Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Banded Prothonotary Warblers Sighted

As noted previously, one Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), an unbanded male, was seen and photographed by a visitor Saturday afternoon at the Goodson Lake. Denise Ecker, director of bird conservation, went out the next day, despite the myriad rain storms, and heard a Prothonotary Warbler singing and calling at the lake. It may have been the same bird, but she was not able to get a look at the bird in question.

Today, however, two banded Prothonotary Warblers were seen and heard right before the tower at Goodson Lake. The birds were A088 (aluminum, purple/white and double orange) and A035 (aluminum, purple/white, light green over red). A088 was first banded on 5/27/09 around #139 on the boardwalk. A035 was first banded on 4/8/09 around marker #151 on the boardwalk, which is at Goodson Lake. This makes the third year (at least) for each of these birds to be at the Francis Beidler Forest.

How many years have you visited the Francis Beidler Forest?

Images by Mark Musselman

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Prothonotary Warblers Are Back!

The Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) have returned to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest for the 2011 breeding season!  Yesterday, Sally and Tracy Barnes spotted and photographed the first Prothonotary Warbler, which was an unbanded male.  He may or may not be a resident for the summer, but he signals the beginning of the Project PROTHO season.

However, the first Prothonotary Warbler spotted by the staff of Audubon South Carolina was an unbanded male quietly foraging in the beaver-dammed area at the east end of Old Levi Mill Lake at Poinsett State Park.  The best camera available was an iPod Touch, but the male Prothonotary Warbler can be seen in the zoom view.

If you would like a much better look at a Prothonotary Warbler, give the birds a week to settle into their territories and then take a stroll along the 1.75-mile, elevated boardwalk the old-growth swamp at the Francis Beidler Forest!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Moth Species

While many wait for word that the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) have returned to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest or that the Dwarf Trillium (Trillium pusillum) has finally bloomed, we have news of a new species of moth identified as part of the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp.

Sarah Todd, the new seasonal naturalist for this spring, caught sight of an Eight-spotted Forester (Alypia octomaculata) in the parking area as we walked toward the power line that crosses the swamp.  Ironically, we were going to the power line to show Sarah where we envision a native plant plot to attract butterflies, dragonflies, and birds for observation and identification by visiting students.  As the trip was to be quick and simple, we left the camera in the office.  Stepping outside without the camera never ceases to be a mistake.  The moth settled on the light-colored driveway, which contrasted nicely with its nearly-black wings.  On the dorsal side, two large yellow spots on the forewing were opposite two large white spots on the hindwing.  Bee-pollen-like orange on the front and middle legs and yellow tegula, or small appendages at the base of the wings, gave this moth a distinctive appearance.  There was no doubt as to whether or not we had seen this moth before.

Although we missed the opportunity to capture an image of the moth, we have added it to our growing list of insects at the sanctuary.  Images and additional information on the Eight-spotted Forester can be found here.

Other notable firsts today, Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) and Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) were both heard outside the outdoor classroom.

P.S. Brad Dalton was able to supply an image that he took at Beidler Forest in April 2007.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wine & Warblers 2011

By April 16th, the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) will all be back in the swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest and actively wooing mates and defending territories.  Northern Parulas (Parula americana), Yellow-throated Warblers (Dendroica dominica), Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia), Hooded Warblers (Wilsonia citrina), and a host of other birds will also be visible around the boardwalk.

Come join us for wine, hors d'oeuvres and a guided tour around the boardwalk!

Image by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Horse Sugar!"

No, "Horse Sugar!" is not something one exclaims when seeing a snake from the safety of the 1.75-mile, elevated boardwalk while touring the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) or Sweet Leaf is a shrub or small tree with dense clusters of fragrant flowers. The name is derived from the fact that horses (and cows and deer) readily consume the leaves.  Horse Sugar blooms between March and May and began blooming outside the office this past weekend.

Yesterday, we walked around the boardwalk in anticipation of the Prothonotary Warblers' return.  Although we did not find any Prothonotary Warblers, we did complete the Swamp Snake Slam!  Actually, one more Red-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster) and we would have completed a double slam.  There are five species of snakes that are likely to be seen in the swamp from the boardwalk.  Although spotting four of the five species is not unusual during the spring with its warm days and cool nights, seeing all five species during one trip around the boardwalk is a rarity.  The experience is rare enough that we created a certificate awarded to anyone in a guided group or anyone that can show images of all five species.

Here are our documentation photos:

Red-bellied Water Snake

Eastern Cottonmouth

Banded Water Snake

Brown Water Snake

Greenish Rat Snake

Although we did not find our primary quarry, the Prothonotary Warbler, we will continue to search each day until they return.  The office pool ranges from an early date of today to the slightly tardy date of the 29th.  Stay tuned!

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, March 18, 2011

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) have returned to the swamp around the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest.  They winter south to Panama and throughout the Caribbean islands. The heron gets its name from its habit of foraging mainly at night.  In the swamp, these herons can be seen in the dim light slowly wading through the shallow water looking with their large eyes for crayfish moving in the detritus.

In past years, the Yellow-crowned Night Herons have been conspicuous in all wet areas touched by the boardwalk.  However, last year the birds were mainly absent from view.  As the swamp itself appeared not to have changed along the boardwalk, the lack of heron sightings was puzzling.  The mystery was solved during a reconnaissance for cover board sites during planning for the herp-themed summer camp.  As we walked along the edge of the swamp near #112 on the boardwalk, we came upon the beaver dam and the knee-deep water being pooled on the upstream side of the dam.  We already knew about the beaver dam and reported its presence in this blog.  However, we had not realized how the consistent water level behind the dam had changed animal behaviors.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) are not denizens of the swamp, but we had begun to hear their familiar honk-like calls coming from the treeless power line right-of-way north of the center where open water pooled like pond.  The chattering call of Belted Kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) became more frequent within the same power line corridor.  Although Yellow-crowned Night Herons did not seek the open water and sunny environs of the power line corridor, they were actively hunting in the water behind the dam and beneath the tree canopy.  We found a half dozen Yellow-crowned Night Herons in the narrow band of trees between the dam and the power line corridor (see map).  Turtles, snakes, and big fish also found the consistent water depth more to their liking.

If you visit the Francis Beidler Forest and see a Yellow-crowned Night Heron stalking a crayfish, you'll know by the waggle of the bird's tail end that it is prepared to strike with its large bill.  We all tend to waggle in anticipation of good eats!

Image by Mark Musselman

Friday, March 11, 2011

Boardwalk Reaching End of Lifespan

The 1.75-mile boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest was completed in 1977.  Hurricane Hugo made a mess of it in 1989, but much of the boardwalk remains the original 1977 lumber.  Through it all, the boardwalk has allowed visitors the chance to safely venture into the heart of the old-growth swamp to experience the peace and serenity that have characterized the area for thousands of years.  Visitors can hear the sounds of birds, insects, and breezes that have echoed through the 1000-year-old trees for ages, take relaxing and informative walk back into time, and see a swamp the way nature intended.

Unfortunately, the boardwalk is showing its age and needs your help.  Please help us build a stronger, longer-lasting, "greener" boardwalk by funding a portion of this new trail.  We will be using three different sustainably-grown, naturally-durable tropical hardwoods.  All three are incredibly rot-resistant and should last three times longer than pressure-treated wood.  Costs will approach $2 million.  Your support will make it possible for people from all over the world to continue to experience this natural wonder.

You may mail your contribution to:
Francis Beidler Forest
336 Sanctuary Rd.
Harleyville, SC 29448
(put "Boardwalk Fund" in the memo line) or donate online at Beidler Forest Boardwalk Fund.

The January-February 2011 edition of Audubon Magazine contained an article highlighting the Francis Beidler Forest.

Image by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Mardi Gras in the Swamp

The sun continues to shine at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  Although the temperatures remained in the 60Fs, spring is in the air for the resident plants and animals.  Trees like Redbud (Cercis canadensisare blooming and Red Maples (Acer rubrumhave gone to seed.  Bald Cypress, which are usually some of the last trees produce leaves, are greening along with the rest of the forest with Dwarf Trillium (Trillium pusillumand Butterweed (Senecio glabellusset to bloom.  Today's song of the Northern Parula (Parula americanabegins the countdown for the return of the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) at the end of the month.

Over the last few days there have been numerous reports of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentinamoving about in search of a mate, Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttataon logs near #1, and numerous Yellow-bellied Sliders (Trachemys scripta scriptain and around Goodson Lake.

With chicks to feed, Barred Owls (Strix varia) are increasingly visible as they perch low above the water hunting crayfish.  The images below show one individual with a crayfish in its talons and then in its beak.  It did not immediately eat the crayfish as it had consumed another only moments before catching the latest crayfish.  However, before we departed the crayfish disappeared into the owl and the owl flew to a near perch over the shallow creek channel.

Being accustomed to people on the boardwalk or unwilling to depart their sunny spot, animals around the boardwalk are photogenic this time of year.

Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, March 05, 2011

School visits to Francis Beidler Forest and wildlife sightings

As a computer virus continues to hold the education department computer hostage, posting to the blog has been difficult for the last two weeks.  Therefore, this posting will contain vignettes from that period.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was held Feb. 18-21.  Details of the count can be found on the GBBC webpage as well as results from previous years via tables and maps.  On Feb. 18th, we spent the day counting birds in Summerville.  Our day began at Azalea Park from 8:30 am to 9:15 am.  We walked clockwise around the perimeter of the park on both sides of Main Street.  We saw the typical collection of backyard birds.

At 9:30 am we arrived at the Ashley Ridge High School and met Ms. Amy Litz's AP biology class of 24 students.  After a brief explanation of the GBBC, some basic bird identification techniques, basic binocular usage, and the various bird-related apps on the iPod Touches, we walked around the perimeter of the campus.  In the open and seemingly-inhospitable parking area, we spotted Killdeer.  Around the retention pond and the wetland forest beyond, we saw or heard a variety of backyard birds, including Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Wren and Blue Jay.  Overhead, a half a dozen or more Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures slowing rose on the rising warm air "thermals" patiently waiting for something to die.  During the second group, Ms. Minde Wheeler's environmental science class, we spotted a Loggerhead Shrike, which impales insects and small mammals on thorns or barbed wire as gifts to impress a female.  Suddenly, birds became more interesting to some in the group.

By 12:30 pm, we were by the old Murray Sand pits off of US Hwy 17-A.  We saw Canada Geese, Double-crested Cormorants, an American Kestrel and a Bald Eagle screaming by thousands of feet overhead.  After lunch, we headed to Middleton Place and its mix of forest, garden, freshwater, and salt marsh.  Some of the birds that we saw were the only ones of those species reported in the "Charleston" (any associated zip codes) location.

These were all in the old rice field:
Blue-winged Teal         5        1     
Green-winged Teal       9        1     
Ring-necked Duck       1        1  

This was in a garden pond:
Mute Swan        1        1   

On Saturday, Feb. 19th, we hosted two walks around the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  Although the day did not prove fruitful in the swamp (many species that we normally see and hear went undetected), we did spot 20 Sandhill Cranes in a field of Henbit just down the road from the sanctuary.

Last weekend was warm, which lured many reptiles out of their winter shelters.  Visitors coming off the boardwalk reported seeing the alligator swimming in Goodson Lake, several species of turtles (Eastern Mud, Spotted, Common Snapping, and Yellow-bellied Slider), numerous lizards (skinks and anoles) and four of the five species of snakes (Eastern Cottonmouth, Brown Water Snake, Banded Water Snake, and Greenish Rat Snake) that one would expect to see in the swamp.  The least numerous of the snake species, the Red-bellied Water Snake, is the only species yet to be seen this year.  Most of the snakes are not moving around, but remain just outside their wintering den as nights can still be cold and all the cool days have yet to pass.

Tuesday was the first day of work for our new seasonal naturalist, Sarah Todd.  We'll introduce her in the coming week.  Much of this week was spent getting Sarah ready to lead groups around the boardwalk and along the canoe trail.  Both along the boardwalk and the canoe trail, Yellow-throated Warblers are singing.  With the leaves still off the trees and other birds not back from migration, it is possible to get good shots of these birds, especially as they sometimes move well down from the tops of the trees.  Warmer days have the alligators more active and visible.  Sarah stated, "How dramatic." as a 8-foot alligator launched off the bank at our passing and rocked our canoe with the water it disturbed.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are also singing while Atamasco Lilies, though not in bloom, are showing themselves above the ground.  Finally, Barred Owls are active as the female is either sitting on eggs and requiring her mate to feed her or chicks have already hatched.  Along with visitors, we have had excellent photographic opportunities of owls catching and eating crayfish along the boardwalk between #12 and #15.

Yesterday's canoe trip yielded only one snake and alligator sighting, but several fine looks at birds of prey.  At two locations, Barred Owls flew silently overhead and perched in nearby trees.  Our passing may have disturbed their crayfish hunting.  Without leaves on the trees, we had a clear look at a Red-shouldered Hawk as it wheeled overhead possibly calling to its mate.  Finally, as we entered Singletary Lake, we flushed what appeared to be a Cooper's Hawk from the lake's edge.  The bird had difficulty taking off, so we investigated the site.  We found a prodigious pile of feathers and the cranium and upper bill of what may be a female Wood Duck.  A solitary male Wood Duck flew from the lake as we entered.  As they are often seen in pairs, his mate may have been lunch for the hawk.  No other parts of the body were left, so it seems the hawk was able to depart with its meal.

Today, we posted a pre-visit video for teachers to use to introduce students to the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp.  Currently, the video is located on YouTube, but will be posted soon to the educators page on the Francis Beidler Forest webpage.  If you know a teacher, please let them know what and where we are, so that we can share the old-growth forest with their students!

Image and video by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Beidler Forest's Former Naturalist

Mac Stone is in the news again.  His video of Burrowing Owls made it onto NPR's Science Friday.  You can read about his experience photographing the Burrowing Owls and watch the video he created from the images here.

Image by Mac Stone

From Mac's blog "Tagging Along with Mac Stone":

Wallpaper for your desktop

Two months ago a fellow photographer and friend of mine, Neil Losin, had a feature article in Birder's World magazine about burrowing owls. The editors used one of my images for the opening spread and we stayed in touch over the winter. Just recently, they changed their name to Bird Watching Magazine and contacted me about using a few of my images for their members to download as wallpapers. If you'd like access to these photos and other great bird photography check it out! And wait... the best part... is it's totally free!