Warmouth

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The result of setting minnow traps recently in southern Illinois yielded some cool creatures, including these fine fish. Younger examples, like this one, can sometimes have a purplish sheen to their sides.

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A type of sunfish, Warmouth usually range in size from 4 to 10 inches, but can grow to over 12 inches in length and weigh up to 2-1/4 pounds. They prefer to hide around aquatic vegetation, stumps and snags, and under the banks of streams and ponds.

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This highly aggressive and hardy fish can live in polluted waters (such as the junk=strewn environment shown in the first photo where I caught mine), with low oxygen levels where other species of sunfish cannot survive.

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The primary diet of the Warmouth consists of insects, crayfish and other fish. It has a huge mouth and will attempt to eat just about anything that comes near it.

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Other local names for this fish are Molly, Redeye, Goggle-eye, Red-eyed bream and Strawberry Perch. This was my first encounter with this tough fish and I was glad to finally experience one in the wild.

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Paper Wasp

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Each year I share my backyard deck during the warmer months with Paper Wasps. They have a fondness for the wooden rail overhand and sometimes two or three pairs of insects build nests there.

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Paper Wasps are beneficial, since they prey on soft-bodied insects, especially caterpillars. They are not at all bothersome, being uninterested in people or in scavenging for food, unlike some of their yellowjacket cousins.

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I have also encountered this insect when visiting southern Illinois and Maryland. They come in a variety of colors and patterns. The photo above shows a nest in the limestone bluffs that border Snake Road in Illinois and the picture below shows one starting to build its nest on the eaves of a shed in Maryland.

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These insects make nests of cellulose fiber (paper) to brood their young. Paper wasp nests are typically small, attached by a stalk to an overhanging support, and have a single comb of cells.

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The larvae of wasps are grubs. To grow in the nest cell, the grub needs food – so the adult wasp paralyzes a caterpillar with its sting and stuffs it into the nest cell and lays an egg in the cell. The egg hatches and has ample food to grow to full grub size.

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After it eats, the grub enters the pupal, or resting stage, wherein its body is rearranged, and it emerges as an adult winged wasp. In the picture above, an adult has caught a caterpillar to feed its offspring.

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Adult Paper Wasps eat nectar. Dill and fennel are especially favored, but parsley, parsnip or carrot gone to seed are also food sources for these insects.

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Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat

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One of the unexpected highlights of my recent visit to southern Illinois was getting to encounter a number of these fine creatures. As their name implies, this species has long, rabbit-like ears that can be over an inch long. They are a medium-sized bat with a wingspan of 10–12 inches.

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Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bats, like all bats in the southeastern United States, are insectivorous, nocturnal, and locate food primarily by echolocation. They consume a wide range of insects – including mosquitoes, beetles and flies – although moths make up 90% of their diet.

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While other species of bats are crepuscular (become active during twilight hours), this species is nocturnal, becoming active when it is completely dark. This mammal occurs in forested regions largely devoid of natural caves. Its natural roosting places are in hollow trees and crevices behind bark. It is most frequently observed in buildings – both occupied and abandoned.

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Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bats are one of the least-known bats in the southeastern United States. They help make our lives more comfortable by eating millions of bugs, especially mosquitoes, every night as well as consuming crop-destroying insects. This was a fun find in the Land of Lincoln.

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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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