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

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