Friday, June 24, 2011

Hungry Cowbird

As we closed out the books for the second week of summer camp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we heard outside the office window the distinctive song of a Northern Parula Warbler (Parula americana).  As be brought the camera up for a closeup shot out the window, we noticed that the warbler appeared too large.  It took merely a second before we realized it was a Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) fledgling in the camera's view finder.

However, it took only a few more seconds to see that the Northern Parula Warbler was busy feeding the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird fledgling.  Cowbirds dump their eggs (up to 40 per season) into the nests of other bird species.  Some species recognize the egg as foreign and will abandon the nest or build over top of the eggs to begin again.  Others do not seem to realize the deception and will feed the larger cowbird chick at the expense of their own young.

It appears that the Northern Parula raised the cowbird chick.  Our question is, "If the Northern Parula nests in Spanish Moss, what bundle of moss was able to support the massive (by comparison) cowbird chick?"

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dry Swamp

The old-growth swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is dry except for water trapped in the various holes like Goodson Lake.  No significant rain has fallen in the last two months and any water that did not drain into the Edisto River has evaporated or been drawn into the thirsty vegetation.  Muddy remnants of the numerous creek channels have cracked open as moisture continues to escape.

Aquatic organisms in ever-diminishing pools of water become easy prey or they become stranded on the mud.  As the summer campers made their way to Goodson Lake, we saw an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) scavenging pieces of a large fish left behind by another predator.

Although the American Alligator in Goodson Lake is not in danger of losing its watery habitat, the lower levels have altered its basking sites.  Though normally not seen close to the observation tower, the summer campers caught the alligator basking directly across from the tower on a partially-submerged log.

Elsewhere in the swamp, wildlife are doing what they can to survive the dry, hot (100+F) conditions.

 Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea)

Eventually, the rains will return and Four Holes Swamp will look more like a swamp.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, June 17, 2011

Swamp Youngsters

The first week of summer camp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest has come to an end.  The second week of camp begins on Monday and the final week of camp will begin on July 25th.  Although the theme guiding campers through the week was PLANTS, we saw plenty of wildlife, including a variety of newborns.

Summer Tanagers (Piranga rubra) built a nest over the driveway and hatched chicks, but they disappeared before it seemed that they were ready to fledge.  A large Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) was seen in the area.  The male is red and the female is yellowish-orange.

Turtles cannot lay their eggs in the the low, wet areas of the swamp and must seek high areas, like the root end of toppled trees, or the high, dry land beyond the swamp's edge.  Several nests, like the Common Snapping Turtle's (Chelydra serpentina) high on the root end of a fallen Eastern Red Cedar, have been laid in the parking area of the nature center and many have succumb to nighttime raids by Raccoons (Procyon lotor).  Raccoons keen sense of smell allows them to detect the recently dug nests and the loose soil offers no resistance to their efforts to expose the tasty eggs.  The egg shells looking like crumpled paper can be seen at the edge of the excavated nest and no crime scene investigator is required to link the Raccoon to the the berry-filled scat left behind.

Fortunately, not all of the turtle eggs are eaten by Raccoons or fire ants.  By laying a great number of eggs, some like the Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum) hatchling, avoid detection and make their way back to the nearby swamp.

There are several spots along the boardwalk where White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawns and their attentive mothers can be seen.  Earlier in the week, campers saw a fawn partially hidden in a cypress knee near #10.  Yesterday, teachers with the South Carolina Geographic Alliance summer workshop spotted a doe and fawn near the Meeting Tree (#4), and today, campers saw another fawn near #14.

Youngsters in the swamp to learn's appropriate that the young wildlife make an appearance.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whiskers in the Swamp

Though they were not true whiskers on the animals, that's what they looked like to the summer campers at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  While exploring the forest and swamp near the nature center, we discovered a mere puddle of water in a depression at the base of a hollow tree.  This was all that was left of the water pooled behind the beaver dam and will likely disappear by the end of the day tomorrow.  Elsewhere, water cannot be seen from the boardwalk until the approach to Goodson Lake at the end of the boardwalk.  Naturally, the hole that is Goodson Lake continues to hold ample water to support the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), Bowfin (Amia calva), Yellow-bellied Sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) and other aquatic or semi-aquatic organisms.

In the puddle of water behind the beaver dam, we found numerous small fish and a meatier 3-inch long fish.  All were too muddy from their struggles in the shallow puddle to be identified, but we grabbed a few to show the campers waiting a the swamp's drier edge.  While showing the campers the larger fish, we discovered, via a fin jab in the hand, it was a species of catfish.  As the catfish would likely be dead by morning from either the disappearing water or the return of the herons, ibis and raccoon whose tracks were still in the mud from the night before, we put the catfish in a jar of water and hauled it out to Goodson Lake to give it a fighting chance.

As we moved along the treeline at the edge of the power line corridor, campers were able to spot a variety of native insects feasting on an abundance of native plants.  There were pollinators like butterflies, bees, beetles as well as an assortment of other flying insects, including several species of insect-hunting dragonflies.  Native fauna and native flora have evolved together and therefore maintain a system of checks and balances within the ecosystem.  The introduction of non-native flora or fauna can throw the system out of balance as predators may not exist for the non-native fauna or the native fauna may not be able or willing to eat non-native flora, which in turn may crowd or eliminate native flora.  One of the native species the campers found was a Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar in search of pipevine on which to dine.  It is apparently unpalatable and therefore has little fear of becoming a meal itself.  The whisker-like, fleshly projections give the caterpillar a fearsome look and might give a predator a scare.

Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fire Ants and Black Bears

We have long known that non-native fire ants can be detrimental to bird nests, especially ground-nesting birds.  Today, however, we read that Arthur Ravenel has observed wild turkeys eating fire ants from nests baited with corn.  Has anyone else observed this behavior or might the turkeys simply have been eating the corn?

A question we frequently are asked at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is, "Are there bears in the swamp?"  We have never seen a bear or signs of a bear on our property, but there is a healthy population in the nearby Francis Marion Forest.  As today's Post and Courier article notes, a black bear was hit and killed on I-26 near Jedburg in 2008, which is south of Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie and just east of the Four Holes Swamp watershed boundary.  The article in the newspaper describes how drought is causing black bears and other animals to change their normal routines and range farther in search of food resources.

As noted in previous blogs, animal behavior has changed in the swamp due to the diminishing water.  Yesterday, we did not detect any water from the boardwalk until we reached stop #8, which is just short of Goodson Lake.  Wading birds, ducks, water snakes, turtles, fish, etc. are concentrating their activities where there is water, which for now is located in the deep holes and behind the beaver dam.  The dry swamp conditions can be seen in the video below of a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) doe browsing near #3 on the boardwalk.  Visitors later reported seeing a fawn nursing in the same area.

No bears yet, but we'll keep our eyes open!

Video by Mark Musselman

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Wood Ducks Still on the Menu

There has not been a significant rain at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest in quite some time.  A trip around the 1.75-mile boardwalk provides few opportunities to see water beyond the deep hole called Goodson Lake and the adjacent main creek channel.  However, behind the beaver dam there is still water, so that's where all the action is happening.  On Monday, we heard what sounded like trees rubbing against each other as a warm breeze blew over the swamp, but the sound at times appeared to originate from a wading bird of some sort or possibly an animal in distress.  We decided to investigate.

As it turned out, the sound was a combination of wind-generated tree rubbing and birds going about their business.  Once under the rubbing trees, the sound was distinctly tree-on-tree.  As the wind shifted directions, the sound generated by the trees changed pitch and volume, which caused some of the confusion at our listening post higher up at the nature center.  However, the water impounded under the power line by the beaver dam had attracted a host of bird species and their unique calls.

Several generations of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) were moving in and out of the tall grasses growing in the shin-deep water.  Adults seemed content to snooze, while juveniles and ducklings paddled about.  What sounded like children idly dropping stones into the water turned out to be ducklings returning to the water after launching themselves at drooping  grass seed heads.  In a classic mistake oft noted in the movies, we brought a knife to a gunfight.  Our mission was simply to scout sites for activities to be conducted during the upcoming summer camp sessions.   A camera was brought along to document the sites and anything of interest regarding camp.  The 21st-century camera with the lens capable of reaching out a greater distance would have been perfect for the 10-meter distance we were able to close on the Wood Ducks.

The Wood Ducks were not alone in taking advantage of the diminishing water resource.  Wading birds including Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Ardea albus), and a half dozen or more White Ibis Eudocimus albus) squawked and honked as they stalked prey and foraged in the shallow water.  Also calling along the treeline were Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), Acadian Flycatchers (Empidonax virescens), Great Crested Flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus), and several species of frogs.
As we watched and listened, a mass dropped from a nearby tree into the tall grasses that create a mini-marsh in the "pond" produced by the beavers.  At first we thought a squirrel had missed a step and fallen from the tree canopy as we have observed these accidents in the past.  However, the thrashing in the tall grass was caused by something considerably larger than a squirrel.  As the flapping increased, we determined the animal was a bird and by the size it had to be a raptor.  Based on our surrounding habitat, the prime suspect was a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), which was confirmed as it cleared the tall grasses and headed to the treeline on the north side of the power line.  In its talons was a Wood Duck duckling destined to be the meal of one of the Red-shouldered Hawks recently fledged from the parking area nest.

It's a swamp out there!  For those of you keeping track on you food web diagrams, draw another line from Wood Ducks as they are now documented to be on the Red-shouldered Hawk's menu.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Summer Camp 2011

The Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest offers a choice of three week-long summer day-camps during June and July. Francis Beidler Forest contains the largest remaining stand of virgin, cypress-tupelo swamp in the world. This is the perfect setting for stimulating a child’s love for nature!

With plants as the theme, campers will become amateur naturalists themselves by engaging in science, hands-on activities and crafts. See the tentative schedule here.

The programs for the summer camp are geared for grades 1 through 6. The camp day will last from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm. The cost is $85 per camper.  Please call Beidler Forest at 843-462-2150 to secure a place for your child in the week of your choice or send an email to Mark Musselman.

The dates for the 2011 summer camp are:
Session I: June 13-17
Session II: June 20 – June 24
Session III: July 25-29

There are still spots for all camp sessions, but there is a limited capacity of 30 campers.
An enrollment form can be downloaded here.

Advanced Swamp Camp

Starting this year, the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is offering a day-camp for teenagers (ages 13-16) from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm from July 18th through July 22nd. The cost is $100 per camper.

Campers will spend the days outside exploring the various habitats throughout the sanctuary with in-depth looks at conservations projects, including the Project PROTHO bird banding research, spotted turtle research, amphibian/seep habitat research, and longleaf pine restoration.

Limit: 15 campers. Call Beidler Forest at 843-462-2150 or send an e-mail to Mark Musselman.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The King of Snakes

Yesterday, as we were finishing our Project PROHTO survey around the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we caught site of an Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula) near the edge of the swamp.  The Eastern Kingsnake, which includes the subspecies L. g. getula, L. g. nigra, and L. g. holbrooki, has one of the largest geographic ranges of any North American snake.  They are at home in a wide variety of habitats and though strongly terrestrial, they can often be found near aquatic habitats.

The Eastern Kingsnake is quite secretive even though it is active during the day.  Although this snake's overall population is sufficient to not warrant protection, isolated populations have been diminishing or have disappeared.  As with many flora and fauna species, habitat loss is likely a factor.  Introduced species such as fire ants or disease may also be taking a toll on the Eastern Kingsnake population.

Although Eastern Kingsnakes will eat lizards, rodents, and turtle eggs, they also eat other species of snakes.  Kingsnakes are immune to the venom of pit vipers, so they have no issues with eating copperheads, cottonmouths, or rattlesnakes.  If you are not a fan of snakes in general, you should be a fan of the snake-eating Eastern Kingsnake!

Video by Mark Musselman