Saturday, August 29, 2009


We depart tomorrow morning for Portland, Maine and the annual National Audubon Society Center Director/Education Director conference. Therefore, news from the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest may be spotty or replaced with reports from Maine.

Although Danny has been downgraded to a tropical depression and will not affect South Carolina, it will be off the coast of Maine as we fly north. A quick check of the local forecast via a Twitter contact revealed that we'll be leaving hot, humid summer for damp, cool fall.

MaineBirder@TheSwampThing Beautiful week ahead. 60's-70's w/chance rain Tuesday. Nights 30's-40's. Dress fall-like.

This morning, as we enjoyed not having to wake to an alarm clock, we were jolted to full consciousness by a 3.2-earthquake centered 5 kilometers below Summerville. We hope that travel and the conference are not quite as bumpy!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Vulture Awareness Day

Although schools and businesses are usually closed on International Vulture Awareness Day due to the vital role these birds play in our planet's varied ecosystems, this year September 5th falls on a Saturday. Oh, September 5th is also Labor Day.

Just like the decomposers on the forest's floor, vultures prevent the accumulation of organic material by rapidly and efficiently consuming dead animals. In the case of the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) shown in the images, the genus name Cathartes means purifier. Their keen sense of smell allows them to locate carcasses under the forest canopy. More-aggressive Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) may follow Turkey Vultures down to the food, so Turkey Vultures tend to specialize one smaller items that can be consumed quickly. Not having feathers on their heads makes it easier for vultures to stay clean while reaching into a carcass. Urinating on their feet helps vultures cool themselves while simultaneously killing dangerous pathogens collected from their last meal. Due to strong stomach acids, vultures are capable of eating carrion in all stages of decay.

Threats to vultures include pesticides, powerline electrocution, aircraft strikes (Turkey Vultures are the main avian species causing damage and fatalities in military aircraft), automobile strikes (while feeding on roadkill), and ingestion of pharmaceuticals or contaminants in carcasses. In fact, the last threat listed was sufficiently devastating to the vulture population in India that the sale of the veterinary drug diclofenac, which was used in cattle, was banned in 2006. The vulture population will be slow to rebound in India as the birds do not reproduce until age five and lay only one egg per year. Although the sale of the drug was banned, stock remained on the shelves and subsequently in the carcasses of dead cattle. Fewer vultures eating dead cattle could also lead to an increase in cattle-borne diseases, including anthrax.

Some information from:
Kirk, David A. and Michael J. Mossman. 1998. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 27, 2009

iTouch/iPhone apps

The education department at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest has received two iPod Touch devices; portable speakers, microphones, and carrying cases for both iPods; as well as a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. The equipment was purchased via a grant from the South Carolina Geographic Alliance's teacher counsultant program.

In the short-term, visiting students will be able to use the equipment, in addition to Flip video cameras and personal digital cameras, to record their experience in the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp. One of the iPod Touch's features is "audio memos," which will allow students to digitally record their questions and impressions of the swamp ecosystem. Using the data and images that students collect while at Beidler Forest along with the various audio, video and digital resources available on the Beidler Forest webpage or through the education department, students will be able to create and share materials and presentations describing their experience in the swamp.

In order to package Beidler Forest-related data onto the iPods for use by visiting students as well as making the data available to other interested parties using iPod Touch or iPhone devices, we will be creating an application (app). We welcome anyone who can volunteer their knowledge or experience in creating apps using the Obective-C programming language.

Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lifestyles of Not-so-rich & Famous

There are robins and there are leeches at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, but that is where any similarities end with the television show Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.

The old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp is rich in biodiversity, including the largest leech we have ever seen on a turtle! The first two images show leeches (likely Placobdella parasitica) on a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Almost any turtle we handle in the swamp has at least one leech on its carapace. The leeches are able to access their meal between the scutes (sections) of the carapace or via the fleshy parts of the legs and neck. The turtle has a chance of scraping the leech off of its legs and neck. However, the turtle has little chance of getting a leech off of its carapace.

Quiz time...What does a reptile, like a turtle, seek that a leech would find uncomfortable? Heat from sunlight. In the last image, you can see that the leech has curled up and only the front and back end of the leech are actually touching the Yellow-bellied Slider's (Trachemys scripta scripta) carapace. The sun has dried the carapace and the shell is likely hot and getting hotter. Eventually, the leech will be in danger of desiccation (drying) and will be forced to detach and drop back into the water. Although all turtles will play host to leeches, turtles that bask in the sunlight tend to carry a significantly smaller parasitic load.

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mystery Fungus

After a morning of entering Project PROTHO data into the Geographic Information System (GIS) database, we went out searching for any banded Prothontoary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) remaining at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest. With a recorded call of a male Prothonotary Warbler, we attracted one unbanded male and A058 (shown in the image). We also came across a family of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), including several fledglings whose plumage was only red in blotches.

Near the maintenance trail to the equipment barn, we came across a large fungus at the base of a long-dead tree. The fungus, which is over a foot in diameter, is currently a mystery. Whether we know the name or not, we're glad to have the decomposing abilities of fungus in the forest. Between the annual crop of falling leaves and trees dying from age, disease, insects, or lightning, we would rapidly be buried in organic debris if not for fungus!

Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Deer, deer, deer...gator!

A quick maintenance-related spin around the 1.75-mile boardwalk that winds through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest did not reveal the presence of many bird species. We did spy a group of four juvenile White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) wading up a channel just behind a River Otter (Lutra canadensis).

It's hot and humid, even in the swamp, and most of the animals wisely rest during the warmest periods of the day. We came across several White-tailed Deer. Some does had fawns in tow, including a set of twins, while some were alone, possibly with their fawns hidden nearby. While still small, fawns cannot escape danger as easily as their mothers, so does tend not to bed down next to their fawns. If the doe is detected, as in our images, she can move away from the danger and likely prevent her offspring from being discovered. Young deer may stay with their mothers for up to a year.

Although the large canine and feline predators have been eliminated from the ecosystem, young deer can still fall prey to bobcats, foxes, and coyotes. Additionally, it is deer hunting season again and hunting dogs have yet to master the reading of property boundary signs. Fawns can be separated from their mothers or become exhausted from the chase.

Whether young or old, deer always need to be wary about crossing deeper water in the swamp. Some of the "logs" in the water are watching and they've got a mouthful of teeth!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Birth of Snakes

Several weeks ago, we were asked, "Which of the snakes in the swamp bear live young?" We were not sure, but we looked up the answer. Of the five snake species commonly seen from the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, all but the Greenish Rat Snake bear live young.

Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata) 15-20 live young in late summer, larger females can produce up to 50 young!

Red-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster) 11-30 live young in late summer

Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) 20-60 live young in late summer

Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) 3-20 live young every 2-3 years

Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) 8-20 eggs laid from May-early July in humid subsurface chamber or buried beneath decaying plants matter.

The Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) can be seen from the boardwalk in the drier sections between the nature center and the swamp or along the swamp's edge. Like the Greenish Rat Snake, it lays eggs (36 in early summer, hatch late summer to early fall) and is added here simply because we have some new images. What appears to be a Southern Leopard Frog is shown slowly becoming a meal for the snake. Contrary to the species name, the snake does not constrict its prey, but swallows it alive!

Fortunately, humans are not on the menu for any of these reptiles and will all flee our presence if given the opportunity.

Images by Jeff Mollenhauer

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mepkin Abbey

The Charleston-area Master Naturalists will be meeting at Mepkin Abbey on September 12th for a tour of the grounds along with instruction regarding Global Positioning System (GPS)basics. Father Guerric will lead the tour with GPS basics being taught by Mark Musselman, education director at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

Yesterday, we made a visit to Mepkin Abbey to plan the GPS portion for the upcoming field trip. Below is a SMALL sample of what we saw on the grounds, which are open to the public from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm (closed Monday).

Little Blue Heron

Unknown "hunchback" insect

Halloween Pennant

Gulf Fritillary

Golden-winged Skimmer - Mark Musselman

Silver-spotted Skipper

Field and fig

Cart formerly used to transport eggs - Mark Musselman

Eastern Pondhawk - Mark Musselman

Unidentified and tattered dragonfly

Slaty Skimmer - Mark Musselman

Four-spotted Pennant - Mark Musselman

Luce Gardens

Sculpture carved from oak felled by Hurricane Hugo

Osprey with fish - Mark Musselman

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, August 14, 2009

Low Water

Today's rain, especially in the upper portion of the Four Holes Swamp watershed, will help boost the water level along the boardwalk at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest. We took some images of the low water during yesterday's Project PROTHO observation walk.

Although the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) are becoming more difficult to locate, we did see several unbanded males along with two of the banded birds (A052 and A047). Both birds had little interest in us and remained in the area only long enough for us to make positive identifications.

Later, we saw the only snake of the day. The small Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) was only partially out of the hollow cypress knee that likely is its shelter during the night. Brown Water Snakes are non-venomous and dine on fish, including large catfish once the snake has reached adult size.

Just beyond the second rain shelter, we spied a Barred Owl (Strix varia) perched on the boardwalk handrail. Based on its size, we suspect it to be one of the owls hatched this season. From its perch on the boardwalk or later on a branch over the water, the owl can see crayfish crawling under the shallow water. The crayfish has no chance once the owl's powerful talons penetrate its exoskeleton.

Although today's rains have kept us inside, the few hearty visitors that have toured the boardwalk have reported seeing a fawn, a cottonmouth, the alligator, a variety of small birds, several White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), and a Barred Owl.

Images by Mark Musselman