Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shedding the Outer Layer

There comes a point in this hot, humid weather when thoughts turn to removing a few outer layers in search of comfort. For some, that's be a scary proposition...for us, not them! At the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest the heat and humidity seems to have an up side. The snake population appears to be eating well and growing accordingly.
While on the boardwalk to take images of the new observation tower and test drive a Trimble Juno GIS/GPS unit, we saw two shed skins. Like snakes, we shed our skins, though we do so constantly and in pieces small enough to be almost undetectable. Healthy snakes, unlike lizards, shed their skin in one piece from the nose to the tail. When ready to shed the dead scales, the snake will catch the skin on a twig, piece of bark, boardwalk nail, or other such object and then simply crawl out of the old skin. The inside out remains can be seen in the images. The first specimen is unidentified, but the second specimen is a Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota).

The Brown Water Snake skin was found at the edge of Goodson Lake at the end of the boardwalk. We had not identified the skin when we bent to pick up the 3-foot hollow version of the snake. All systems went to RED ALERT when our fingers made contact with the moist and quite supple skin. The cast off skin was fresh enough that we could easily be in striking range of its former resident! A quick scan of the surrounding mud allowed us to drop to DEF CON 3 and a closer inspection of the skin revealed that it belonged to a non-venomous snake. We incorrectly thought that it was not possible to sweat more than the smothering conditions had already caused.
The strong fishy odor of the skin left no doubt what Brown Water Snakes eat. With the low water level causing fish to congregate in smaller pools, snakes will have plenty to eat and we should see the bounty of skins that they outgrow. However, in the future, we will scan the area first and THEN pick up the souvenir!
Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bird Banding at Beidler

During the last couple weeks, we have noticed some Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) foraging in an early successional mixed upland forest adjacent to the old-growth, bald cypress-tupelo swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Every year in early July, it seems that Prothonotary Warblers become much more difficult to find along the boardwalk, even though most do not begin migrating south until mid-August. In fact, the boardwalk almost becomes a bird-free zone for nearly all species. This may simply be because the males have stopped singing and are less visible or perhaps their activity level drops after they have raised their young. However, after seeing some Prothonotary Warblers in the early successional upland forest last week, we began to wonder if perhaps that is where some of our in-swamp birds had relocated.

Audubon South Carolina’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jeff Mollenhauer, recently obtained a federal bird banding permit with a special permit to color band Prothonotary Warblers. Birds are typically banded on the leg with an aluminum band containing a unique 9-digit number to identify that particular bird. The band numbers and all of the information we collect on the birds is sent to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory. If one of the birds we band is captured at another banding site or found deceased, the individual recovering the bird will send the band number and any updated information to the laboratory. From that contact, they can learn where and when the bird was banded and previously recaptured. The size of the band depends on the size of the bird. It's safe to state that the band is often so small that one would need to recapture the bird to read the number...even then only the youngest eyes could do so with ease. In order to allow visitors or staff to identify an individual Prothonotary Warbler from the boardwalk without having to recapture it, a series of plastic color bands are being placed on each bird's legs.

To answer our questions about which birds (specifically, the age and/or sex of Prothonotary Warblers) were using the upland habitat, we set up six mist nets along the edge of the early successional forest (see map). The mesh of mist nests are strong enough to capture the birds without injurying them, but fine enough that the net is invisible when viewed at a right angle. The images show a closeup of the net, a view down the length of the net, and finally the same net viewed at a right angle (use the sunlight spot on the path as a reference).'s invisible! Birds in the nets were carefully removed and placed in cloth bags to reduce the stress on the birds until their vital statistics could be taken. All captured birds were banded, but only the Prothonotary Warblers received the separate colored bands.

Our first attempt at banding birds in Beidler Forest turned out to be highly successful! We were able to capture and band two Prothonotary Warblers: one juvenile and one adult female. Both received a series of color bands and we will try to locate them again later this week. We were amazed by the number of birds using the early successional forest, particularly since the activity has been so low in the old-growth forest during the past few weeks. We also captured and banded: 1 Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii), 2 Kentucky Warblers (Oporornis formosus) [one twice!...slow learner], 1 Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens), 1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), 1 Northern Parula (Parula americana), and 3 Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). Many of the birds that we captured were birds that had hatched some time this year, which often required a quick look at a field guide. The Kentucky Warbler in the image was not impressed.

Additionally, we captured a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) that managed to escape before being banded. As described in the pre-banding meeting, they are master escape artists and just so squirmy! Although General Francis Marion was equally as elusive, the Swamp Wren moniker never took hold!

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, July 25, 2008

Armadillos in the Swamp

Our blog service was done yesterday.

Yesterday, Francis Beidler Forest swamp stompers completed our boundary line marking across Four Holes Swamp.  After the 1.5-mile trip using a compass, Global Positioning System (GPS) unit and pre-loaded waypoints, we were appoximately 50 feet south of the iron pipe marking the cross-swamp corner.  Not bad, especially since the boundary is internal to the Francis Beidler Forest property and for our reference only.  Although it took us 5 1/2 hours (including 30 minutes for lunch) to reach the east side of the swamp, it only took one hour to make the trip back to the truck on the west side of the swamp.  We did not retrace our path, but instead pulled up the coordinates of the truck (prior planning prevents poor performance, aka the 5 p's) and walked a straight line to the vehicle.

On our way into the swamp, we came across a family of Nine-banded Armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) near their burrow.  The burrow is on a neighbor's property just before the drop into the low, wet area of the swamp.  Armadillos may sleep up to 16 hours a day and forage mainly in the early morning.  We saw an adult and four juveniles, but they did not see us due to their poor eyesight.  They did eventually detect our presence by smell though we were much more ripe on the return trip to the truck.  The soil around the den was turned up from the armadillos' foraging with their snouts for grubs, ants, termites, beetles and other arthropods.  They can also use their powerful legs and claws to expose a meal.  With a low metabolism and limited fat stores, the armadillo is highly susceptible to cool weather. 

There are 20 species of armadillos in Latin America, but only the nine-banded armadillo ranges into the United States.  The armadillo is named from the Spanish "little armored one" and is the only mammal to possess the bony plates over its head, back, legs and tail.  These bony plates do not harden until the animal has reached adult size.  However, the bony plates are heavy and cause the animal to sink when in water.  When faced with a narrow water crossing, the armadillo will hold its breath and walk across the bottom of the stream or creek.  For larger bodies of water, the armadillo will fill its stomach to twice its size and swim bouyantly on the surface.  It will take several hours for the armadillo to expel the excess air from its body.

Armadillos always give birth to quadruplets, which we observed.  A single egg is fertilized and the embryo divides in two before each embryo again divides in two.  Thus, each young armadillo is genetically identical to its three sisters or three brothers.

As if not odd enough already, the armadillo is the only mammal beside humans that carries leprosy.  Hmmm...might be a way to defeat the dreaded chiggers, but the treatment appears to be much worse than anything the chiggers can dish out!

Image from US Fish and Wildlife

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Storks & Corks

On August 9th from 6pm-9pm, you can enjoy an evening with an endangered species! Join Audubon South Carolina for an evening of observing the endangered Wood Storks at Silver Bluff Audubon Center's Kathwood Ponds near Aiken, South Carolina. Guests will enjoy a sampling of wine and hors d'oeuvres following the Wood Stork viewing. Bring your camera!

Reservations and pre-payment ($35 per person) are required. Space is limited and always fills to capacity. Call (843) 462-2150 to register. Proceeds benefit Audubon South Carolina.

Image by Jeff Mollenhauer

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Swamp Stomp

The schedule of the day at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest included taking the Santee Cooper interns on a stomp across the swamp! Well, one third the way across the swamp. We needed to reestablish the northern boundary line for the sanctuary portion of Beidler Forest and the extra hands were volunteered just in time.

Although a lack of rain was an issue for the canoeing portion of summer camp, low water levels made traversing the swamp almost as easy as walking across one's yard. Now, if only the swamp looked like it did in December when we planned this exercise. In order to get from the west side of the swamp to a designated point on the east side of the swamp, we plotted points 100 meters apart using our Geographic Information System (GIS) software. The spacing between the points was reasonable for winter (leaves-off) conditions, but it did not work well with the lush vegetation of the summer. By the time the GPS batteries died and the humans began to wilt, we had drifted southeast from the line by approximately 50 feet. As this is an internal boundary, the line does not need to be precise (thank goodness) and can be brought back on track with the addition of points between the ones already plotted.

We'll be back at it on Thursday, but now it's time to hose off the mud and drive home for a proper shower and a cool beverage!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hickory Horned Devil

Although it may seem that we are describing a summer camper from a recent session at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, the Hickory Horned Devil is actually the caterpillar form of the Regal Moth, aka Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis).

Yesterday, four separate groups of visitors reported seeing the same bright orange moth hanging from a branch near the boardwalk. Insects are seldom reported, but when they are the subjects are usually dragonflies or damselflies. If insects are reported, the reporter is often an individual with an existing interest that caused them to focus their observations toward the insect world. We have watched individuals and groups walk by without noticing adult deer bedded down next to the boardwalk, or Barred Owls (Strix varia) perched just over the boardwalk, or large snakes lying in the open atop fallen logs. Yet, four separate groups of visitors spotted a moth, took pictures, and were compelled to report their sighting once they returned to the nature center.

Due to the limited staff at the nature center during the weekend, we were not able to get out onto the boardwalk and take a picture of our own. Perhaps a visitor from yesterday will read this and allow us to use one of their images. However, the sighting does give us the opportunity to dig into our image archives and finally use the images of a Hickory Horned Devil that we took several years ago in our Summerville neighborhood as we helped friends pack up their household belongings.
Although the Hickory Horned Devil looks imposing and possibly venomous, it is harmless. The caterpillar is often seen once it climbs down from its host tree (walnuts, hickories, pecans, sweetgums) and begins searching for a site in which to pupate. At 12.5 cm to 14 cm in length, the caterpillar is the size of hotdog! After overwintering below ground and pupating, adults emerge (as did the one observed near the boardwalk) during the summer months with only vestigial (remnant or primitive structure) mouthparts. Adults mate during the second evening after emerging and begin laying eggs (up to 250 at a time) at dusk of the third evening. They die shortly thereafter. The eggs will hatch in 6-10 days and the larval stage will last approximately 35 days.

Wow! Talk about exciting! Thirty-five days as a teenager, a long nap, one night of passion and no dishes to clean! Note to the young or less-observant, this paragraph oozes sarcasm.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, July 18, 2008

Get Smart

As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by...that much!" The rain that was promised for last night did not materialize over the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest in Four Holes Swamp. Therefore, there was not enough water to canoe in the channel between the 1000-year-old bald cypress trees. Fear not! This summer camp tragedy has a happy ending.

Although not quite the same swamp experience, canoeing on Goodson Lake offered campers an opportunity to be on the water deep in a swamp unchanged by human hands. They now join a short list of people, since the former fishing hole became part of the sanctuary in 1969, that can claim such a feat .

Summer camp 2008 ended with the first bands of rain washing over the canoeists as they returned to the outdoor classroom for lunch and camp diplomas. We thank all the campers and their families for joining us this year. We look forward to campers returning, in addition to a new crop of swamp explorers, for Birds camp in 2009. Make your reservations early!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rain Needed to Canoe

The rain is tantalizingly close! However, if the low-pressure system does not shift a bit more north and bring rain to the Francis Beidler Forest, there will be no canoeing for the summer campers tomorrow.

Join the campers as they chant themselves to sleep with, "Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain..."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tower Complete!

The Francis Beidler Forest wildlife observation tower at Goodson Lake (farthest point on the boardwalk from the center) is now finished! The upper platform offers a better view to the downstream end of the lake where the alligators normally stay during visiting hours. Additionally, the higher viewing area cuts down on the sun's glare off of the water allowing visitors to see turtles more easily and to see fish that were all but invisible in the past.

The tower stop is sure to be a hit during next year's Wine & Warbler event on April 18, 2009.

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Passion For Summer Camp

Today, summer campers at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest took their first tour of the 1.75-mile boardwalk through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp. We're not sure if it was the lower water, the warm weather, the post-breeding season or just our poor luck, but our trip around the boardwalk yielded few wildlife encounters. We did flush a fawn from its bedding site within the Dwarf Palmettos (Sabal minor) near #12. It moved a dozen or so yards away from the boardwalk and settled behind a fallen tree.

While determining north using sticks and the sun along the Santee Cooper powerline right-of-way, we saw a beautiful purple flower growing in the open area. We, along with the campers, had never seen the flower before. After referring to Richard Porcher’s A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, we got a better idea of why the flower was a mystery to us. The bloom generally shows for only three days.

According to Porcher, the plant is a Maypops or Passion-flower (Passiflora incarnata) and "the common name comes from the resemblance of the floral parts to the story of Christ’s Passion; the styles resemble nails; the 5 stamens, the wounds Jesus received; the purplish corona, the bloody crown; the 10 perianth parts, the 10 disciples (Peter and Judas being absent); the coiled tendrils, the whips for scourging; the pistil, the column where Christ was scourged; and the flower in the background of dull, green leaves represents Christ in the hands of His enemies. Interestingly, the flower’s life is generally three days."

The native vine (up to six feet long) either creeps along the ground or climbs and will bear fleshy, yellow fruit when ripe between July and October. See the similar species Passiflora lutea.

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dangers of Running

Getting to the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest has never been easy, even for locals.  We're not really near anything, though Harleyville is the closest landmark that shows on the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) road map.  We've included a map in our brochure, because the SCDOT map creates confusion...not because of the map's design, but because many individuals that struggled in geography class (help can be found here) see intersecting lines on a map and assume an intersection in the real world.  This is the case with Beidler Forest Road and Interstate 26.  Our map clearly states "NO EXIT," but that does not deter individuals from driving to that point between the actual exits at 177 (Harleyville) and 187 (Ridgeville) and being surprised.  In the end, faulty maps are always to blame for the additional 20-30 minutes of drive time.

Even if one were to follow the directions to Beidler Forest explicitly, the dirt road named Mims Road made it an experience to get from Beidler Forest Road to our driveway, especially after a rain.  Red pudding would not be an exaggeration when describing the mile of Mims Road after a moderate rain.  Sticking to the ruts and accepting that a full-service car wash was in the car's future was the stress-free path.

A few years ago, Dorchester County's 1% tax for roads got Mims Road minimally-paved.  Gone are the days of heavy dust in the dry season and slip-n-slide, white-knuckle steering in the wet season.  The last obstacle for most drivers is the rock driveway from Mims Road to the nature center.  The downhill speed limit of 20 m.p.h. is seldom exceeded by non-staff, non-pickup vehicles due to the threat to paint finishes from stones kicked up from the driveway's surface. This surface provides a durable road while allowing water to penetrate, thereby preventing oils and other pollutants from being washed down the driveway and into the swamp.  However, the surface is unforgiving to young campers moving at high speed without full mastery of their bipedal locomotion.  Today, Ada put a right knee and a left palm hard onto some of the largest stones laying between the nature center and the art activities in the outdoor classroom.  It is said that artists must suffer, but knee bone on rock is a tremendous cost.

Having witnessed the fall of Ada, we admonished her fellow campers for running along the same stretch of treacherous driveway.  "There will be no running!"  Having said this, 6-year-old Grace, one of the twins and no more than three feet tall, asked in all seriousness, "What about skipping?"  Well, of course that is allowed in any summer camp.  Pleased with the answer, Grace skipped...well, to the wildlife observation skills session.  We realized then that we, and likely many others, need to incorporate more skipping into our daily lives!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mouse Hunt

The 1.3" of rain received last night did not make the canoeing perfect for the campers in the second session of summer camp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, but it did make it possible. There were a few tight spots between the buttresses of trees that would have been avoided with another inch of water, but the campers took the minor delays with good spirits.

Although the rain put water in the deepest of channels, much of the swamp was still just mud. As we ventured (without a camera) back out toward Goodson Lake to stash the canoes for next week's summer camp session, we saw a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) drop from a broken, hollow branch that had long ago plunged into the swamp floor. The snake appreared to snap at something on its gravity-induced drop. The 4-foot snake hit the mud and was immediately on high alert with its head a foot in the air looking like a hoodless cobra. It was definitely looking for something. That something suddenly made a break for it when the snake turned away. We saw enough of the blur to identify the fleeing prey as a large mouse with a younger version attached to its back. The snake remained agitated and looking in all directions from its elevated observation post. The mouse bolted from behind a nearby log just as the snake looked its way. The mouse retreated equally as rapidly as the snake belly-flopped to the mud and shot after its desired meal. Alas, the mouse was able to put plenty of real estate between itself and its attacker once beyond sight of the snake.

Though the larger of the meals was safely away, the smaller of the meals unwisely squeaked for its parent to return. As the snake followed the scented trail of the adult mouse, it heard the squeaking or alerted on the separate scent. The snake popped back up into its cobra-like pose and its movements became quick and jerky as it attempted to pinpoint the young prey. It did not take long for the snake to move to the opposite end of the log from behind which the adult mouse had earlier appeared. We did not see the strike, but we recognized the death coil from our extensive mouse-feeding experiences with our two captive snakes. The jaws of the snake were barely extended as the back legs and tail of the mouse slipped passed and no noticeable lump appeared along the snake's body. If we had walked up at that moment, we would not have known a meal had taken place. Seemingly unsatisfied by the snack, the snake reacquired the scent trail of the adult mouse and began the delayed pursuit.

Later, a dragonfly lost its battle for life to another species of dragonfly. We commented on how terrifying the world would be for humans if every day we had to face the gauntlet of predators that often go unnoticed in the world all around us.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Canoe Rain

This morning, the weather radar was clear and the swamp at the Francis Beidler Forest was a sea of mud. The close-of-camp canoe trip scheduled for tomorrow was in doubt with few ideas for replacing that exciting event. Someone noted, "What we need is some rain!" Really? Obviously, they hadn't checked the radar.

As camp was coming to a close with animal track identification and plaster casts of tracks, thunder could be heard to the south. Ah, but that's downstream and we remember enough of our 8th grade earth science to know that rain downstream won't help our canoeing prospects. By 2:00 pm, there were some terrifyingly close lightning strikes, but no precipitation. Eventually, the thunder cells that popped up to our south drifted east and the sun shone once again. We checked the weather radar and saw a 2-hour gap between Beidler Forest and some small cells forming to the west. That gave us just enough time to move the canoes from their secret location to the near-boardwalk launching site. We are nothing if not optimistic.

As the 5:00 pm whistle primes to blow, thunder can be heard to the west. A quick check of the local prevailing winds and Four Hole Swamp's orientation verified that thunder to the west is a good thing. All the reds and oranges on the weather radar confirm that there is "rain in them thar clouds." Hopefully, enough will fall in the swamp to buoy our canoes tomorrow morning!

Canoe rain two summer camp sessions in a row? Obviously, Francis Beidler Forest is more special than we knew!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Snakes and Young Naturalists

Yesterday's camp activities included a full tour of the boardwalk, which winds through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp that is the core of the Francis Beidler Forest. Although the water level is once again low, we did see several snakes, a Great Egret and a variety of turtles in and around the remaining pools of water. The images show two of those snakes, an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) and a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata).

All that talk of snakes had an effect on one camper. This morning, a young camper came in and described how she and her mom watched a snake shed its skin in their backyard. Malaysia (right in image) wanted the experts at Beidler Forest to identify the snake she had seen, so she brought in the skin that was shed. Mike Dawson, Center Director at Francis Beidler Forest, quickly identified the snake as a "Copper-bellied Water Rattler." In actuality, the snake was likely a species of rat snake or possibly a black racer. However, it is refreshing to hear a child speak of watching a snake in its environment without a thought (by her or the accompanying adult) of killing the reptile. Furthermore, Malaysia moved beyond simply observing the snake to seeking an identifciation and learning more about the animal.

We'll count that as a small victory for Beidler Forest summer camp!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, July 07, 2008

First Day Back

Vacation is not having to set an alarm clock. Vacation ended this morning at 0530 EDT. However, the second session of summer camp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest began promptly at 0900 EDT.

Both the first and third sessions have filled with a waiting list for hopeful campers. Possibly due to the Independence Day holiday being so close to the weekend, this session of summer camp is only two thirds full. Although ten less bodies means that there are kids missing out on a tremendous opportunity to experience nature like no place else on Earth, it also means that we can ease back into non-vacation life. The first day of camp was peacefully calm with fewer bodies, more girls than boys, and an earnest desire to learn all that was possible from snares and traps, wildlife observation, medicine bag construction and sand painting.

If you missed it, the first session of summer camp made print in the Summerville Journal Scene.

Images by Mark Musselman