Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Summer Camp Test Run

Dorchester District Two Schools have a 1/2 day today, so it was a perfect opportunity to round up some of the neighborhood kids and bring them to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest to see the swamp and test some of the proposed summer camp activities!

Obviously, the 1.75-mile boardwalk through the virgin, old-growth cypress-tupelo swamp is a big part of any visit to the Francis Beidler Forest. Who doesn't want to see trees that average 1000 years old. Let's see...231 carry the 2, add...that's almost 5 times as long as this country has existed! Along the boardwalk we saw the ubiquitous (we're not really sure what that means, but we see it everywhere) Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), including several nest sites. We saw plenty of snakes, which always remain safely off the boardwalk, as well as the resident alligator of Goodsen Lake. Additionally, we saw a Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina), a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), two Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides), a Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), and a Barred Owl (Strix varia) hunting crayfish.

After the boardwalk, the plan was to have the group tried their hands at making plaster casts of wildlife tracks. The low water level of late has provided ample muddy opportunities for wildlife to leave their tracks. However, the multitude of sightings along the boardwalk forced a postponement of the plaster cast activity. Such is life in the swamp!

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ichnuemon Wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus)

These images of a female Ichnuemon Wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) were taken by Dr. Chase Hunter from the boardwalk at the
Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

How do we know that it is a female? It could be our exceptional eyesight or it could be the long ovipositor that she has trailing behind her in one image and penetrating the tree beneath her in the remaining images. Ichnuemons are
non-stinging relatives of wasps. The female uses her ovipositor to deposit eggs deep within wood infested with borer insects. The eggs will hatch and the young Ichnuemons will dine on the larval insects that are boring through the wood.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wine and Warblers

The weather was perfect for the fourth annual Wine and Warblers at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest! A brief, pre-event shower gave everything a wash and freshened the colors of birds and plants alike.

Guests joined expert birdwatchers for an evening on the boardwalk exploring the wide variety of songbirds that return each spring to Beidler Forest. A fine selection of hors d'oeuvres and wines were available in the nature center and at several stops along the boardwalk, which winds its way through the ancient swamp forest. Friendships were made or renewed as guests shared their interests in birds, photography, wine, conservation, and peaceful places like the swamp in the evening. By all accounts, this popular event was a resounding success!

Proceeds from this annual event benefit Audubon South Carolina. This year's Wine and Warblers sold out several weeks before the event, so be sure to make your reservations early for 2009!

Images by Brad Dalton

Friday, April 25, 2008

Carolina Chickadee

The Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest already knew that the sanctuary in Four Holes Swamp provides some of the densest songbird nesting for its type of habitat, but this year we've found more nests along the boardwalk than in any year in the past. Yesteday, while leading a group of second graders from Knightsville Elementary School, we spotted a Carolina Chickadee (Peocile carolinensis) chick out of its nest and hanging onto some Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) for dear life (literally!).

Chickadees are cavity nesters with this pair selecting the site of a former limb that has likely rotted into the trunk of the tree. Previously, we noted a pair of Carolina Chickadees that had nested in an old woodpecker cavity. That nest appears to be dead, possibly the result of a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) visit.

Not all of the images of the latest chickadee nest are in focus. The parents don't visit the nest as often as one might think and when they arrive, they don't spend much time exposing the nest's location. The chicks are ready for the arriving parent as the parent gives an alert call. One of the chicks appeared to get more than its share of the arriving meals by jutting its head far outside the cavity and presenting a maw that was hard to miss. The parents bring a mix of seeds, fruit, and insects as meals for their rapidly-growing chicks. The adult pair stay together throughout the year.

The Carolina Chickadee's range extends from the panhandle of Oklahoma through the middle of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio on to Maryland and south to the Gulf Coast and central Florida. The similar Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) ranges farther north and west. Where the ranges meet, there is hybridization of the two species.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, April 24, 2008

King Snake

The Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) is justly named! Not only does this constrictor eat rodents, birds and turtle eggs, but it eats other snakes!  This snake is immune to the venom of pit vipers and readily eats copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.  That makes it the king of snakes.

The Eastern Kingsnake is jet black with either yellow or white chain-like patterns on its body. This pattern gives the snake its other common name, the Chain Snake.  This individual appears to be ready to shed its skin and is therefore is somewhat dull in color.

Although the snake is predominately terrestrial and thrives in varied habitats, it can be found in areas that border water, such as river or stream banks or swamp borders.  The individual in the image was spotted by the Knightsville Elementary School bus drivers as it lay behind the railroad tie at the end of a bus parking slot.  Just beyond that point at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is where the swamp begins, so this snake was right where it should be expected.  Active almost exclusively during the day, this snake is nonetheless secretive and can often be found hiding under the cover of boards, logs or other suitable shelter.

Once again, the saying, "The only good snake is a dead snake!" is disproved.  If you're squimish when it comes to snakes, you have to love the venomous-snake-eating Eastern Kingsnake! 

Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bird Calling

Between leading the kindergarteners from Ridge Christian Academy around the boardwalk and during their bird calling activity and leading an afternoon canoe trip, we were not in the office long enough to make a blog entry. Truth be known, we like it that way!

Eighteen highly-excited kindergarteners arrived on another unseasonably cool morning eager to see lots of critters, especially reptiles! Unfortunately, the cool weather kept all but the alligator out-of-sight, but there were plenty of upclose Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) viewing opportunities. The loud "Sweet! Sweet! Sweet!" call of the male birds could be clearly heard even if the birds themselves could not be seen. This led perfectly into the after-lunch activity.

Each kindergartener was given a toy bird hidden in a small paper bag. Nine species of birds each had a pair represented. Without being able to see the bird, each student needed to find its species partner by listening to the call the toy bird made when the sound was activated by squeezing. As one can imagine, 18 birds calling at once is sensory overload. However, a few minutes of attentive listening allowed the pairs to find each other just as actual birds of the same species find themselves in the thickest of habitats and over substantial distances.

In the afternoon, our small canoe flotilla heard a variety of birds from Barred Owls (Strix varia) to the ubiquitous Prothonotary Warblers. We even came upon a female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) far from dry land. When we used a paddle to point out a basking small Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota), she flew out of a large crop of poison ivy that was growing atop a high cypress knee. On closer inspection, we found a nest with three eggs. This snake posed no threat as it eats fish, but a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) that we saw farther down the trail would gladly eat the eggs or the chicks. Mama cardinal kept her distance and repeated called (loosely translated), "Hey, over here! I'm over here! Come over here!"

Images by Mark Musselman (not of actual snake or nest as guiding canoes and keeping a camera dry are not compatible)

Monday, April 21, 2008


Continuing with the theme from last week, it's rough out in nature! Today's case is not entirely nature's fault. We put the Audubon Center out here at the Francis Beidler Forest and it got in the way of a low-flying, high-speed Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). Out our window, we saw it coming hard around the corner of the meeting room but had no way to warn the bird that its flight path was about to be impeded by glass.

The large bird was able to hit the air brakes and reduce its impact velocity, but it was still a jarring blow. After briefly fluttering like a butterfly just beyond the window, the woodpecker flew to a nearby tree to clear its head. One would think, of any bird, a woodpecker would have the easiest time recovering from a blow to the head.

The brain of a woodpecker is packed tightly within its skull with no space to move and be damaged. Additionally, the bones of the skull are spongy to absorb shock along with strong, shock-absorbing neck muscles. The tongue, which exits the back of the skull, wraps over top of the skull and is anchored at the front of the skull near the bill is thought to add another layer of stablilization to the head. Nevertheless, the unexpected collision with the window kept the mohawk-wearing headbanger grounded for some time.

Image by Mark Musselman

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Carolina Anole

If a male Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis) performing its dulap-flashing courtship display falls from a great height out of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) and hits the boardwalk with a sickening smack, is it wrong to have a America's Funniest Video moment and giggle? Well, it happened at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest...

...and we giggled once we moved in for a closeup and the lizard flipped back on to its feet. Stunned, it was caught in a color phase shift between pleasant green and man-that-hurt-and-I'm-embarrassed brown.

Nature is a tough place. Earlier we spotted a Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) moving through the dry, upland forest. As it slithered by, we noticed it had a sizeable kink in its body. At some point in its past it survived an attack. The snake seemed none the worse for wear as it inspected one Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) after another, possibly searching for treefrogs as shown in the April 15th entry.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


We had the day off today, so naturally we came to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest to practice with the new camera. We erred by entering the building to check the computer for an email. We lost an hour by being seen and tasked with work. We made quick work of the assignment and headed out to the powerline in search of butterflies.

It is our intention to plant butterfly-attracting, native plants within the powerline right-of-way, which is easily accessible from our parking area. Students with binoculars and field guides will be able to spot and identify butterflies as they wait their turn to begin the boardwalk tour. The plantings will definitely enhance the site, but there were plenty of butterfly species already fluttering within the treeless tract, especially on and around the Red Buckeye Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia). A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) even stopped by for a drink and posed beautifully next to a blossom with the bright green of the right-of-way serving as a backdrop. Of course, the bird zipped away just as we pushed the shutter release!

Here are the butterflies we saw today:

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)

as yet unidentified

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

skipper, possibly a Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Master Naturalists to 3rd Graders

Yesterday, the master naturalist group from Spring Island visited the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. We're not sure who forgot to pay the global warming bill, but the day was gray and never made it to 60F. Nevertheless, the group walked the boardwalk and the bluff above Mallard Lake under the guidance of their instructors, Chris Marsh and Tony Mills. We tagged along to provide Beidler Forest-specific information, but the information exchange was heavily weighted in our favor. We learned a great deal about tree identification from Chris.

Along the boardwalk, we saw the ubiquitous Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), several Eastern Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) desperately trying to warm themselves, a pair of Carolina Chickadees feeding their young in cavity that was possibly created by a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), and a Barred Owl (Strix varia) catching and eating a crayfish. Participants left with a better understanding of the bald cypress-tupelo swamp and cameras full of images.

Today, third graders from Flowertown Elementary School worried that the continuing cool weather would prevent them from seeing all that the swamp has to offer. However, just as yesterday, the same snakes (too cold to move) and same species of birds were seen. In addition, the alligator was curious enough to move off its sunny spot on the bank and swim into view.

Even though the weather is cooler than normal, this is certainly the time of the year to visit the Francis Beidler Forest whether you are interested in birds, reptiles, plants, amphibians (like the Squirrel Treefrogs) or simply a place like nowhere on Earth.

Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Results Are In!

With the new camera smell still in the air, we headed out after work onto the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The Nikon D300 has more buttons and options than the cockpit of a jumbo jet, so we kept the camera on fully automatic. As soon as we reached the water of the swamp, we encountered a pair of Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) that appear to be building a nest behind the interpretative sign at #3. Only the bright yellow male is shown in the images.

A few moments later, the often-shy and rarely-photographed (by us) Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) dropped down on a fallen log in search of a meal. The red mohawk appeared exceptionally-well coiffed. A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) looked for its meal on the side of a snag while a young Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) sunned on a fallen log. If you look closely along it's right side, you can see a mosquito full of cottonmouth blood. Finally, on the way back we spotted Butterweed (Senecio glabellus) blooming and a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) resting on a branch.

Not bad for a quick walk around the boardwalk with the new toy! Your visit to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest can be equally fruitful!

Images by Mark Musselman