Wednesday, June 27, 2007

National Natural Landmark

We know that the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest is a special place. Unfortunately, not everyone knows that we exist or what it is that we are protecting. With that in mind, we submitted a photo contest entry for National Natural Landmarks, of which we are one.

The Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest protects 1800 acres of virgin, old-growth cypress/tupelo swamp with trees (like the one pictured) over 1000 years old. Habitat of this size does not exist elsewhere in the world. The "youth at grandpa's knee" (cypress knee is the root projection in the foreground) represents the future of the swamp and its protection as a National Natural Landmark! In addition to the 1800 acres of old-growth swamp, we also protect an additional 14,000+ acres of Four Holes Swamp!

Audubon South Carolina's separate photo contest continues through August 12, 2007. Click here for the rules and here for an entry form.

Monday, June 25, 2007


Yesterday, the alarm was sounded on The Compound (the cul-de-sac where I live and the neighborhood kids play). The air was filled with screams ranging from excitement to fear as daughter #2 reported a snake sighting in a neighbor's garage. The fact that the screams of excitement were emanating from my offspring simultaneously evoked feelings of pride and trepidation. I felt proud that my daughters did not fear snakes nor did they utter nonsense such as, "The only good snake is a dead snake." I felt trepidation because, due to a lack of fear, their first reaction is to handle a snake, like Jake the Greenish Rat Snake at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. They are not yet proficient at identifying the venomous snakes of South Carolina.

Based on the description provided during the initial report, the snake was almost certainly not venomous. However, since I already had on my running shoes, I made an appropriate show of urgency for those not screaming with excitement. As I arrived at the scene, the suspect (an 18" Garter Snake [Thamnophis sirtalis]) was leaving and found refuge under the air-conditioning unit. Garter Snakes feed on frogs, toads, salamanders, fish and tadpoles. Last week's rains have left water-filled tire ruts and small pools in depressions which are now filled with tadpoles and mosquito larvae. There's plenty to eat for the NON-VENOMOUS snake!

Unwarranted fear of non-venomous snakes can be overcome only through exposure and education. Without snakes, rodent, insect and amphibian populations would surely increase with consequences more unpleasant (disease, famine) than their reptilian presence.

"Snakes have provided a recurrent threat throughout mammalian evolution...individuals who have been good at identifying and recruiting defense responses to snakes have left more offspring than individuals with less efficient defense systems."--Arne Öhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute and Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden (John Roach for National Geographic News, October 4, 2001)

Fear and excitement were in the air again today as the second week of summer campers made their first trip out onto the 1.75-mile boardwalk. Snakes were the topic of conversation with each group hoping for a different outcome regarding our potential for spotting snakes. In the end, we struck out...not a single snake was spotted in what must be some of the best habitat in the state. See? There was nothing to fear.

Friday, June 22, 2007

End of Summer Camp Week 1

The first week of summer camp at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest wrapped up today. Campers were still talking about yesterday's visit from the International Center for Birds of Prey. Kevin brought a Barred Owl, a Harris' Hawk and an American Kestrel (see image). The campers were treated to an up-close-and-personal look at the hawk when it swooped over their heads on its way to Kevin's hand.

The Keeper of the Wild visited today and brought along a skunk, an opossum and a pair of fawns that are all being rehabilitated. After the presentation, parents and campers enjoyed lunch together and the campers received their graduation certificates. Before departing, the campers had the opportunity to take their parents out on the boardwalk and teach them all that they had learned during the week. Several sounded like they could host their own nature television show tomorrow!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hooded Warbler Revisited

We may have solved part of the mystery behind the behavior of the male Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) we highlighted in our May 16th log. While outside attempting to identify red berries on a vine high outside our window at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, we discovered an intact nest (see images).

The Hooded Warbler nest is described as built on a base of dead leaves, made of bark and dried plant material, lined with fine materials like black rootlets or hair, and often fastened with spider silk to very slight support. Looks like we have a winner! As the nest is less than 15 feet from the office windows the male was attacking, it is not surprising that he was upset to "see" a rival male!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Silver Bluff Summer Camp

This was the 4th year that the Silver Bluff Audubon Center hosted one of the Aiken County’s series of summer camps. The camps are free to the children and run from 9-noon, Monday-Friday.

The series theme for this year was “Cultures Around the World” with the Silver Bluff camp focusing on early Native American and European pioneer life in South Carolina. The Audubon camp is always extremely popular. This year registration opened on a Friday and there was a waiting list by Monday! The images show: Trader George Galphin (Paul Koehler) with his pioneer neighbors Charlotte (Beth Smith) and her daughter Anne (Anne Bohnet); planting their bean, corn and squash seeds, which they buried along with a crayfish as fertilizer; and a walk through the woods, looking for edible plants and animals.

Additional coverage in the Aiken Standard here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Fossil Hunting!

The summer campers at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest spent the morning hunting fossils at the nearby Lafarge Cement facility. Campers caught a ride on the Lowcountry Environmental Education Program's (LEEP) colorful, biodiesel bus for the short ride to Harleyville.

Once at Lafarge, campers received an orientation to the facility, including its mission and the geology of the site. It was no surprise that all of the fossils the campers found belonged to ancient marine life. The ocean once reached to Columbia in the middle of the state and the marl being mined by Lafarge has its origins in the calcium structures of the marine life that were deposited on the ocean floor over time. Sharks' teeth topped the list of fossil finds, but turtle scutes, whale bones, and various shells also made their way back to Beidler Forest.

You thought it was hot where you were today? The campers also learned something about the reflective power of light-colored objects (like the nearly white marl), especially when those objects are quarry-sized!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Summer Camp

Summer Camp 2007 has begun at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest! Campers began with an orientation walk along the 1.75-mile boardwalk during which they saw three species of snakes (Banded Water Snake, Red-bellied Water Snake, and Eastern Cottonmouth), White Ibis, Prothonotary Warblers, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron with a crayfish, Yellow-bellied Sliders, and a variety of dragonflies and damselflies.

The afternoon was filled with journal making, an experiment demonstrating the concentration of liquids which modeled pheromones in insects, and fossil mold castings (see images; whale vertebra and shark tooth).

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Not everyone here at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest is upset that it has not rained much over the last two months. For those that eat crayfish (the long list includes Barred Owls, River Otters, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, White Ibis, Great Egrets, Raccoons, Great Blue Herons), the low water is like a dinner bell ringing!

Although crayfish can move out of the water, they need to keep their gills moist. Therefore, they need to remain in or near water most of the time. Without rain upstream to fill the swamp, water cut off from the deepest channels forms pools as the water level continues to drop. Small fish and crayfish are concentrated in these pools and are easy pickin's for the host of predators previously noted. In fact, raccoons act like many people at a lobster bar. We know that the majority of the lobster meat is in the tail and easy to extract, while other meat is secured in smaller crevices throughout the lobster's remaining body. At times like these when crayfish are plentiful and easily caught, raccoons will simply eat the tail and discard the remaining portion of the uneaten crayfish. Like a gruesome crime scene, crayfish body parts litter the boardwalk and fallen logs nearby.

At low-water times like we are currently experiencing, the value of the swamp's namesake holes (deep areas within the swamp) becomes apparent. Life that can move over land or did not get cut off from the main flow of the swamp will congregate in the holes until the water level rises and allows them to again exploit the entire swamp habitat. Now would be a good time to wet a line in the swamp!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Common Birds in Decline

At 1130 EDT, the National Audubon Society released its report on Common Birds in Decline. In it it stated:

Many of our most common and beloved birds are experiencing precipitous population declines. Analyzing forty years of bird population data collected by citizen scientists for Audubon's Christmas Bird Count, combined for the first time with Breeding Bird Survey data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Audubon has identified our nation’s most vulnerable common birds. Additional analyses focused on state level trends. Some mirror the national picture, while others reveal local and regional differences. The birds below are suffering serious population declines in South Carolina. Along with their national Common Birds in Decline list mates, they showcase the need for vigilance in protecting local habitats and the health of our environment. Working together, we can make a difference.

Visit for the national findings.

The birds listed for South Carolina were:
NORTHERN BOBWHITE (Colinus virginianus) down 96%
EASTERN MEADOWLARK (Sturnella magna) down 73%
LITTLE BLUE HERON (Egretta caerulea) down 51%
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Agelaius phoeniceus) down 75%, and the
BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata) down 50%.

Through Citizen Science, we are surveying birds at risk, and are partnering with other organizations to preserve critical habitat. Our Important Bird Areas program has identified more than 1,000,000 acres of critical bird habitat in the state and is working directly with our chapters in these sites to promote the conservation of these areas.


South Carolinians can help keep common birds common in a variety of ways:
Ø Forest landowners can work with Audubon South Carolina to implement bird-friendly forest management on their lands. Landowners with open fields can delay mowing fields until August each year.

Ø Where possible, landowners should maintain old fields and forest edges in early-successional habitat.

Ø 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.

Ø Volunteers can play a critical role in helping us determine bird population trends by taking part in bird monitoring projects. Participating in the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count and entering bird observations through the website are all important ways to help ornithologists track bird populations.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Smoking Cypress

Yesterday's thunderstorm caused a Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) to be struck by lightning. The images show that the crown of the tree caught fire. Like most older trees here at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, this tree was mostly hollow, especially the top half. Therefore, it didn't take long to burn through the thin trunk and send a large portion of the crown smoking to the ground north (right) of the buttress.

The interior of the tree continued to smolder through the night and at some point today it ignited. A visitor coming off the boardwalk asked, "Would you be interested in knowing that a tree in the swamp is smoking?" Why yes...we would be interested.

As we approached the swamp, we could smell burning wood. As we approached #4 along the boardwalk, ash began falling like a mid-summer snowstorm. After #5, the giant, smoking cypress was obvious and the sounds of embers could be heard cascading down the backside of the trunk. Moving around the back of the giant a baseball-size hole could be seen adjacent to a limb that had sprouted halfway up the tree. As we took images to document this seldom-seen event, embers continued to fall from the hole as it slowly enlarged to a watermelon-sized, oxygen-drawing vent. The red embers in the interior of the newly-created chimney can be seen in one of the images.

In the swamp, there are numerous lightning-struck cypress trees standing as charred reminders of nature's power. However, one normally is not afforded the opportunity to see the burn occur. As this is being written, a typical summer-afternoon thunderstorm is moving through the area dropping its cargo of water. It is unlikely that the rain will completely douse the hot interior of our burning cypress, but it will prevent the fire from spreading to the surrounding habitat or threatening the boardwalk and nature center.

Twin Fawns

Yesterday, was a very special day here at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Our visitors were able to observe a set of twin newborn White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawns just a few feet from the boardwalk and even got to see one of them take his (or her) first steps! After the fawns’ first feeding, the doe settled them in a safe place and went off to forage. While this may not seem very motherly – she knows that they have no scent for predators to track and their white spots and brown coats make them almost impossible to be seen against the forest floor. The twins were not together – this smart mother knows that separating them decreases the likelihood of them being found by a predator.

When these fawns are about a month old they will begin spending the days with mom, and will stay with her for about a year. They will be weaned and foraging on their own by four months. If they need to flee through the woods, their mother’s white tail will be raised and used to guide them to safety.

Twin fawns are common when the habitat and foraging is good – and what better place to live then in a wildlife sanctuary!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Local teachers began their week-long, hands-on experience in the forests of the Lowcountry, which is sponsored by the National Audubon Society at the Francis Beidler Forest and MeadWestvaco Corporation.

During the week, teachers and various representatives will discuss forestry basics, including forest/tree functions and forestry issues. Today was spent touring the boardwalk trail through the old-growth swamp forest at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest and discussing Audubon’s forest management choices. The images shows the teachers observing an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) that has certainly had a recent meal. The day ended with a presentation introducing urban forests and some of the benefits and challenges to managing a forest in an urban environment.

The remainder of the week will include stops at MeadWestvaco held forest land, at lands managed within the Francis Marion National Forest, at land managed by the Department of Natural Resources, at land owned and managed by Norfolk Southern Railroad, and ending in Summerville's Azalea Park for a demonstration of the Project Learning Tree environmental education curriculum.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Marsh Rabbit

We all know that a marsh is a flooded grassland, while a swamp, like the one at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, is a flooded forest. Someone needs to tell that to the Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) that was seen lounging in the oppressive heat outside our office window. The animal's genus name is Latin and Greek for "forest hare," although its species name is Latin for "marshy".

Eastern Cottontails are also in the area. The Marsh Rabbit can be distinguished from its cottontail cousin by its noticeably rounder ears. The tail is also less cotton-like and visible. Although the life expectancy for the Marsh Rabbit is only two years (all those owls, alligators, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, hawks, and young-eating snakes), females are polygamous and can have 5 to 6 litters of 4 bunnies each per year beginning after their first birthday! The rabbits are nocturnal and spend the day like our model laying low in the brush, possibly in a shallow depression. If attacked, they can escape into the nearby water and are reported to be excellent swimmers.

After a few minutes of work outside in the 90F heat and high humidity, we agreed that the Marsh Rabbit had the right idea!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mud Snake

While cataloging images taken over the last year at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, we ran across our only image of an Eastern Mud Snake (Farancia abacura). The Latin meaning of farancia is unknown, but species name comes from abacus and refers to the alternating red (pink) and black pattern along its body. Last May, the mostly-nocturnal snake was spotted moving across the mud near the boardwalk and the edge of the swamp. It was able to move more rapidly across the mud than was the photographer, so many blurry images were taken along with the one shown here.

The Mud Snake eats mostly the varieties of large, aquatic salamanders, though it will also eat fish and other amphibians. It has a hard, pointed tail that it will often force against its captor thereby earning the nicknames "horn snake" or "stinging snake". Other snakes (Eastern Cottonmouth and Kingsnake) and the alligator are the Mud Snake's principal predators.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Drought Buster?

Not quite, but the rain is certainly welcome. The remnants of Tropical Storm Barry moved into the area this morning with rain continuing all day. It's been two months without any appreciable rain. There was very little water along the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest and Four Holes Swamp was within a day or two of ceasing to flow.

Like a giant bathtub with the drain always open, if water (rain) isn't added to the top end, the water will eventually all flow out to the Edisto River. If the chorus of frogs are any indication, the wildlife doesn't mind the rain either.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Bird Nests

Bird nests were the focus of attention today at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. During the past weekend, a Carolina Wren built a nest in the cigarette disposal container outside the nature center's door (see image). Last year, a nest was built in the same location with three chicks hatching. The adults did not seem overly concerned about the high traffic, visitors and kids at summer camp, but the chicks did not make it out of the nest. Several conspiracy theories have been tossed about, but the most money is on a hungry Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata).

Above the driveway at the end of the ramp leading to the center's front door, it appears an Acadian Flycatcher has built a nest (see image). The bird has remained tucked deeply into the nest, so a positive identification has not been made.