Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Bird Count

During the next month Christmas Bird Counts will be conducted across the Americas. Jeff Mollenhauer, Bird Conservation Director for Audubon South Carolina, will be compiling the numbers from the various counting sites. Today's Post and Courier has an article describing that effort.

As with other counts during the year, the Christmas Bird Count provides scientists and conservationists with bird species numbers that in the long-term (the last 40 years) show trends and alert us to species that may be suffering from declining populations. Habitat loss remains a critical threat, but early detection of population declines, especially in bird species considered to be common, can help identify other threats. The image shows a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus).

Watch this blog for results of the local Christmas Bird Count and check the national webpage for results across the Americas!

Friday, December 21, 2007

More Boundary Lines

With over 15,000 acres in Four Holes Swamp, the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest has many miles of boundary lines to maintain. Yesterday was to be a cool and sunny day, so plans were made to locate an abandoned interal line and make it the new northern boundary of the sanctuary (no hunting, no fishing) portion of Audubon South Carolina's (ASC) holdings within Four Holes Swamp. Alas, this was easier said than done.

The former Georgia Pacific property had obviously been heavily logged at some point prior to its aquistion by ASC in 1988. Apparently, there were few if any trees near the property line on which to chop blazes. The line across the swamp is almost two miles long. There are some iron rebars driven into the swamp to mark the slight changes in direction of the line, but after almost 20 years they have rusted or become buried. Yesterday, we had no luck finding the line. However, we had hiked over 1.5 miles with a gallon of red paint per person, so we were going to paint something!

We began painting the outside boundary along our path back to the truck (see yellow highlighted section in image). At every turn in the boundary line there is a iron pipe or rebar marking the spot in addition to triple blazes on nearby trees witnessing the spot. Where the boundary line passes near trees on the left or the right, two blazes are chopped as witnesses facing the line. That's plenty of painting. By the end of the day, we were each down to less than 1/2 gallon of paint (some of it on our finest swamp clothing).

With the promise that today's rain would let up by noon, we headed out to the corner with a cheap compass and a metal detector to try and find the elusive boundary line. The high-speed surveyor's compass was in a staff member's truck in Summerville. The red line shows the corner markers at each side of the swamp (and line). We began at the western corner and shot a bearing with our less-than-precise classroom compass. We measured out 169' with the tape and began searching the area with the metal detector. We soon had a squeal signifying iron lay beneath the muck. It was then that we noticed the three blazes hidden beneath a lush green carpet of moss on a nearby tree. Those would be the last blazes we found. Probing the muck with the machete produced the rusted off tip of rebar complete with a old piece of pink surveyor tape. We had our first corner and a line on which to follow into the swamp.

Using our crude compass and eyeball estimates, we flagged a path into the swamp and captured the coordinates of those points with a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. We dumped the captured waypoints into the computer when we returned the center and generated the next image. Due to the available satellites when were in the swamp, we were not able to get very accurate coordinates. However, since blazes were not available on trees to assure us that we were on the correct line to the corner on the opposite side of the swamp, we simply wanted the waypoints to show that we were moving in the right direction. A few of the points are obviously inaccurate, but the general pattern matches the red line that connects the two corners. Therefore, we can assume that our straight line of flagging in the swamp is indeed heading to the far corner.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Drought Good?

Is a drought a good thing? There are plenty of people in the Southeast and around the world that might argue that there is nothing good about a drought. However, drought-like conditions are required for a Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) swamp to regenerate itself.

An article on the subject appeared in Sunday's The Post and Courier written by SC Department of Natural Resources' Walt Rhodes. Entitled "Drought is a necessary evil," it described the conditions necessary for Bald Cypress trees to regenerate. He wrote:

"The extirpated Carolina parakeet used to help disperse the hard seeds of cypress, but today wildlife plays a minor role for cypress and tupelo seed dispersal. Water is the main transport mechanism, however, the seeds must eventually come to rest on saturated but not flooded soil to germinate.

Once sprouted, seedlings of both species grow quickly so that once the water returns their needles or leaves will be above the water. If a seedling remains underwater for more than a month it will die."

Therefore, the edge of the swamp is where young Bald Cypress trees are often found. The edge of the swamp is the first area to dry when the water in the swamp recedes and the last to get wet again once the water level rises. An extended drought, often a once-in-a-100-year event, along with adequate sunlight are required to allow Bald Cypress trees to germinate deep in the swamp. Obviously, such conditions have occurred, because there are giant Bald Cypress trees throughout the swamp, including the mature tree standing behind a youngster.

Although water levels have been low enough this year, as they often are when cypress seeds fall, it is the water level in the spring that is critical. Bald Cypress trees are deciduous, so being underwater in the winter when they are already dormant is not an issue. However, when spring arrives and the trees put out their needles, they must be above the water to survive. Many thousands will germinate each year, but will drown when spring water levels rise.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Global Positioning System (GPS) in Classrooms

Last October, we made the trip to the National Council for Geographic Education annual meeting at Lake Tahoe. We presented our proposal to introduce Global Positioning System (GPS) technology into South Carolina classrooms.

4.25.1 – CarolinaCaching: A Geo-caching Curriculum
CarolinaCaching refers to an educational geocaching experience. This session will review the process for instructing students in the basics of GPS, the development of an instructional guide for creating navigation courses at individual schools, and the implementation of virtualcaches statewide to instruct students in the unique physical and cultural attributes of those places.
Jerry Mitchell, South Carolina Geographic Alliance; Mark Musselman, South Carolina Geographic Alliance

Today was spent creating a "GPS in the Classroom" package that can be used by a teacher to instruct students in the basics of GPS operation. Along with GPS units that can be borrowed from the South Carolina Geographic Alliance (SCGA), the teacher will have instructions on how to set up an on-campus course for students to practice using a GPS unit, instructions on how to set up a course for use during a field trip, and information on other recreational or career applications for GPS technology.

Although this work is interesting and the final product will be rewarding, it required another day in front of the computer and not outside. With record warm temperatures, we had spring fever in December and were lamenting our indoor prison term. Just then a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) hit the ground outside of our office window. We had ring-side seats to whatever death was about to occur, but the prey was not obvious. After a few stabs with its talons into the leaf litter, the hawk pulled out a Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis) and swallowed it whole.

Red-shouldered Hawks hunt mainly from perches and eat reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and birds. As Gary Larson of The Far Side once drew, "Birds of prey know they're cool!"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Snakes Think It's Winter

Although the temperature has been in the mid to upper 70Fs during this last week, at least one snake thinks it is winter. Over the last week, the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) in the image has been sunning outside the den by #2 on the boardwalk. This is a den that at least three cottonmouths use every winter. We're betting that the first one to the den gets their choice of either the top or bottom bunk.

Knowing that Mr. Cottonmouth was out, motivated us to wear our snake boots when we stepped out to post boundary signs along the swamp's edge. Although we covered many miles of property boundary lines, we did not spy any snakes. We did flush an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) and some White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). We also, much to our dismay, saw plenty of fresh signs that feral hogs (Sus scrofa) have been feeding and wallowing on the sanctuary.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Silver Bluff Cleanup

Silver Bluff Audubon Center & Sanctuary held its annual litter pickup on Saturday, December 8. Twelve volunteers assisted staff in picking up litter along approximately 4 miles of public roads that run through the Silver Bluff property and which terminate at a public boat landing on the Savannah River. Three pickup trucks were piled high with refuse—mostly beer cans and bottles; but also mattresses, furniture, tires, an artificial Ficus tree (with Christmas lights attached), and even an alligator skull.

The three trucks were unloaded Monday at the local Aiken County recycling facility.

Thank you to all the volunteers that helped to make this piece of South Carolina a little cleaner and greener!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Weather Station

As part of the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest's efforts to incorporate GLOBE into our education program, we installed a weather data station in the powerline right-of-way just north of the nature center.

The station is painted white to reflect solar radiation and has slated sides to allow air to flow through in order to obtain an accurate air temperature reading. Also inside the station is a digital maximum/minimum thermometer that can record those readings over a week's time as well as the soil temperature via a soil probe. Nearby is a rain gauge that will be considerably more accurate than the rain gauge mounted at the nature center's entrance, since the gauge at the powerline will not have any overhanging tree limbs to block rain from or funnel rain into the gauge.

Not only will this weather station provide the staff a more accurate data, it will allow visiting students an opportunity to address various state science standards as they assist in the data collection.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Packing Peanuts

'Tis the season! Shoppers are calling the gift shop at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest in order to satisfy their Christmas list wishes. The gifts need to be sent by mail, which requires packing materials, especially packing peanuts for the popular Audubon bird clocks.

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest will admit one child or adult for each trash bag (black or brown) that is full of packing peanuts. For all the Santas out there wanting to bring us these gifts, our address is 336 Sanctuary Rd., Harleyville, SC 29448. Any mapping software will show you the way.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Boundary Line Marking

Believe it or not, the drought does have some benefits. Low water levels make it much easier to paint boundary lines through the swamp!

As noted in our November 13, 2006 entry, maintaining painted boundary lines is necessary to ensure the protection of one's property rights. Today, a crew of five put fresh paint on old paint and blazes and posted signs announcing the recently designated Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) conservation contract area through the U. S. Department of Agriculture (see blog entry). The Francis Beidler Forest boundaries show as red in the image and the section painted today was the piece that looks like a rectangular bite into the swamp.

Besides being outside on a clear, cool day, we came upon two Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), two Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus), three White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and a female Barred Owl (Strix varia) patiently watching the noisy intruders exit the swamp.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Weekend Duty

During the weekend, somebody needs to be here to keep open the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. However, it is tough sitting at a desk for two days straight, especially when the weather is so pleasant. With pains in the neck, legs, back and posterior, we need to find some reason to get outside. The deciduous nature of the tree majority around the center gave us the excuse we sought.

The image shows our low, education boardwalk covered ankle-deep in leaves. School groups are done visiting until next spring, so technically the boardwalk didn't need to be cleared today. However, we needed move around, get the blood flowing, and warm up. It is warmer outside the building than inside our offices in the add-on portion of the original building, which is beyond the original HVAC equipment's efficient operating range. Armed with a broom, the fallen foliage quickly succumb to our assault. A Barred Owl (Strix varia) hooted its approval, though an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) scolded us for sweeping large acorns into the deeper litter.

The acorns appeared to come from a nearby Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii), which is also known as a Cow Oak due to that mammal's fondness for the large, sweet acorns. However, squirrels are the main disperser of seeds, since they gather and stash more than they eat.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Purpose of the Boardwalk

The purpose of the 1.75-mile boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest is to provide safe access to the old-growth forest for people of all physical means as well as to protect the habitat and its wildlife from the loving presence of over 11,000 yearly visitors.

In the past, we have found piled around a sunning Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) coins and trash that were obviously thrown to provoke the snake into moving and proving that it was alive. At other times we have had to physically stand between a visitor holding a recently removed branch and the snake that he "just wanted to poke." Therefore, it was distrubing to stumble across a visitor's Wildlife Journal in which he describe how he repeatedly left the boardwalk to chase and catch animals as did his role model Steve Irwin. Below are some excerpts (color added for emphasis, red for danger or harassment and green for the animal's reaction):

"...we spotted a decent sized Southern Watersnake, but because of the high boardwalk and my mom, I was unable to jump off to get him (so no pic). "

"I looked over the edge of the boardwalk and saw the distinctive shape of a small turtle's shell in the mud. I quickly stepped off the path onto a log in the water and reached down to pull up my first Mud Turtle...but he wasn't nearly as happy to see me. He actually got a good bite on me while I was trying to photograph him."

"...we walked over to the other overlook. Something was oddly different about this one, and I could tell right away. It could have been the giant snake laying right in the middle of the boardwalk or it could have been that the sun was just hitting it differently...I'm gonna go with the snake theory. I made a dash at the huge Brown Watersnake, but he quickly slid off over the steps and into the water. If I hadn't been blocked from the steps by a huge gate I could have caught him, but as my hand reached under the gate after the huge tail that was quickly disapearing into the water I noticed something else. Right under my arm, on the first step, was a smaller Brown Watersnake that I was able to easily grab."

"... I noticed a big snake moving through the shallows. I watched it and quickly realized that it was a Mudsnake, and probably was around 5ft long. Since it was so far from the boardwalk I knew I could not catch it, but it was fun to watch it swim around ..."

"Either way, the people here called them "Greenish" Ratsnakes, and they were rather greenish. Once again, the boardwalk prevented me from capturing it."

"We went over to the Brown Watersnake spot, but none were on the boardwalk. Upon looking over the gate to the steps that led to the lake I noticed the huge water snake was sitting on the last step. I really wanted to catch him so I climbed over the gate and slowly made my way towards him. Either I was sneakier than I thought or he was really enjoying the sun, because I was able to get all the way down to him and slowly place my hand above his tail. I even had enough time to contemplate how he would react to what I was about to do and just as I expected, he didn't like being grabbed by the tail. After releasing that, slightly aggitated, snake we began to head back."

On several occasions, the gentleman climbed off the boardwalk endangering himself and the wildlife he was pursuing as well as damaging the habitat that we are trying to protect. Not only would this be devastating if every visitor thought nothing of traipsing about off the boardwalk, but the experience is diminished for later visitors when even a few leave their mark in the swamp. In the instances when the gentleman did not leave the boardwalk, it was due to the presence of a responsible adult (Mom) or the structure itself ("high," "huge gate") and not in the interest of the wildlife or their habitat. Although three attempts to capture wildlife were thwarted, three were successful. In all cases, the gentleman noted that the wildlife did not enjoy the harassment.

We welcome all visitors to the sanctuary, which is by definition "A reserved area in which birds and other animals, especially wild animals, are protected from hunting or molestation." Come walk on the boardwalk, watch the wildlife, enjoy the scenery, but please take nothing but pictures.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Alligator Dens

While posting trail markers on old logging roads that finger out into Four Holes Swamp, we discovered many more alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) dens than we knew existed.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, "Sometimes, the alligator may expand its gator hole by digging beneath an overhanging bank to create a hidden den. After tunneling as far as 20 feet, it enlarges the end, making a chamber with a ceiling high enough above water level to permit breathing. This is not the alligator's nest but merely a way for the reptile to survive the dry season and winters. "

The muddy water image shows a depression formed when the area was scooped out to form the logging access road. Obviously, a gator was within the water and active enough to stir up the sediment as the pool is not connected to any moving water. "During the dry season, and particularly during extended droughts, gator holes provide vital water for fish, insects, crustaceans, snakes, turtles, birds, and other animals in addition to the alligator itself." (USFWS)

Another image shows a den dug into the bank of the road ditch along with an image of Mike Dawson, sanctuary manager, showing the size and water level of a den. The final image shows an old nest site where a female alligator had piled up leaves, needles and other debris against a pine tree and later ripped it open upon hearing the croaks of her hatching young. Surprisingly, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the average egg incubation temperature (85 degrees F only females; 89 degrees F equal numbers of healthy male and female hatchlings; 91 degrees F only males) and not chromosomes.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Watchlist 2007

Some of the U.S.’s Most Imperiled Birds Make their Home in South Carolina
New Report Identifies Species at Greatest Risk

53 of the 178 birds that Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) have identified as in need of top-priority conservation attention to ensure their continued survival spend at least part of their year in South Carolina. They have the dubious distinction of being included on WatchList 2007, the newest and most scientifically sound list of America’s birds at greatest risk. Unlike those on Audubon’s recent survey of Common Birds in Decline, these species are often rare and limited in range; consequently, they face a more imminent threat of extinction. For many of them, conservation efforts in South Carolina as well as nationally will play a critical role in determining their future health and survival.

The continental WatchList is based on a comprehensive analysis of population size and trends, distribution, and environmental threats, informed and improved by extensive scientific review. The 59 species on its “red list” are those of greatest concern, while the additional 119 merit their spots on the “yellow list” due to a combination of rarity and seriously declining numbers. Species found in either WatchList category demand immediate help while there is still time to save them.

South Carolina contains a diverse array of habitats, ranging from coastal salt marshes and sandy beaches to the bottomland hardwood swamps and black water rivers of the coastal plain to the cove hardwood forests of the mountains. More than fifty bird species found on WatchList 2007 utilize this diversity of habitats which are found across our state. Of the fifteen Red List species that are regularly found in South Carolina, nine occur only along the coast. The biggest threat facing many of these species is habitat loss and degradation. With more and more development, particularly along the coast, these birds will find less and less suitable habitat for breeding, feeding, and resting.

Some of the WatchList species found in South Carolina are well-known such as Swallow-tailed Kite, Black Skimmer, Red-headed Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Prothonotary Warbler, and Painted Bunting, but many are birds you may have never heard of before such as Cory’s Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel, Swainson’s Warbler, Bachman’s Sparrow, and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

“Whether you have heard of these birds or not, all of them perform vital roles in sustaining South Carolina’s natural ecosystems. As citizens of South Carolina, we all have a responsibility to protect these vulnerable species. The time to act is now, while there is still time left,” said Jeff Mollenhauer, Director of Bird Conservation at Audubon South Carolina.

“We must do more than just watch the birds we love at our feeders or in the disappearing forests and wetlands where they live, baring sad witness to their ever-falling numbers; we must all get involved in their conservation,” said Norman Brunswig, Audubon South Carolina Executive Director.

From the 53 WatchList species found in South Carolina we have selected the following five priority species: (images by Jeff Mollenhauer)

This small shorebird winters along the coastal beaches from North Carolina to Mexico. There are three separate breeding populations: the Atlantic and Great Plains populations, which are listed as Threatened, and the Great Lakes population, which is listed as Endangered. Overall, there are only an estimated 6,400 Piping Plovers left in the entire world.

Threats: On the wintering grounds in South Carolina, their biggest threats are habitat loss and degradation and human disturbance, the latter especially from people walking their dogs off leash. Plovers and other shorebirds perceive dogs as predators, and every time they are flushed and forced to fly, they burn up critical energy needed to survive.

What you can do: If you see people walking their dogs off leash on the beach, please take a moment to inform them of the plight of the Piping Plover.

What Audubon SC is doing: We have been working with partner agencies on the South Carolina Shorebird Project, a program designed to increase our knowledge of the Piping Plover population in South Carolina and to help educate people about Piping Plovers and other shorebirds.

This species nests in large colonies on barrier islands along the east coast of the U.S and on sandbars in the rivers of the Mid-West. Due to loss of habitat many are now building nests on the pebbled flat roofs of malls, schools, and other large buildings near the coast. In South Carolina, there are few remaining Least Tern nesting colonies in natural habitats and little is being done to protect tern chicks from the hazards of rooftop nesting.

Threats: Extreme high tides and human disturbance at nest colonies on barrier islands and beaches can cause destruction or abandonment of nests. With little management of the rooftop-nesting colonies, many chicks succumb to the hazards of rooftop nesting such as over-heating, falling off the roof, or getting stuck in drain pipes.

What you can do: Coastal residents can help by volunteering to protect a Least Tern rooftop-nesting colony in their area.

What Audubon SC is doing: We are developing a volunteer-based program to monitor and protect rooftop-nesting colonies.

Widespread throughout the eastern U.S., this species breeds in large tracts of mature deciduous forest in South Carolina. The melodious, flute-like song of the Wood Thrush reminds us that spring has once again returned. They are a neotropical migrant, meaning that they breed in the United States and Canada during the summer, but fly south for the winter to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central or South America. Wood Thrush populations in South Carolina have declined by more than 80% since 1966.

Threats: Deforestation and habitat fragmentation in both their breeding and wintering grounds.

What you can do: Cat-owners can keep their pets indoors, or only under their supervision when outdoors. The National Research Council reports that domestic cats are responsible for the demise of hundreds of millions of songbirds each and every year in the United States.

What Audubon SC is doing: We are working hard to protect the Wood Thrush and other neotropical migrants on its own sanctuaries and Important Bird Areas in our state, and on the wintering grounds by developing exchange programs with sanctuaries in Belize and Mexico.

Prothonotary Warbler, the stunning yellow bird so typical of the swamps, rivers, and wetlands of the eastern U.S., has declined by more than 40% over the past 40 years. Like the Wood Thrush, the Prothonotary Warbler is a neotropical migrant with wintering grounds as far south as the northern tip of South America.

Threats: Loss and degradation of wetlands both on their breeding and wintering grounds.

What you can do: Support Audubon and other conservation efforts to protect forested wetlands with your time and dollars.

What Audubon SC is doing: Our Francis Beidler Forest Center and Sanctuary near Harleyville is home to one of the highest breeding densities of Prothonotary Warblers in the entire state. During the spring of 2008, Audubon South Carolina will begin a citizen science project focused on Prothonotary Warbler to raise awareness of the species and increase public knowledge of its habitat needs at Beidler Forest and elsewhere.

This secretive sparrow breeds in longleaf pine savannas throughout the southeastern U.S. During the summer months, their distinctive song rings through the open piney woods. It is estimated that longleaf pine forest once covered as much as 90 million acres in the southeastern U.S.; now there are less than three million acres remaining. With little prime habitat remaining for the sparrow, its population has decreased by nearly 50% in South Carolina over the past 40 years.

Threats: Loss of longleaf pine savannas throughout the southeast.

What you can do: Support restoration of longleaf pine savannas.

What Audubon SC is doing: We are hard at work restoring and creating longleaf pine savannas on two of our major sanctuaries. The Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary near Aiken contains 650 acres of recently restored and maturing longleaf pine savanna.

The new Audubon/ABC WatchList is based on the latest available data from the Christmas Bird Count and the annual Breeding Bird Survey along with other research and assessment from the bird conservation community. The data were analyzed and weighted according to methods developed through extensive peer review and revision, yielding an improved assessment of actual peril that can be used to determine bird conservation priorities and funding. Listed species may seem unfamiliar to many Americans. Unlike those on Audubon’s recent survey of Common Birds in Decline, these species are often rare and limited in range.

Contact: Audubon South Carolina
Name: Jeff Mollenhauer, Director of Bird Conservation
Phone: 843-462-2150

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Canoe Fatigue

The canoe rack at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest stands empty today. Although the weather has been unseasonably warm the last few days, this isn't our busiest time of the year, especially for canoe trips. Additionally, and this is a news flash, we're in the midst of a drought. Therefore, the water level is too low in Four Holes Swamp for an enjoyable canoeing experience. Logs and cypress knees that are normally below the draft of our high-speed Grumman, 16-foot, aluminum canoes are now body-jarring obstacles. That's why the canoe racks are empty today.

Years of inexperienced canoeists or cypress knee ambushes have led to dents, holes, and metal fatigue along the seams of the canoes. Although not in danger of sinking, the Four Holes Swamp Fleet was in need of some dry dock attention. The bracing and welding is being accomplished at the dry dock facilities of our corporate partner, Lafarge Cement. The fleet will be in working order long before the scheduled canoe trips in the spring.

You can find out more information regarding our canoe tours by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Journey to Perfect Job!

On Monday, the education director spent the entire day at Gregg Middle School discussing his career choices and the dream job in the middle of Four Holes Swamp! The journey from New Jersey to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest was far from a straight line.

Shortly after his birth, his dad joined the U. S. Air Force and the moving began. New Jersey to Georgia to Mississippi to Georgia to Mississippi to The Philippines to Mississippi to Texas to Hof and Ramstein and Zweibruecken, Germany to Grandview and Belton, Missouri to Florida and finally to Brussels, Belgium. The family continued moving, but after 15 different schools, he graduated high school at the Brussels American School and headed to the University of South Carolina. Little did he know that his best friend in Brussels would be his wife eight years later.

The Navy gave him a NROTC scholarship and encouraged him to take a technical major to better serve the nuclear Navy. After 2.5 years of that, he switched to the USMC side and changed majors to something more interesting...history. Why then, many have asked, did he get a 3.2 GPA? That would be directly attributable to the non-standard history electives: 2.0 years of calculus, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, fluids, statics, solids, etc.

After being commissioned a 2ndLt., he spent four years on active duty and two in the reserves. While working at Tupperway Tires (Summerville, SC) as the warehouse manager, he was called up during the First Gulf War. Although few give him wartime credit for his service, few can argue that Saddam Hussein made no effort to attack via the Western Front. He obviously saw the Marines standing tall into the breeze off of the Pacific Ocean. Those paying attention in geography class can help those that were asleep. For some, the first war was spent repairing equipment in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Tough duty, but that's why they sent "The Few. The Proud."

Upon returning from the burning sands of the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station's golf course, he worked temporary jobs while earning a Masters in Teaching. After three years of teaching science, he became a stay-home dad for his 6-month-old daughter. Although a stay-home dad for eight years, which included the arrival of daughter #2, he remained active in the educational community, including a spring session as a seasonal naturalist at Beidler Forest. That is when he knew what he wanted to do when he grew up! From that point forward, every decision was made with the thought of eventually working full-time at Beidler Forest.

The journey wasn't a straight road from New Jersey to Beidler Forest, but it was certainly educational and enjoyable. Hopefully, one of the guys pictured to the right makes it to your table along with the friends and family that make your journey worth remembering!

We'll be taking a break until next week.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What is the True Fuel Cost?

In today's Post & Courier, Jim Parker writes about the conversion of a standard hybrid Toyota Prius (image) into a plug-in hybrid Prius. [By the way, what is the plural of Prius...Priuses or Priusi?] The plug-in versions require $40-50,00 upgrades in the battery system as well as a system for plugging into the electrical power grid. These plug-in versions tout fuel economy of 100 mpg as well as reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.

As environmental educators with a 3-year-old, standard hybrid Prius [50 mpg overall: husband's 53 mpg averaged with wife's 47 mpg] in the staff parking lot, we are pleased to see reporting on the conservation of fuel resources and the reduction of harmful greenhouse gases. However, we think it is important to point out that the plug-in Prius does not get 100 mpg and a reduction in greenhouse gases in all parts of our country. In our area our electricity is generated by burning fossil fuel in the form of coal. The mining, transportation, and burning of that coal needs to be factored into the equation to provide an honest evaluation of the fossil fuel savings and greenhouse gas reduction for a plug-in Prius. Additionally, as reported in the P&C and this blog, the burning of that coal has introduced hazardous amounts of mercury into our local waters and fish-eating population. The 100 mpg claims are more accurate where electricity is generated from renewable resources, such as hydroelectric or wind power sources.

Audubon South Carolina supports alternate power sources and technologies that reduce fossil fuel consumption. Part of our job is to present these options and possibilities to our audience as ways to preserve our energy resources and reduce the degradation of our environmental systems. The solutions are not easy. However, we feel it is important to present all the information (pros and cons) to ensure that our audience can make honest evaluations regarding the issues. Therefore, the use of coal to generate the electricity that powers the plug-in Prius battery needs to be presented as a cost in order for the "fuel savings/greenhouse gas reduction" equation to balance. Doing so will produce a less-than 100 mpg value with respect to fossil fuel consumption, which is still better than the vast majority of vehicles on the road. However, simply shifting the power input to another fossil fuel is ultimately not the answer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Programs in Schools

Last night, we took the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest show on the road to Clay Hill Middle School's Math/Science Night. Dodging branches shaken loose by the afternoon's high winds, we collected macroinvertebrate samples from the swamp. We had two trays containing the rinsed samples along with two microscopes and various tools to allow parents and students the opportunity to "bug pick."

A qualitative value can be determine for water quality by examining the macroinvertebrate community present in a sample. Some organisms are quite tolerant of pollution, while others are somewhat tolerant or quite intolerant of pollution. Therefore, based on the percentages of these groups (taxa), one can determine if the water is poor, fair, or outstanding. Based on the small sample of organisms students teased from the many Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) needles (they're a deciduous conifer), the water in Four Holes Swamp remains high quality. However, it was noted that despite the high water quality, the fish remain low quality due to the buildup of mercury in their bodies. (See blog entry1 and entry2)

This morning, the Francis Beidler Forest show went to Gregg Middle School for their career day. Upon entering the library, we immediately felt inadequate. We decided to leave in the car our shiny Leatherman tool, which includes several knive blades, saws, and sharp/pointy screwdrivers, because we did not want to get hassled by "the man" for bringing weapons into a school. Career day includes, state troopers, county deputies, town policemen, DNR law enforcement officers, and EMS personnel. There were more guns, knives, and sharp scissors than at most weapons trade shows. We had an empty Leatherman holder on our belt.

Beyond our weapon inadequacies, we feel the morning went well. We may not be invited back next year after answering one of the prepared questions each student was required to have answered. The question: "What did you learn from Middle School that helped you in your chosen career?" The answer: "We can't remember middle was over 30 years ago." We have trouble remembering what we did last week (that's did, not learned).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

They're Baaaaaack!

Several years ago, beavers (Castor canadensis) returned to the Francis Beidler Forest portion of Four Holes Swamp after being absent (due to trapping) for more than 100 years. The beaver is second only to humans in its ability to manipulate and alter its environment. Additionally, the beaver's feeding activity often girdles trees as it eats the cambium layer, which is the living tissue that connects the tree's leaves to its roots. Girdling the tree breaks that connection and prevents the tree from manufacturing and storing food, which leads to the tree's death. Naturally, the managers of Beidler Forest were concerned about how dead and dying trees along the boardwalk might affect a visitor's experience.

The issue of the beaver was discussed and it was decided that the human managers of the forest would do nothing as is usually the approach in the virgin, old-growth swamp. We might not like the result of the beaver's activity, but it was once part of this ecosystem and our mission statement clearly states that we are conserving natural ecosystems for birds AND OTHER WILDLIFE. That was in February 2005. In March of that year, another manager at the swamp overrode our decision and made a meal of the industrious beaver. Although not on the payroll, some would like to thank Mr./Ms. Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) for his/her service to the community.

But wait...just as the cool weather has sent the alligators into their winter inactivity, at least one beaver is baaaaack! The master naturalist group spotted the beaver (center of image) in Goodson Lake as it was swimming and generally disrepectfully smacking its tail in the face of the cool and lethargic alligator. We're predicting that, come spring, the alligator will invite his 40+-pound friend to dinner.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mystery Twig

Over the last month, we have found numerous branches like the one shown in the first image. We have been mystified by what may be the cause of the unusual cut discovered at the end of the branch (next two images). We added it to our list of "Things We Must Find Out If We Are To Continue Calling Ourselves Naturalists." However, we had not yet investigated the issue as it remained low on the larger list of "Things We Must Do To Keep The Center Operating."

You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you
To be unmasked, it has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
- Frantz Kafka

Well, if putting the issue on the back burner is the same as remaining "still and solitary," then that's what we did. The answer did not "roll in ecstasy" at our feet...rather it arrived in the large form of Tony Mills, education director at the Lowcountry Institute. Tony was one of the instructors during Monday's master naturalist field trip and he found a similar branch on the bluff above Mallard Lake. He enlightened us by describing the twig girdling work done by the female longhorned beetles of the family Cerambycidae.

In September through October, the female beetle lays an egg below the bark of a live twig between 1/4" - 1/2" in diameter. The last image shows the striations where the eggs have been deposited. Once the female is finished depositing her eggs, she will chew most of the way through the twig. The final image shows the girdled twig with only the center portion left unchewed. The twig will eventually die and fall to the ground. The eggs will remain in the twig until the following August when they will hatch. The larvae will feed and pupate within the twig and then emerge as an adult to begin the process anew. Only one generation occurs each year.

The damage to the trees is usually minimal, though the extra leaf and twig debris in the yard might not be appreciated by the yard-clearing child labor force.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Master Naturalists

Yesterday, individuals attending the Master Naturalist course at Spring Island (near Hilton Head) and their instructors, Dr. Chris Marsh and Tony Mills, spent one of their twelve field trips at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest experiencing the virgin, old-growth cypress/tupelo swamp.

From the Master Naturalist webpage: What is a Master Naturalist?
A Master Naturalist is a person who has undergone specific training and who regularly volunteers time toward various projects. Typically, Master Naturalists seek to make a difference in helping to maintain the quality of our native ecosystems through training designed to help ‘read’ the landscape of the state. This includes understanding the underlying geology, specific inhabitants (birds, plants, mammals, etc.), ecology and the impacts of humans on the landscape including how we conserve our amazing natural environments. Once trained, Master Naturalists volunteer in a variety of projects. In essence, the Master Naturalist program aims to turn out volunteer citizen scientists who can positively impact the natural resources of the state.

While learning about the geography and characteristics of the swamp, the participants were also practicing the tree and plant identification skills they had learned during previous field trips. The images show the group once it moved from the boardwalk to the bluff overlooking Mallard Lake, which is approximately two miles downstream. The high bluffs have underlying limestone near the surface giving rise to a plant community called the calcareous forest.

From Richard Porcher's and Douglas Rayner's A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina: The calcareous forests occur on bluffs, slopes, or moist flats that overlay calcareous substrates. The substrate is either marl or limestone that was laid down as marine deposit when the ocean covered the coastal plain. The calcium from the underlying substrate is a major factor shaping the diversity and composition of the vegetation. Certain species of plants, referred to as calcicoles, thrive in a basic to circumneutral soil that results from the presence of calcium ions. These species generaly are mixed with the flora of the surrounding community to form a diverse community. Classification of the various calcareous communities is not well developed; however, we do recognize two well-developed types. (One is the calcareous bluff forest which the group visited at Mallard Lake).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Evening Roost

Where do the White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) go once the sun starts to set? Well, if they are any where near the Waterwheel Fishing Lake, they appear to head for the two cypress trees growing in the middle of the pond. They don't have the benefit of our Global Positioning System (GPS) or Google Earth, but they find their way there every evening. If in Google Earth you type 279 Water Wheel Drive, you will zoom right to the pond. The image shows the two trees in the middle of the pond, in which the birds are roosting.

As dutiful Audubon South Carolina employees, we are doing what we can to reduce our carbon footprint by carpooling from our homes in Summerville to work at the Francis Beidler Forest. With the end of daylight savings time, our commute home has placed us at the fishing pond after sunset and after the birds have moved into the trees within the pond. The tree begins to look like a white Christmas tree once the birds fill branches. We decided to leave work a few minutes early on Friday (due to the "dutiful" thing, don't tell the boss) to get our camera set up before the mini-migration from the high, sunlit trees rimming the pond to the two trees in the middle of the pond. The series of images shows how during the hour from 4:45 pm to 5:45 pm EST, the birds relocated themselves. The first image shows a lone ibis doing its best imitation of the Christmas angel atop the tree. As the sun set in the west and the sunlight slowly crept up the trees surrounding the eastern edge of the pond, birds headed to the cypress in the middle of the pond to begin jockeying for prime roosting spots. The birds high in the trees rimming the pond remained until even those perches were beyond the sun's warming reach. Then too, they launched into a glide towards the lower cypress trees in the pond while appearing to "honk" their displeasure at the quality of roosting options remaining. We're not sure, but the returning ibis comments appeared to translate as, "You snooze, you lose."

Why expend the energy to fly to one communal roosting location? In The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, the authors (P. R. Ehrlich, D. S. Dobkin, & D. Wheye) note, "One possibility is that older, more experienced birds are better able to find food; hence younger birds roost with them in order to follow their elders to better foraging grounds. The older birds accept this social parasitism because they tend to be dominant, and are able to appropriate more central and therefore safer positions in the roosting crowd. As long as the costs of increased competition are outweighed by the benefits of increased safety from predators for the older birds, and the benefits of locating rich food supplies for the young outweigh reduced nighttime safety for them, roosting should be communal."

If you like the I SPY series of books, "Two Great Egrets with bills of yellow taller standing than the Ibis fellow."

The images were taken from the public road. If you visit, please respect the owner's property rights.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Poisonous or Not

Is the snake in the image a poisonous or non-poisonous one? Pat yourself on the back if you said, “Neither.” There are no poisonous snakes, only venomous snakes. Next question, “Is the snake in the image a venomous one or not?”

How does the safety rhyme go? “Red on yellow can kill a fellow…red on black a friend of Jack.” The only Jack we know is deathly afraid of spiders, so we don’t think any snake will be a friend of his. Maybe the rhyme is, “Red on yellow is a friend of a fellow…red on black means take a step back.” Frankly, we can never remember the rhyme when we are safely in our office, so we doubt that we’ll remember it when faced with possible death! We prefer to keep it simple and use brain cells already filled securely with useful safety information. When you are driving and the light is yellow, you know that the next color will be red and that means stop…even if you thought the correct answer was “mash the accelerator.” Therefore, if the snake has yellow next to red, STOP! This would be the venomous Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius). As you can see, the snake in the image has red next to black, so it is the non-venomous Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides), which is a subspecies of the milk snake.

Scarlet Kingsnakes are secretive and rarely seen crawling about during the day. They are active at night, and spend the day hidden below ground or behind the bark of trees, so their bright colors are not a liability. These snakes eat mostly lizards, especially skinks, but will also eat small snakes and rodents.

Photo by Jeff Mollenhauer