Saturday, December 30, 2006


Winter is the time of year when River Otters (Lutra canadensis) are spotted along the boardwalk and canoe trail. We don't know where the Four Holes Swamp otters spend the remainder of the year, but when the weather and water turn cool, otter sightings increase. Maybe it is the generally higher water levels or the absence or inactivity in the reptile population, especially alligators.

Otters spend the majority of their time in the water and much of that time under it. They can spend up to four minutes below the water's surface with their ears and nostrils sealed as they hunt for crayfish, fish, frogs, mollusks, and snails. Although the majority of their dives do not result in captured prey, otters are well-designed for high-speed maneuverability underwater.

Otters can also be playful during their hunting forays. Today on the canoe trail, an otter was observed chasing a Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) into the water from of its sunning perch on a log. The pleasure derived from popping up next to the turtle and surprising it appeared to be the only motivation the otter needed. This is not the first time this behavior has been observed here in the swamp.

Otters give birth to 2-4 pups between late winter and early spring. The young can fend for themselves around six months, but generally stay with their mom for a year. Although mom will keep her newborn pups out of view, the spring is a wonderful time to visit the Francis Beidler Forest.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Quiet Time

FBF was closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas and will close again for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. In between, the center is being operated with a minimum staff. We hope you too have taken the opportunity, like the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the image, to relax and enjoy the wonderful opportunities life has to offer!

Friday, December 22, 2006

National Recreation Trails

The boardwalk trail at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest is now recognized with its own page on the National Recreation Trails site. Take a look and help spread the word about this special place in the swamp. Conservation, especially of a unique habitat, is nothing to keep secret!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)

The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem is unique. The longleaf pine is a hardy species resistant to wind, insects, disease and fire, which can subdue its frequently-seen cousins the Loblolly and Slash Pines. The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem developed with fire and it remains healthy as long as it periodically burns. Historically, these fires would have been caused naturally by lightning and allowed to burn slowly through the forest. The result would have been the near elimination of leaf litter and debris and the competition from hardwood tree species. Additionally, longleaf pine seeds fare better on exposed mineral soil, so the next generation of longleaf pines gets its start after a fire clears the forest floor.

The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem is greatly diminished throughout the Southeast and the total acreage continues to decline. Previously, over 90 million acres supported the unique longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem, while only two million acres remain today. Some reasons for this decline include the suppression of fires, intense logging, a switch to faster growing pines, and the clearing of land for agriculture and development. Not only is the total longleaf pine/wiregrass acreage declining, over 30 species of plant and animals that are associated with that ecosystem are currently listed as threatened or endangered, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker!

FBF has planted several stands of longleaf pine and wiregrass within the sanctuary in an effort to restore this native ecosystem. Today, a recently acquired piece of property was burned in preparation of longleaf pine planting next month. Prior to the purchase, the land had been logged, so the burning removed debris, exposed the mineral soil, and eliminated any hardwoods left after the logging. Using drip torches, six staff members from FBF and Silver Bluff plus two neighbors took less than three hours to burn the forty acres.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


On Saturday, riders on four ATVs followed the Santee Cooper power lines and crossed neighboring property to get bogged down in the sanctuary at FBF. The sound of engines roaring brought the staff out of the building to investigate. Although the group departed after being notified that they were trespassing, the damage had already been done.

Although Santee Cooper has a right-of-way for their power lines as they cross the sanctuary, they do not own the land beneath the lines. It may appear to the casual observer that the land below the power lines is unproductive and therefore an intrusion would go unchallenged. No harm, no foul. Unfortunately, the situation is not as simple as it may appear.

During her three years of studying Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata), Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus discovered that the power line right-of-way was crucial to the community of FBF turtles. Not only did all turtles use the open area to bask, but gravid females spent additional time in the plentiful sun. Something that is a premium beneath the dense canopy of the old-growth forest.

Gravid female Spotted Turtles
spent a considerable amount of time on or at
the edge of a powerline right-of-way during
April, May, and June (Spring and Nesting subseasons;
Tables 3, 4). In addition, females nested
on the edge of the powerline and in relatively
recent clearcuts (~5 years old) peripheral
to the Beidler Forest boundaries.
(from Copeia, 2004)

Spotted Turtle populations are diminishing throughout their range, mainly due to habitat loss. In fact, Dr. Litzgus chose the Francis Beidler Forest as her southern study site because populations farther south in Georgia and Florida were no longer viable. The Francis Beidler Forest has a healthy Spotted Turtle population. Unfortunately, the ATV riders chose the exact area under the power lines where Dr. Litzgus noted the frequent basking of the Spotted Turtles. Although the turtles are not in the area at this time of year, the sediment churned into the water certainly affected the organisms that were present. Additionally, the habitat to which the turtles will return in the spring has been negatively altered by the tracks of the ATVs and the soil-slinging manner in which those vehicles were driven.

Someone owns the land. If it is not you, you need to ask permission before entering because the situation is not always as simple as it may appear.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mystery Solved

Earlier this month, we found a group of black insects eating the remaining flesh off of a dead fawn's lower jaw. The creatures consisted of black plates that widened from the head to the thorax and then tapered rapidly to the end of the body. Six legs were located under the widest portion of the body. They moved away rapidly when disturbed. The image shows one that was captured for identification and stored in alcohol. The legs are curled underneath the body.

There are a multitude of insects that arrive at a dead body and aid in the recycling of the soft tissues. We search but could find nothing that resembled our specimen. Finally, a search of images on the web revealed that our specimen was not an adult, but the larva of a carrion beetle, which are difficult to identify if they are not allowed to mature to an adult.

The second image shows one possibility. Adult American Carrion Beetles (Necrophila americana) are shown last summer eating and mating on the carcass of a raccoon near #9 on the boardwalk. The adults will lay eggs on or near the carcass and dine on fly larvae to reduce the competition for their own larvae. The beetle larvae will feed in or under the carcass and on fly larvae. The beetle larvae will pupate in a soil cell nearby.

Although this topic is not appetizing for humans, the variety of carrion insects help keep the environment from becoming knee-deep in smelly carcasses.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Gator Summer

Today was even warmer (close to 80F) than this weekend making it feel more like summer than Christmas in the swamp! Visitors reported seeing the alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) in Goodsen Lake at the end of the boardwalk. The image shows a similar alligator downstream in Mallard Lake.

In this area, the alligators are generally inactive between October and March. Alligators spend the winter in burrows or "dens" that they dig, but will venture out on a warm day. Studies of captive individuals have shown that alligators eat less when the temperature drops below 80F and stop eating all together once the temperature drops below 73F. Alligators can even survive the occasional freeze by keeping their nostrils above the water, even if their bodies are trapped in the ice! They can easily survive on their energy reserves, since their medabolic rate is slowed dramatically.

Winter may only be four days away, but it sure feels like Gator Summer!

Saturday, December 16, 2006


For some reason, this image of the long-lost still will not post to yesterday's entry. Note the patina on the copper piece against the tree.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lost In The Woods

There are plans to build a 20-foot observation tower at the boardwalk platform at Goodson Lake. There are many administrative and engineering hurdles to clear before that becomes a reality. One proposal requires special equipment to place into the swamp bottom the four poles that will support the structure. That equipment is too large to travel to Goodson Lake via the boardwalk. However, 30 years ago there was an old road that approached Goodson Lake from the south (opposite of the boardwalk).

Today, we set out to locate the lost road and determine if it would be feasible to move the equipment to Goodson Lake along that path. We were successful in locating the majority of the road. Some trees have grown up between the tire ruts, but the forest is sufficiently open to allow the equipment to navigate around those obstacles. Therefore, an approach from the south is feasible. However, it is the other items that we found lost in the woods that captivated our attention.

First, we found a long-lost radiosonde that was likely launched by a weather service office to collect data in the upper atmosphere. Below is an excerpt from the National Weather Service office in Charleston, SC:

We release a helium-filled weather balloon at 6 AM and 6 PM LST (Local Standard Time) each day. The balloon carries a small battery powered radiosonde which collects weather data as it rises to around 10 miles above the Earth's surface. When the balloon bursts it has expanded to the size of a room in a house; a parachute then carries the re-usable instrument back to the surface. Ground equipment at our office tracks a radio frequency sent by the radiosonde so that we may get a vertical cross section of pressure, humidity, and temperature measurements. The ground equipment also computes wind speed and direction at various heights above the surface. This is done by calculating the radiosonde's change in position with time relative to the ground station. A computer codes the upper air data, and it is sent to a national supercomputer in Washington, D.C. for input to the forecast models. With a worldwide network of three dimensional upper air observations, weather forecasts of temperature, clouds, and precipitation can be produced for periods up to 7 days into the future.

Of greater interest was the remnants of a whiskey still and a gallon jug holding a small amount of clear liquid. Besides hunting, fishing and hiding from the British, the swamp was perfect for hiding illegal stills. The rusted 55-gallon drums and copper pieces were located within 150 feet of the boardwalk near #12. The pieces of the still have been there for over 35 years only now to be discovered. The swamp really is a great place to hide or get lost!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Web Page Changes

Keep your eye on the web pages for Audubon South Carolina and for the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. We plan to redesign the site for easier navigation. In the meantime, subtle changes will be added for those planning a trip to the swamp. For example, you can now check the weather and the forecast for the area around Four Holes Swamp by visiting the Francis Beidler Forest homepage.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

GPS at Clay Hill Middle

The teachers and students at Clay Hill Middle School are participating in the "Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning (EIC)" School Network and Mark Musselman, Education Director, is a mentor.

The South Carolina Geographic Alliance (SCGA), in conjunction with the education department at the Francis Beidler Forest, is developing a program to incorporate Global Positioning System (GPS) technology into South Carolina classrooms. Clay Hill Middle School is the model for the campus application. Today, the teachers used GPS receivers, provided by the SCGA, for the first time. Today's teacher orientation will be followed by the development of a practice GPS course on campus for students to hone their navigation skills. Next, students will move away from school and explore their community using lessons developed for GPS technology. Finally, students will visit and explore the Francis Beidler Forest with the GPS receiver as their guide.

For those with a GPS receiver, the coordinates for Clay Hill Middle School in Ridgeville, SC are: N33 05.571, W080 18.737

Monday, December 11, 2006

Photo Contest Winners

The Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest won 2 of the 18 categories in the National Recreational Trails 2006 photo contest! All of the winning photos can be seen here.

FBF won in the trail Accessibility category with an image showing the boardwalk along the edge of the swamp between #13 and #14. FBF also won in the Wildlife and Habitat category with an image (shown in this blog entry) of a Barred Owl (Strix varia).

The remaining entries for FBF can be viewed here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Many of the birds that nest in the swamp at the Francis Beidler Forest are spending our winter in the warmer climates of Central and South America. However, there are still birds to be seen from the boardwalk, including the season-appropriate colors of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). For more than 10 minutes, the bird in the image was observed searching under and between the fronds of the Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor). Several other images show the bird with what appears to be a large spider in its bill and later the larva of an insect. The bird was quite rapid in its movements and when it appeared from behind a palmetto frond it was difficult to capture in the camera frame.

The sound of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet can be heard here.

Friday, December 08, 2006


The 1.75-mile long boardwalk at Francis Beidler Forest was contructed between October 1976 and July 1977. The size of the work crew varied, but after three weeks of help from the folks at the Audubon Sanctuary at Corkscrew Swamp (FL) the crew was usually four individuals. Using hammers, saws and post-hole diggers, the boardwalk snaked through the virgin, old-growth forest from the nature center to Goodsen Lake and back again. On a good day, the crew could build 180 feet of boardwalk, but days of hitting roots with the post-hole digger or deep water kept the average feet per day at 120'.

In 1989, Hurricane Hugo blew through and damaged nearly half of the boardwalk. As the years go by, trees die or are blown over by stormy weather and they may land on the boardwalk. The image shows such an event. The staff will then load the cart with lumber, nails and tools and head to the accident scene. In just over an hour, they can have fresh lumber spanning the gap caused by the downed tree or limb. However, over half of the boardwalk remains original lumber nailed down between 1976 and 1977 and is in need of replacing. Soon a new, slightly wider, ADA-compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act) boardwalk will begin snaking over the same path as the one laid down 30 years ago.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Gift Buying

It is the time of year when everyone on staff needs to hone their singing clock packing skills!

There are numerous items for sale in the swamp gift shop and several can be found online here in the menu on the left. By far the most popular item is the singing bird clock. Each hour provides a different songbird call. There are two sets of birds with one set shown in the image. The clock in our office has the other set of birds. Like a Pavlov experiment, the staff seems to respond most damatically to the call of the Tufted Titmouse. No surprise...that bird is perched at 5 o'clock.

Order now and help protect the birds!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

FBF-specific Field Guide

More work was accomplished today on a Francis Beidler Forest-specific field guide. Visitors will not need to get this close to any of the animals to be able to identify what they are seeing. There is also no need to page through a collection of plants and animals that are not in the area around the boardwalk.

There are plenty of little yellow birds in the world. However, there is only one little, yellow-headed bird near the boardwalk. When the field guide is completed, it should be quite simple to identify the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea). The startled snake is an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorous).

Monday, December 04, 2006


GIS stands for Geographic Information System. This software allows one to take a mountain of data and view it graphically in any desired combination. In this way, patterns and relationships can be more easily detected.

The image shows a bird's-eye view of the boardwalk here at the Francis Beidler Forest. The nature center and the beginning of the boardwalk are at the upper left. Goodsen Lake is shown at the lower right. North is at the top of the image. The only data layers shown are the boardwalk and the species (flora and fauna) sighted over the last few years. However, there are also layers that show the buildings, the canoe trail, the low boardwalk trail, the property boundaries, access gates, etc. What makes GIS technology a powerful tool is the user's ability to view the data separately or in combination with other, sometimes seemingly unrelated, data.

The species data are shown as individual points in the image with each type (plant, mammal, bird, reptile, insect, fish, etc.) shown in a unique color. Though the separate dots are difficult to see in the image, the software allows the user to zoom in. It should be clear that the green dots are the most seen animals. Based on our organization's focus, one could guess that the green dots represent birds.

Using the data shown in the image as an example, there are over 3100 species points in the data table. In April, if a nature photographer only had an hour before she had to depart for the airport and she desperately wanted to take a picture of an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus), where on the boardwalk would she likely have success? Simply looking through the table for the data to answer that question would be difficult and extremely time-consuming. However, by posing that query using the GIS software (date, cottonmouth, close to the boardwalk), only the appropriate data points would light up. In seconds, you could tell the photographer to go to #4 or the stretch between #8 and #10.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Trees In The News

Below is an excerpt from an article appearing in the Home and Garden section of today's The Post and Courier:

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 03, 2006 8:01 AM

The Post and Courier

Lowcountry residents love their trees.
It's quite obvious from the response The Post and Courier received earlier this fall when we sought nominations for "terrific trees of the Lowcountry."
The outpouring was overwhelming. Dozens of letters, e-mails and pictures came in for weeks.
The notes often spoke of favorite trees as if they were family.
In many ways, they are. What would our community be like without the sprawling, moss-draped live oaks, towering bald cypresses and pines, and flowering accents of dogwoods and crape myrtles?
The South Carolina coast, despite being strafed by hurricanes and tropical storms on a regular basis, has some majestic trees.

[section omitted]

Swamp giants
While live oaks are found in many visible locations from parks and yards to roadsides and shopping centers, another of the South's great trees is more often found in less accessible swamps.
One of the best local places to see the "Angel Oaks" of the bald cypress species is Francis Beidler Forest near Harleyville.
"We have a couple of beautiful ancient bald cypress trees visible from the boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest," says Mike Dawson, director of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler, which protects one of the largest tracts of virgin, old growth forests in the Southeast.
"They are not record-breakers, as our nutrient conditions in the swamp are pretty poor," he says. "They are, however, in the neighborhood of 1,000 years old and still pretty impressive."
The center's education director, Mark Musselman, cleared up one myth about bald cypress, which is a relative of the West's giant redwood trees and is considered a deciduous conifer.
"Cypress do not prefer water," says Musselman. "As one views the ancient cypress standing on their flooded trunks, that statement may seem ridiculous. But plants do not like or dislike where they are: They simply live wherever they are able to survive.
"As in most plant communities, the swamp forest is highly competitive. Such essentials as sunlight, nutrients and root space are in limited supply. Those plants best able to find and use the essentials will thrive. Others will not."
While former Lowcountry resident John Stamp didn't submit a massive cypress as one of his favorite trees, he did offer up one that is in the middle of a large pond at Audubon Swamp.

[section omitted]

This article was printed via the web on 12/3/2006 12:06:34 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, December 03, 2006.

Friday, December 01, 2006


After climbing off of the boardwalk the other day to show some Cub Scouts a raccoon skull, it was discovered that another creature has emerged due to the warmer weather...chiggers! Half of the Beidler Forest staff is unaffected by chiggers and did not know that they existed until the staff doubled in size. The new staff members are certified chigger magnets whenever they venture off of the boardwalk into the forest!

A detailed explanation of the chigger life cycle can be found here. Basically, the chigger is only parasitic during its larval stage. When a human or a variety of other animals enter an area with chiggers, the larval chiggers rapidly swarm onto the host and begin searching for a good feeding spot. On humans, chiggers prefer areas of thin skin (ankles, behind knees, in front of elbows, armpits, abdomen, groin) or areas where clothing is tight (socks, elastic areas of underwear, waistbands, thighs in tight jeans). The chiggers find a skin pore or a hair follicle and feed be delivering powerful digestive enzymes and then sucking up the liquefied cells. Yum! The enzymes cause the surrounding cells to harden into a straw-like feeding tube. The combination of these two actions causes the incredible itching (in many people). The chigger will drop off in one to four days, but the itching can last for over a week. Since the chiggers tend to group together in their environment, it's unlikely that a person will only have a few bites. The cumulative effect of multiple itching bites can be maddening.

There are some on staff that welcome the impending cold front and the tremendous effect it will have on reducing the active chigger population.