Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We're Back

It has been a busy two weeks, but all of it away from our office at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

The first half of last week was spent at the National Conservation Training Center outside of Shepherdstown, WV along with other recipients of this year's TogetherGreen grants. As you may recall, we received a grant last year to study (Project PROTHO) the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) in the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp that forms the core of the Francis Beidler Forest. As reported earlier on this blog, this year's grant will help fund the placement of nest boxes in areas of the swamp that have been degraded due to logging. Before the birds return in the spring, we will have had time to enter all of this year's data into our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and see if we can discern any patterns. We're excited that we will be able to continue documenting the story of Beidler Forest's Prothonotary Warblers!

The second half of the week included a soggy weekend of camping at the Flat Rock Music Festival in Flat Rock, NC. Belleville Outfit, Carrie Rodriguez, Rhythm Angels, and Lake Street Dive were all "must hears!" Early in the morning, before the bands started playing, Screech Owls, Pileated Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens and a host of other songbirds helped us greet the light (though we didn't see the sun between Friday evening and late Sunday morning).

In between the trip to West Virginia and the trip to North Carolina, we were able to complete the iPhone Beidler Forest boardwalk app circuit by connecting the homepage all the way to the species' detail page. The screen shots below show that path beginning with "Tour" and ending with the Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata). The second image shows the next screen on the path from "Information." Only the species of plants or animals that are likely to be seen from the 1.75-mile boardwalk will be included, so identification of a specimen will be made easier. All the information contained in the current guidebook will be included as well as additional "between the numbers" information. Once the app clears the Apple approval process, the app will be available to enhance (audio, video, images, maps, etc.) the experience for visiting school groups as well as all others with iPhone/iPod Touch technology.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dam or Damn!

The day at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest started out well! Chigger damage from yesterday's off-boardwalk foray into the tall grass under the powerline was minimal. Today's off-boardwalk exploration was intended to help orient the new seasonal naturalists to the swamp within the loop of the boardwalk.

Before heading into the boardwalk loop, we took a slight detour to check on the beaver (Castor canadensis) habitat-alteration project under the powerline (see previous entry). With almost no water in the swamp, walking off the boardwalk was not at all difficult. However, as we approached the beaver dam, the mud became soft enough that we sank up to the top of our socks. The upstream side of the dam looked like no place else along the boardwalk except the deep hole at Goodson Lake. Large fish broke the water's surface and a female Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) could be heard long before she arrived at her perch on the powerline above the deep pool.

After exploring the inner loop of the boardwalk, we headed for lunch via the boardwalk to the nature center. Near #15, we spotted a few Yellow Jackets near a decomposing tree trunk. On closer (with binoculars) inspection, we could see that a nest of Eastern Yellow Jackets (Vespula maculifrons) had been disturbed by a large animal. Feral hogs (Sus scrofa) have been actively rooting in the area. If a hog did tear open the log, it most certainly met with an aggressive and painful defense by the insect inhabitants! Hogs will readily eat turtle eggs and salamanders found in decomposing logs, but neither of these prey items packs the punch that dozens of repeatedly-stinging yellow jackets can inflict. Yellow jackets, like the Southern Yellow Jacket (Vespula squamosa) shown in the image, kill insects for food and will eat nectar for energy that they use for flight. Unlike bees, wasps do not lose their stinger and can sting as often as they have venom.

Unfortunately, later in the day while helping to trim branches along a different portion of the boardwalk, Rachelle stumbled into another ground nest and received multiple, painful stings. Animals don't need to be big to command respect.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Life Got You Upside Down?

For the new seasonal naturalists, today was another day around the 1.75-mile boardwalk at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest...tough duty. With the water level low enough that all but the deepest creek channels have dried, today's trip provided ample opportunity to practice identifying tracks in the mud. Deer, raccoon, ibis, snake and turtle tracks were almost everywhere! One set of tracks was puzzling. The tracks appeared to be that of a turtle (rounded foot holes divided by smooth leveling of the plastron), but this set had what appeared to be a Grand Canyon-like trench down the middle. We decided that it was likely made by a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) moving through mud with the consistency of pudding.

As we were contemplating the odd track in the mud, we sensed that we were being watched. Behind us on the other side of the boardwalk, we spied the Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata) sunning itself on some exposed roots. Although snakes are always a high-interest reptile for visiting school groups, it was another reptile that quickly diverted our attention. A young Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) had flipped itself upside down. Unfortunately for the turtle, it had flipped in the small, loose material that had collected behind a fallen tree trunk when the water level was higher. In its effort to right itself, the turtle had simply worked itself into a deeper depression. The turtle was covered in green bottle flies, which is a term applied to a variety of blowfly species. The maggots of these flies prefer to eat dead tissue and will leave alone live tissue. Left alone, the turtle would not have survived. However, the flies were premature. In fact, the seemingly-aggravated turtle snapped at and caught a fly that ventured too close to the turtle's business end. The Monty Python quote, "I'm not dead yet!" came to mind. After we flipped the turtle back on its legs, it made tracks for safer ground!

Enough about near-death experiences...there is also plenty of life around the boardwalk. Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and its cousin Lavender Lobelia (Lobelia elongata) add color to the gray-brown mud cracking as the remaining moisture escapes.

After spooking a young group of four deer, we came upon migrating American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla). The males have the red/orange color, while the females and juveniles have the yellow color. These birds are seldom perched for more than a nanosecond, so capturing an image for our webpage had been tough. These are now the best images we have!

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


We've been working at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest, but we haven't been at the office computer!

On Saturday, we were back at Mepkin Abbey with the Master Naturalists from the Charleston area for a presentation by Father Guerric regarding the environmental mission of Mepkin Abbey and its influence on the management of the grounds. After Father Guerric's talk, the group met in the visitor's parking area for an introduction to basic Global Positioning Systems (GPS) navigation by Mark Musselman, education director at Beidler Forest.

The grounds at Mepkin Abbey are a combination of natural area, formal gardens, demonstration gardens, and habitats in the process of restoration. Simply strolling the grounds in the pleasant weather would have been restorative and enjoyable, but incorporating the GPS technology gave the tour the aura of a treasure hunt. Instead of being told that they would be walking over to the memorial to Charleston firefighters with an oak planted for each of the nine lives lost, the master naturalists were given a set of latitude/longitude coordinates. After brief demonstration of basic GPS operations, the group and their collection of owned and borrowed (from the SC Geographic Alliance) GPS units successfully navigated to the first stop.

In order to determine the coordinates for the next stop, participants needed to do a simple math problem using the number of lives honored (9) at the first stop. Once the calculations were done and the new coordinates entered, the participants navigated to stop #2 and found themselves in the labyrinth created from all native plants. Later stops brought the master naturalists to the plant identification path, the future site of a columbarium, sculptures from Hurricane Hugo-felled oaks, the Laurens family cemetery, and finally to the Luce Gardens for lunch. All participants made it to lunch while along the way dispensing with much of the mystery surrounding GPS navigation. A lunchtime bonus was a Bald Eagle perched high in a pine across the water.

After lunch, Father Guerric showed a demonstration vegetable garden grown in a minimal space as well as the native plant propogation facility. Native plants support native insects, which support native wildlife, including BIRDS. As when we last visited Mepkin Abbey, the Gulf Fritillary caterpillars were again dining on the potted passion flowers for sale. Unlike its brethren in the swamp, a very small Green Treefrog waited out the sunny day camouflaged on the green leaf of another plant. Green Treefrogs at Beidler Forest often appear on the gray bark of tupelos or other understory trees. However, the big suprise was another animal waiting out the sunny day on yet another native plant for sale.

Almost plucked off the plant by a master naturalist thinking he was removing a dried leaf, the Eastern Red Bat (Lasiurus borealis) hung unfazed by the crowd of gawkers and flashes from cameras. The Red Bat is a solitary, medium-sized (7-16g) bat with narrow wings, which allow for rapid flight but poor maneuverability. Eating mainly moths and beetles, Red Bats will land on light poles or on the ground to grab their prey. They forage in a variety of habitats, mostly over land, and prefer forested habitats. Red Bats are one of the species document in Four Holes Swamp. Although the Red Bats in our area may remain here throughout the year, bats residing farther north do migrate to warmer climates. Their southward movement appears triggered by the passing of cold fronts.

The nights are getting cooler, so the cold fronts should be appearing soon. Not only will bats migrate through the swamp, but a variety of birds will pass by to join Beidler Forest birds already vacationing farther south.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Young and the Restless

Today, we were leading the new seasonal naturalists around the boardwalk as they continue to orient themselves to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Although the water is gone from all but the deepest creek channels and holes and the mud has begun to crack, there is still plenty of life moving in the swamp. The mud alone told a story in the tracks of deer, raccoons, snakes, turtles, egrets, and opossums.

As soon as we reached the edge of the swamp, we spied a young Musk Turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) beneath the boardwalk. Near the interpretive sign for the swamp's snake species, two young Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) snakes were inspecting cypress knees in search of a meal (likely amphibian). Close by, a pair of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) were in the process of creating young snapping turtles. Soon, the flash of a white tail caught our attention and a young White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Although the fawn's spots are fading, it wasn't aware enough to avoid us and walked beneath the boardwalk just to our front. Finally, we walked up on a pair of Marsh Rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris) grooming themselves in a patch of Dwarf Palmetto.

Well, those are plenty of references to the young, but what about the restless. The alligator at Goodson Lake normally spends the day motionless on a log or at the lake's edge. Today, the alligator patrolled restlessly back and forth across the lake. Maybe the alligator was hungry...young beware!

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

New Sightings in the Swamp

There were some new sightings in the swamp today. Most importantly, the new seasonal naturalists were spotted at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest! We'll save the full introductions until later. However, while showing Allison and Rachelle the boardwalk through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp, we spotted something unusual at Goodson Lake...Wood Storks (Mycteria americana)!

Many of you may be familiar with Storks & Corks, which is an event hosted annually at the Silver Bluff Audubon Center near Aiken, SC. This year's event was held last month. The staff and visitors to Silver Bluff are accustomed to seeing Wood Storks, but the dense canopy of Four Holes Swamp usually relegates Wood Storks to "fly-over" status at the Beidler Forest. However, the space above Goodson Lake was apparently open enough for a dozen Wood Storks to settle in the trees around the lake's observation tower. Lousy day to forget the camera!

Wood Storks, the largest wading birds that breed in the United States, have been expanding their territory north of Florida as habitat within that state is eliminated or degraded. These birds are primarily tactile feeders, which allows them to feed in dark or murky water. Large populations were supported in south Florida when evaporation during the dry season concentrated prey in shallow water. This type of water draw down is done intentionally in the ponds at Silver Bluff. However, canals, irrigation, and other water diversion practices have altered the seasonal occurence of shallow water in southern Florida.

Although Wood Storks are not regular visitors to the Beidler Forest, they recognize an awesome place when they see it!

Image by Jeff Mollenhauer

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Sea of Plastic

Beach image by people.tribe.net

One of the things we noticed on our trip to Maine last week was the lack of trash along the trails as we hiked through Acadia National Park. It was jarring then to see one plastic bottle marooned in the mud near the boardwalk at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest! Scant litter floats through the Four Holes Swamp, but if it floats the gaunlet of cypress knees and buttresses, it will enter the Edisto River and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.

Albatross image by David Liittschwager & Susan Middleton

Such a journey sounds unlikely, but a casual stroll on the beach tells a different story. Go farther from the shore and vast quantities of trash, either dumped or washed into the ocean, float within the marine food chain. It floats because it is nearly 90% plastic. According to Greenpeace, humans produce 200 billion pounds of plastic each year with 10% of that reaching the ocean. Only 20% of that total is from ships and platforms, so 80% of the plastic litter in the ocean comes from land! The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic! In some cases, there is more plastic then plankton with the plastic and its associated contaminents working their way up the food chain.

Lately, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been in the news with its estimated size double that of Texas. This video by Charles Moore details that problem that plastics pose to the marine ecosystem and ultimately to our quality of life.

Help us be part of the solution at the source...reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Return From Maine

We're back in South Carolina and it appears we brought some of Maine's fall-like weather with us!

After several days in the basement of the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland, Maine for the Audubon Education and Centers Conference, it was exhilarating to head northeast on U.S. 1 for a day of hiking in Acadia National Park! The skies were clear, the humidity was low, and the views spectacular.

From the park's webpage: "Acadia National Park is a land of contrast and diversity. Comprised of a cluster of islands on the Maine coast, Acadia is positioned within the broad transition zone between eastern deciduous and northern coniferous forests, and hosts several species and plant communities at the edge of their geographic range. Steep slopes rise above the rocky shore, including Cadillac Mountain, which at 1,530 feet is the highest point on the U.S. Atlantic coast. While surrounded by the ocean, the entire fabric of Acadia is interwoven with a wide variety of freshwater, estuarine, forest, and intertidal resources, many of which contain plant and animal species of international, national and state significance." The park's blog also describes recent Hawk Watch data.

Our day in the park (click on "view map" here) began before sunrise on Sept. 3rd, but not early enough to make it to the top of Cadillac Mountain before the sun cleared the horizon. Breathtaking nonetheless! We drove the park road loop and stopped at all the appropriate sites (Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, Otter Cliffs). We grabbed "breakfast" at Jordan Pond and continued around the loop road, which circles the east end of the park on Mt. Desert Island, to Bar Harbor. We grabbed some lunch supplies and headed for hiking on the Precipice Trail, which is advertised as "iron rungs and ladders on exposed cliffs, very steep." Sunscreen would have been a good idea as we scrambled up the east face of Champlain Mountain! That was an exhilarating hike! Can you find the man in the blue shirt in the next-to-last image?

We hiked south from Champlain Mt. by the Beehive (plenty of crazy people swimming in icy water of The Bowl) over Gorham Mt. to the trailhead. The majority of this hike was along the exposed ridgeline with ocean views to the south and east! We turned north along the seaside trail and made another stop at Thunder Hole. More people were present in the afternoon than were in the early morning. The water level still was not quite high enough to generate any "thunder," but we would have hated being in the water that close to the rocks as tragically happened when Tropical Storm Bill moved by last month. By the time we got back to the Precipice Trailhead, we were ready to sit in the car for the three-hour ride back to Portland. We hiked five hours and had our fill. Silly Flatlanders.

On Tuesday, the new seasonal naturalists arrive at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. We'll be rested and ready!

Images by Mark Musselman