetering flight with very few wingbeats is an identification characteristic. Their ability to ride thermals enables them to move from one destination to another.

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These birds occupy a diverse range of habitats like roadsides, suburbs and farmlands. They are found in forested as well as open environments; they can be found just about anywhere they can effectively find a carrion food supply.

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Turkey Vultures usually roost in large community groups, but search for food independently during daylight hours. They are talented scavangers with an acute sense of smell.

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They have a well-developed sense of smell and are one of the only species of birds worldwide that uses smell extensively. Their sense of smell is so remarkable that they can even locate a dead mouse under a pile of leaves.

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Several Turkey Vultures may gather at a carcass, but usually only one feeds at a time.This large bird species has a six foot wingspan and has been around since prehistoric times.

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Turkey Vultures act as nature’s ultimate garbage collector and recycler.

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