Nestled at the edge of 130 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands and prairies, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center offers a unique blend of rustic nature and contemporary comforts. The LEED-certified building features beautiful views and an open floor plan with rental and programming space. Live animal displays, including state-endangered Blanding’s turtles, offer vistiors up close interaction with reptiles native to Illinois. Nature programs for all ages, birthday parties and special events provide guests with many educational and social opportunities to connect to our local environment. Visit this premiere environmental discovery center in the Fox Valley today!
Photo Caption: Midland brown snakes are quite common throughout the TriCities but rarely seen due to their small size and secretive nature.
October 13, 2017
I would guess that pretty much all of us have heard the cautionary tale of the Itsy Bitsy Spider. But how many people have heard about the Itsy Bitsy Snakes?
Back in August, the staff here at Hickory Knolls was in full-on nature camp mode, hosting dozens of kids in a variety of outdoor-themed programs. I was lucky enough to lead my tenth year of Reptile and Amphibian camp, known in shorthand as Herp (for Herpetology) Camp.
It was a Wednesday-a very warm Wednesday-as we headed out with our merry band in search of the group of animals targeted for that day: snakes. (Other days had aimed for other critters also classified as herps-frogs, toads and salamanders. Funny thing. These amphibians are in no way related to reptiles. But they are creepy and crawly and, back in the day, they were lumped in with snakes and lizards due to their squiggly nature.)
At any rate, there we were, hiking along with eyes peeled for garter snakes, the most likely quarry for the habitat we were in. Which is kind of funny, because we were poking around in an old quarry.
The hot summer sun blazed down on us, and it wasn’t too long before one of the campers started to display some adverse reactions to the heat. Not a fan of hot temperatures myself, I offered to walk him back to the picnic pavilion where a nice, ice cold drinking fountain was located.
So off we went, the sweaty camper and I, through the cloud of mosquitoes and around the patches of poison ivy, making our way back to the pavilion. I was still in snake mode though, so our progress could be rated as somewhere between slow and downright pokey.
About halfway up the trail to the woods, I noticed an odd, wavy motion among the crushed gravel. The creature making it was small, tiny even. Or, to reference the above comparison, itsy bitsy. I was about to write it off as a worm, except for the fact that no self-respecting worm squiggles across dry, rough crushed gravel on a 90-degree day.
I told my friend the sweaty camper to hold up a moment. I reached down and picked up the teensy creature, and was delighted to see that it was in fact a snake. An Itsy Bitsy Storeria dekayi wrightorum, or midland brown snake.
Now, in the Illinois snake world, we have some pretty large contenders, like Pituophis catenifer sayi, the bullsnake, which regularly reaches a length of eight feet or more. And the black ratsnake, Pantherophis spiloides, that measures out around six feet. (For all you snake fans out there, you can see both of these magnificent species at Hickory Knolls.)
Anyway, Illinois is also home to some very small species , that top out at a length of less than two feet. We have the ringneck snake, Diadophis punctatua, which can grow to 15 inches; the red-bellied snake, Storeria occipitomaculata, which tops out at 10 inches; and our featured species, the midland brown snake, which averages 13 inches in length.
The brown snake is actually quite abundant in our area, although it is rarely seen. Its habit is to hang out in leaf litter, which is brown, and in moist soil, which in our area is mostly brown too. So it’s of no surprise that the species is easily overlooked.
I found my first brown snake about 20 years ago when I was raking my fingers through leaf litter looking for butternuts. Imagine my surprise to find a small brown snake intertwined amid my fingers! The snake, I’m sure, was as surprised as I was.
Since then I’ve seen adult brown snakes basking on the paved Fox River Trail as well as on the bluffs along the Fox River in Batavia and North Aurora. But never until August did I see a teensy juvenile. At that time it was probably recently birthed, as brown snakes produce live young instead of eggs.
The diet for this secretive species is mainly earthworms and slugs-two other groups of animals that prefer moist habitats. The wee beastie we found was nearly as large as its prey!
As you go about your walks and hikes this fall, keep the midland brown snake in mind. You might not actually see one, but can trust that one or more Itsy Bitsy individual is likely nearby.
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or email@example.com.Good Natured, Reptile
Photo Caption: The two-spotted stink bug is quite different from the introduced brown marmorated stink bug currently plaguing the TriCities. Our two-spotted friend actually is a predator and should be welcomed to gardens throughout the area. Its favored prey is potato beetles.
Predatory Stink Bugs
October 6, 2017
Stink. It’s a word on everyone’s mind these days, given the influx of brown marmorated stink bugs we are all experiencing. But, sometimes, stink is just what a garden needs.
The other day my cell phone buzzed, signaling that I had received a text message. It was from my friend Tim, a.k.a. Park Safety Officer Tim Timberlake. Gifted with an eye for the out-of-the-ordinary, Tim frequently spots unusual characters-human and animal alike-in and around St. Charles. I’ve gotten texts from Tim about sandhill cranes, luna moths, flying squirrels and spiders-gone-wild. True to form, this text included a picture along with the words, “What is this?”
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure at first either, and briefly wondered if the critter in the photo was fake. Boldly colored red and black, the insect’s markings seemed anything but natural and in fact reminded me of some sort of medieval crest, or maybe a cryptic corporate logo. But its intricate antennae and realistic bug pose soon convinced me that it was time to hit the field guides.
Or maybe I should say virtual field guides. Over the past few years, the Internet has given rise to a number of wonderful web sites that, dare I say, are easier and faster to use than the cumbersome paperback guides I grew up with.
My favorite, BugGuide.net, lets you narrow down your list of potential identities with just a few clicks of the mouse.
In this case, I could tell the insect was some sort of shield bug. Typing the words “shield bug” in the BugGuide search box, it was only a matter of seconds before I had page after page of insect images. From there I narrowed my choices down to Pentatomidae, the stink bug family, and from there to the subfamily Asopinae, the predatory stink bugs.
Wow, talk about a neat discovery! I’ve met many stink bugs over the years; watched them lay eggs on my patio door; smelled their “stink;” and seen the sort of blister their powerful chemical defense can cause. But while I’ve observed them on plants, and know that many make their living by sucking up plant juices, I had no idea that some actually are predators.
Sure enough, what Tim had discovered was a two-spotted stink bug, Perillus bioculatus-an insect with a knack for knocking off not just other bugs, but specifically bugs that gardeners consider harmful.
It turns out, a preferred prey item of the two-spotted stink bug is Leptinotarsa decemlineata, the Colorado potato beetle. Despite its western name, this little bugger is present throughout North America and has spread into Europe and Asia. No matter where it’s found, though, the result is the same: widespread destruction, not only to potato plants but also tomatoes and eggplants.
A single beetle can consume about 15 sq. in. of plant material a day in its larval stage, and another 4 sq. in. per day as an adult. Add in the facts that a female Colorado potato beetle can produce as many as 800 eggs, and that the species has an amazing ability to become resistant to chemical controls, and it quickly becomes apparent just how big of a pest this insect can be.
Now, did I happen to mention that Tim found his two-spotted stink bug at Primrose Farm Park, just a stone’s throw away from 264 community garden plots, most of which have potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and/or eggplants growing in them?
That stink bug and its kin-and here’s hoping there are lots of them-are like kids in a multi-acre candy store. During its developmental stages, called instars, a single two-spotted stink bug can consume 200-400 potato beetle larvae-numbers that are especially impressive when you consider the stink bug nymphs measure less than a half-inch in length, a smidge or two larger than their prey.
Equally notable is the stink bug’s own defense, a chemical array of compounds known as aldehydes. Highly concentrated, these chemicals are used to repel birds and other predators and can account for up to 5% of the insect’s body weight-roughly the equivalent of an adult human lugging around a one-gallon jug of mace, all the time, and being able to spray it in self-defense and produce replenishments as needed.
With colder weather on its way, I’d imagine the two-spotted stink bugs in our area will soon be heading for cover, either under leaf litter or inside structures like houses.
Like Tim, keep an eye out for these insects and, if you can, resist the urge to squish them-an action that would not only produce a cloud of stench but also also wipe out an important biological control agent for local gardens.
And that would really stink.
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Good Natured, Insect