Monday, March 31, 2008

Wild Azalea

Wild Azalea (Rhododendron canescens), sometimes called Swamp Azalea by locals, is a native azalea found primarily on the moist, wooded slopes along the edges of wet areas such as swamps, streams, bogs, etc. This plant can be found from Maryland/Delaware south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. In South Carolina, it is found throughout the coastal plain and into the southwest piedmont.

The fragrant flowers appear before the leaves and are not as robust as the non-native Asian varieties found throughout Lowcountry gardens. All parts of the Wild Azalea are poisonous if ingested. Insects appear to be the main pollinator, though Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) likey dip into the long flowers as they arrive back from migration.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Prothonotary Warblers Are Here!

The Prothonotary Warblers have returned to the Audubon Center at the Francis Beilder Forest! Although we were not able to get a picture of any of the bright, yellow birds while we were leading our school groups around the boardwalk, we were able to get visual confirmation of their return. Several Prothonotary Warblers were heard and a male was spotted at Goodson Lake at the end of the boardwalk. The flood of excited visitors returning to the center was further confirmation that the stars of spring are back and staking out their breeding territories.

The Prothonotary Warblers nest in cavities, which are often hollow cypress knees in the water. The Lucy's Warbler is the only other warbler to nest in cavities. The young can supposedly swim, but the nests are frequent cowbird hosts. Cowbirds lay their eggs and leave the smaller birds to feed the larger cowbird chick. The cowbird chick will often get more of the food or force the host bird's chicks out of the nest.

The Prothonotary Warbler's name refers to clerks in the Roman Catholic church, whose robes were bright yellow.  Sometimes called the "swamp canary," this bird is definitely hard to miss!

Image by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Let's go to the video!

On Saturday, Joe Kegley, a multiple winner in last year's Audubon South Carolina photography contest, came to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest with his new video camera. This was his first attempt in the video arena and we think he did a super job! Actually, we were a little upset. Joe saw more through the lens of his video camera in one day than we usually see over several weeks! Besides the tremendous swamp scenery, Joe captured a Barred Owl (Strix varia) intently watching something overhead and later calling out the distinctive "Who, who, who cooks for y'all?"; a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) hunting for a meal within a fallen log; a Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) grooming; and a group of Carolina Anoles (Anolis carolinensis), including a male flashing his dulap (that would be the red flap of skin extending from his throat).

Joe's video can be seen here. The 2008 Audubon South Carolina photography contest rules and entry form are posted on our webpage.

Today, video photographers from TV Channel 5 in Charleston captured footage along the boardwalk for use in creating the Discover Dorchester County segment that will begin airing sometime next month. Be watching and you may recognize the alligator from Goodson Lake.
Image by Mark Musselman

Monday, March 24, 2008

Springtime Haiku

Pine, oak, red maple
Potential life cast adrift
Filtered by the swamp

Poem by Mark Musselman
Image by Don Wuori

Last month's National Geographic Magazine article on Matsuo Basho, Japan's haiku master who set off into Japan's backcountry, got us thinking in 5-7-5 syllables about our own backcountry.

The moving water in Four Holes Swamp often surprises visitors to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  There is an expectation that the water is simply filling a low-lying area like a puddle in the yard.  Even though there is no river flooding Four Holes Swamp, the water draining from the land within its watershed is constantly moving toward the Edisto River and entering just upstream from Givhans State Park.  Four Holes Swamp is like a giant bathtub with the drain always open.  If rain did not add water to the tub, the swamp would eventually dry.

Besides adding clean water (the swamp acts like a water filter) to the Edisto River, the moving water is a deterrent to biting insects like mosquitoes, which do not like to lay their eggs in such conditions.  The moving water also flushes from the swamp most of the organic material that falls from the trees that help make a swamp (a flooded FOREST) a swamp.  This keeps the bottom from becoming feet thick in decaying material and prevents the swamp from smelling foul from stagnant water and decomposition gasses.

The image shows a variety of materials that have fallen from the swamp's trees, including pine pollen, red maple seeds, and leaves.  A log in the water allows water to flow beneath, but it acts as a skimmer preventing any floating material from continuing downstream.  In many places while the floating material is delayed (until the water level rises over the log or the water level drops below the log) it appears as a timeline for springtime's (in order of appearance) cast of characters.  Pine pollen, followed by debris the oaks and oily cypress sap with the bits of green leaves dropped by hungry tent caterpillars waiting in the wings for Act II.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Bunny

We've discovered where the Easter Bunny rests before his big night of hiding eggs. He has a nice hollow log in a secluded spot just off the boardwalk near #10 at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. There's nothing better than a virgin, old-growth forest to offer some peace and quiet before all the activity of Easter Sunday.

A little known fact, the Easter Bunny is actually a Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris). As such, he is a very good swimmer and had no problem finding his hollow log surrounding by water in the middle of the swamp. Although nocturnal(obviously!), the Easter Bunny was like many of us today in that he could not resist going outside and enjoying the warmth of the springtime sun!

Friday, March 21, 2008


Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) is also known as American Hornbeam, but should not be confused with Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). From Richared Porcher and Douglas Rayner's A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina:

The common name, hornbeam, which comes from "horn" (meaning tough) and "beam" (similar to the German "baum" for tree), accurately describes its wood: close-grained, hard, and heavy. Early Amerians used the wood for mallets, tool handles, wooden ware, dishes, and bowls. The tree is too small to be commercially used for lumber. Small mammals and song birds eat the nutlets.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

St. Patrick Visited the Swamp

Apparently, St. Patrick made a visit to the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Three groups from the Charleston County School of the Arts went around the boardwalk today and not a single snake was spotted! Some might say that is great news, but not so the visiting 6th graders.

With warm temperatures last night and a bright and quickly-warming morning, we expected to see a bumper crop of reptiles eager to get their start into the new spring season. Although we did not see any snakes, we did catch an eyeful of reptile behavior. Two male Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) battled for a larger female, though it was tough to declare the remaining male the winner as the female repeated attempted to bite his neck and head as copulation transpired. At one point the female had the male fully by the throat. Love hurts! Later, a pair of Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) were caught mating, but without the WWF theatrics.

The Great Egret (Ardea albus) in the image was alone, but sporting the breeding plummage that nearly brought about its demise due to demand from the fashion industry. The Audubon Society can trace its beginnings to the campaign to end this fashion-driven slaughter of birds.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More Blooms at Beidler

Tomorrow is the official beginning of spring, but the plants at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest have already gotten a jump on the season. Some of the earlier bloomers have been noted previously in this blog. Today, we found some more blooming plants as we searched for a Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that was a suitable distance away from our other specimen trees, which will be used in the Envirothon Global Positioning Systems (GPS)/tree identification lesson that we are developing.

Some of the Flowering Dogwoods are indeed flowering along with Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron canescens). We also found Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) already with blossoms and fruit from last season alongside Common Blue Violet (Viola papilionacea). The Yellow (Tulip) Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), the Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) (white flower in image below), the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are some of the trees currently in flower.

The Eastern Redbud is also known as the Judas-tree. From A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina (R. Porcher and D. Rayner): Redbud is one of the most popular native trees in cultivation. It is an understoroy tree whose trunk is too small to be commercially important. The flowers have an acidlike flavor and are put into salads. Also, the flower buds can be pickled. The buds, flowers and young pods are good when fried in butter or made into fritters.

The common name, Judas-tree, is sometimes transferred to the eastern redbud from the related species of the Mediterranean (Cecis siliquastrum), the tree on which Judas hanged himself. Legend states that the flowers were white but turned to red either with shame or from the drops of blood shed by Jesus.

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rain, Rain!

How does the nursery rhyme go? "Rain, rain go away come again on any day other than payday!..." or something close to that. We have not had much luck with the timing of the much-needed rain here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. We've had several of the once-monthly nightwalks rained out, including last Saturday evening, along with some school group visits. As a non-profit on a tight budget, it hurts when the rain prevents income from coming through the door, especially when those days are bracketed by beautiful, sunny days perfect for a visit in the swamp.

The images show Saturday's tornado warning (as in a tornado was already on the ground) boxes encompassing the Francis Beidler Forest and later the heavy rains of the storm falling directly on top of the boardwalk and nature center. Obviously, the nightwalk was cancelled, no income was generated, and two dozen people did not get to experience the old-growth swamp at night.

Francis Beidler Forest is closed to the public on Mondays. However, we're here and looking out of our office windows we see that we have this gorgeous day to ourselves. Students from the Charleston County School of the Arts is scheduled to be here on Wednesday...the only day this week with a chance of rain. Hmmm...go figure.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bloomin' Swamp

Although it's not officially spring, it's beginning to look like it in the swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Many of the trees buffering the swamp have already begun leafing out and some of the young Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) have begun leafing out in the swamp itself.

Along the edges of the swamp and on the bluff overlooking Mallard Lake, some of the first wildflowers are showing themselves. Near #2 along the boardwalk Dwarf Trillium (Trillium pusillum) is blooming above a carpet of pinestraw and poison ivy. Beidler Forest is the only site in South Carolina known to have Dwarf Trillium.

The bright, white blossom of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) stands in contrast to the dried, brown leaf litter on the forest floor of the bluff overlooking Mallard Lake. "Indians used the red juice from the roots to dye baskets and clothingand to make war paint. Appalachian crafters today still use the red juice to dye baskets and cloth. Indians also used the sap as an insect repellent and used the dried root to cure rattlesnake bites. When it became known that the Indians used the root as a somewhat successful treatment for tumors, interest in the plant increased. Drugs developed from bloodroot effectively treat ringworm and eczema." (Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee, Richard D. Porcher)

Nearby the bluff, Little Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) is also blooming. Royal Fern is (Osmunda regalis) is returning along the boardwalk near #5. Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) has been blooming in the forest and along roadsides since last week. "This is the state flower of South Carolina and is often cultivated. All parts are poisonous when taken internally, but not to the touch. Children have been poisoned by sucking the nectar from the flowers, probably mistaking them for honeysuckle." (Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee, Richard D. Porcher)

Images by Brad Dalton

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Canoe Trail Blockage

Most of today was spent doing battle with cold water, strong currents, and a dead-but-incredibly-heavy bald cypress tree that had fallen on the canoe trail. The 50- to 60-foot cypress didn't just fall on the canoe trail, it was a participant in a "perfect storm" of downed trees.

Of the 360 degrees through which the tree could have fallen, it fell in the one direction that would have it perfectly aligned with and completely block the narrow canoe trail. Did we mention that the long, straight trunk fell along the canoe trail at an L-shaped curve? The combination of the long, heavy tree, the numerous cypress knees poking from the water preventing, the sharp turn, and a smaller cypress crushed beneath and gripping the larger cypress made removal of the obstacle a challenge of Rubik-cube proportions. Using come-alongs, we were able to eventually move the giant cypress a few feet upstream in the canoe trail channel before meeting the stump of a previous faller. Again, the numerous knees prevented us from spinning the trunk to either the left or the right. By hacking away the shattered end of the trunk nearest its stump, that end of the truck was able to clear a knee and begin a slight swing downstream with the aid of the current. Unfortunately, the overall length of the trunk prevented it from negotiating the L-shaped turn. Unable to push the trunk downstream with the current, unable to pull the trunk upstream and clear with the come-alongs, and unable to move the trunk to either side of the canoe trail, we accepted partial victory be securing the trunk to one side of the canoe trail.

Eventually, the water level will drop and our short-term solution will no longer work. However, lower water levels will likely expose more of the trunk and allow an attack by chainsaw. Once in smaller pieces, we should be able to move the segments in any direction off of the canoe trail for permanent sequestration in the "fields" of cypress knees.

Images by Brad Dalton

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Charleston AFB Earth Day

Today, the education department from the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest loaded up the car with jars of swamp bottom samples along with trays and equipment with which to pick through the samples. After ensuring that we had proper photo identification to pass through security, we headed out to the Charleston Air Force Base's annual Earth Day event.

Although it rained last night, today's sun quickly dried out the field and tables and warmed the air. A gentle breeze kept the "noseeums" grounded made for a perfect day to be outside picking "bugs." What the 220 excited 5th graders were actually picking were a combination of crayfish, insects, worms and mollusks. 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 quarterly sampling done by the Beidler Forest staff, the water in Four Holes Swamp remains high quality. However, despite the high water quality, the fish remain low quality due to the buildup of mercury in their bodies.

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bird Walk on Folly Beach

Jeff Mollenhauer, Audubon South Carolina’s Director of Bird Conservation, decided to head to Folly Beach County Park on Sunday to do some scouting for the upcoming “Folly Beach Bird Walk” on Friday, March 14th, 10:00am – 12:00pm.

The Stono River inlet at the southern tip of Folly Beach is well known by bird watchers as good area to observe wintering and migrating shorebirds. Sunday’s outing proved to be just as good as anticipated. Upon reaching the mud flats, Jeff observed a couple hundred shorebirds feeding in a large flock among the mud flats and oysters. Many of the shorebirds were Dunlin, but there were also smaller numbers of Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, American Oystercatcher, and Greater Yellowlegs.

The flock of shorebirds was acting unusually skittish though. Every 3-4 minutes they would erupt into the air, fly around in a circle over the Stono River, only to return to the spot only moments later. Usually this kind of behavior is exhibited when a predator is lurking nearby. Suspicions were confirmed when suddenly a small, dark falcon with heavily streaked undersides came zipping through the shorebird flock. The falcon was a Merlin, a smaller cousin of the Peregrine Falcon, both of which love to prey on shorebirds! Although the Merlin returned to strafe the shorebirds about 30 minutes later, there was no success for the predator that day. To put a nice finishing touch on the evening, three Black Skimmers flew by low over the water skimming for fish.

To reserve your spot, visit or call 843-795-4FUN (4386) and reference course #18510. Be sure to register quickly though because there are only 10 spots left.

Walks will be held on the second Friday of every month, so if you miss this month please join us for the April or May walk. The program will be co-lead by Jeff Mollenhauer and the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission’s Interpretive Naturalist, Keith McCullough. There is no cost for the walk, but there is $7.00 parking fee to enter the county park. Advanced registration is required and space is limited. If you have any questions, please contact Jeff Mollenhauer at or 843-462-2150.

Images by Jeff Mollenhauer

Sunday, March 09, 2008

High Winds!

We were unable to post yesterday due to access problems with the server. It's unlikely that high winds were the cause of our access problems, but by the end of the day, we fully expected it to be the cause of access problems on the boardwalk. The map image shows the National Weather Service's high wind warning area shaded in yellow. Note that the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, as well as the lower portion of Four Holes Swamp, sit within the warning area.

It's always exciting to have high winds after a day of rain has weighted down the dead limbs or fern-covered living limbs and softened up the soil. Although rare in occurrence, the boardwalk seldom wins the battle with anything falling from 60 feet overhead. The image on the left shows damage from a hurricane when there were certainly no visitors on the boardwalk.  While contemplating this entry during yesterday's wind event, a branch from a large Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) did fall within inches our maintenance cart shed, which sits 100 feet outside of our office windows. Although we have not taken a spin around the boardwalk this morning, there were no breaks in the boardwalk at 4:45 pm when the last couple returned to the nature center. However, the last couple did bring news of a different sort.

The first Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco) of the year has bloomed along the boardwalk directly behind the Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) sign. The Atamasco Lily is also known as the Naked Lady, since it has no leaves on its stalk. Although, it could easily be because it too is dangerous with leaves and bulbs that are poisonous to horses, cattle and possibly humans. It bears the name Easter Lily, since it blooms near that time of the year. According to Richard Porcher's and Douglas Rayner's A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, the plant should bloom from late March through April. Like Easter this year, the flowers are early.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, March 07, 2008

College Park Rain Check - Parula Arrival

The National Weather Serivce provides a variety of radar images and weather-related data for Geographic Information System (GIS) users and Google Earth (kmz/kml) users. We took the 0900 EST southeast radar image and placed it over our Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest boundaries file. When placed together, it's not hard to see why today's group of College Park Elementary School 2nd graders have asked for a rain check for their their scheduled visit.

Since it is unlikely that we will be going out into the foul weather either, we'll look back at some of what we saw and heard on yesterday's walk. First and foremost, we heard the first Northern Parula (Parula americana) of the season! The Northern Parula joins the Yellow-throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica), which arrived sometime last week. The Northern Parula is one of North America's smallest warblers and is common in mature forests (like the old-growth at Beidler Forest!) near water. In this area they nest in hanging Spanish Moss and are completely concealed when on their nest. The delicate nature of their hanging nest may explain why they are an infrequent Cowbird (Molothrus ater) host and certainly makes raids by snakes more challenging. Note the dark "collar" and yellow lower mandible of the bird in the image.

Bird image by Jeff Mollenhauer.

Most of the other sightings yesterday involved snakes. We can state without a doubt that any aversion to snakes appears sometime after the second grade! We saw multiple individuals of three out of the five species of snakes found in the swamp. The first image shows one of the Eastern Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus), the second image shows a Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) and the last image shows one of the Banded Water Snakes (Nerodia fasciata fasciata).

Snake images by Mark Musselman.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

College Park Elementary

Second graders from College Park Elementary School found out what an impediment to simple travel a swamp can be. They made their way from school along I-26 and exited at #177 near Ridgeville. From there it is 15 minutes to the gate at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Not today...

Another bus full of kindergarten students was heading east on US Hwy 78 and was struck by an oncoming vehicle. The driver of that vehicle was apparently hurt, but the kids on the bus are reported to be fine. However, no traffic was allowed to pass along that stretch of US Hwy 78. The satellite image shows in yellow the point to which the College Park Elementary students traveled before reaching the roadblock. The pink route shows what they had to do (back to I-26, west to exit #187, into Harleyville, east on US Hwy 178) to find a way around the accident and across the swamp to Beidler Forest.

Although the name "Four Holes Swamp" has been on maps since the Revolutionary War, the significance of the four holes (deep spots in the swamp) or their location is lost to history. However, Four Holes Swamp was a significant impediment to travel in those days. Not only did the swamp have its name alone annotated on these early maps, but the boundaries of the entire swamp were duely noted. In those days, it wasn't speeding vehicles that caused delays along the road, it was speeding cannonballs! (see the sign)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Red Bay

The next labeled plant along the boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest is the Red Bay (Persea borbonia).

From Richared Porcher and Douglas Rayner's A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, "The aromatic, spicy leaves of red bay and swamp red bay have been used as a substitute for bay leaves (Laurus nobilis, native to Asia Minor and the laurel of history). Fresh or dried leaves can be used as a spice to flavor meats, soups, and other dishes. Because of its attractive evergreen leaves, red bay is often cultivated in the South. The trees are too small to be of commercial importance as lumber. The fruits are of limited importance to wildlife."

If you have Red Bay near you, enjoy it while you can.  Since 2003, a fungus associated with an exotic ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) has been killing the trees in the coastal plain counties of Georgia and southeastern South Carolina.  The fungus is transferred from the beetle to the healthy tree when the beetle attacks the stems and branches.  The Master Naturalists from Beaufort say they can no longer find healthy Red Bay in their area.  They spent some time admiring the various Red Bay specimens around the boardwalk at Beidler Forest. However, the fungus has been reported in Charleston County, so it is only a matter of time before the non-native fungus finds its way here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sick Call

On Friday, we shared the swamp with students at Devon Forest Elementary School's career day. We were careful to keep our hands out of our mouths, ears, noses and eyes just as mom always said. In fact, we didn't eat anything during our four hours in the crowded, multi-purpose room. Unfortunately, there were plenty of viruses in the air, possibly from one or more of the half dozen or so coughers that visited my table.

They got us! We've been down for the last three days although the worst seems to be over. The only thing keeping us corporeal beings is the volume of hot tea we've ingested is sufficient to counter the mass lost in sinus mucus. The image shows but a small portion of the forest that was decimated in order to fulfill our need for tissues.

Ah, but spring is on its way! School groups will be visiting this Thursday and Friday, the new seasonal naturalists have arrived at Francis Beidler Forest, the neotropical songbirds will continue to arrive and establish their breeding territory, the reptiles will be more obvious as the weather warms, and everything else will start to bloom. That reminds us...we better restock our tissue supply!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Devon Forest Elementary School Career Day

We made sure we had a full breakfast before heading out to Devon Forest Elementary School's career day on Friday. We knew that we were going to be on our feet from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm and would likely answer over 500 times the question, "Is it real?" We would answer in the affirmative, which would induce the follow-up question, "Is it alive?" This was even asked of the alligator skull. We understand that children of this age are concrete thinkers and not yet logical's here, it's real, ergo it must be alive. However, we were still answering the "Is it real?" questions in our dreams last night!

In the packed multi-purpose room, we had a table with a bobcat (hit be a car and posed by a taxidermist), a Barred Owl talon and wing (hit be a car), a Gray Fox pelt (hit be a car), turkey feathers and a foot, White-tailed Deer skull and antlers (found dead near boardwalk), Yellow-bellied Slider shell with leg bones still attached, various shedded snake skins, a large alligator skull (shot by unknown individual at Mallard Lake), a hatched alligator egg, and a laptop with slides are various scenes and wildlife in the swamp.

Undoubtedly, it was a real experience!