Friday, January 30, 2009

Do you dibble?

Everyone has likely dibbled at least once in their life. The dibble is a garden tool used to make a hole in the ground for the purpose of planting, while to dibble is the act of making said hole in the ground. The image shows the equipment used to make some of the 15,000 holes for the Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) plugs (see yesterday's entry) in the Francis Beidler Forest's Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) plots. The dibble is the metal tool and the bucket contains the grass plugs. A weary planter noted that the bucket full of grass reminded him of Tom Hanks' imaginary friend, Wilson, in Cast Away.

To plant manually using the dibble, one selects a spot on the ground at least three feet from the last Wiregrass plug and steps on the metal projection above the blade in order to push the dibble blade into the ground. Next, one moves the dibble slightly towards and away from one's body in order to widen the hole. If one is lucky enough to have a partner carrying the bucket of grass plugs, the partner drops the plug in the hole and the dibble is inserted into the ground near the hole to close the hole around the plug. Repeat until all 15,000 grass plugs are planted!

Fortunately, we also have a mechanical planter that is able to run in the space between the rows of pine trees. One person drives the tractor and one person sits on the planter. As the tractor pulls the planter, the planter's spreader opens a trough below the seated individual. After the person on the planter drops a grass plug into the trough, the back end (wheels) of the planter pushes the sides of the trough together thereby sealing the grass plug into the ground.

With slightly more than a third of the grass plugs planted on each of the first two days, there will be plenty of plugs remaining for some Saturday fun!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wiregrass Planting

The Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) burning that occurred last November was reported in this week's Charleston Mercury. Later today, we will head out to another Longleaf Pine stand and plant some of the 15,000 Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) plugs that were purchased and delivered yesterday. Wiregrass evolved with the native Longleaf Pine ecosystem and appears to be critical to the health of the ecosystem.

It appears that fire is essential for production of viable seed by these plants. Wire grass may actually be the most important, if not the most obvious, species in a longleaf pine savanna, because it is the plant that produces most of the fuel for the fires that sustain the community. Longleaf pines themselves do not produce enough fuel to keep their “home fires” burning. If it weren’t for wire grass and the fires it sustains, the savannas would cease to exist. That is exactly what happens when fire is suppressed in these communities. -- Carolina Environmental Diversity Explorations

Therefore, as part of our efforts to restore the Longleaf Pine habitat, we are planting Wiregrass that was grown from seeds we harvested from plants naturally established at another site on the Francis Beidler Forest property.

The wildlife accustomed to the open longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem -- wild turkeys, fox squirrels, bob-white quail, and red-cockaded woodpeckers -- virtually disappeared, replaced by the inhabitants of denser pine forests. The intricate interplay of life adapted to longleaf pine ecosystem was slowly dying.

Today, longleaf pine is an ecosystem in trouble everywhere in the South. Of the estimated 90 million acres in the pre-settlement forests, only about 2 million acres of mostly second-growth longleaf pine remain in scattered patches. Less than half of that is found on public lands. Those stands of longleaf in private ownership continue to decline, as landowners replace the longleaf with faster growing species such as loblolly pine. And, despite our increasing knowledge about the beneficial role of fire, especially fire during the growing season, many landowners still do not burn their longleaf pine forests, or do not burn them often enough. -- U. S. Fish & Wildlife

Even without the full compliment of plants in our Longleaf Pine plots, a dozen or more Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are often spotted moving through the stand at Mallard Lake.

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chilly Reptiles

After lunch, we were startled by a bright light in the southern sky! It took a few minutes, but we finally recognized that it was the sun, which we haven't seen in several days.

On Sunday, the cub scouts from Pack 725 in Knightsville braved the cold temperatures and threat of rain when they visited the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The pack was visiting the swamp to work on their Naturalist Activity Badge. Requirements included learning about bird flyways, poisonous plants and venomous animals, food chains, plants unique to this area, aquatic systems in general, and observing at least six wild animals. Well, not a problem here in the swamp!

While walking the 1.75-mile boardwalk through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp, we heard Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks and saw several species of woodpeckers, a Belted Kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Northern Cardinals, Turkey Vultures, two White-tailed Deer, a Yellow-bellied Slider, and a Greenish Rat Snake! Being cold-blooded, reptiles are not often seen when the temperatures are low. Being exposed and unable to flee or fight is not a healthy position in which to be. Therefore, reptiles generally find shelter out of sight in a den, in mud, in a log, etc. and wait until the temperatures rise again in the spring. We were surprised to see the sole Yellow-bellied Slider basking on a log at Goodson Lake, but we were even more surprised to see a snake on such a cold, damp day! The Greenish Rat Snake was approximately five feet above the boardwalk in a cavity in the side of a Bald Cypress tree just beyond the large knee at #5. As you can see in the image, most of the snake is safely in the tree cavity, but enough is showing for a positive identification.

Today, the danger to reptiles exposing themselves in cool weather was demonstrated with deadly effect. A Red-shouldered Hawk perched low in a tree outside our office window caught our attention. Within minutes, the hawk had spied a meal and glided to the ground to attack. The meal moved too quickly from the talons to the bill for us to identify the species, but somewhere in the swamp a skink is slowing transforming into Red-shouldered Hawk cells. We have observed this behavior on several occasions, but as we cannot identify the individual hawks, we cannot determine if the skink hunting is an individual's preference or a behavior shared within the species.

The weather has warmed throughout the day, so there may be many more meals out and about.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, January 23, 2009

Horses and Kingfishers

Tomorrow, the first annual trail ride and fundraiser through Four Holes Swamp will be hosted by the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. We will post images after the event, but here is a Google Earth link to the 9.83-mile ride.

While walking the boardwalk in search of an item a visitor dropped, we heard a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) north of the boardwalk at #5. Prior to the beavers creating a pool of water beneath the powerline (see blog), we only saw kingfishers at the end of the boardwalk along the open water of Goodson Lake. Now, however, the deeper water beneath the powerline plus the spillover continuously feeding the downstream portion of the dammed creek channel provide the kingfishers additional feeding habitat. The bird in the image is a female, since females of this species sport the rusty belt and flanks. She is perched above the creek channel into which she will dive should she spot a suitable fish or insect meal.

We know where the Belted Kingfishers of Beidler Forest hunt, but we have yet to discover a nest cavity. Belted Kingfishers burrow 1-8 feet through the dirt into a stream, swamp or road bank to form an upward-sloping nesting cavity. The bird's territory often only includes the 1.5 miles of stream and adjoining vegetation. Therefore, the nesting area sould be at either end of the powerline cut where the ground slopes up out of the swamp, unless there is a high piece of ground near the edges of the powerline cut. Maybe the kingfishers in the swamp will accept a large, rotten stump or log as a nesting cavity site. We have plenty of those!

We may need to track the birds with binoculars, because the area beneath the powerlines is definitely easier to cover on the wing than on the ground...well, swamp!

Image by Mark Musselman

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mystery Bot Fly

Several month ago, the fly shown in the images landed in the office at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Having never seen anything like it and being unable to identify it, we captured it in the name of science. We've narrowed the identification down to the genus Cuterebra, but we are not yet sure of the species. Based on the number of Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) we have seen with warbels (the lumps [a.k.a.bots or wolves] that house the larvae as they feed on the host), we supect our specimen is Squirrel Bot Fly (Cuterebra emasculator).

Our specimen appears to be a female based on what looks like an ovipositor at the base of the abdomen. We're still trying to track down a resource on bot fly anatomy! The female does not deposit her eggs within or on the host. Instead she deposits her eggs in an area likely to be visited by the desired host. It isn't known how she determines this, but when a host brushes by, the egg is picked up. When a larva emerges from the egg, it will burrow into the host's skin forming the bot. It is unknown how great an infestation is required to cause health stress for the host or for young, if a nursing female host is involved. The larva remains hooked inside the host as it feeds until it emerges through its breathing hole and drops to the ground in which it will burrow and pupate.

Most bot flies have a specific wild animal host that they target, but humans and domestic animals can occasionally become hosts. In Central America, the bot fly, Dermatobia hominis, targets humans. If you don't like the sight of a palmetto bug, you would have a hard time dealing with Dermatobia hominis.

Although we're sure our specimen is not Dermatobia hominis, we would like to make a species-level identification. Please contact us if you can make such an identification.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

South Carolina Wildlife Magazine

Although the webpage has yet to post the latest issue of the South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest is featured in the "Out Scoutin'" section on pages 42-45. Elizabeth Renedo's article describes the winter sights along the 1.75-mile boardwalk that winds through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp. The beauty of working in the swamp is that no two days are alike with the four seasons providing distinct tableaus.

The images below show the progression of seasons from the spring's yellow, pine pollen-covered boardwalk to the long, winter shadows cast upon the boardwalk by leafless trunks.

Though wildlife is currently scarce and the swamp stands in shades of gray, spring is around the corner and life in all shapes, sizes, and colors will soon appear! (See photo gallery)

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Winter in South Carolina

If you were hibernating or migrated south last week, you missed our week of winter in South Carolina! Ice formed in the swamp sometime during the night on Friday or early morning on Saturday. Sunday's warmer weather (low 50Fs) brought nearly an inch of rain, so it still felt raw outside as the ice huging the swamp edge slowly disappeared. Only two souls braved the elements to walk the 1.75-mile boardwalk here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  But wait!  Just as there will be a change in the oval office later this morning, moisture along a cold front has meteorologists predicting SNOW today for South Carolina areas north of I-26!

With three nights in a row below 30F and a high temperature just above freezing on Friday, ice was bound to form when the overnight temperature on Friday dropped to 16F at the nature center. The images below show ice forming across the water flowing through Mallard Lake.  You can read more about how ice forms on waterways by clicking here.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, January 16, 2009

Francis Beidler Forest Trail Ride

Audubon South Carolina invites you to participate in a day of horseback trail riding in the heart of Four Holes Swamp located in and near Francis Beidler Forest. Ride trails beneath the forest canopy and savor a part of the Lowcountry’s authentic swamp experience. It’s truly off the beaten path. Enjoy the peace and serenity that the Forest offers; hear the sounds of birds and breezes that have echoed through the trees for ages.

Saturday, January 24th
Organized Ride – Rain or Shine: 10:00 a.m.

Lunch is provided
Cost per rider: $25.00. Proceeds will support Audubon Center at the Beidler Forest.

The coordinates to the entrance gate are: 33°10'40.05"N and 80°20'5.85"W
Image by Paul Koehler

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Birds, Beidler, & Belize

Audubon South Carolina is proud to present:
The South Carolina - Central America Connection

January 22, 2009 \ 6:00 p.m.

Summerville Visitor Center
402 N. Main Street

Presentation by Anna Hoare, Executive Director of Belize Audubon Society, featuring the birds shared by both locations and what is being done to protect their habitat.

Light refreshments will be provided.

Reservations required, as space is limited.
RSVP by January 20th to (843) 462-2150 or Mike Dawson

Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Leopold Education Project

The education department at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest will be hosting a workshop on April 27th for The Leopold Education Project. This is a spectacular time to see wildlife along the 1.75-mile boardwalk as it winds through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp.

The Leopold Education Project (LEP) is an innovative, interdisciplinary, critical thinking, conservation and environmental education curriculum based on the classic writings of the renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold. The Leopold Education Project teaches the public about humanity's ties to the natural environment in the effort to conserve and protect the earth's natural resources. It compliments existing EE curricula. Participants will receive the
Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and an 87-page curriculum guide.

Workshop: April 27th, 9am-4pm

Target audience: Non-formal educators and teachers grades K – 12.

Registration fee: $25.00 per person for educator workshop

Deadline for registration April 15th 2009

For more information and to register, please contact:
Tony Esposito (short bio)
LEP State Coordinator

Please share this information with teachers and anyone involved in environmental education.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Winter Painted Bunting

Years ago, before the paved recreation trail or the clearing for the Berlin Myers Parkway extension, we were walking down a dirt rut through the grass along the Sawmill Branch Creek and heard a male bird vigorously singing on his territory. Once visually located, the splash of colors we observed screamed, "Tropical rainforest bird!" This was the first time we had seen (or heard of) a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) and we assumed it was a non-native escapee from a cage in someone's sunroom. A perfunctory check of our field guide for birds of North America showed that the Painted Bunting is indeed native to South least for part of the year.

Along with a host of other bird species, Painted Buntings migrate south to warmer habitats during our winter months. Yesterday, however, Merrill Robling documented a male Painted Bunting feeding in their Summerville backyard. According to Audubon South Carolina's Director of Bird Conservation Jeff Mollenhauer, "There is a small percentage of Painted Buntings that remain in South Carolina during the winter. This photo is of an adult male though many of the Painted Buntings that remain in South Carolina during the winter are immature males. It is hard to say for sure why they stay. These may be birds that were not able to migrate or they may be playing the odds. If they are able to survive the winter, then they will have first pick of territories in the spring. Big risk, but also a big payoff."

Don't forget that the Great Backyard Bird Count will be held February 13-16. By participating and reporting all the birds that you see, you can help scientist "see" where birds are during this winter snapshot, which can lead to answers to questions like, "Why are Painted Buntings still here?"

Images by Don Wuori and Merrill Robling (at feeder)

1/14/09 - While looking for a bird migration map, we came across this 2002 article from Cornell Lab of Ornithology entitled "The Danger of Beauty," which describes the capture of Painted Buntings for sale as caged birds.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Confluence of Compost

In the last few days, there has been a confluence of compost-related incidences. With so many references to compost, we cannot ignore the topic.

First, a friend reported on how well his composter was working. Since receiving his Christmas gift, he has been loading the composter with leaves from the yard and scraps from the kitchen. He was surprised at how quickly the collection of organic material became an earthy, dark pile of fertilizer!

On the way to work on Friday, we noted that the Oakridge Landfill has begun its expansion. The Post and Courier reported in late December that the expansion was pending. Previously, we have written in this blog regarding landfills reaching their capacity and what we can do to prolong the life of existing landfills. One easy way to reduce the stream of waste (up to 12%) heading to the landfill is to compost the organic (no meat or dairy) items from the kitchen. An efficient composter will smell "earthy," but will not "stink" as the materials are consumed by the worm population before those material can begin to rot.

This month's Audubon magazine has a short piece (p. 54) on composting kitchen waste. Additionally, our appetite for paper and the diminishing northern forest are highlighted.

Finally, we saw a piece on television regarding TerraCycle, Inc.'s "Worm Poop" fertilizer. Not only does TerraCycle, Inc. keep organic materials out of the landfill, they package all of their products in plastic containers that formerly held milk, soda, and water. Scroll over any product and you can see the container's former use. TerraCycle, Inc. also makes a variety of other products from waste. They will even pay you to send your trash to them.
TerraCycle, Inc. shows once again that one man's trash is another man's treasure. However, as our resources and landfill space are not limitless, we all need to think about reducing our individual waste production.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Beidler Forest Images

Much of today was spent fixing computer problems and cataloging images that have piled up in their digital folders.

The diversity of South Carolina's habitats makes our state a wonderful place in which to take pictures. The Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest and the Silver Bluff Audubon Center have played host to a nature photographers' contest for the last two years. Visitors share their images with us and we continue to add our images to the species lists in the swamp.

Although we cannot enter our own photograph contest, we do share our images with other photograph contests. Our latest entries are posted on the National Recreation Trails contest site. We have also spread our images onto Google Earth and the National Geographic Magazine galleries.

If you have camera fever, make plans to visit us! The spring is a spectacular time to be outdoors in South Carolina!

Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Before today's winds arrived, the water was still at Goodson Lake at the far end of the boardwalk in the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. From the upper deck of the recently-added observation tower, we were able to peer down into the black water and beyond!

Using a clear vessel to scoop some water from the swamp quickly shows that the water is nowhere near black. The water is stained slightly by the tannic acids leaching from the leaves and bark of the swamp's trees. It is the same process you use to make tea (those are bits of leaves in the bag), although your drink is many times darker than the water in the swamp. However, the water at Goodson Lake is somewhere between 10 and 12 feet deep, so peering into the water there means looking through more stain than at the lake's shallow edge. Deeper water (more stain) creates the appearance of darker water and therefore higher reflectivity. From the top of the tower, it appeared that we were standing hundreds of feet above the "bottom," even though we were a mere 15 feet above the water's surface. Looking into the reflection, clouds sped by like magic carpets that would surely catch us only after several seconds of free fall!

All the images of trees are the reflections in the water. The turtle is a Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta).

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count

...and we're back!

Mark your calendars now! The 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count will be held between February 13th and 16th. Unlike the Christmas Bird Count recently held within a defined circle around the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, the Great Backyard Bird Count can be conducted anywhere by anyone! Last year's results for South Carolina can be viewed here.

(from the GBBC webpage) The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds.

Participants tally the highest number of birds of each species seen together at any one time. To report their counts, they fill out an online checklist at the Great Backyard Bird Count web site. As the count progresses, anyone with Internet access can explore what is being reported from their own towns or anywhere in the United States and Canada. They can also see how this year's numbers compare with those from previous years. Participants may also send in photographs of the birds they see. A selection of images is posted in the online photo gallery. In 2008, participants reported more than 9.8 million birds of 635 species. They submitted more than 85,000 checklists, an all-time record for the count.

Why Count Birds?
Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time. We need your help. Make sure the birds from your community are well represented in the count. It doesn't matter whether you report the 5 species coming to your backyard feeder or the 75 species you see during a day's outing to a wildlife refuge.

We encourage everyone to take a few minutes (at least) during the Great Backyard Bird Count weekend to step outside (bring the kids along) and count the birds you know. We challenge you to learn the identities of a few new birds and help make 2009 the new record year, especially if you live in any of the all-white areas on the map.

Image by Mark Musselman

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! We are continuing our holiday break and will resume our regularly-scheduled programming on January 5th.

You can only predict things after they've happened. -- Eugene Ionesco

Therefore, year 2009 is an unknown. However, Audubon South Carolina looks forward to the challenges we will face as we endeavor to fulfill our mission to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.

While on the topic of "unknown," we have a few caterpillar images from the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest that we have yet to identify. Please contact us, if you recognize any of the caterpillars shown below. We are continuing to work on identifying the insects at the Francis Beidler Forest and would like to add these species to our list.

Images by Mark Musselman