Friday, August 29, 2008

Goodbye, Denise!

Today. was Denise Ecker's last day as a seasonal naturalist at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Denise arrived in March and partnered with Brad Dalton through the spring season. When Brad left for medical school, Denise stayed on as the summer seasonal naturalist and has been invaluable beyond her regular duties in preparing the education department for the coming season of school group visits.

When not leading school groups, Denise helped Jeff Mollenhauer, director of bird conservation, capture bird audio, was a counselor during summer camp, and enthusiastically completed various glamorous tasks, including taking trash to the dump, filling potholes in the driveway, and cleaning bathrooms before Storks & Corks.

Duke's BBQ in Ridgeville was the site of Denise's goodbye lunch. Ummmm. However, it's now late in the afternoon and the big lunch has us feeling like bears ready to hibernate. As if on cue, a substantial thunderstorm moved in and chased away the visitors enjoying their swampy solitude.

Happy trails and great birding, Denise!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren's will build their nests in many unusual places. It's the male that prepares the nest. We can hear the ladies saying, "Mmmm hmm!" Last year's summer campers at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest watched as chicks were raised in the cigarette disposal container by the front door of the nature center. As in business, the saying holds true, "Location, location, location." As previously reported (1, 2, 3), the low, exposed nest was likely visited by a hungry Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata). Despite that gaff (and all other male errors), a Carolina Wren pair remains together throughout the year on their permanent territory.

Image by Mark Musselman

Barbara Thomas, Audubon South Carolina staff, has a family of exceptionally literate Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) residing outside of her St. George home. At least we assume that the birds are literate as they have taken up residence in the newspaper delivery box.

Images by Barbara Thomas

Do you have any images of odd Carolina Wren nesting sites?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Economy Strikes!

We missed our blog entry yesterday as we were distracted by the sudden collapse of GrandLuxe Rail. We were scheduled to provide the Audubon presence on the rail trip from Seattle, WA to Jackson, WY via Mt. Rainier National Park, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. An email yesterday afternoon announced that GrandLuxe Rail would cease all operations effective this Friday. Good thing we paid attention while in Jackson Hole last week!

There are plenty of benefits to working at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, but one of the biggest is being able to observe wildlife outside the office window. It has a calming effect. Today, the scene is dominated by a variety of birds and they appear to be pulling out all the stops. It's as if they are saying, "Hey, look! We're still here! Cheer up. Travel will come another day."

All morning, the Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceus) continued to return and eat the ripe fruit of the Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria). After lunch, the second shift brought a male Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) that checked under every leaf for an insect meal. Apparently, the Hooded Warbler did not do a satisfactory job, because a Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus) soon followed and rechecked the leaves. Soon after that, a White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) appeared and quickly located a large caterpillar that had gone undetected by the warblers. After choking down the caterpillar, the White-eyed Vireo wiped its bill and appeared to mockingly cry to the other species, "Rookies." For reasons unknown to us, a pair of Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) became agitated and protective of their turf. After a few high-speed, low-level passes, the Worm-eating Warbler led the other species in departing the area.

As we're trying to wrap up this entry, a Northern Parula (Parula americana), a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) all check the area for a pre-migration meal.

Below are some shots out west in Wyoming:

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, August 25, 2008

Horse Sugar

No, Horse Sugar is not a polite way to curse. Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) is a shrub or small tree with dense clusters of fragrant flowers. The name is derived from the fact that horses (and cows and deer) readily consume the leaves. Even hikers can consume the leaves for a refreshing trailside treat!

Horse Sugar blooms between March and May. Now, however, the fruit is on the plant and it is attracting the attention of Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceus). The Red-eyed Vireos, like many other bird species, are preparing for their migration and need to add fat reserves for their journey to South America. As the rain as come and gone throughout the day, so have the Red-eyed Vireos. They are quite particular as to which fruit they select. The green fruit is eyed with a cock of the head and left, while the purple fruit is plucked and swallowed whole.

It has been a pleasant distraction watching the vireos forage outside the office window. If fact, it's snack time for us too! Now, where is that apple?

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bird Banding Draws Media Attention

Although Tropical Storm Fay lashed the Carolina Lowcountry with bands of rain and wind, that story was "so old news" for the local print media. Bryce Donovan of the Post and Courier and Jenny Peterson of the Summerville Journal Scene endured a Fay-induced soaking to see how birds are banded at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest as Jeff Mollenhauer, Director of Bird Conservation, prepares to launch Project PROTHO.

After the rain abated, the four nets were opened again. Another half hour later, we were able to check the nets set along the edge of the swamp (two on the dry side and two on the usually wet side). Only one net, which was located on the dry side, had any birds tangled in its mesh. The three squawking hostages were a female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), and a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). Although we were not there to see how the captures occurred, we have a theory. All of the birds call freely when distressed. One of the three likely got caught, called in alarm and attracted the curious attention of at least one of the remaining two birds. As noted in the previous bird banding blog entry, the net is extremely difficult to see. A second bird caught in the net and adding to the alarm calls may have brought in the final bird. The bird equivalent to, "Oh! Shucks!" was probably uttered more than once.

On the back porch of the nature center, the bagged birds were removed individually, banded and their vital statistics taken. Bryce held and subsequently released the Carolina Wren and the Tufted Titmouse, but passed on the Northern Cardinal after hearing a description of the painful bite that the seed-cracking bill can inflict on human digits. The recapture of birds, like those caught today, will help us learn more about the bird populations in our sanctuary. However, the purpose of our bird banding permit is to gather data on the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea).

The Prothonotary Warblers will receive color bands in addition to their National Bird Banding Laboratory aluminum identification bands. The color bands will allow us to identify the birds without having to recapture them as the numbers on the aluminum bands are entirely too small to read without the bird in hand. Additionally, visitors to our center or individuals along the birds' lengthy migratory route will be able to identify the birds and share the information with us. Along the boardwalk, we would like to learn the location of Prothonotary Warbler nests, the extent of a male's territory, the fidelity of breeding pairs during the breeding season and across seasons, the annual fidelity a pair has to a particular nest site, and where the birds go once their young have fledged. Currently, the birds all look alike and we are unable to determine answers to the any of these questions.

Thanks to Bryce Donovan and Jenny Peterson for taking the time to report on our upcoming bird research. Please come join us in the spring and assist us in scientific data collection while you enjoy a walk through the old-growth swamp!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jackson Hole, WY

Since Sunday, we've been at the Audubon Centers and Education Department conference in Jackson Hole. We've have had little free time and even less access to the internet. We'll be back in South Carolina late this evening and will post some of our images and experiences in the coming days.

Tomorrow, if the weather cooperates, we'll be mist netting birds with Bryce Donovan of the Post and Courier. Believe it or not, there is not 24-hour coverage of Hurricane (Tropical Storm? tropical depression?) Fay here in Wyoming.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Geckos and Treefrogs

We get a variety of foreign visitors here at the Francis Beidler Forest Audubon Center. The majority of these visitors come from Europe. Yesterday's visitor was no exception, but the staff's reception was notably different.

Mr. Paul Walsh of the Dorchester County Career School brought two of the critters he found in one of the school's rooms. The lizard was clearly "not from around here." The gecko-like features led us to search Google images for "gecko." Shoot us an email if we're moving too quickly for anyone. The first set of images showed an individual that looked strikingly like the juvenile sitting in the bottom of the soda bottle on our desk. A search of the common name under the image confirmed that we had a young Mediterranean Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus). It's tough to blend (think My Cousin Vinny) with a name like that.

The Mediterranean Gecko is originally from...(wait for it) the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe and northern Africa and has been introduced to many areas in the Southeastern United States. This is the first specimen that we have seen in our area. In fact, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory webpage does not show any distribution within South Carolina. These geckos are associated with human development, which shows in the clusters on the range maps. They seldom stray far from buildings with outdoor lights, which attract insects and thereby bring the meal to the gecko.

As the gecko is not native to our region and its effects on local ecosystems is unknown, we had no plans to release the individual on our desk. However, spending our days working to protect habitats and the flora and fauna within them, we are squeamish about crushing the lizard. Therefore, we called Dennis Blejski, a friend of Beidler Forest and local herp hobbyist, to come and collect the gecko. The gecko will soon be residing at Bee City in an "Invasive Species" exhibit.

Mr. Walsh's other guest was a Barking Treefrog (Hyla gratoisa), which is native to the Coastal Plain from southern Virginina through Florida to Louisiana. The Barking Treefrog is a large, stout frog comfortable high in a tree or burrowing into the ground. The nickel-sized wedding ring (shhh, it's almost never been off in 19 years) was used as a reference, since we had no change in our pockets. Hmmm...coinsidence or consequence. The break in the hot, dry weather brought on by Wednesday's rains likely induced this male frog (based on the greenish-yellow throat) to search for a mate. As the Barking Treefrog is native, we let it go outside of the nature center.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Raining in the Swamp

Yesterday's rains did little to change the water level in the swamp near the boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest Audubon Center. In the coming days, rain that fell in Four Holes Swamp upstream from us may begin to fill in the low areas around the boardwalk as it moves slowly downstream to the Edisto River. Today, however, the swamp floor remains nearly dry with just a hint of moisture in the soil. Although, there has been rain of a different sort.

Walk along the 1.75-mile boardwalk and you cannot help but notice the thousands of green fruits littering the deck and swamp's dark soil. We know that the Palmetto Pride's Litter Buster hotline number is 1-877-7-LITTER, but who will we report? Which animal in the swamp is the scofflaw? We're on it! After being out of the office all week, we were itching for a reason to head out onto the boardwalk.

As it turned out, it was an open-and-shut case. Kyra Sedgwick (aka The Closer) has got nothing on us with respect to wrapping up a case. As the images show, the ubiquitous Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is responsible for chewing the end of the unripened Tupelo Gum (Nyssa aquatica) fruit, eating the seed embryo, and then discarding the remainder of the fruit to gravity's grip. They know where in the fruit to find the part they wish to eat, so the fruits show little damage on the whole. In reality, the damage is complete and the seed is incapable of producing a seedling tree.
Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Snakes in the Swamp

It'sssssssss sssssssssummer in the ssssssssswamp! The hot weather has kept the swamp's five species of snakes relatively inactive and difficult to many of us! Snakes, like other reptiles, warm their bodies mainly by lying in the sun, but it is possible for reptiles to get too hot. Since reptiles do not need calories to maintain a warm body temperature, there is little reason for them to move about when it's hot. The Red-bellied Water Snake below has found a sunny spot on a fallen tree over the water. Not only is the snake in direct sunlight, should danger approach, it can also make a quick escape by dropping to the water below.

Another water snake seen from the boardwalk this week is the Banded Water Snake. The individual shown below is close to black with the dark red bands rising from its belly to its back.

The Banded Water Snake shown below is slightly lighter in overall color, it still shows the dark red bands rising from its belly to its back, but it is also showing its light belly as it repositions itself on the sunny log. When at rest, the lighter belly does not show making the snake harder to detect in its environment.

The juvenile (teenager) Red-bellied Water Snake shown below appears to be a Banded Water Snake with slight traces of red bands rising from its belly. Variations in markings and color within the same species can make identification difficult, so we do not need juveniles trying to confuse us too!

The third species of snake in the swamp is the Greenish Rat Snake. The Greenish Rat Snake is a combination (integrade) of the Black Rat Snake, which is found farther to the west, and the Yellow Rat Snake, which is found closer to the coast and south. Greenish Rat Snakes are superb climbers. They can climb straight up the tallest Bald Cypress tree, find a meal, and climb straight back down the tree.

The only venomous snake in the swamp is the Eastern Cottonmouth. Notice the triangular shape of the head. That is the biggest clue that this is a snake that needs to be given plenty of room. Like the other water snakes, the Cottonmouth eats mainly fish and amphibians (frogs, salamanders, toads), though it will eat small mammals, birds, lizards, and snakes. Notice the forked tongue that this Cottonmouth is using to hunt for its prey. Chemical traces in the air stick to the tongue, which the snake then sticks into receptors in the roof of its mouth. The receptors are connected to the brain, which helps the snake determine if suitable prey is nearby. If more chemicals stick on the left fork of the tongue, the snake knows that it must move in that direction to find its prey.

Most of the time, snakes will leave people alone. Snakes are basically a long backbone. (Yes, they DO have a backbone and even ribs... lots of them!) Even the smallest human can snap the back of a snake. Therefore, snakes attempt to avoid detection by using camouflage or remaining perfectly still. If detected, snakes will often attempt to flee. If not allowed to flee, snakes may hiss, fake a strike, or show off their "cotton" mouth. If all this fails to convince the human to go away, the snake may bite.

Notice in the image above that the fangs of the Cottonmouth are not descended. If the snake were to strike out, the fangs would descend before impacting the prey or the unwise human.

Look at the image below and see if you can detect the two Banded Water Snakes and the fish-eating Brown Water Snake, which is the last of the five species in the swamp at Beidler Forest.

Banded and Brown Water Snakes - images may be used for educational purposes only

If you didn't find them all before you scrolled s..l..o..w..l..y over them with your cursor, you probably need to watch you ssssssssstep when you go outside!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Precious Water!

Many of us take water for granted. We would not have lasted too long in the field yesterday if we did not have an ample supply of water. The creature around us are not any different. They too are stressed by the current drought.

A Squirrel Treefrog (Hyla squirella) made its way into the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest at some point during the week and was unable to find water and possibly food. We put the frog into a plate of water and put it outside on the porch. It only took a few seconds for a very young Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis) to make its way from its sheltered position behind the mural to the plate and a share of the life-sustaining water.

A Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) on the maintenance trail to the barn was not as lucky. It appears that the salamander expired recently as its smell was still attracting flies to the ant-covered carcass. Not only is water crucial to keep adult 3"-5"-long Marbled Salamanders alive, water is what triggers their eggs to hatch. "Ambystoma opacum differs from the other ambystomatids in at least three significant ways. First, it is a fall breeder migrating to Carolina bays in advance of the significant rainfall that is required to fill the bays. Second, females lay their eggs on land (usually under a log or similar cover object), rather than directly in the water. Finally, once the eggs are laid, the female stays to guard the clutch, whereas other Ambystoma in the Southeast lay their eggs and leave. When the bays fill, water inundates the nest and triggers hatching. Females then leave their offspring behind and depart from the bay. This unusual strategy virtually ensures that the young marbled salamanders are the very first salamanders to hatch each year, which may give them a considerable advantage over potential competitors, such as the larvae of other salamander species." (from University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory)

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


The Francis Beidler Forest encompasses over 16,000 acres of Four Holes Swamp. Much of this protected land is beyond the old-growth forest and boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest Audubon Center.

As noted in a previous blog entry, we are restoring to grassland a loblolly plantation site that was logged prior to its aquisition by Audubon South Carolina. The grassland plots are located at the Spring Branch tract near the intersection of I-26 and U.S. Hwy 15 (N33 deg 17' 36.24" and W80 deg 30' 15.73" for Google Earth). In preparation for planting, the three 2-acre plots needed to be flagged for the heavy-equipment operator contracted to clear the logging debris still on the site. The images show that many of the sweet gum trees suffered only minor damage from the aerial herbicide application. Funding, paperwork, work schedules, and the weather conspired in the previous weeks to leave us little option but to sally forth today into the sunny, humid, 100+F "frying pan." What we lacked in shade, we made up in water supplies. We learned that our shirts and jeans can hold over one gallon of water, since we drank that quantity and sweat was the only route of exit from our bodies. Only the bramble thickets along our path and the raisin-size ticks made the day more enjoyable than we could have expected.

Before going out to the field and while in the cool, air-conditioned office, we drew our 2-acre plots on our computer using the ESRI ArcMap Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. Initially, the polygons that we drew were slightly larger than two acres, so we downsized them on the computer. Using a Trimble Juno unit borrowed from the Geography Department at the University of South Carolina, we downloaded our polygons and the aerial image of the site (see map image from before logging). Once at the site, the Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities of the Juno unit allowed us to see, on the Juno's display screen, our position as well as the aerial photograph and the grassland polygons. One person holding the Juno walked along the edge of the polygon while the others followed and flagged the line.

GIS/GPS technology certainly made the job of flagging the grassland plots more efficient. A GPS unit alone would not have allowed the navigator to remain on the polygon's boundary and using a compass alone would have been tedious due to the short sighting distances in the thick vegetation. Once restored, the birds won't need any of that fancy navigational technology to find their way to the desirable grassland habitat.

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Brosnan Forest Conservation Easement

The Lowcountry Open Land Trust has partnered with Norfolk Southern Corporation to protect 12,488 acres of Brosnan Forest. (See map) This is the largest gift of conservation by a corporation in the state’s history and is thought to be one of the largest conservation easements in the southeast. Brosnan Forest is a neighbor to us here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest and is connected to Four Holes Swamp's main channel via Walnut Branch, which joins just north of the U.S. Hwy 78 bridge.

You can read more about this historic easement on the Lowcountry Open Land Trust's page. We welcome the addition of Brosnan Forest to the protected lands of Four Holes Swamp!

Image by Mark Musselman

Monday, August 04, 2008

Secretive Swainson's Warbler

"One of the most secretive and least observed of all North American birds, the Swainson's Warbler is a skulking bird of the southern canebrakes and rhododendron thickets. If it weren't for its loud, ringing song, the presence of the species in many areas would go completely undetected. " (Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds)

Really? Here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest we have seen plenty in the last two weeks and have captured and banded three individuals. Secretive? Somebirdie needs to pay more attention during covert operations class. We jest, of course, because the Swainson's Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) is indeed difficult to see, even with the stellar habitat (and mist nets) we have here at Beidler Forest. In fact, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, which invites parasitism by cowbirds, are the main threats that have earned the Swainson's Warbler a spot on the Audubon Watchlist.

We've seen the Swainson's Warbler in the upland stretch between the nature center and the edge of the swamp near #3 on the boardwalk as well as the upland sites where we set the mist nets near the thick successional vegetation of a previously-logged site. The images show the Swainson's Warbler we caught and banded last week.

Images by Mark Musselman