Blue-margined Ground Beetle

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When lifting rocks in southern Illinois in search of small snakes and salamanders, I found this awesome insect.

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The Blue-margined Ground Beetle is large, extra-robust, flightless, and features a huge head and jaws. It typically runs about under or on the leaf litter in forests.

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This insect is about an inch long and gets its common name from the smooth, blue border around its outer edges. Its large mandibles are said to deliver a painful bite and as an added defense measure, it can release a foul-smelling liquid if threatened.

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Both the larva and adult Blue-margined Ground Beetles are active predators, mainly feeding on other insects, particularly caterpillars.

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This is one neat looking insect that I haven’t seen for several years – it was nice to come across one while visiting the Land of Lincoln.

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Green Sunfish

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While setting minnow traps in southern Illinois, I caught one of these fine fish. The Green Sunfish is not only popular with anglers, but it is also kept as a pet by fish hobbyists.

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Native to a wide area of North America east of the Rocky Mountains, this species prefers areas in sluggish backwaters, lakes, and ponds with gravel, sand, or bedrock bottoms.

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They can be found in very muddy waters and are able to tolerate poor water conditions. The waterway where I caught mine was littered with human trash.

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Green Sunfish tend to spend their time hiding around rocks, submerged logs, plants and other objects that provide cover. They eat aquatic invertebrates and insects that fall into the water; they’ll also consume smaller fish.

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Their average length is 3 to 7 inches. Though small, they are beautiful and certainly a cool creature to come across in my travels.

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Plains Leopard Frog

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While walking along the edges of the Big Muddy River in southern Illinois, I often come across this spotted amphibian. It tends to be more brown than the Northern and Southern Leopard Frogs I have encountered.

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The Leopard Frog’s common name originates from the irregular, dark colored spotting on its back. It has long, powerful legs, and is capable of jumping surprising distances.

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Despite the “plains” name, this frog is almost always found in or near permanent bodies of water, such as rivers, creeks and ponds. Its identification feature to differentiate it from other Leopard Frogs, is that the ridge of skin along each side of the back is broken toward the hind end.

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The Plains Leopard Frog feeds on a variety of invertebrates. It mainly uses a “sit and wait strategy.” Once a food items has been sighted, it will stalk and attempt to grab it.

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Its species name is blairi and it is sometimes referred to as Blair’s Leopard Frog, named after the noted zoologist and University of Texas professor, Dr. W. Frank Blair.

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Sweetheart Underwing Moth

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While recently hiking through a forest in southern Illinois, I noticed this cool creature blending in with the bark of a tree. I occasionally also find this relatively large moth in my yard.

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“Underwing Moth” is a common name for a diverse group of moths with distinctive wing patterns. There are more than 200 species of underwings, the majority occurring in eastern North America.

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While at rest, the well-camouflaged forewings’ various shades of gray and brown allow the insect to blend in with its surroundings. Most underwing moths are active at night and spend the day resting upside down.

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When frightened, it exposes its underwings. It is thought that their bright colors, arranged in roughly concentric markings, resemble the eyes of a predatory animal, and this may confuse whatever wants to eat the moth for a few seconds, while it makes a hasty retreat.

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The Sweetheart Underwing Moth’s habitat is forested areas. It is particularly common in Cottonwood (which their caterpillars feed on) stands along rivers, creeks and in urban areas.

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I always enjoy coming across this impressive invertebrate whether it be out-of-state or in my own backyard.

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Pirate Perch

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While checking the minnow traps that I set in southern Illinois, I discovered this fish which I’ve never seen before.

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Pirate Perch are found in clear warm streams, oxbows and marshes with low currents and tend to congregate where there is dense vegetation, woody debris, root masses and undercut banks.

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They are small, usually 4 to 5 inches, dark brown and can have a purple sheen on their sides. They often have a dark tear drop shaped marking under the eye.

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The Pirate Perch is the sole member of the family Aphredoderidae. What is noteworthy about it is the peculiar position of its anus, which is located near the anal fin when the fish is young but gradually moves forward, to the throat, as the fish matures.

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The reason why the fish’s vent was located at the front of the body instead of the back was revealed by field observations. It turns out that females thrust their heads into tangled root masses to lay their eggs and the males quickly follow suit, putting their heads in the same spot in the tangled root mass to fertilize the eggs. No other North American fish does this.

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Charles C. Abbott, a pioneer ichthyologist, is credited with giving this fish its common name, after observing that a specimen he kept in an aquarium ate only other fish.

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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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