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

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