Thursday, August 25, 2016

Top 5 Tips for Beginner Birders at the Beach

South Carolina beaches are not just home to amazing views and fun in the sun; the coastline also provides vital habitat for both feeding and nesting. Here are a few tips for the aspiring birders out there to catch these coastal birds in action!

1.      Get in Gear
Be sure to pack a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water. If you’re not local then you are sure to find out soon enough that our temps reach over 100 degrees some days. Coupled with our infamous humidity, it is essential to prepare for the heat and the mosquitoes you will encounter in the swampy areas. We recommend bringing about two times the water you think you should.

2.      Choose your spot

Along with our very own Audubon Center & Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest, there are tons of coastal birding hotspots in the state. From black water rivers to barrier islands, this list of designated Important Bird Areas is a great place to start your search for a birding adventure.

3.      Identify
Once you start seeing all of our beautiful coastal birds, you are going to want to identify them. We recommend picking up a field guide or use a mobile app for easy access to information on every species of bird in the United States. Merlin and Audubon Bird Guide are both easy and free. There are also all sorts of methods to record each new bird discovery!

4.      Practice makes perfect
Sometimes you’ll get only a quick glimpse of a bird as it perches or flies from one location to another. Practice your identification method by noticing the size and shape, color, behavior, and habitat. The quicker you get, the longer your list will be!

5.      Share the beach

Wherever you roam, be sure to not disturb the birds or their habitat. If you are close enough to agitate the birds into flying away or altering their behavior in any way, then you are too close. Also, make sure to never feed the birds and refrain from bringing pets. Even on a leash, dogs are perceived as predators to birds and will frighten them away.

Photos by Vanessa Kauffmann

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Geolocators 2.0 - Looking to Further Our Understanding of Prothontoary Warbler Migration

In April 2015, we recovered a single geolocator from a Prothonotary Warbler (aptly named “Longshot”). This small device gave us amazing insight into the migration of the "swamp canary" (read about it here). 

Longshot, pictured here during his recapture in April 2015, wearing the geolocator that he had carried since the previous July.

But in order to learn even more about the migration of this imperiled bird, we deployed eight more geolocators on Prothonotary Warblers earlier this spring. Below, we'll describe the process for attaching these miniature tracking devices to these birds. On our next post, you’ll get to meet the eight special birds that we need your help finding next spring.

We received our shipment of 8 geolocators in May 2016. Each of these tiny devices weighs 0.45 grams, which is about 4% of the body weight of the average Prothonotary Warbler. The general rule for attaching a tracking device to a bird is to stay below 5% of their body weight (in order to not risk negatively affecting it).  Tracking technology miniaturized enough to attach to a bird this small has only been around for the last few years!
Eight light-level geolocators arrive at Beidler Forest in May 2016. Learn how these devices work here.

In order to attach a geolocator to a bird, harnesses are made using Stretch Magic (a common type of jewelry cord). Harnesses are tied in a knot creating two loops, and then precisely measured in order to fit around the legs of a Prothonotary Warbler. Once each harness is accurately measured, they are superglued to the geolocator. 

After the knot is tied, each loop must be accurately measured to a specific length. If the length of the loop is just one centimeter off, the harness might not fit the bird correctly.

Once the harness has been measured, the knot is superglued to the geolocator. Pictured here is Aaron Given, Assistant Wildlife Biologist for the Town of Kiawah Island. Aaron helped us get permitted for this project, make harnesses, and deploy each unit. We couldn't have done this project without his help - thanks Aaron!

Once the glue dries, we trim off the excess cord and the geolocator is officially ready to go!

Once the harnesses are made, we hook the geolocators up to computer software, double-check that they are recording light levels, and then the geolocator is ready to go!

A geolocator with harness attached to leads, allowing us to communicate with the individual unit. We use this to calibrate each geolocator, double-check that they are functioning correctly, and most the data when we (hopefully) recover them next year!

Now that are units are ready to be put out, we strategically choose the best candidate Prothonotary Warblers out of those that we've color-banded in the past. This is one of the most important reasons we color-band: since we can use the bands to identify each bird uniquely, we can monitor their return rates and breeding success. From this data, we can determine which of our birds have 1) migrated in past years and returned to Beidler and 2) successfully bred this year. These two factors often influence an individual's likeliness to return in subsequent years, and thus are good metrics for determining which birds to use in this project. 

With that in mind, the photo below is a quick overview of the band colors that we've used over the last three years. That way you can learn the colors of each bird carrying a geolocator and you'll be ready to help us find them next spring!
Each bird gets an aluminum band (marked as "A" on right) with a number on it, as well as a unique combination of three colors. Since the bands weigh next to nothing, there is no worry of them hurting or adversely affecting the birds. Using the numbers below each color, we assign an alphanumeric code to each bird.

Contrary to what you  might think, the harness and geolocator do not go over the birds' wings (although sometimes we call it a backpack); instead, they go over the legs and each loop rests up near the bird's hip. 

Putting on the first geolocator.

First gelocator attached! The unit is designed so that the light stock (the lower, white end) points up from the bird, thus allowing it to record light level readings without accidentally being hidden beneath feathers or obstructing the bird's flight.

In our next blog post, we'll introduce to you the eight Prothonotary Warblers that received geolocators in 2016 so that you can join us in looking for them next year when they hopefully return to Beidler Forest!


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Project PROTHO Intern

Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson for their generous donation to Audubon South Carolina in memory Lloyd and Margaret Cone, we were able to fund a seasonal internship aimed at increasing our monitor efforts of the Prothonotary Warbler at three locations across Four Holes Swamp – two areas in old growth and one area that was logged onceHeather VanTassel, our intern, received her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Carlow University. She went on to obtain her PhD in Ecology from the University of California Riverside focusing on understanding wildlife responses to anthropogenic disturbances in the southwest.
Old-growth Swamp - Heather VanTassel
With Heather's assistance, we have learned that while Prothonotary Warbler densities may not seem to be as high in the logged areas as they are in the old-growth swamp, the once-logged areas still maintain healthy densities of Prothonotary Warblers. These results reinforce our efforts to conserve Four Holes Swamp and allow once-disturbed sites to return to their natural state in order to support healthy bird communities. We also plan to put out 50 Prothonotary Warbler nest boxes in the logged locations, which will provide additional nesting cavities and help maintain Prothonotary Warbler densities in the future.

Project PROTHO Nest Box - Heather VanTassel
You can follow what we are doing with Project PROTHO on our webpage.

Prothonotary Warbler Nestlings - Heather VanTassel

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.