Boulder Scramble (Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park)

May 1, 2018

An eastern collared lizard sits atop the highest point in a field of boulders at Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park.

My friend Bill was off today so we decided to go on a herp hike at Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park. Although snakes and lizards typically sleep in, we departed at 0 dark 30 so we could do a little bird watching while the herps were still snoozing under their rocks.

We made it to the site in a snap with only a short stop for coffee at the St. Clair McDonalds. I love it that I can make it to such gorgeous state parks in only an hour and a half from my house. We arrived at the Scour Trail Trailhead, which is actually outside the main park, a little after daylight and enjoyed the half-mile walk through the woods to the boulder field where we would begin our scramble. We were serenaded along the way by the likes of wood thrushes and Kentucky warblers, and Bill, and amateur botanist, stopped frequently to relish the great diversity of wildflowers.

The boulder field at Johnson’s Shut-ins resulted from a torrent of water that rushed through the park in December, 2004, after the collapse of a section of the dam wall of the old Taum Sauk Reservoir, which was perched atop Proffit Mountain upstream from the park. During the event, thousands of granite boulders were deposited in the park. We began our search for herps among the granite boulders that remain strewn throughout the park, starkly beautiful in a variety of colors ranging from pink to red to blue and brown. The boulders stand in contrast to the impressive outcroppings of rock that have always been a feature this beloved state park.

It was a clear morning and the sun warmed the rocks up fast. My scrambling ability was a bit limited as I was carrying my 500/4 lens with its huge tripod. I usually carry a much smaller 300/4 lens for herp scrambles but I had been using the big lens for warblers earlier so I just continued with it when we made it to the scour tract.

It wasn’t long before Bill found a stocky, eastern hog-nosed snake basking on a boulder. The hognose didn’t disappoint as it displayed its “puff adder” image by flattening its head.

An eastern hog-nosed snake flattens its head to intimidate interlopers into its territory.

The abundance of red rocks made photography of the hognose much easier under the bright light of the clear morning.

Another look at the incredible intimidation display of the eastern hognose.

Next on the agenda was a female collared lizard that bolted almost from underneath me as I walked among the boulders. It was a treat to watch it jump straight up in the air and land on a very round boulder resulting in a great pose with its tail dangling downward.

A female collared lizard poses on a bowling ball like boulder.

The resulting vertical image (above) was my favorite of the morning and I’m hoping to see it on a magazine cover some day. I had to wait a long time for the lizard to tilt its head in such a way that a catchlight (specular highlight) would show on its eye. I see so many image of reptiles with eyes that look like black holes because the photographer didn’t wait for or think about a catchlight. The lack of a catchlight in a critter’s eye is what my mentor, Artie Morris, would have called an “image killer” under any circumstances.

While I was waiting for the perfect shot of the collared lizard, Bill found his second snake, an eastern yellow-bellied racer. The racer certainly didn’t have the personality of the hog-nosed snake but it was indeed lovely among the beautiful granite boulders.

An eastern yellow-bellied racer on a bed of reddish granite.

If you look closely at the racer image, which was taken from the minimum focus distance allowed by my 500/4 (15 feet) you can see the smooth scales (no keels) characteristic of the species.

Later in the morning I found another female collared lizard and just as I was setting up for a shot, Bill spied its mate nearby, a stunning male! I reset my tripod and began photographing the beautiful male with its mix of wonderful colors such as turquoise and lime green. The resulting image is also the featured image for this edition.

A male collared lizard peeks from behind a granite boulder.

As we continued our walk we found a few more female collared lizards and another male (above). It seemed like Bill and I were giving each other high fives as often as on a great day of warbler hunting. Yep — the reptiles were cooperating.

As we continued to explore the boulders and outcroppings of the park, the sun really went into overdrive. We had scrambled through the rocks for at least two miles before we noticed that it was lunchtime. The only thing I had had to eat or drink up to that point was a small coffee so I started inching back toward the trailhead hoping Bill would follow my lead.

But the morning wasn’t quite over as we made it back to the trail through the woods where we had started our day. Bill found an eastern garter snake right next to the creek near the Scour Pavilion area. The garter snake provided a nice closing image to a wonderful morning.

An eastern garter snake provides a perfect ending to a perfect morning of herp hunting.

When we finally made it back to the car, it felt like a summer day for sure. After loading our gear, we set our sights for the Huddle House along Highway 21 in Potosi. Boy that country-fried steak and mashed potatoes with white gravy sure tasted good! On the rest of the way home, Bill reviewed the images on the back of my camera, providing commentary and reflection with each shot. It made the trip go by faster than ever and we were all smiles when we pulled back into my driveway at the farm. Good times!

Thanks for looking,


Email me with questions or comments at:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images:

America is beautiful. I vote to keep it that way.

16 comments on “Boulder Scramble (Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park)”

  1. Enjoyed the account of how-it-happened as much as the photographs themselves Thanks Danny!

  2. Danny, over the next few days I’m doing some colour posts on ‘Pink and Blue’. I love the top photo and want to ask permission to include it in one of my posts. I’d credit to your name and link to your post and to your blog-home. Please let me know, thanks!

  3. Thanks for the trip.  That scurvy trail sure gives you a idea of what power the water has .Bruce 

    Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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  4. They are so beautiful and I am so glad that they are still around. 🙂

  5. Great photos Danny of some of the less notorious critters of Missouri! Do you know how the collared lizards populated this site? Since this was an “unnatural” scour, was there a reintroduction of the species, or a healthy population within the park that moved into this new habitat on their own? Thank you!

    • There are plenty of natural rock outcroppings throughout the scour area where collared lizards naturally occurred before the incident. I bet some new ones washed down from the breached dam wall because that was a heavily populated site for collared lizard’s along the dam’s rocky face.

  6. Those are awesome pictures I didn’t know we had an eastern collared lizard he’s beautiful!!

  7. These are wonderful, Danny! I particularly like that top image of the eastern collared lizard. Amazing colours and patterns!

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