Chasing Waterfalls in the Shawnee

Following a rainy period this spring, Casey and I visited a few spots in the Shawnee of southern Illinois. Some of these spots are well known, but can be difficult to visit. Another location is not nearly as well known, but easier to get to. The Shawnee really does canyons, large rocks and water features well. This is but a small sample of what can be found there.

WGNSS Nature Photo Group Travels to Snake Road

Timber Rattlesnake feeling safe. f/7.1, 1/60 sec., ISO-640, 205 mm focal length equivalent.

Cottonmouth letting its freak flag fly. f/5, 1/160 sec., ISO-640, 322 mm focal length equivalent.

Missing Muppet? f/5. 1/125 sec., ISO-1600, 342 mm focal length equivalent.

Cottonmouth found at Larue Road. f/5, 1/125 sec., ISO-1600, 342 mm focal length equivalent.

Cottonmouth closeup. f/7.1, 1/100 sec., ISO-1600, 520 mm focal length equivalent.

Green Treefrog. f/5.6, 1/200 sec., ISO-640, 520 mm focal length equivalent.

Larue “Snake” Road, Autumn 2019. f/5, 1/100 sec., ISO-1250, 213 mm focal length equivalent.

Shooting Birds on the “Snake Road”?

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!

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler

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.

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler

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 Warbler at Nest
Prothonotary Warbler at 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.

Prothonotary Warbler Removing Fecal Sac.
Prothonotary Warbler Removing Fecal Sac

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.

Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake

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.

Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake



Ostwald-Liesegang Supersaturation-Nucleation-Depletion Cycle

Ha!  You thought I was going deep into some high-level physics, right?  This long title is the fancy term for a precipitation process that is the current best hypothesis for the why these structures pictured below form in sedimentary rock.  Known as Liesegang rings, these are composed of precipitating iron oxide embedded in sandstone.  This image was taken at Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee region of south-eastern Illinois, a wonderful place for finding Liesegang rings, but I have also found them on the western side of the state on the sandstone bluffs carved by the Mississippi River.  It’s hard to believe that in this day and age science does not have a firm answer as to why a phenomenon like this occurs.  Do a quick web search and you can find and read multiple hypothesis suggested by chemists over the past century.  This phenomenon has chaos written all over it as there is still no model that can predict every nuance and anomaly despite the work of computer scientists and physicists.  Maybe the answer is not random patterns due to the unpredictable chaos of the natural world.  Maybe there is a hand in this design.  Can you find the depiction of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio?  😉

“Liesegang Rings″
Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF17-40mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 22mm, ISO 160,  f/8, 0.3 sec

Dawn in the Garden

After a long hiatus from blogging, I decided to try this again.  I was able to load this image with no problems.  Hopefully this will continue and I can keep making posts.

This is probably my favorite image made during Sarah and my trip through the Shawnee region of southern Illinois this spring.  Seeing some spectacular images online of this place, I couldn’t wait to get here.  Garden of the Gods is located on the eastern side of the Shawnee, so this was our “final destination” as we progressed further from StL.  And although we did see some nice spots, like Bell Smith Springs and Burden Falls, during this rather dry spring, GoG turned out to be the paramount stop.

We arrived with less than 30 minutes of light left during the first evening.  We only saw a limited view of the exposed rocks and watched a pretty nice sunset, but had no real time for or notion of how to set up for a photograph.  We drove back to the very nice cabin we had located near Eddyville, about a 30 minute drive from GoG, and stayed the night.  I got up well before dawn and arrived back at GoG about a half hour before sun rise.  Although I was not fortunate enough to be able to capture a spectacular sunset or sunrise during our brief visit, I was happy with the light presented the morning I made this image.

What I found fascinating is the apparent remoteness of this spot.  Even though it is only about 30-45 minutes from some decent sized towns, this spot seemed more remote and “out of the way” than most spots I visit in the Ozarks.  The morning I made this image I was alone except for one young man who seemed to be in his early twenties.  I saw him in the parking lot with nothing but the clothes on his back.  There were no other vehicles and he was pacing around acting oddly.  I wondered if I should ask him if he needed some assistance or a ride, but something about him was weird.  He didn’t seem to acknowledge me, so I didn’t confront him.  I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not.  I watched him lay down on a bench as I drove away.

As I believed I mentioned before, the one nice thing I learned was how close many of these spots in the Shawnee are to StL.  GoG is only about 2.5 hours from our front door.  For some reason I expected these spots to be a longer drive.  I’m definitely excited to make some more visits to these spots and keep tracking that sweet light.

“Dawn In The Garden”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/13, manual blend of three exposures


The Dutchman’s Lesser Known Brother

“Squirrel Corn”

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. ISO 160,  f/11, 1/8 sec

Leaving my Missouri Ozarks this weekend, I found myself visiting some of the places I’ve been wanting to visit in the equally desirable Shawnee National Forest region of Southern Illinois.  Towards the end of the day I wound up at Giant City State Park, known mostly for its rock outcropping features, but just as bountiful in spring-ephemeral wildflowers.

The plant featured above is called squirrel corn and is in the same genus as its more famous sibling, the Dutchman’s breeches.  Unlike Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn is pretty rare in the Missouri Ozarks, having been found in only a handful of counties.  Along a trail in this state park, the two were found in almost equal abundance.  It was very nice seeing the two flowering in synch within inches of one another. The density of wildflowers here was bewildering.  Colors littered the ground everywhere I looked and the possibilities for composition seemed endless.

With failing light and late afternoon winds, it was challenging for macro photography.  I had not yet photographed this species, nor had I even seen another species that was just beginning to bloom here – the white trillium.  So, I pulled out the macro gear and went to work with sounds of recently arrived songbirds advertising their newly acquired real estates and small streams funneling their light charge of the previous day’s rain down the sandstone steps.  This, unfortunately was broken too often from the idiots pounding large plastic containers against rocks for some reason.  State Parks.  I love them and hate them.

Location Spotlight: Piney Creek Nature Preserve – Part Two

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 12mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.6 sec

Ten days following my first visit and hike into Piney Creek Nature Preserve I arose early and left the house during one of the two appreciable snowfalls we’ve had this winter in our region so far (I was very sick on the second snowfall and could not enjoy it).  Prior to the temperature drop we had inches of rain during the previous day and I realized that places such as this should have a significant amount of water flowing through their streams and intermittent waterfalls.  Following a careful drive through the snow, I arrived two hours later almost the exact second the snowfall stopped.  This makes photographing a little easier without worrying about the equipment getting wet, but it would have been nice to hike in the falling white stuff for a while.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 200,  f/13, 0.8 sec

The image above was the first waterfall I heard.  To get here required a short bushwhack off trail and down into the ravine.  A hiking pole and crampon/spikes on your boots are definitely helpful in doing this.  The rock in this area was extremely slick, with ice on top of algae/slime.  I was very cautious moving on the rocks to set up this shot, realizing that the rock sloped toward the stream and loosing my footing would prove disastrous. Because of the higher water and treacherous footing the available compositions were somewhat limited.  Considering how poorly I function with too many options, this was not exactly a bad thing!

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 21mm, ISO 100,  f/16, 0.3 sec

This cascade pictured above is a section of a longer series of twists and drops found closer to the back side of the hiking loop.  The water here skips shallowly over rock shelves and narrow chutes and takes occasional breaks in what appear to be quite deep pools.  When I made it to this section of the reserve the cloud cover was almost completely gone and blue skies were above.  The sun that would completely melt this fresh snow by the time I drove home this day was just beginning to peak over the bluff.  I realized that I would soon be faced with high-contrast shadows and harsh glare off the landscape scenery and I needed to grab every capture I could in the limited time available.  Sometimes it is also best to work with a deadline.  😉

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 200,  f/14, 1 sec

You can see that the previous one to two day rain brought a lot of soil into the stream.  Because of this, I felt most of the images would be presented best in monochrome.  I did want to present what one of these scenes looks like in color, however.  This one had some greens and reds to provide a little contrast between the browns of the water and rocks and white snow.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 24mm, ISO 160,  f/16, 0.8 sec

This place has a lot more to offer than what I present here.  There were at least two other significant waterfalls that I could see or hear, but the terrain with the snow and ice on precipitous ravine sides caused me to think wisely against trying to get within good photography distance.  Definitely something to try during better weather this spring.  I’ll be looking forward to my next visit to Piney Creek Nature Reserve.  Maybe I’ll even plan on paying a visit to the Popeye museum along the way in the town of Chester.

Location Spotlight: Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve – Part One

In the north-western region of the Shawnee National Forest of Illinois lies one of my latest finds.  Located south-east of Chester, Illinois (birthplace of Popeye the Sailor) Piney Creek Nature Preserve will undoubtedly provide plenty of opportunities for me to spend my time during any season of the year.  This place is special due to the geological and biological wonders it hides amidst the seemingly endless seas of corn and soybeans that pack every flat place Illinois has to offer.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens @ 18mm, ISO 160,  f/14, 1.6 sec

Unlike the tall bluffs and hills of the Shawnee region further to the south, this spot was subjected to recent glacial activity and the ravine was partly created by glacial melt-waters eating away at the sandstone – the primary rock of Southern Illinois.  The vegetation found here is more similar to that seen in the Missouri Ozarks to the West than that of the Shawnee region to the South-east.  This is one of only a few places in Illinois the short-leaf pine can be found naturally.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 32mm, ISO 320,  f/20, 1.3 sec

I have not yet been here during the growing season but it looks and sounds to be a very high-quality natural site.  I’m sure this will be a place for finding spring time ephemerals as well as summer wildflowers; however, the geology is the star of this attraction.  I’ve hiked this ~two-mile trail twice and I’m not even close to understanding the path of the streams and the contours of the canyon walls, or how many waterfalls can be found here.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 100,  f/11, 1/4 sec

The hike is wonderful, although caution must be taken.  Hiking up and down the and along the rim of the canyon provides amazing views of this natural amphitheater in winter.  Going bushwhacking to obtain better viewpoints of the geological, biological and archeological (petroglyphs and pictographs from 500-1550 Common Era are located at this preserve) subjects can be risky.  Similar to the nearby “Little Grand Canyon” there are plenty of ways to get yourself seriously injured or killed in this ravine.  Boots equipped with extra traction devices (i.e. crampons) are recommended for hiking in sub-freezing temperatures and felt-bottomed footwear is definitely useful when walking over the biology-covered slick rocks of the stream floor.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 28mm, ISO 100,  f/14, 6 sec

I was fortunate to be able to visit this spot about a week or two later.  This second visit was after a period of rain for about 24 hours followed by a brief-lasting snow.  The extra water and the freshly fallen snow (I arrived just when the snow stopped) made this place look entirely new and different.

Piney Creek Ravine is relatively close (1.5 hour drive) and I definitely look forward to many more trips here and to the other beautiful locations that the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois has to offer.

I just hope nobody figures out how to grow corn in a ravine like this.  😉