Way back in April Steve and I visited Larue Road, AKA “Snake Road”, to visit the swamps of western Shawnee National Forest. We came up mostly short on snakes and found way to many naked apes on this particular Saturday, but we were pretty certain to find a good feathered reptile show, and we were not disappointed.
The Prothonotary Warbler is a staple of southern swamps and this area sure has its share. We were pleasantly surprised to find a number of these birds foraging along the road, without a care about what we were up to. This allowed for some very nice looks and photographic opportunities.
The image above shows how these guys (and most warblers) go about making a living. They know better than any entomologist that the best opportunities for finding caterpillars and spiders is to look under leaves and inside the folds and crevices of new leaves and flowers.
We didn’t find a nest cavity of one of these monks during this visit, but they were undoubtedly tending nests and potentially caring for eggs. If only this area were not a three hour drive!
Lastly, at one end of the road we were greeted by a gang of Coots feasting on Coon’s Tail.
Being almost solely interested in “herps” (reptiles and amphibians) for a couple decades of my life, a place in southern Illinois known as LaRue Road, or more legendarily – “Snake Road”, has long been on my list of favorites to visit. Years ago, before becoming interested in the reptiles with wings and feathers, I barely took notice that this location was swarming with all sorts of life. Upon becoming a more rounded nature enthusiast, I have since discovered this simple road is located within a special zone of multiple habitats. Whether it be herps, birds, plants, insects, etc., this is a special area of biodiversity that is celebrated by those lovers of life who are fortunate enough to have found it.
So enough with the flowery description. What makes this area so special? LaRue Rd. is located on the western edge of the Shawnee National Forest; this particular portion of the forest is called the LaRue Pine Hills. Where the flood plains of the Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers meet these hills, bluffs of up to 200 feet have formed. At the base of these bluffs, the rivers have helped form some very special swamp and marshy habitats. Between the mixed hardwood-pine forests and the wetlands lies – Snake Road. Okay, so what of that? Well, this explains the moniker. Twice a year, snakes move en mass – from the hills to the swamps in spring, and vice versa in autumn to find a high, dry and safe place to overwinter. To do so, they must cross a gravel road.
Anyway, snakes were not even the quarry in mind when Steve and I decided to take the journey. Being so late in the season and relatively late in the day, I didn’t give credit to any dreams of finding a legless squamate. Our goal was to find and grab an exceptional photograph of a Prothonotary Warbler. I’m not sure of the latter, but we were sure able to find them!
A slightly shallower depression in the road often afforded mostly unbroken looks into the marsh, and opportunities to find these ancient clerics soaking up the sunlight that gives them their spectacular color. Once finding a male, a little bit of playback brought out more and more, coming to get a look at the particularly pathetic naked apes. This guy did a bit of preening following a bath.
Getting great looks at several of these spectacular animals was more than we could ask. Walking a bit farther we were fortunate to find an active nest!
Prothonotary Warblers nest in shallow cavities in trees, often old Downy Woodpecker nest holes. Below, one of the parents can be seen removing a fecal sac from the nest.
The next photo shows what I am assuming to be mom instructing dad to find an even bigger insect next time. 😉
Remember when I said we were not expecting to find much of anything besides the birds on our trip down “Snake Road”? There, in the middle of the road, we discovered the guy you see in the next image, and I discovered I made another huge mistake. On more than two occasions now I have been in a circumstance of not being able to make a photograph, or the photograph I had envisioned, because I did not bring the necessary equipment. On this day, my only equipment was a 500mm lens on a 1.6 crop body and my iPhone. After contemplating throwing myself on the viper to end my pathetic existence once and for all, I decided to give a shot at shooting a snake with an equivalent focal length of 800mm! On a partly cloudy day with lots of tree cover, I knew that lighting the subject would be difficult. Of course, I had no artificial light source either. Shooting wide open, depth of field was nearly nonexistent. This was the result of my first attempt.
So, not a complete disaster, but something like a 70-200mm would have been more desirable. We then decided to get him in a little more natural setting with hopefully a bit more light. We gently moved the snake just off the road and I remembered a trick I could use to get a little closer than the lens’ close focusing distance of 15 ft. I put an extension tube between the lens and the body. Although I still had pathetically little DoF (as long as I get the eye in focus, right?), I was able to get somewhere in the range of 10-12 feet from the subject, allowing it to look a little more prominent in the composition. I must apologize for the oh-so-distracting leaf petiole in this image. I asked Steve to please remove it gently with his fingers, but he replied with some of his medical jargon, going on about rhabdomyolysis, hypotension, necrosis; whatever, it sounded like cop-out to me.