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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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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

Third Eye Herp

Southern Leopard Frog


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.


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!

Third Eye Herp

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.

Third Eye Herp

Red Milk Snake

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I saw this beautifully colored serpent crossing Snake Road while visiting southern Illinois. It’s overall pattern is similar to the Eastern Milk Snake which I often find in my home state of Ohio.

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Its body color can be white, gray, yellow or light tan, with red or orange black bordered blotches. Like the Eastern Milk Snake, its belly is strongly checkered in a pattern of black and white squares.

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Red Milk Snakes are secretive and seldom seen out and about. They spend much of their time hiding under rocks and logs or in rodent burrows. They are not particularly large snakes, often only about two feet in length. They subdue their prey by constriction and feed on lizards, snakes and small mammals.

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It’s always thrilling to come across this boldly marked, colorful snake in its natural environment.

Third Eye Herp