Illinois Chorus Frog!

Miguel and I were offered a very special treat back in April when our new friends and gracious hosts, Rick and Jill, offered to show us a very unique and amazing animal, the Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis). The Illinois chorus frog is a species of study for Rick and his students, who are hard at work trying to document the life history and ecological details of this species of conservation concern. Existing in only a handful of counties scattered across Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, this frog is classified as G3, meaning it is vulnerable to extinction. The primary forces causing the decline of this species is land development, primarily from agriculture.

Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis)

The Illinois chorus frog requires sandy wetlands. These types of areas are being lost due to drainage efforts for agriculture. The scattered remnants of these habitats are increasingly becoming isolated, likely limiting geneflow between pocketed populations.

Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis) attempting to back itself under the sand

The natural history of this species is incredible. Due to the quick draining nature of their preferred sandy habitat, these frogs spend 90% of their lives below ground. Their breeding season typically begins in February, where they take advantage of water from icy thaws and early spring rains to breed in ephemeral pools. By May, the frogs have buried themselves in underground tunnels that they dig with muscular forearms. Unlike most other frog species that spend large amounts of time in subterranean environments, the Illinois chorus frog is known to feed, eating worms and small invertebrates.

Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis). Here you can see the muscular forearms that these frogs need to burrow underground tunnels where they spend the majority of their lives.

Organizations like the University of Illinois, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Heartland Conservancy are doing a lot of work in a number of places to discover more about their ecological needs and protecting and managing habitat these frogs need.

Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis)

Another great thing Rick and Jill showed us were Illinois chorus frog tadpoles that were in artificial breeding “ponds” that were setup for them. As the hundreds of tadpoles we saw suggest, they were doing really well here.

Illinois chorus frog (Pseudacris illinoensis) tadpoles

I’m still excited about being able to see and photograph these wonderful frogs and hope to visit them again during an early spring.


Passionflower Flea Beetle (Disonycha discoidea)

Ever since seeing the photo of Disonycha discoidea in Arthur Evans’ “Beetles of Eastern North America,” I have been wanting to find and photograph this gorgeous Chrysomelid. I have looked for years for this species around St. Louis and southeastern Missouri, and even planted one of its host plants, Passiflora incarnata, in our yard hoping to possibly attract them.

Disonycha discoidea (passionflower flea beetle)

Just a couple weeks ago, my friend, Pete, posted a bunch of picks from his botany trip to southern Illinois on Facebook. As I perused through his collection of fascinating plants he found, I stopped at a photo of several beetles that were on a grape vine. In this photo was a single D. discoidea. Getting a little upset, I messaged Pete to see if he could tell me exactly where he had found this. He was at Giant City State Park and because of smartphone technology, he forwarded me his geotagged photo and I had access to exactly where he had taken the picture.

Disonycha discoidea (passionflower flea beetle)

However, I knew this was a big risk and I didn’t get my hopes up. First, Pete had taken his photo approximately a week before Sarah and I took the 2.5 hour drive south. In addition, the beetle he photographed was on a grapevine, not their typical host plant. Was this just an accidental occurrence of this beetle or could they use grapes as an alternative host? Nothing in the literature suggested that this occurred with this species; apparently, it is monophagous and only uses members of the Passiflora to feed.

We decided it was worth the drive. Giant City State Park is a high quality area and I knew that if we struck out we wouldn’t have to try hard to find something else of interest. We found Pete’s spot of original find pretty easily and started searching. After a couple hours of looking as hard as we could among the grape and poison ivy we decided we weren’t going to find the species there. Utilizing smartphone technology again, I thought it might be a good idea to look for Passiflora plants that had been documented in iNaturalist within the park. My phone signal was pretty poor, so we drove to one of the highest points we could find and I found a single spot that had these plants documented.

Disonycha discoidea (passionflower flea beetle)

These plants were found in a poor scrub prairie habitat along with blackberry and even more poison ivy. We started looking, finding and searching between 50 and 100 of these short plants. We looked very closely and I had a chance to try my DIY collapsible beat sheets that I made over the winter. No luck. I couldn’t believe it. I really thought we had a good chance. We knew the species had been found in the park and here we were within a sizeable population of the host plants. You’ve seen the photos already, so obviously we found our target. And, of course, insect finder extraordinaire, Sarah, was the one to find the beetle on a ragged, half-eaten P. incarnata plant. I immediately got to work photographing from a safe distance. One of the reasons they call them flea beetles is that they will jump great distances upon being disturbed. Ultimately, we found four individuals all on the same plant. Thankfully, this species is quite large for a flea beetle and I didn’t need to get too close that higher magnifications would require.

The aposematic colored Disonycha discoidea (passionflower flea beetle)

So what’s up with that coloration?
This species exhibits aposematism, also known as warning coloration. This is the same reason that unpalatable or downright toxic species like monarchs and milkweed bugs along with stinging predators like yellowjackets or velvet ants show warning colorations. Disonycha discoidea picks up cyanogenic glycosides from its Passiflora host plant, making it distasteful or toxic to would-be predators. By evolving this aposematism, the insects can advertise this and avoid the predators that would be on the lookout for an easy meal. In the tropics, a group of butterflies known as the heliconiines also acquire these toxic compounds from the larval feeding on Passiflora.

Disonycha discoidea (passionflower flea beetle)

It was great to finally find this target species. The larvae of this species is also quite photogenic. If I find the time to make a return visit this summer, I would love to find a few of them as well.

Thanks for stopping by!

Special Guest Post – Overlooked Landscapes

Today I’m happy to provide a platform for renowned nature photographer and friend, Casey Galvin, to share his words and fantastic landscape photography from lesser known areas between the coasts. This article is exactly my philosophy when it comes to landscape photography – what little I do of that these days. I am much more interested in finding hidden gems without a plane trip or a multiday car ride. This is actually much tougher to do than placing your tripod in the holes dugout by the throngs of photographers chasing the iconic landscape subjects. Casey doesn’t usually present his works in an online format, so prepare yourself for a real treat! What follows are the writings and photographs of Casey.

When one thinks of great landscapes, Missouri and the two other Midwest states, Iowa and Illinois, do not come to mind. With the great American West along with coastal states available to most landscape photographers it is easy to fly over or drive through these three states without a thought of stopping. What makes this area special, most landscape photographers have never taken the time to be here in the Midwest. You make images no one else has, unlike in the western USA. However, because of this anyone who does stop and take the time to explore will find something that most people do not think of photographing. These three states have unique and special geological sites and plenty of water resources (rivers, creek, lakes, world class springs and seepage areas) and open landscapes.

Elephant Rocks State Park
Iron County, Missouri

This being the heart of Tallgrass Prairie, there are still remnants left of this rarest of North American biomes. These systems were lost because it is some of the most productive farmland in the world, sand and gravel mining took others and conversion to urban development took the rest. Most people do not understand these grasslands probably because they have never experienced a true prairie. Unfortunately, there are not many large areas that are left untouched, but one can still find several remnants that are 1000 acres or even larger. This is where the buffalo roamed in large herds and in some locations, one can still find these animals ranging freely. The other nice feature for a photographer when visiting these sites is that you will most likely be the only one at that location. I have been on many a prairie for hours and have never seen anyone else.

Nachusa Grasslands
​Franklin Grove, Illinois

Like the West, where they get super blooms with the heavy winter rains, as long as the rains are steady, Tallgrass Prairies get super blooms at least once a month in the growing season. These systems are made for hot, dry weather. May brings profusions of paintbrush (Orabanche coccina), in June coneflowers rule (Echinacea pallida or if you are lucky in prairies near the Ozarks, E. paradoxa), in July blazing star (Liatris pycnostachia) takes over. Autumn is dominated by yellow composites, gentians and late Liatris species.

Helton Prairie Natural Area
Harrison County, Missouri

Savanna, another biome type, is usually tied to the prairie. This is the transitional biome between prairie and forest, and here you will find a mix of species from both. I have found that you can get good to great photographs on these lands, but because it does take work, you can develop photographic skills you can use elsewhere in the world. These can be difficult landscapes because of the open space

Kankakee Sands
Kankakee County, Illinois

There are also unique geological features found in this region. The Saint Francois Mountains in SE Missouri are extinct volcanoes and ancient lava flows. Most have been exposed for over one billion years. With its acid soils it make for great plant diversity. When a river or creek flows through one of the lava flows you have what Missouri calls a shut-in (water is restricted or shut-in to a narrower passage due to the slow-to-erode nature of the underlying granite). These are extremely attractive to photograph in all seasons. Unfortunately, some of the more attractive ones are well visited. So unless you’re early or late in the day you may find yourself in large crowds. These are not tall mountains, being eroded for eons, but this is still mountainous country.

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park
Reynold’s County, Missouri

In southern Missouri there is also a unique set of monadnocks, an example being Caney Mountain Conservation Area – a remote area was once one of the last bastions for deer and turkey in the eastern USA.

Caney Mountain Conservation Area
Ozark County, Missouri

In southern Illinois the Shawnee National Forest with its limestone and sandstone escarpments (Greater and Lesser Shawnee Hills and Ozarks) can make for nice areas to explore photographically. Garden of the Gods is very scenic. Wet weather waterfalls are abundant (yes, Illinois is not flat here). La Rue Pine Hills ecological area not only has tall limestone bluffs. Below them is one of the most floristically rich areas in the Midwest with over 1200+ plant species. According to Robert Mohlenbrock, an authority on the flora of Illinois, the Shawnee NF is more diverse than the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The area south of the Shawnee Hills also has some of the best southern swamps remaining in North America.

Ghost Dance Falls
Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

Along the west coast of Iowa and NW Missouri is another unique landform. The Loess Hills made up of windblown dust (loess soil) from the last glaciation. These type of hills are found only in three locations in the world and this being the only one in North America. The plants and animals found here are similar to those found nearly 100 miles west in Kansas and Nebraska. This is another type of tallgrass prairie with disjunct populations of mixed grass prairie species.

Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve
Plymouth County, Iowa

Forest covers the southern one-third of Missouri and the Shawnee NF in Illinois. Spring and autumn bring many landscape opportunities especially along the rivers and other water features. Wildflowers abound here through the growing seasons in the forest and in the spring and on rocky glades (opening between the woodlands) throughout the growing season. These are some of the more diverse forests in the country, with several species restricted to the Ozark Plateau. This is also a world class birding area.

Chalk Bluff, Ozark Scenic Riverways
Shannon County, Missouri

Water features are abundant as stated prior. This is one feature that many areas in the country lack. Even in deep droughts, the larger springs still have plenty of output keeping many rivers flowing well deep into the autumn. Every 10 to 20 years there comes a drought where the biggest of rivers have levels that fall enough to be able to walk to some of the islands that are within them, allowing us to get images that might be harder to access without a boat.

Carver Creek Shut-ins
Iron County, Missouri

I have spent many years studying and exploring these areas, through all four seasons. It is well worth the time to visit and explore.

Casey Galvin
May, 2023

Chasing More Waterfalls in the Shawnee

Casey and I hit the roads and trails back in January looking for new waterfalls in the Shawnee Forest area of southern Illinois. January isn’t the prettiest time for waterfalls but finding them is often easier in the winter.

Burden Falls Wilderness Area

Up first is Burden Falls. Like most of the falls and features in the Shawnee, Burden only flows following significant rainfall. The amount of water flowing over the falls was not the highest it could be, but there was enough flow to be interesting. Here are a few more from this fantastic area.

Next up is Bork Falls.

Happy Hollow Falls

Last up is Jackson Hole Falls. This incredible two-stage set begins with a long slide that I captures in the panorama below. It then ends in an approximate 40′ drop.

Jackson Hole Falls – The Slide
Jackson Hole Falls – The Plunge Pool

Autumn Photography in the Shawnee – 2022

The following images were taken during the WGNSS Nature Photography Group’s trip to Garden of the Gods (GOTG) and other locations this past April. This group is currently being led by Miguel Acosta. If you are interested in joining us for one of the group’s monthly outings, please see details at!

Late autumn colors on a mirror lake.

Many thanks to the photographers we met on the trail at Bell Smith Springs Wilderness who tipped us off to a spectacular mirror lake in the Shawnee. Miguel and I stopped at this location before heading back to St. Louis. The peak fall colors were obviously passed but this place screams potential and I hope to get there again next year. We had really nice conditions for this type of photography, with cloudy skies and winds which weren’t too bad. We could have found a few more compositions but the rains came and the winds got worse so we called it a day.

A different composition from the same scene as above.

The waters here were not as calm as to be desired for our purposes, but using polarizer and neutral density filters allowed us to get long shutter speeds that helped to lessen the effects of any wind-blown ripples on the water’s surface. All images in this post from this location were taken with shutter speeds between 20 and 30 seconds.

A wind-blown mirror lake

In the photo above the wind was starting to move pretty quickly across the wider portion of the lake. Using a shutter speed of 30 seconds allows the ripples created to appear with a more painterly appearance.

Monkey face with star trails

During this weekend trip, some of us enjoyed the camping experience while others chickened out and stayed at hotels or cabins. Similarly, some of us stayed late at GOTG to do a little astrophotography. Well, I should say that I stayed late. 😉 After my friends nabbed a couple of quick Milky Way images, they headed back to their air conditioned rooms and I was left by myself to work on the photo seen above. This photo was made by combining 213 30-second images in the computer to build the star trails with the iconic “monkey face” and other rock formations that GOTG is known for in the foreground.

This was a great weekend of friends, photography, hiking and camping.

Peregrine Falcons 2022 Season – Part 4

Unfortunately, the story of the family in this nesting season has an unfortunate, and uncertain ending. At least, I do not know the final outcome of everyone. In early June, we had heard that the father was struck and killed by a vehicle on the River Road, within a few hours after Miguel and I left for the day. Our next opportunity to visit was a few days later. This was devastating news, obviously. In this species, both parents are critical in providing for the chicks and ensuring the best chances of successfully raising the entire brood. Still, with mom being a great provider and at least one, or potentially two, chicks capable of flight, we had good hopes that she could finish raising 1-3 of the chicks successfully. Once fledged, the parents still need to provide for the chicks for another 6-8 weeks until they are capable hunters. It would be a long hard struggle, but we had high hopes she would do her best.

Then more unfortunate news found its way to us. Another male had moved into the territory. At first this seemed like it might be good news, potentially someone to help mom complete the job of raising the brood. But as time went on, he seemed to be getting very aggressive with both mom and the chicks. He thwarted the mother’s attempts at bringing in food and harassed the chicks relentlessly every time they took to the air. Miguel and I visited for a number of hours over a few day period during this time and the number of successful feedings we observed were pitifully few – seemingly not enough for the chicks to complete their growth and perhaps move with mom to a different territory. We ended our observations around this time. I have heard through second hand accounts that mom was seen with two or three chicks flying away from the territory, so maybe there was a happy ending but I do not know.

Peregrine Falcons 2022 Season – Part 3

In this post, mom continues to provision the chicks with freshly caught birds. The chicks are beginning to try out their wings and are on the verge of fledging.

Peregrine Falcons 2022 Season – Part 2

Unfortunately, we didn’t have an opportunity to get back to the nest site until late May. When we returned, we found the parents were busy raising four already good-sized chicks. The photography was challenging. We had to contend with the too-speedy traffic of the river road that lied between us and the bluff face where the nest was located and the heat distortion that this blacktop created. There is also the issue of trying to photograph the fastest vertebrate on the planet.

Most often mom would take responsibility of feeding the chicks directly. Dad was primarily the hunter and would drop off prey. Here dad takes some time to piece the prey and feed it to the hungry chicks.
Dad brings a Baltimore Oriole (future Peregrine Falcon) back to the nest.
As typically done, dad would bring the prey back to a spot along the bluff and call for mom. Here mom has just picked up the Oriole and will take the bird to a new spot for processing.
Mom removes feathers from the prey bird on a bluff platform away from the nest site.
Mom begins feeding the impatient chicks.
I suppose at a point of diminishing returns, mom would often take the remains of the carcass away from the nest and would pick the remains to feed herself.
Mom soaring with remains of Oriole.

Peregrine Falcons 2022 Season – Part 1

Miguel and I spent a few hours in the spring and early summer of 2022 photographing a pair of Peregrine Falcons in Madison County, IL during their nesting season. In this first post, the photos were taken in March. There were likely no eggs in the nest at this point and the pair was bonding by the male bringing in food for the female and the two soaring the skies of their territory. It wound up being a pretty dramatic nesting season. Lots more pics to follow.