Saturday, July 23, 2016

To Rattle Or Not To Rattle

Snakes rattle their tails as a warning, but not all snakes exhibiting this behavior are rattlesnakes.

Here an Eastern Cottonmouth rattles its tail to warn of its presence and desire to be left alone.

Rattlesnakes have evolved an amplification method for their tail twitching. Some dry skin remains at the end of their tail each time they shed skin, which allows for a rattle louder than a tail simply moving in dry leaves. Tail twitching is a method of announcing a snake's presence and the rattle is a highly effective design. However, rattling the tail is generally an action of last resort, so many snakes will not rattle even if a human is close.

There are stories suggesting that rattlesnakes are evolving back to quieter snakes without rattles, because non-rattling snakes go undetected and survive. However, there are not any studies that show snakes are rattling less frequently than in the past. Snakes obviously do not want to reveal their location to prey they are trying to eat and unnecessarily revealing their location to non-prey animals may result in death or injury (see the Internet for numerous images of snakes shot or chopped before they could do any "harm"). Remaining motionless and allowing camouflage to work likely allows  snakes to go unnoticed and unharmed. Conversely, if a snake feels that death or injury is imminent, rattling the tail may cause the source of potential danger to move away. It always works with me.

Besides the encounter shown in the video above, other Eastern Cottonmouth snakes have alerted me to their presence when they felt I was too close. While patrolling in the swamp, I saw snake tracks in the mud, but could not find the snake. I did not want to step any farther without knowing exactly what was sharing my close surroundings. The polite cottonmouth, a few feet to my right, rattled its tail against the dead log atop which it rested to let me know its location and that it preferred to be left alone. I obliged and safely moved away. It was possessive of space, but not aggressive.

Eastern Cottonmouth - Mark Musselman
After the great rain of October 2015, I was patrolling the edge of the swamp near the nature center for signs of wild pigs. I hoped that the high water would have them bunched at the edge of the swamp and vulnerable to elimination. I looked up long enough to identify a vehicle moving down the driveway, which was exactly the amount of time needed to step squarely on the back of a Timber Rattlesnake. Sensing the textural difference from my previous thousands of steps, I lifted my foot. The snake moved off a safe distance, coiled and then rattled its disapproval. I took an image, thanked it for its subdued reaction to my "attack" and moved safely away.

Timber Rattlesnake - Mark Musselman
Though the event listed below has become history, we do offer speaker presentations, including one on our friends the snakes. We can all benefit from a better understanding of these reptiles.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Warm Season Burn - Update

One month ago (see previous post), we attempted a warm season burn on 29 acres of old agricultural fields in which our planted longleaf pines were being crowded by other vegetation, mainly dog fennel. Last Thursday, we checked on the progress of the longleaf pines and grasses in the field where the burn was successful.
Grasses under dead dog fennel - Mark Musselman
In areas where the burning was complete, the dog fennel remains dead or absent and the grasses have pushed out new green blades.

With most of the vegetation burned away and the longleaf pine pushing out new needles of a brighter green than the grasses, the longleaf pines are more easily located than before the burn.

Longleaf pine growth after fire - Mark Musselman
Longleaf pine growth after fire - Mark Musselman
Longleaf pine growth after fire - Mark Musselman
Longleaf pine growth after fire - Mark Musselman
With the majority of the competition removed, especially the tall dog fennel, the young longleaf pine are in full sunlight and should grow rapidly over the coming months. By spring, many will have a root collar of one inch and will begin vertical growth leaving the grass stage behind. We look forward to the day when the longleaf pine stand taller than the neighboring grasses!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Warm Season Burn

In January 2015, University of Missouri students on their alternative winter break planted 29 acres of longleaf pine seedlings in old farm fields north of the nature center driveway. For South Carolinians, the weather was uncomfortably cold (50sF) and wet, but for the students it was a warm contrast to their campus.
University of Missouri students - Mark Musselman  
Step #1 for planting longleaf pine: Using dibbles (orange tools), students would open a wedge-shaped hole in the earth, drop a longleaf pine seedling into the hole, and then used the dibble to close the hole around the seedling. To complete the job, repeat step #1 thousands of times.   
University of Missouri students planting longleaf - Mark Musselman

University of Missouri students planting longleaf - Mark Musselman
University of Missouri students planting longleaf - Mark Musselman
As our volunteer workforce was with us in January, we did not have the luxury of applying herbicide to the spring vegetation when it emerged and then repeating the herbicide treatment in the fall for the later emerging vegetation. Therefore, we had plenty of pioneering plants become established during the intervening year. Dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) was the most prolific.

Dog fennel in longleaf pine tract - Mark Musselman
The dog fennel made it difficult for us to move through the tract. However, rabbits, rodents, and a wide-variety of birds--including wild turkey, painted bunting, blue grosbeak, summer tanager, indigo bunting, Mississippi kites, and swallow-tailed kites--found ample forage and shelter within and above the fennel thicket.
Dog fennel in longleaf pine tract - Mark Musselman
A longleaf pine is practically hidden in grasses and dog fennel (above the red line in the image below). Though the dog fennel seemed to form a thicket dense enough to block sunlight from reaching the ground, sufficient light reached the seedling longleaf pines to allow them to survive. However, to grow out of the grass stage, the longleaf pines would need more direct sunlight. Bring on the fire!
Longleaf pine hidden in vegetation - Mark Musselman
Our opportunity to light a prescribed fire came when a cold front dipped down from the northeast a week ago. If you were in the area, you will certainly remember the severe thunderstorms that accompanied that cold front, including tornadoes to our north. Cold, in this case, was relative. The high temperature two days after the storm was only to reach 83F and winds were forecast to be 15 mph from the northeast.

This week's fire was the first for this longleaf pine stand. The six prescribed fire volunteers arrived on schedule, but the winds did not. After several failed attempts to ignite the smaller of the two longleaf pine fields, we moved to the larger, less sheltered field where even a slight wind might have a chance to push fire through the dog fennel and grasses.

In some areas, the fire was 100% effective in consuming the fuels at ground level, killing loblolly pine and sweet gum seedlings, and wilting or consuming dog fennel.

100% fuel burned - Mark Musselman
60% fuel burned - Mark Musselman
60% fuel burned - Mark Musselman
Overall, approximately 60% of the field burned leaving refugia (unburned green areas) for wildlife to use until new vegetation emerges.

Longleaf pine in unburned area - Mark Musselman
Grasses began showing new growth after only two days. New vegetative growth is more palatable to wildlife, which is yet another reason for periodic fire. Additionally, after a fire, many plants will germinate and/or produce seeds or fruit desirable to wildlife.
Grasses new growth - Mark Musselman
Although uneven burning of a tract is beneficial, as it provides refugia for wildlife and fails to consume all of the woody material in more mature stands, it is not planned. Terrain, wetlands, fuel loads, and wind are some of the factors that dictate where and how a fire will burn. In the image below, there was plenty of suitable fuel for the fire to continue on its path. However, the wind died and the fire could not span the gaps between clumps of grass without a slight push from the wind. (Note the spacing between grasses in the "100% fuel burned" image earlier on this page.)

Burned/unburned boundary - Mark Musselman
Some areas burned hot enough to consume the grasses and wilt the dog fennel, but left longleaf pines green and unaffected.
Longleaf pine - Mark Musselman
Some areas burned hot enough brown the needles of the longleaf pines. Closer inspection at the needle bases reveals that they are green, having successfully insulated the terminal bud of the tree.

Brown needles of longleaf pine - Mark Musselman
Green at base of needles - Mark Musselman
Areas at the boundary of the fire provided a combination of heat, but still exposed the longleaf pine to increased sunlight.
Partially scorched longleaf pine - Mark Musselman
Some areas burned hot enough to consume the longleaf pine needles. The future of the longleaf pine shown in the image below is uncertain. In the grass stage, longleaf pines are close to indestructible. The tap root the longleaf pine has sent into the ground may be sufficient to allow new needles to grow. With the neighboring vegetation eliminated, the longleaf pine may thrive in the abundant sunlight and begin rapidly increasing its height above the ground. Conversely, the tree may have been cooked and become part of the anticipated loss within the planted stand.
Longleaf pine - Mark Musselman
A mature longleaf pine stand has been described as a prairie with some trees. There should be an abundance of space and light between the longleaf pine trees. Therefore, we always plant more trees than we intend to see reach maturity. Mortality begins a planting. Some seedlings are not physically fit or are improperly placed in the ground. Weather (drought, hurricanes, lightning, ice storms), insects, wild hogs, fire, competing vegetation are but a few of the factors that affect longleaf pine survival. However, more than enough of the well-adapted trees become large enough to elude the previously listed threats and we have to selectively cull less desirable trees (crooked growing, weather damaged, multiple trunks, etc.) to create the open stand we seek.

This longleaf pine stand is scheduled to be burned again in fall of 2017. What is certain is that the stand will look different in a year and the fire will be unlike the one we conducted this week.

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