Friday, May 28, 2010

Timber Rattlesnake

With school ending this week, we have been busy with school groups at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  It has been a welcome change of pace after a slow April when the weather, water, and wildlife were at their peak!

As we prepare for this year's summer camp and its focus on amphibians and reptiles, it was appropriate that a call came in from one of our naturalists stating that a large Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) was moving across the driveway.  We grabbed our cameras and headed out.  We were not disappointed.  The nearly 4-foot snake appeared to be wrapped in a fresh, bright skin.  Although initially distressed by our close inspection, which it demonstrated with a high, buzzing rattle, the snake soon went about searching for food and paid us little attention.

After thoroughly inspecting a hollow log, the snake moved off into the piney woods with apparent purpose.  The line of travel was straight enough, that we could get ahead of the snake and set up the video camera.  What promised to be amazing video of the large snake moving directly by the video camera evaporated when the camera shut off to conserve power!  The video below shows the snake passing by our location.

Once in a patch of thick pine straw, the snake worked itself into a coil and maneuvered most of its body below the leaves and straw.  From our vantage point, which was not far from the snake, we could not see the animal without binoculars.  The snake will remain in its ambush position until a suitable prey moves within range or until the snake decides that the site is unproductive.  Being cold-blooded, which requires few calories to maintain, and without a "to-do" list, the snake could be in the same spot two weeks from now.

We'll remember to watch out step, if we head off the boardwalk and out into the woods!

Images and video by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ETV Project PROTHO Video

A video filmed by Clemson University Radio Productions for the Your Day program has been posted to their webpage.  The video shows several aspects of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, including the ongoing study of Prothonotary Warblers (Project PROTHO).  Currently, the water level in the swamp is low, but that does not affect the views of the ancient Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees or the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea)!

Image by Mark Musselman

Monday, May 24, 2010

2nd Annual SC Master Naturalist Conference

The 2nd Annual South Carolina Master Naturalist Conference was held at Palm Key (outside of Ridgeland, SC) during May 13-15, 2010.  The Master Naturalist program in South Carolina continues to grow.  There are groups in the Upstate, the Lowcountry (Beaufort area), the Winyah Bay area, and the recently-formed Coastal Master Naturalist Association in the Charleston area.

Palm Key is a collection of cottages surrounding a freshwater pond, meeting building and kitchen/dining building.  The first evening consisted of an orientation for the conference and social time.  We spent most of the time talking about Beidler Forest with those that had visited during one the of Lowcountry Institute Master Naturalist trips or with those that had heard of Beidler Forest from other participants.  We always have time to let people know that we exist and why the old-growth swamp is special.

Beyond networking with like-minded individuals from around the state, we had the opportunity to see natural areas with guides familiar with the local habitats!  The first morning, we drove to Bennett’s Point (beyond the Bear Island WMA) in the ACE Basin for a ride on the SC DNR education boat with Al Segars and his staff.  We were welcomed by a Eurasian Collared Dove.  Once on the boat, we discussed the ACE Basin system and trawled for life in the Ashepoo River, which included shrimp, various flat fish, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, squid, and a variety of small fish.  SC DNR staff on another boat were surveying fish and caught a young Green Sea Turtle, which allowed us a close-up look.  On Otter Island, we investigated a fresh Loggerhead Turtle nest, which Al stated would be cleaned out later that evening by the island’s healthy raccoon population.  The large Diamondback Rattlesnakes on Otter Island are not able to consume an adult raccoon, so the raccoon population has few checks beyond disease.

Al also reminded everyone that foreign-raised shrimp are produced without the same oversight as in this country.  We don’t know what the shrimp are being fed…it would be nice to know as they eat anything.  Habitat is also destroyed and contaminated during the creation and operation of the large shrimp farms.  The foreign-grown shrimp are sent to this country in refrigerated sea containers and yet that shrimp is cheaper than local shrimp.  Foreign-raised shrimp must be produced cheaply in order to be sent around the world and still undercut local prices.  Supporting local shrimpers not only keeps the money in the local economy, it helps protect habitat around the world and may well protect you health.
After the boat tour, Chris Marsh took us through the Donnelley WMA where we saw a variety of habitats, including freshwater ponds.  There were nesting Wood Storks and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, which were life birds for most of the participants.  Other life birds on the day were Wimbrel, White-rumped Sandpiper, Mottled Duck, and Black-bellied Plover.

The evening’s program included a herps presentation by Tony Mills of the Lowcountry Institute.  We will be borrowing several ideas from Tony for use during our summer camp.  After the presentation, there was more networking and Beidler Forest app demonstrations around the bonfire.

At the beginning of the second day, we drove to Spring Island for a habitat safari with Tony Mills and Kristen Marshall Mattson.  We visited a variety of habitats, including salt marsh, longleaf pine, freshwater impoundments, and mixed hardwood.  Again, we will borrow some of the herp-related ideas for our summer camp.  Note: teachers don’t steal, they borrow.

The afternoon was spent with Laura Lee Rose, a local Clemson Extension agent, walking in the Altamaha Towne Heritage Preserve.  We learned some more about the native plants in our area though we still feel woefully deficient regarding the subject.

The evening’s program included a presentation by Dr. Rob Young who is studying our bottlenose dolphin populations in order to better manage our coastal resources.  We learned that there are marsh dolphin populations that seldom, if ever, go out into the ocean and therefore behave slightly differently.  There are close-shore populations that migrate slightly north and south along the coast and there are deep-water populations.  Strand feeding was shown and described.  A graduate students will be marking with paint some of the birds that follow the dolphins to see if it is a small set of birds making a living off of the dolphins’ behavior or if it is a larger set of birds that come and go.  If it is a smaller set, why haven’t more birds picked up on this easy way of life?

We won the photo contest with the image showing three Gulf Fritillaries during the Mepkin Abbey field trip.  We'll see everyone next year!

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wannamaker Nature Preserve

Today at the Wannamaker Nature Preserve, Audubon South Carolina hosted 4th graders from Guinyard Elementary School in St. Matthews, SC.  In the past, the lack of restroom facilities have limited access to the nature preserve, but the site now has a restroom, shelter, bus parking, and miles of trails.

The first activity was the mammal track activity.  Students moved between the eleven stations and used the track key to determine the identity of the animal track in the clay.  The rubber scat at some stations was an extra clue.  The size of the scat for the feral hog and the black bear were big hits with the boys.

After the track activity, the six Ss of birding were discussed.  The six Ss are size, shape (body, head, wing, leg, and tail), shade (color and markings), surroundings, style (behaviors and how they are performed), and sound.  The heat of the day kept the birds to a minimum, but students did identify by sound a Blue Jay, Mourning Dove, American Crow, Northern Cardinal and Carolina Wren.  A Turkey Vulture was spotted soaring overhead and a variety of food items (berries, seeds, insects, and spiders) were identified in the habitat.  Several students asked if any birds eat the ubiquitous ticks!

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

SC LIFE Beginner Bird Course

The education staff at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest continues to learn in order to better serve our audiences!  On Monday, we completed the SC LIFE course Introductory Birding for Teachers.

On of the requirements was the birdwatching.  Tough stuff!  We documented some of what we saw in the following video:

Another requirement was participation in citizen science.  Again, tough stuff!  Project PROTHO was a given, but we also participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count and the Deveaux Bank nest counting highlighted in yesterday's blog entry.  We documented our citizen science in the following video:

Images and videos by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Deveaux Bank and Birds

Some poor soul had to back out of nest counting at the Deveaux Bank Seabird Sanctuary with SC DNR.  We were asked if we wanted to take their place.  It was not likely a serious question.  The old-growth swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is awesome, but so is a chance to visited a closed seabird rookery and participate in some citizen science!

From the SC DNR webpage:
Deveaux Bank Seabird Sanctuary was established to protect significant nesting habitat of sea and shorebirds. Deveaux Bank Seabird Sanctuary encompasses approximately 215 acres at the mouth of the North Edisto River in Charleston County. The size of this sanctuary varies and may sometimes disappear entirely. Deveaux Bank is an estuarine island that was first documented in 1921. It has been documented as a seabird rookery since the 1930s. Nesting was temporarily halted during World War II due to the island's use as a bombing range. The island is part of a dynamic system; it completely subsided in 1980 due to erosion from Hurricane David. It has slowly reemerged and seabirds began nesting on the island again in 1983.

The Seabird Sanctuaries are sandspit islands formed by deposits from their associated river systems. The islands are dynamic and shift in position and structure due to erosion and deposition of sand.

Deveaux Bank supports colonies of nesting waterbirds because of its isolated nature and lack of mammalian predators. Although all species may not nest on the island each year, examples of species that have used the island include: brown pelican, least tern, royal tern, black skimmer, gull-billed tern, sandwich tern, common tern, laughing gull, Wilson's plover, American oystercatcher, willet, great egret, snowy egret, tricolored heron and ibis. Besides providing nesting habitat, the sanctuary provides winter loafing and feeding areas for numerous species, including the federally-threatened piping plover.

The colonial nesting behavior of these birds makes them very susceptible to disturbance. Birds are densely packed into breeding sites during the nesting season, rendering the entire colony susceptible to disruption or destruction. Therefore, the sanctuary is open only below the high tide line except in the designated recreation area. Dogs are prohibited year round.

We arrived by boat from the Rockville boat landing and walked to the ocean side of the bank.  We then moved in a line through the Brown Pelican nesting site counting all of the nests to our right as far as the next person in the line.  Not only did we need to pay close attention to the the nests in our zone, but we needed to watch for smaller ground nest like those of the Laughing Gull.

Although not eager to do so, the pelicans flushed from their nests before we walked carefully through the site.  Not waiting for the large birds to depart, one runs the risk of getting hit by the bird as it struggles for lift and altitude, having the birds panic and injure chicks or damage eggs, and/or being immediately down range of jettisoned waste.

Sometimes, pelicans disgorged their load of fish before flying off.  Laughing Gulls quickly moved in for the free meal.

The rookery is a noisy and dangerous place.  Eggs or chicks left unattended are easy targets for the abundant Laughing Gulls.  Therefore, even if a dog or curious human doesn't step on any eggs or capture any birds, the disturbance in the rookery causes eggs and chicks to be exposed to predators and the elements.  The Snowy Egret chicks shown below have grown to a sufficient size that they are not likely to be attacked by gulls.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, May 14, 2010

Summer Camp - Herps!

Summer camp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is rapidly approaching!  This year's theme is HERPS, which includes reptiles and amphibians.  The three one-week (9am-2pm) sessions are filling quickly, so call (843-462-2150) now to reserve a spot for your child.  The cost is $85 and the enrollment form can be found here.

The tentative camp schedule can be viewed here.
June 7-11
June 21-25
July 19-23

Even if you will not be sending a child to camp, you can help by donating some of your trash.  Campers will each need two 2-Liter, green soda bottles and not everyone will arrive at camp with those items.  We also need old or damaged pieces of plywood.  We won't simply talk about reptiles and amphibians, we will be looking for them from the boardwalk and we will be looking for them under plywood cover boards.

As the name implies, small reptiles and amphibians will seek cover under a piece of plywood set out in the forest and along the edge of the swamp.  Cover boards will be placed in low, wet areas and higher, dry areas near the edge of the swamp and farther up in the pine/mixed-hardwood forest.  Although adults will be checking under the boards and collecting any specimens, the campers will be able to get up close looks at the various species once the reptiles or amphibians are placed in an observation container.  Campers will keep track of what we find and where we find the herps, so that they can compare and contrast the number of individuals and species found at the various sites.

If you can help us by providing green, 2-Liter soda bottles or scraps of plywood, please give us a call!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Hour on the Boardwalk

Part of what makes the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest a wonderful place to work is the fact that no two days are alike.  Even though we've walk the 1.75-mile boardwalk through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp at least one thousand times, we always see something new or something in a new place or something behaving in a new manner.  It is never a question of "if" something will be different, it is always a question of "what" will be different.  Yesterday was no exception.

We went out to check the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nest in the creek channel next to the Meeting Tree.  The eggs were on schedule to hatch and we wanted to verify the event for our records.  Unfortunately, when Denise checked the cypress knee nest site, she found it had been tossed by an intruder and all eggs (or possibly chicks) were gone.  What would the soap opera in the swamp be if not for some death or tragedy?

As this was Denise's only mission this time on the boardwalk, she headed back to the nature center to annotate the loss on the nest card.  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) called out midway up the canopy.  We do not have any good Yellow-billed Cuckoo images, since they are an elusive bird, so we opted to remain on the boardwalk in hopes of capturing one good image.  It turned out that there was a pair of cuckoos and they offered plenty of clear shots.  However, they offered those clear views for but microseconds.  In the end, we did get a shot or two to go with the crick in our neck.

We also capturing images of the "Pizza!"-calling Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens).  The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) and the Barred Owl (Strix varia) hunting crayfish in the water behind the beaver dam were too deep into the swamp from the boardwalk to take any quality images.

While scanning for another cuckoo shot, a olive-green-and-yellow blur zipped by at eye level.  One more step forward and we may well have caught a female Prothonotary Warbler in the left ear!  She landed on the remnants of a small tree's trunk that has nearly rotted through at the base.  The overpowering pink bands on her legs identified her as A022, the recent victim from the Meeting Tree nest.  She was already building a nest in the new site!  Apparently, she high-stepped through the stages of grief.

On the way out to the original nest, we stopped to take a picture of a Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) that was not concerned with our proximity to its dining area.  Obviously, we need to work on our intimidating predator image.  Only the youngest of kids visiting the swamp get excited about seeing squirrels, but we could not pass on a clear image for our stock photo files.  Looking more closely today, we noticed that the squirrel had company...on its head!

All of this took place during one hour on the boardwalk.  Imagine what we could see if they let us out of the office ALL day!

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On the Way to Work

On the way to work at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we drive along the lightly-traveled Mims Road between Beidler Forest Road and our driveway.  There are a few houses along the road, but it is mostly forest and fields on either side of the pavement.  Therefore, we are afforded daily looks at birds not found in the swamp.

On Friday, we caught a patch of bright blue in the grass off the left side of the road.  We stopped and backed up for a closer look, which is usually when the bird of interest departs.  However, on this day the Blue Grosbeak (Guiraca caerulea) remained perched on a stem of grass contently eating the seeds.  Although widespread across their range (southern half of the lower 48 states and up the Mississippi River valley), very little is known about this species' biology.  Contrary to what the images show, Blue Grosbeaks eat mostly insects (grasshoppers and crickets).  They also appear to be frequent cowbird hosts.

On the way to work Sunday morning, we spotted a pair of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the same field.  The male appeared to be doing his best to impress the hen, but she appeared to be more interested in finding things to eat, which would mainly be vegetable matter with some small amounts of animal matter (invertebrates and cold-blooded vertebrates).  At one point, the tom can be seen watching the disinterested female walk away.  Maybe, she's read the books and realizes that it is beyond the typical breeding season.

Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Boardwalk App v1.1

Version 1.1 of the Francis Beidler Forest boardwalk-specific app is now available for free at iTunes.  A tab bar has been added to make navigation easier between the information, guidebook, and species menus.

The homepage contains links to information related to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

The guidebook menu contains links to all the information in our printed guidebook plus additional images and information for the areas between the marked guidebook stops.

The species menu contains links to images and information for the species that one is likely to see from the boardwalk.

We are building a set of iPod Touches for use by school groups when they visit the swamp.  Currently, we have 8 units with each unit containing the boardwalk app and the Audubon bird guide app.  We need to 25 devices in order to host school groups of up to 100 students (4 students per device).

If you are interested in supporting this program, a $250 donation will allow us to purchase one complete set (8MB iPod Touch, sturdy/water-resistant carrier, and microphone).