Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sandhill Cranes in the Bend

Sandhill Cranes (Gurs canadensis) are back in the Bend this winter.  The Bend is the community roughly bordered by Four Holes Swamp to the north and east and I-26 from the northwest to southeast.

The Bend
Specifically, the cranes are often seen in the large field bordered by Second Bend Road and Two Churches Road.  Although range maps do not show the bird as a winter resident for our area, we have spotted Sandhill Cranes in that field over the years.  During the 2011 Christmas Bird Count (CBC), 15 Sandhill Cranes were seen and 79 were observed during the 2012 CBC.  In February 2011, we photographed 20 cranes in the field and saw 17 and 24 on consecutive mornings this past weekend.  We did not have time to stop for a photograph this weekend, so the image below is from February 2011.  However, an image taken this weekend would have appeared identical.

Sandhill Cranes in Henbit - Mark Musselman
Mornings are a better time to observe the cranes at the location marked in the image.  We have never observed cranes in this field late in the day.  Lex Glover, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, suspects that the cranes we are seeing are a small foraging flock from the large contingent Sandhill Cranes wintering at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge north of Lake Marion.  The birds feed mainly on grains and seeds along with some insects.  Therefore, once the fields get plowed in preparation for spring planting, the cranes will be gone from the area until next winter.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Grassland Burn

Previously, we have reported how the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest is working to restore grassland habitat for birds and other wildlife.  This week, we burned approximately 25 acres of grassland near the intersection of I-26 and Hwy 15.

Grassland plants have adapted to periodic dramatic change whether that change was caused by lightning-strike fires, fires set by Native Americans to manage their hunting grounds, or herds of grazing bison. As Native Americans learned, fire is an effective and beneficial land management tool.  In grassland ecosystems, fire prevents trees from invading and dominating the habitat, returns nutrients to the soil, and stimulates growth in native grassland plants.  The tender new growth, flowers, seeds, and fruit provide food for a variety of animals that are in turn food for other animals.  By spring, the site will be prime for grassland bird species returning from their wintering grounds in search of breeding territory.

Prescribed burns are well-planned events.  In fact, this burn was delayed by several days until the winds shifted out of the southwest, which allowed the smoke to travel northeast over the swamp and away from nearby I-26 and US Hwy 15.  Using drip torches containing a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline, the northeast corner of the plot was lit so that the fire burned back into the wind, which helped to keep the fire slow and steady.

Grassland Prescribed Burn - Mark Musselman
Volunteers and staff patrolled the borders of the burn plot to ensure flames did not cross the plowed fire breaks.  If any breaches were to occur, backpack water sprayers, ATV-mounted water sprayers, rakes, flappers, and shovels were available to quickly snuff out the errant flames.
Ricky Covey Monitoring Burn - Mark Musselman

Grassland Prescribed Burn - Mark Musselman

Ricky Covey Monitoring Burn - Mark Musselman

It was a full day (45 volunteer hours, 38 staff hours) of hard work, but all went well and we were treated to a beautiful sunset.

Sunset - Mark Musselman

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Warm Weather Creatures

At the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, the recent spell of warm weather has increase the activity of more than winter-weary humans!  In the last week, we have spied snakes soaking up the sun's rays and eschewing their cold-weather sanctuaries.  All three of the snakes were well inside the swamp and likely using as dens the hollow logs upon which they were basking.

Banded Water Snake - Mark Musselman
Eastern Cottonmouth - Mark Musselman
Eastern Cottonmouth - Mark Musselman
Beavers (Castor canadensis) have again become active near Goodson Lake.  They have been gnawing on the same Sweet Gum where, years ago, gnawing announced their return to the swamp.  Weather like this week could be dangerous for the beavers as the alligator in the nearby lake could decide that it need not wait for the warm days of March to digest a mammal meal.
Beaver Gnawing - Mark Musselman
Finally, the normally nocturnal Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) marched by the office window in the middle of the morning.  It was obvious to us that the eyesight and hearing of the opossum are not two of its strongest senses.  As we moved along the boardwalk to get ahead of the animal, the opossum was oblivious to our presence.  However, as it approached our position, it lifted its head, carefully smelled the air and then moved in another direction.  This occurred three times before we remained in place and let the opossum go under the boardwalk and wander off.

Opossum - Mark Musselman
Opossum - Mark Musselman
Boardwalk - Mark Musselman
We hope you and all the swamp creatures enjoyed the mid-winter-summer, because the cold front is pushing through as we type and the temperature is dropping steadily.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Eastern Buckmoth

Today, we were able to add another insect to our growing list at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest.  While in a young Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) stand we planted, we observed numerous black, white and orange moths flitting about low to the ground.  A quick check of the Internet and we learned our never-before-consciously-seen moth was an Eastern Buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) so called for its abundance late in the fall when deer are rutting.

Longleaf Pine restoration - Mark Musselman
The adults do not eat, but focus their energy on reproduction.  The male with his large, comb-like antennae flits about in hopes of detecting the pheromone trail emitted by the female.  The pair in the image (the male has the mostly orange abdomen tip) seemed to have found each other but played 'possum when we handled them for the photograph.

Female and male Eastern Buckmoth - Mark Musselman
Once a pair has located each other and mated, the female will attach her eggs in rings around the twig of a host plant, which can be one of several varieties of oak.  The caterpillars will develop through several instars as they eat oak leaves.  Stingy bristles, called urticating hairs, appear in the later instars.  These bristles can deliver venom causing anything from mild irritation to dermatitis to nausea.  Ouch!

We'll stick to watching the bits of color flitting through the drab winter landscape.