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.