Shawnee Kingsnake

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While visiting southern Illinois, I came across two of these fine serpents basking only a few feet away from each other.

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This snake is a naturally occurring intergrade between a Speckled Kingsnake and an Eastern Black Kingsnake. They have varying amounts of yellow speckles and in some cases a faint chain pattern on a dark body.

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Shawnee Kingsnakes average 36 to 48 inches in length and have shiny, smooth scales. One specimen that I found was going through a shed cycle and had eyes that appeared to be milky blue.

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These reptiles are quite adaptable to a wide range of habitats from forests and bluffs, to rocky hills, open woods and stream valleys.

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Shawnee Kingsnakes are powerful constrictors and predators of other reptiles, including snakes, as well as eating birds and small mammals.

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They tend to be slow and deliberate in their movements. They are a fun snake to encounter in the wild and I enjoy seeing them each time I come across one.

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Yellow Dog Vomit Slime Mold

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While hiking through a damp, dark forest in Maryland, I noticed some bright coloration on a log. Also known as Scrambled Egg Slime, because of its peculiar yellow appearance, it often appears suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere.

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This is common species with a worldwide distribution. In non-natural areas, it is often found on bark mulch or in lawns after heavy rain or excessive watering. Slime molds are most often found in moist, shady areas with abundant organic matter, such as dead leaves and wood.

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Though it is often referred to as a fungus, slime molds are now thought to be a different type of primitive organism and more closely related to amoebas and certain seaweeds than fungi. They derive nourishment from decaying organic materials, and will not attack living plants.

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The ecological role in nature of slime mold is to break down dead materials to recycle the nutrients for other species to utilize. Although some people may be alarmed, grossed out, or frightened by it, this slime mold is harmless to plants, pets and humans.

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Yellow Dog Vomit Slime Mold is without a doubt is one of nature’s interesting oddities.

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Marsh Crab

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While staying at North Beach, Maryland, I would often see these crustaceans in rock piles that bordered the brackish water shorelines. They were shy and would quickly retreat into their rock hideout if they felt they were being watched or approached.

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The Marsh Crabs live communally within interconnected burrows in the mud. The tunnels may be 2 to 3 feet deep and often filled with water. Males are known for making “rapping” sounds when defending their burrows by striking two of their legs together.

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Though I saw them in the daytime, they are mainly nocturnal. These invertebrates eat the outermost leaves of marsh plants, especially cordgrass.

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Sometimes known as Squareback Marsh Crabs, these creatures live in a marine environment, but do not require seawater to survive, making them true terrestrial crabs.

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Snowy Egret

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While staying at North Beach, Maryland each day I walked to a tiny nature preserve, where more-often-than-not I would see this elegant bird. During breeding season adults develop long, wispy feathers on their backs, necks and heads.

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The Snowy Egret is one of North America’s most familiar herons, but it was almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800′s, due to their plumes being in demand as decorations for hats.

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It was then protected and its numbers not only have rebounded, but its range seems to be expanding as its population has increased. It can be seen in marshes, swamps, ponds and shorelines in both fresh and salt water.

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This bird is not only known for its immaculate white feathers, but also for its contrasting yellow feet. It uses its feet to stir up food items – mainly fish and crustaceans, but it also eats worms, insects, snails, snakes, small lizards and frogs.

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Like other herons, this two foot tall species nests in colonies, often with other types of wading birds. It was always nice to see this graceful inhabitant of Chesapeake Bay while on my trip.

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Orange-winged Grasshopper

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While visiting a Pine Barrens habitat in Maryland this Summer, I came across this very cool creature.

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Grasshoppers jump to get around and to escape from predators and several species enhance their leaps by having the ability to fly.

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This species prefers old fields, meadows and open woodlands, where it is almost always grassy, sunny and near (but not usually under) trees. It is more often seen in upland areas than in valleys and prefers areas where there are patches of bare soil.

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True to its name, my specimen had orange wings, but the inner wing color can also be yellow or pinkish. The Orange-winged Grasshopper belongs to a group of insects known as Band-winged Grasshoppers, as evidenced by its black wing borders.

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These grass-eating insects are heavy-bodied and equipped with enlarged hind legs. Their head too, has an appearance of being over-sized. It’s bright, intricate, cryptic colors make for a neat looking invertebrate.

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Reindeer Lichen

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Although I’ve encountered this lichen occasionally on my travels, while visiting Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Maryland, I saw quite a bit of it.

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Lichens are “dual organisms,” made by mutualistic associations between fungi and algae. They grow in some inhospitable environments – on rocks, trees and man-made objects – yet they are very sensitive to air pollution and are natural indicators of air quality.

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These organisms are important to the environment because they break down rocks into soil and they help to stabilize soil that’s already there. There are several different species known as “Reindeer Lichen” and this is Grey Reindeer Lichen, which is also known as True Reindeer Lichen.

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It features hollow intricate branches coming out its main stem. The branches have a dull, cotton-like look and feel. Grey Reindeer Lichen can form extensive carpets over the ground in open pine forests, especially on sandy soils and in open areas.

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This organism has a range extending into the tundra and is a important food source for Caribou. Reindeer Lichens grow slowly and mature clumps are often around 100 years old.

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Six-lined Racerunner

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What’s the fastest lizard in the land? Some would say that it’s this one, which has been clocked at sprinting 18 miles per hour. Six-lined Racerunners are wary, energetic and fast moving.

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It gets the first part of its common name from its yellow stripes. As I hiked through a Pine Barrens habitat in coastal Maryland, these reptiles could be seen darting across the path on front of me.

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I’ve encountered Six-lined Racerunners in the southeastern states and they seem to have a preference for sandy areas. They are fond of heat and out and about on the hottest of Summer days, catching insects, spiders and other invertebrates.

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It was cool to see this reptilian speedster on my forays into the wilds of The Old Line State.

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Osprey

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While staying in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, I observed several of these fish-eating raptors. Sometimes known as a Fish Hawk, this very distinctive bird was once classified with other hawks, but is now placed in a separate family of its own.

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The Osprey’s head is distinctive, with a white crest and a face bisected by a dark eye-stripe. This bird has yellow eyes. Its feet (talons) are uniquely adapted for capturing and carrying fish; the surfaces are rough, and their toes can be held with three forward and one back, or with two forward and two back.

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Its habitat is along coastlines, lakes and rivers. Its distribution is almost worldwide. The Osprey can often be seen flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons. After a successful strike, it tends to fly away carrying the fish so that its head faces forward in a streamlined position for transporting it through the air.

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When diving in pursuit of fish, an Osprey can completely submerge itself under water and still be able to fly away with its catch. it has Osprey a third eyelid (called a nictitating membrane, which is semi-transparent) that acts like goggles and helps the bird see clearly beneath the water.

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Most of their nests that I saw had babies, which usually number three. The female Osprey remains with her young most of time, sheltering them from sun and rain, while male hunts and brings back fish, which the female feeds to her offspring. This bird feeds almost entirely on fish that are less than a foot long.

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The Osprey was seriously endangered due to effects of pesticides in mid-20th century; since DDT and related pesticides were banned in 1972, Fish Hawks have made a significant comeback in many parts of North America.

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Although on previous trips to the coast I was able to see Ospreys from afar, this was the first opportunity for me to get a close-up look at them – and they were fascinating to watch.

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Wild Potato Vine

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While hiking in a Pine Barrens habitat in coastal Maryland, the flowers of what looked like an over-sized Morning Glory caught my attention.

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Wild Potato Vine is a twining plant which features heart-shaped leaves and funnel-shaped white flowers that are 2 to 3 inches across with maroon centers.

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This plant gets its “potato” namesake because its large, tuberous roots can be roasted and eaten. Some of the tubers can reach 30 inches long, be 5 inches thick and weight over 20 pounds.

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Wild Potato Vine habitat includes upland woods, the edges of prairies bordering woodlands, thickets, stream-sides and disturbed ground, like railroad and highway borders.

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It is host to Long-tongued Bees, Bumblebees and Digger Bees as well as nectar-seeking butterflies and moths. Tortoise Beetles, the the Sweet Potato Flea Beetle and the Sweet Potato Leaf Beetle feed on its leaves.

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Wild Potato Vine is also known as known as Man of the Earth, Manroot, Wild Sweet Potato and Wild Rhubarb.

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Emerald Euphoria

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While hiking through the woods while on a visit to Maryland, an insect “crash landed” onto a log that I was approaching.

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This is a type of scarab beetle that as an adult feeds mainly on sap from wounded trees – especially oaks. Most scarab beetles in the eastern United States, such as June Bugs, are nocturnal – but this species in active in the daytime.

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The Emerald Euphoria not only has the ability to fly, but is also has the unusual characteristic of doing so using its more-often-than-not hidden membranous hind wings, while it hard outer wing covers remain closed. They are fast and powerful fliers, though somewhat erratic while airborne.

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This species falls into the category of “Flower Scarabs” and sometimes visits Dogwood, Sumac and Thistle. It’s moderate size and metallic sheen of its green color make this a distinctive and enjoyable insect to encounter on a Summer hike.

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