Sunday, May 15, 2016

Season of Burning

Till Farm Longleaf - Mark Musselman
This year, the late winter/early spring weather provided us the opportunity to conduct several prescribed fires at the Francis Beidler Forest and the Till Farm west of Walterboro in Colleton County. With the exception of one 12-acre loblolly pine stand, all of the burns were conducted to reduce fuels and enhance the health of the longleaf pine tracts we have planted. In all, we burned 76 acres in 7 burns at Beidler Forest and 84 acres in 2 burns at the Till Farm.

Post-fire Till Farm - Mark Musselman
Due to concerns over smoke possibly lingering into the night, several of the tracts at Beidler Forest were burned in smaller pieces due to the logging debris, including some substantial piles, still on the sites. Now that the tracts have been burned and the debris reduced, future burns can be conducted for these tracts on a single day.

We have planted longleaf pine in order to restore the native pine ecosystem of the southeastern United States. Read more...previous posts

Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
Mizzel tract - Joe Cockrell
Although it appears apocalyptic after a fire, the habitat rapidly rebounds. Nutrients from the burned material are made available and new vegetation can be seen within days. Additionally, longleaf pine competition (hardwoods and loblolly pines) are not adapted to fire and fare poorly as younger trees. Finally, fuels are reduced thereby preventing a catastrophic fire in the future that even longleaf pine might be unable to survive.

Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
The majority of the browned trees in the above image are young loblolly pines killed by the fire. Below are images showing how the fire-adapted longleaf pines survive.

Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
The loblolly pine in the foreground is likely dead, while the longleaf pines in the background survived with one less competing neighbor. Although the needles that shielded the terminal bud of the longleaf pine were killed by the fire's heat and have dropped to the ground, the new growth "candle" can be seen emerging. Farther in the background, a longleaf pine only had needles scorched on its left side.

Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
Above, a longleaf pine's terminal bud was protected from heat by its long needles, which folded up as fire arrived. Fresh needles will emerge from the new growth "candle". More examples are shown below.
Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
As noted earlier, logging debris was a smoke concern, but it was also a concern due to the intense and sustained heat it could generate. Longleaf pine seedlings that were planted in or near such debris would face fire conditions beyond the protective capability of their needles. Even so,  despite appearing to be all but incinerated, many are pushing out new needles.

Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
Post-fire Mizzel tract - Mark Musselman
These necessary prescribed fires could not have been conducted safely and efficiently without the help of volunteers. This year we have had 12 volunteers (several at more than one burn) log 126 hours in support of the 110 staff hours, which included planning and site preparation work.  Additionally, while the Mizzou students were here on their alternative spring break, they cleared felled oaks from the original longleaf pine tract, which we converted for use as firewood for wintertime visitors to our log cabin.

Removing oak - Mark Musselman
Mizzou students also removed loblolly pines from a longleaf pine tract planted by fellow Mizzou students on their January 2015 alternative winter break. In both cases, removing the non-longleaf pines helps to eliminate competition for resources in addition to keeping the canopy relatively open to allow in sunlight for longleaf-obligate understory vegetation.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Swamp Litter Removal

Unfortunately, trash is an issue along almost every road in our state. However, the stretch of US Hwy 78 where it crosses Four Holes Swamp has lately been especially littered. The route leads to the nearby landfill and some debris blows free from commercial and private vehicles, but the majority of litter appears to be beverage containers intentionally launched from vehicles. Additionally, the persistent high water, since the historic October 2015 rains, has rafted litter against the north side of the dam-like highway bed and into the woods on the south side of the highway. Eventually, water will carry litter downstream to the Edisto River and on into the Atlantic Ocean.

Knowing that we would have ten enthusiastic University of Missouri students working for us during their alternative spring break, we planned to attack the US Hwy 78 litter issue sometime during their visit. However, we were not the only ones noting the excessive litter. The folks at the Brosnan Forest, property of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, regularly clean portions of US Hwy 78 where it passes through their property. They too had decided to address the problem at the Four Holes Swamp crossing. It was decided that we would combine forces and clean the mile-long stretch last Tuesday morning.

Mizzou students - Michael Dawson
With trash bags and litter grabbers provided by Carolyn Tomlinson of Keep Dorchester County Beautiful, the Francis Beidler Forest and Brosnan Forest teams met at the intersection of US Hwy 78/US Hwy 178. Each group divided into two teams with Brosnan Forest taking the north side of the highway and Beidler Forest/Mizzou taking the south side of the highway. One team from each group began on the west end at Bridge Lake, while the other team from each group was shuttled to the east side of the swamp near the Timothy Creek Riding Stables.

Litter Cleanup - Mark Musselman
Although the construction of the new bridge on the east side eliminated a portion of the area to be cleaned on the north side of the highway, the litter crews had the remainder of the roadway cleaned by noon. The 200+ bags of trash were piled along the highway shoulder for the South Carolina Department of Transportation to collect the following day. Not only did the crew from Brosnan Forest help us clean up a portion of the swamp, they treated everyone to a fantastic lunch at their facility near Dorchester, SC!

Litter Cleanup - Mark Musselman

Again, the vast majority of the litter consisted of beverage containers (glass and plastic bottles, aluminum cans, Styrofoam-type cups). An estimated 3.5 tons of litter was collected! That is an impressive number for a one-mile stretch of road. However, it would be much more impressive and healthier for our freshwater and marine ecosystems, if our cleaning efforts were unnecessary. Remember, “Litter Trashes Everyone.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler Migration Revealed: The Completed Story of Longshot

I know many of you that have read about Longshot's story have been waiting anxiously to learn what the geolocator that he wore for nine months could tell us about his migration. Believe us...we have been waiting anxiously too!

The delay has mostly had to do with the mechanics of the geolocator itself (if you aren't sure what a geolocator is, read about it here). The device is designed to be read using computer software, but because of some technical issues it had to be mailed back to the U.K. so that the manufacturer could disassemble it.

Longshot, the Prothonotary Warbler that carried a "backpack" geolocator with him from July 2014 to April 2015, photographed at Beidler Forest earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Joan Eckhardt.

Technicalities aside, I am happy to announce that we have now translated the light-levels readings from the device into latitude-longitude data points, and have successfully learned the fall migration pathway and wintering location for Longshot. The map below shows, to our best knowledge, his fall migration south, leaving from Beidler Forest in late August. His trip first took him to the panhandle of Florida and from there across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba. He then continued south towards Central America, landing around the Nicaraguan/Honduran border on October 1st. From here, he traveled another 1,000 miles south to the Colombian coast, perhaps stopping in Panama along the way. His route took him between 2,000 and 2,500 miles one-way, and the overall trip took almost two months.

A Google Earth map of Longshot's migration route and wintering location. His geolocator died in February 2015, so we won't know his northern migration back to Beidler from Colombia. Map courtesy of Erik Johnson.

This is, to our knowledge, the first time in South Carolina history that the migration route and wintering location of a Prothonotary Warbler breeding in the state has ever been documented! The battery in the geolocator died on February 14th, 2015, and because of this, we unfortunately cannot determine Longshot's northern migration back to Beidler Forest. What we do know, however, is that his northern return at least covered 2,000 miles, AND that he returned to within a few feet of his breeding territory in 2014. Given that this bird weighs half an ounce (imagine the weight of two quarters), migrates at night, and was coming from another continent, this is an astonishing feat.

We've been lucky to receive some publicity on Longshot's journey. The National Audubon Society's website team has written a fascinating story on Prothonotary Warblers, including work done in Louisiana and South Carolina. Our local Post & Courier newspaper published both a print and online article that covers Longshot's story in detail. In addition, Mac Stone (former Seasonal Naturalist at Beidler Forest and current executive director of the Naturaland Trust in upstate South Carolina) wrote a featured article for Birdwatching Magazine on Longshot, and Mac was actually present the day he was recaptured to take some amazing photographs (Mac's website).

We hope that this publicity brings to light the challenges that so many migratory birds face. The conservation of birds like the Prothonotary Warbler is not tied to one state, country, or organization. These birds depend on multiple habitats that often cross hemispheres, and therefore working collectively on the breeding, migratory, and wintering grounds is the only way that we can successfully help these birds.

Want to do your part? Support organizations that work to conserve habitat for birds in North, Central, and South America. Work within your community to make sure that it is bird-friendly. Most importantly - get involved! You can do this by volunteering at a center, participating in a bird count, or joining your local Audubon chapter. We need you!

Author's Note: If it were for the help and knowledge of Norman Brunswig (retired director of Audubon SC) and Julie Hovis (biologist at Shaw Air Force Base who actually put the geolocator on Longshot), this project would never had happened. They deserve to be recognized for their tremendous contribution to this project! Thanks also to all of the volunteers who gave their time to help collect data, take pictures, and assist with the banding project.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Shorebird Migration and Piping Plover re-sighting

Shorebird migration through South Carolina has been well under way since the beginning of August as was evident after David McLean's Bulls Island waterfowl/shorebird survey on August 4th. A large number of shorebirds have begun to show up again on our beaches. It seems like there are always a few stragglers, but nesting season is practically over and shorebirds are migrating south once again. While this is a difficult time to correctly identify birds due to the high numbers of new fledglings and the majority of shorebirds in non-breeding plumage, it is also an exciting time of year because a large number of banded birds come through South Carolina! Spotting colored auxiliary bands such as engraved flags or color combinations on shorebirds adds a whole new level of fun to birding. We can learn a lot from banding projects about survival, migration, faithfulness to nest sites and mates, and local movements. This valuable information helps inform land managers and lawmakers on how to manage land used by endangered or threatened birds. So if you see a color banded shorebird, try to read the code noting the information listed here.

Piping Plover in non-breeding plumage spotted in Rattlesnake Key, FL by Pat Leary. Can you read the yellow flag?
Piping Plover in Breeding Plumage from

One species in particular that you are likely to see individuals with color bands on is the Piping Plover. Although it is a more difficult bird to re-sight due to the size of their flag, Piping Plovers are a treat to spot. There are three breeding populations of Piping Plovers in North America: a Great Lakes population, which is federally endangered, an Atlantic Coast population, and a Northern Great Plains population, which are both threatened. South Carolina’s inlets and barrier beaches provide great habitat for a number of Piping Plovers. Some only stopover on their way further south, but a good amount stay here for the winter and take advantage of mudflats at low tides and intertidal zones that are rich in insects and small aquatic invertebrates. This is a difficult bird to identify and re-sight a band. Similar in appearance to other plovers, the field marks that help me most often in identifying Piping Plovers is their overall gray bodies paired with yellow legs. In breeding plumages it is easier to discern plovers, but this time of year most birds are no longer flaunting their best spring and summer colors. Piping Plovers are banded on the breeding grounds and over the winter, but detecting color bands on these birds can be difficult due to their small size. Re-sighting requires good optics and a lot of patience. If you do get a good look at a Piping Plover, you can report Piping Plover bands by emailing For all you photographers out there, cameras with a good zoom lens are invaluable during re-sighting because you can capture a picture of the color bands without disturbing the birds.

Although small, these birds are not to be underestimated. Intruders near a Piping Plover nest have a lot coming to them. We don’t see these birds during the breeding season, but from late April through early June both males and females engage in territory defense. They can be seen walking shoulder to shoulder with Plovers from adjacent territories bobbing their heads up and down to puff up and flaunt their back feathers. They will also charge at other birds, using their beak as a weapon. One observer in Manitoba reported a Killdeer entering a Piping Plover territory where it was bitten so hard on the leg that it limped for the rest of the summer. Around this time of year though when we see them in SC, they become more communal and will spend most of their time feeding in large groups with other shorebirds. What some find most fascinating is the large range Piping Plovers can be seen during the winter. Scattered all across the East coast, during the winter, these birds have been seen as far north as Long Island, New York and as far south as the Bahamas. Perhaps some have a greater taste for tropical bugs and will travel all the way to Puerto Rico for the winter. The huge feat that is migration and selection of nesting and wintering grounds are topics of research all along the coast.

Another banded Piping Plover. Courtesy of Pat Leary.

If you take anything away from this newsletter it should be this! It holds true for both migratory Piping Plovers and those which choose to overwinter here, that too many disturbances can be deadly. Sharing the beach with these cool birds is important for their survival. Piping Plovers burn a lot of energy every time they lift off to fly; energy they are trying to store for the winter or to continue migrating south. It takes a lot of work to maintain a healthy temperature during colder months and to be vigilant against predators. It’s interesting to think about how well a person would survive in their position. Imagine you are taking a long car trip across the country, or running a very long distance, but every time you stopped to rest or eat, someone scared you away. I certainly would not survive very long.

There are other shorebird species out there that have color markers, or engraved bands or flags, such as Red Knots and American Oystercatchers, so keep your eyes out for them! Reporting re-sighted birds is a fun and educational experience and usually you can learn where else that bird has been re-sighted all over the world. Color banded shorebirds can be reported to which has an ongoing database where the public can input information about banded birds they have seen. This valuable information adds significantly to a greater understanding of the critical habitat needs of different species throughout their migratory routes. By participating as a citizen scientist and reporting the bands you see, you are doing a great service! But always keep in mind that we don’t want to love these birds to death. It is important to not flush or alter the behavior of a bird in order to read its bands. Thanks for reading and have fun re-sighting!

Have questions, comments, cool stories you want to share? for more information.

  1. SC DNR Coastal Birds webpage
  1. Cornell Lab of Ornithology

  1. Pictures courtesty of Pat Leary and

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

American Oystercatchers on South Carolina's Coast

          This summer, Audubon South Carolina has teamed up with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and a number of other state and non-profit organizations to work on the South Carolina Shorebird Project. One of our target species for monitoring was the American Oystercatcher.

Two adult American Oystercatchers cooling off in the surf. Notice that the closer one has an auxiliary band.
Photo courtesy of Janet Thibault.

Oystercatchers are common to seacoasts in temperate to tropical parts of the world, and the American Oystercatcher is one of two species of oystercatchers that breed in North America. They nest along most of South Carolina’s less human populated beaches and as far north as Massachusetts. This species, deemed a “Species of High Concern” by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, is fascinating and easily identifiable by their long orange bill and bright yellow eyes among all the “peeps” that also inhabit SC beaches. They lay their eggs directly on the ground in well camouflaged scrapes in the sand and decorate the edges of their scrape with little bits of shell. South Carolina has approximately 400 pairs of nesting Oystercatchers.
As American Oystercatcher nesting season came to an end, we were amazed at the difference in the number of fledgling chicks on various beaches in South Carolina. Our Oystercatcher friends have a lot to contend with during nesting season. There are many factors that can affect a nest’s success (meaning if eggs hatch or not). High tides can wash over nests and scatter or damage eggs, their nests can be disturbed causing damage to eggs, and increases in humans’ real estate decreases the real estate available to birds. Additionally, predators such as raccoons, dogs, and even other birds will opportunistically eat Oystercatcher eggs and chicks if the parents are off their nest. American Oystercatchers are very finicky birds because when something they perceive nearby as potentially predatory, their strategy is to get off the nest and attempt to draw away the predator. This can be an effective but risky strategy because it exposes eggs to deadly summer heat and keen-eyed predators. This is why it is vital to be mindful of nesting areas and respect posted areas during your visits to the beach. Even a dog on a leash or under voice command can scare parents off their nest from a great distance away.

What a cutie! An American Oystercatcher chick waits for mom or dad to bring back food.
Photo courtesy of Janet Thibault.

When chicks hatch, it only takes 24-48 hours before they are up, running, and hiding from predators in wrack and beach brush. Then, after 35 days, the chicks can fly, yet still depend on their parents for food for at least two months after hatching.
American Oystercatchers are the only shorebird in South Carolina that feed on shellfish and need to teach their chicks how to hunt and feed. They are named for their distinctive bill which is built like an oyster shucking knife. As the tide lowers, it exposes oysters allowing the Oystercatcher to take that chance to slip its beak in, open the oyster and steal the oyster meat. Adults will bring back single oysters to their chicks to show them how to use their beak! Maybe the term “bird brain” should be a positive one.

Score! This Oystercatcher successfully grabbed a chunk of oyster out of its shell.
Photo courtesy of Janet Thibault.

So while you’re out enjoying the sun, salty air, and fascinating wildlife, remember to share the beach with our feathered friends. If you see anything you want to share with us, take a picture and tell us about it! We love to hear your stories. The most interesting photos are the ones where birds are acting natural, unaware of your presence, not photos where birds are flying away because they were flushed, or staring at the camera from their nests.

Have questions, comments, cool stories you want to share? Email for more information.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lightening the Load for Longshot

The weather forecast for last Wednesday (April 15th) was for rain and thunderstorms. We had five volunteers signed up to come help with our Prothonotary Warbler banding project (better known as Project PROTHO), and when they all arrived at the visitor center at Francis Beidler Forest, it was pouring rain. We were nearly ready to cancel.

Things have a way of working out, though, and Mother Nature obliged for about six hours that day, giving us enough time to try to catch Longshot. If you haven't heard about the Prothonotary Warbler that retired Audubon South Carolina State Director Norm Brunswig affectionately named "Longshot," see our previous post here. Amazingly enough, this tiny bird (weighing about 14 grams) wore a small device called a geolocator (weighting about 0.4 grams) for the last 10 months, flying to somewhere in Central or South America during that time. It is our hope that the device itself will answer that precise question - where did he go? Geolocators take light level readings to infer a relative position, thus enabling researchers for the first time to track the long-term movements of a small bird.

Staff and volunteers transport banding equipment on the boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.
Before last week, we'd already tried once to catch Longshot without success. Imagine our worry: he travels 2,000-3,000 miles wearing this device, and then we can't catch him to take it off when he's 20 feet away from the boardwalk at Beidler Forest! Last week was our second chance at trying, and our fear was that he might become shy of our net and decoy, thus making him even more difficult to catch.

Sure enough, we arrived at his "spot" on the boardwalk around 9:00 a.m. and tried unsuccessfully to catch him once again. After about 30 minutes of trying, we admitted defeat and left to try to catch a few other Prothonotary Warblers that were unbanded.

We had much more success doing that! The pictures below are a few taken by our talented volunteers of the banding process.

Every bird that we band receives a silver, aluminum band from the United States Geological Survey. This band contains a number that corresponds to a national database, so that if this bird is ever captured again somewhere else, whoever catches it can learn exactly where and when it was originally banded. We also add color bands in a unique, three-color combination so that we can identify birds individually. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.
These are the color bands that we'll be using in 2015. Each color corresponds with a number, and in addition to the silver USGS band that every bird gets, we can assign a unique alphanumeric combination to each bird. The red-yellow striped band has a slightly different number - this band will be used on every bird we catch this year (the 15 stands for 2015), but will not be used in subsequent years.
The bands don't hurt the birds and are extremely small/lightweight (see picture above for scale). This bird's new name will be A1500, based on the colors used and their arrangement on the bird.

In addition to leg bands, a standardized set of measurements is taken from every bird that we capture. This information will be compared with data from researchers in several other states that are capturing Prothonotaries and performing the same measurements. Photo courtesy of Marcie Daniels.

Once the birds are processed, we try to take a few documentary pictures and then release them as quickly as possible. Here, a volunteer releases a newly banded bird. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

We banded three new birds for the day, taking us through lunchtime. Near the end of our field day, we decided to take one more chance at catching the Prothonotary with the geolocator. We set the net up in PRECISELY the same spot that we banded him in July 2014,!!

"Longshot," the Prothonotary Warbler that's been carrying a geolocator since July 2014, is finally captured! Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

Once he was removed from the net, we were able to get a close up look at the geolocator (pictured in center). This device was attached to the bird as a harness, looping around his upper legs using Stretch Magic. A simple snip with a pair of scissors and it was off! Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

The recovered geolocator from "Longshot," lightening the load he has to carry by 0.4 grams! The right end of the device is the light sensing stock, the gray portion contains the battery and storage unit, and the brown string is the cut harness. Photo courtesy of Mac Stone.

A914, aka Longshot, before his release last Wednesday. A truly remarkable story! Photo courtesy of Marcie Daniels.

Once we captured and removed the geolocator, we released Longshot and packed up our gear. About 20 minutes after arriving back at the center, the rain set in again. We had a fortunate day of weather that allowed us to catch a very lucky bird!

Now that the geolocator is back in our possession, we're going to send it off to our Audubon colleagues in Louisiana who can hopefully use software to analysis the data. If it all works out, are fingers are crossed that his "backpack" will tell us not only where he spent his winter, but how he got there too.

Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on Longshot and our other banded birds!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Project PROTHO - 2015 update and the return of "Longshot"

In 2008, Audubon South Carolina began what is still known today as Project PROTHO, a citizen science endeavor to learn more about the population of Prothonotary Warblers living in the swamp at Francis Beidler Forest. This project has continued off and on since then - for a comprehensive history of Project PROTHO, see past posts written by former Education Director Mark Musselman here:

After a gap in 2012 and 2013, this project picked back up in 2014 with our interest in geolocator technology. A geolocator is a light-sensing device that is (currently) the most advanced technology available to track the movements of a small bird like the Prothonotary Warbler. These devices take light level readings each day that are ultimately used to determine the bird's estimated latitude/longitude position. The geolocators are worn as a "backpack," with a harness securing the geolocator to the bird and a small light stock sticking out of the end. The biggest catch with using geolocators is that they don't work in real time - birds must be caught, fitted with a geolocator, then captured again the following year to have the device removed!

So why use these devices at all? There's a big question that Audubon SC hasn't been able to answer: where do our birds go when they leave the swamp? We like to think that we keep the swamp a healthy place for these warblers, but we only host them for less than half of the year. In the winter, Prothonotaries spend their time in Central and South America (see our previous post here about a recent trip to Panama to see these birds). But what area specifically? Is it a healthy ecosystem? Is it threatened by development as so many coastal mangroves are? Is there something that we could be doing in another country that would help these birds?

There are many questions still to answer, so in 2014 we began banding birds again to establish a population of known individuals that we could potentially use as candidates to wear geolocators. The permitting and timing in 2014 left us in a bit of a bind so while we were planning to deploy four geolocators as part of a pilot project, we were only able to deploy one.

A Prothonotary Warbler about to be fitted with the only geolocator we deployed. We captured, attached the geolocator, and released this bird in July 2014.

The odds of ever seeing a banded bird again once it leaves to migrate are very low, less than a 1% chance. Prothonotary Warblers, however, make good candidates for geolocators because they show high site fidelity (fancy term meaning that they like to return to the same wetlands from year to year).

Imagine our surprise when a group of bird-watchers saw this very special bird on April 4th, EXACTLY the same spot on the boardwalk where we captured it last July! This bird likely traveled a round-trip flight of approximately 3,000 miles - only to come back again to the same section of Beidler Forest. And for the first time ever, he's carrying technology that will hopefully tell us precisely where he went...and how he got there!

Our returning "geolocated" bird (aka Longshot) seen on April 4th at Francis Beidler Forest. Note the small white blob on his back - that's the light stock of the geolocator!

Like male Prothonotaries are apt to do, here's a picture of our geolocated bird carrying nesting materials to a cavity. Males usually arrive at Beidler before the females and will choose a handful of cavities to line with mosses and other materials...then they let the females choose which one they like best!

Another angle of "Longshot" and his geolocator. Note that he, like many of the birds we're studying, is color banded. Each bird gets a unique 3-band combination so that we can identify each one individually.

So, remember the "catch" that we mentioned? That's right, we still have to catch this little guy again to get the geolocator off before we can learn anything. We'll be trying to do that this week, so stay tuned to this blog for updates!