Wednesday, May 30, 2007

River Otter

It has been many weeks since any appreciable rain has fallen in Four Holes Swamp. Much of the 1.75-mile boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest stands above mud and not water. However, this situation provides an opportunity for visitiors to investigate the many types of wildlife tracks left in the mud.

Beavers arrived this year and their tracks can be seen next to the numerous young Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees that have been chewed down. The long-toed tracks of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) can be seen as the birds hunt for crayfish in the ever-diminishing pools of water. Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and squirrel tracks can be seen making a wide arc around the wide, flat, s-shaped track and the log where its creator, a large Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), was still basking in the sun. Deep troughs plowed by Eastern Mud Turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) crossed between White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) hoof prints in a variety of sizes.

However, the freshest tracks were the most exciting. The image shows a family of River Otters (Lutra canadensis) making their way out of the upstream end of Goodson Lake and across the mud to the main creek channel. That is likely a wise decision as the alligator tends to inhabit the downstream end of Goodson Lake.

The otter's name comes from Lutais which is Latin for "otter" and canadensis meaning "of Canada" where it was first described scientifically. Otters mate in late winter or early spring, but the embryos may not begin to form for 290-380 days! Once the embryo is implanted in the uterus, gestation occurs in about 60 days. One to six kits are born and will remain with the female until the next breeding season. Otters eat a variety of other animals, but are often seen in Beidler Forest eating mollusks, crayfish, and fish.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Painted Bunting

Yesterday, while outside of Beaufort, SC, we caught sight of a Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) flying behind a tangle of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) along the bank of the Beaufort River. We suspected a nest might be hidden in the tangle, so we hopped down the steep bank and took a look. The images show the mass of moss supported by woody vegetation, the nest with two chicks hidden within the moss, and the male Painted Bunting near the nest. The bird was gone before we could switch to manual focus and avoid the automatic focus feature's preoccupation with the numerous branches and moss.

The Painted Bunting is a species of concern as numbers continue to decline and is listed as yellow on the National Audubon Society Watchlist. There are two main reasons for the population decline. First, habitat is being lost both on its breeding and wintering grounds. Preferred coastal habitat is rapidly being developed as is agricultural shrub land farther inland. Second, the beautifully-colored bird is captured on its wintering grounds and sold on the caged-bird market. Additionally, Painted Buntings are susceptible to cowbird parasitism.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Longnose Gar

Look what may soon be on the alligator's menu! The images show an adult and approximately 20 young Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) in Goodsen Lake at the end of the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Their many teeth, bony jaw, and hard scales make them difficult for an angler to catch, but their defenses are no match for the crushing power of the alligator's jaws.

Longnose Gar are aggressive predators feeding almost entirely on fish, which are concentrated in deep holes like Goodsen Lake as the lack of rain and evaporation cause the water level to drop throughout the swamp. The young gar shown in the image hatched from big, bright green eggs about a week after the female laid them in the water clouded by milt from up to 15 male gar. The young gar look like sticks floating in the water under the overhanging branch.

Anyone that has been near a body of water containing Longnose Gar has heard the fish violently break the surface. In addition to breathing in the water with its gills, Longnose Gar can gulp oxygen from the atmosphere. In fact, they can live many hours out of water as long as their bodies are kept moist.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sangaree Intermediate School

Sangaree Intermediate School 5th graders visited the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest on a perfect day! The weather was in the low 70Fs and overcast with a slight breeze.

Besides seeing three of the five species of snakes in the swamp (Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota), Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), and Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata)), the students observed several Yellow-crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) hunting the shallow water for crayfish. One caught and ate a crayfish for all to see. The alligator put on a show by moving from its semi-obscure position on the far bank to a highly visible position on a log (see image). Additionally, students were able to observe Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) perched only a few feet away and three species of normally-secretive treefrogs (Squirrel (Hyla squirella), Green (Hyla cinerea), and Gray). One group even saw a fawn.

What a great way to end the school year!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Silver Bluff Butterflies

The May 19th field trip to Silver Bluff Sanctuary was attended by 10 people, including 3 experts in butterflies who came from Charleston to survey the butterflies in Aiken County. They taught us a lot and we found several butterflies not previously recorded on the sanctuary.

Since this was both a bird and butterfly trip, we counted both as well as dragonflies. For the day we recorded 48 species of birds. including two immature Bald Eagles who were flying over the ponds. We also saw an Osprey, Spotted Sandpiper, Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, Red-headed Woodpeckers, soaring Anhinga, and heard Acadian Flycatchers and Prothonotary Warbler. During the day, we found and identified 7 species of dragonflies, including Golden-winged Skimmers and Calico Pennants. An alligator also was seen swimming across the pond.

However, the real focus of the day was looking for butterflies. In all we found 30 different species. Many of them were the small skippers and hairstreaks, which are hard to identify, so it was good to have the help of the experts. I certainly learned a lot. In addition to this, a local couple brought a cage of Painted Lady Butterflies they had raised from eggs to release at the sanctuary so that was interesting.

These are the butterflies we saw: Gray Hairstreak, Least Skipper, Buckeye, Variegated Fritillary, Am. Painted Lady, Crossline Skipper, Common/White Checkered Skipper, N. Broken Dash, Whirlabout, Southern Cloudywing, Hoary Edge, Red-spotted Purple, Snout, Horace's Duskywing, Pearl Crescent, Hackberry Emperor, Zebra Swallowtail, Carolina Satyr, Cloudless Sulfur, Eastern Tailed Blue, Oak Hairstreak, Silver-spotted Skipper, Appalachian Brown, Southern Pearly Eye, Creole Pearly Eye, Question Mark, Swarthy Skipper, Palomedes Swallowtail, Tiger Swallowtail. In addition we found evidence of the Giant Yucca Skipper in the yuccas on the sanctuary. It was a woody tube down into the heart of the yucca where the caterpillar feeds on the roots. The butterfly comes out in Feb. or March, so next year we know where to look for it.

This was an interesting field trip. Come join us next time.
Anne Waters.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Litter Cleanup at Silver Bluff

A litter pickup was conducted on May 17th with the help of 35 employees of Bridgestone-Firestone. Bridgestone-Firestone is located in Graniteville, SC and has been a supporter of the Silver Bluff program for several years. Each year, their employees commit to a work day off-site that aids in team-building and in providing a service to the community. Together with the Silver Bluff staff, they picked up litter along approximately 4 miles of public roads that pass through the sanctuary filling two pickup trucks with trash.

Afterwards they toured the Wood Stork ponds where they saw one of the Bald Eagle chicks that had just fledged from its nearby nest. That was followed by a hot dog/hamburger lunch cooked by plant manager Mike Rose and a PowerPoint presentation by Anne Bohnet describing the education program at Silver Bluff.

A good time was had by all!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Birding Boy Scouts

A Bird Study Merit Badge Workshop was held at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest today from 9 A.M. - 4 P.M. This was the first of many merit badge workshops to be held at the forest.

Birding instruction and activities were provided to help scouts receive their Bird Study Merit Badge. This one-day program also included a guided tour of the scenic boardwalk through the only old-growth forest in Four Holes Swamp. The image shows scouts observing a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) and a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).

By the end of the boardwalk tour, the scouts were able to identify numerous birds by sight and by their call. The cost was $15 per scout and $7 (general admission) per scoutmaster/chaperone.

Noisette Creek Day

Yesterday, was Noisette Creek Appreciation Day. Seniors from the Charleston Academic Magnet School met at Noisette Creek (on the old Navy base) to learn from several guest presenters and to clean up litter.

Audubon South Carolina (ASC) participated along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Native Plant Society. Mike Dawson, center director at the Francis Beidler Forest, presented a birding 101 class. He is shown in the image at lunch discussing his attack by a butterfly-stroking Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). You need to ask him about that when you stop by. After the students had learned the basics from Mike, Mark Musselman, education director at the Francis Beidler Forest, conducted a bird watching and identification session along Noisette Creek.

The groups saw a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret hunting in the marsh across the creek, an Osprey overhead and on a nearby nest, a Kingfisher, Turkey Vultures, Barn Swallows, Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, a Northern Shrike, Northern Cardinals, Boat-tailed Grackles, a Snowy Egret, Brown Pelicans, Brown Thrashers, Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, Mourning Doves, Laughing Gulls, Least Terns, a Red-tailed Hawk being harrassed by crows while perched hundreds of feet atop a radio tower, and a Red-breasted Merganser swimming up the creek. However, the highlight for many was seeing a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) attempting to consume an American Robin that had become tangled and had died in a mulberry tree.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) build their nests of mud and straw heavily lined with feathers and plaster the nests on walls or ledges of buildings, under bridges, or occasionally on cliffs or in caves. The image (by Brad Dalton) shows a Barn Swallow sitting on a nest under the bridge at U.S. Hwy 78 where it crosses Four Holes Swamp. The nest is partially supported by the mud nursery tubes of a Mud Dauber. The tubes are likely empty of wasps as the holes indicate their escape, but the tubes certainly contain the dried husks of spiders left alive and paralyzed for the hatching larvae to eat.

Barn Swallows drink and bathe and catch most of their insect diet on the wing. They nest in colonies with yearlings and immature birds from the first clutch helping their parents.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hooded Warbler Aggression

Over the last several days, a male Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) has been aggressively attacking the windows on the north side of the building at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Robins, Mockingbirds, and Northern Cardinals are especially prone to this type of behavior.

The Hooded Warbler is not celebrating our recent installation of energy-efficient windows. Neither is the bird making a statement regarding our infrequent window cleaning schedule. In fact, a really dirty window would likely prevent the behavior we are observing. The male Hooded Warbler is defending his breeding territory. When he catches sight of another male of his species in his territory, he promptly addresses the situation in an effort to send the other male on his way. However, when our Hooded Warbler pecks at the window, the insolent trespasser pecks right back. This immediately ratchets up the aggression on "both" sides.

Speaking of sides, Gary Larson's The Far Side covered this topic in the attached cartoon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


The Hogchoker (Trinectes maculatus) in the images taken by Brad Dalton was caught at the Francis Beidler Forest during fish surveying conducted by past seasonal naturalist Matt Stone, staff from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and Brad Dalton. The origin of the name "hogchoker" is said to be due to hogs that "feed on fish discarded on the beaches, have great difficulty in swallowing this sole, because of the extremely hard, rough scales." --Hildebrand and Schroeder, Bull. U. S. Bur. Fish., vol. 43, Pt. 1, 1928, p. 177.

The fish were collected using a process of electroshocking with a backpack unit for channels and a boat-mounted unit for deeper water. A wand placed in the water emits an electric current which attracts the fish. Once the fish are close enough, the electric current will stun and immoblize the fish. The fish float to the surface and are collected by a trailing individual with a net. The fish are identified and then released back into the swamp. The staff members from DNR were operating the electroshocking equipment as the incorrect current could kill the fish or injure people standing in the water.

The Hogchoker is a marine fish that ventures into brackish and fresh water. The hogchoker in the image was captured 13 miles from the Edisto River and approximatley 57 miles from the Atlantic Ocean! Unlike rays, which are compressed horizontally (top to bottom) and are symetrical (left to right), Hogchokers are compressed laterally (left to right) and do not look symetrical when lying on the bottom. They are a right-sided fish, since the right side of the fish is the side facing up. They are nocturnal, spending the day hidden on the bottom, and feed on macroinvertebrates and possibly algae using the small mouth located on the bottom of their body. Their small size keeps them from being fished commercially.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Swampology 2007

Swampology Day has come and gone for another year! Keep an eye on this blog and the Francis Beidler Forest webpage for the date of Swampology Day 2008.

This year, venomous and non-venomous snakes were on display in the nature center, a mammal skull collection was on display in the nature center, a live Barred Owl (Strix varia) and Swainson's Hawk were on display in the outdoor classroom, fossils collected from the area were on display along the boardwalk along with stations showing macroinvertebrates, birdwatching, fish, shingle riving, and moonshine production! However, the main attraction continues to be the virgin, old-growth forest and its amazing collection of plants and animals.

While manning the shingle riving station, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) made its way down the creek in search of crayfish. This individual had a 20% (2 crayfish in 10 strikes) success rate while in view of the station. Summer Tanagers (Piranga rubra) sang overhead throughout the afternoon along with numerous other bird species. A very pleasant way to spend the day!

Rogersville City School

While traveling back home on Friday, eighth graders from Rogersville City School visited the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest and saw plenty of wildlife. The group had the boardwalk to themselves as public school students across South Carolina continue to take the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT).

The Rogersville students saw several species of snakes, including the juvenile Red-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) shown in the image. The species name is derived from the Greek words erythros (red) and gaster (belly). This species eats fish and amphibians.

Can you identify the plant next to where the young snake is resting? Deer have no problem eating it and snakes can often be found sunning themselves in the middle of it. You would likely be miserable for days if you were to be that intimate with this plant. It is poison ivy (Rhus radicans). The oil in the plant is what irritates human skin and it can remain potent for up to a year on clothes and equipment. Washing areas of exposed skin with warm, soapy water and washing all clothing after returning from areas with poison ivy is the best way to prevent any unpleasant reactions.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Swampology Day

This Saturday, May 12th, the staff at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest will be hosting Swampology Day. Swampology Day celebrates the continued preservation of our unique old-growth swamp and highlights the various uses this type of habitat has experienced through history.

This is a family-oriented event as one can see by looking back at last year's Swampology Day. The images show the extensive skull collection brought by Rich Familia of Giant Resource Recovery and Olivia demonstrating the use of cypress shingle riving equipment.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Conservation Lobby Day

Several members of the Audubon South Carolina staff spent the day in Columbia as participants in the 4th Annual Conservation Lobby Day. Members of conservation-minded organizations from around the state met to lobby state legislators on the following pieces of legislation:

1) Conservation Bank Funding - The Senate has approved an increase of $5 million to the bank, while the House still must decide on an amount in the budget for the bank. More details here.

2) Department of Transportation (DOT) reform - Conservation groups are asking for objective analysis of proposed projects, a transparent ranking process for projects, maintenance of existing infrastructure, consideration of transportation alternatives before creating new roads and bridges, and a public hearing process that allows for real public input. More details here.

3) Priority Investment Areas (PIA) - details here.

The image, taken this weekend by Jeff Mollenhauer, shows a White-tailed Deer fawn resting near the boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest. If this youngster could talk for the animals and generations of humans to come, we're sure it would thank all who work for the conservation of unique and precious land in South Carolina!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Friday Flora/Fauna

Today's featured fauna is the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea). The scientific name is derived from the Latin protonotarius "authorized scribe" referring to the color of the robes such scribes wore and citrus "citrus tree" referring to the color of the fruit on such trees. This bright yellow warber, sometimes called the Swamp Canary, is one of the star attractions at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Many birders delay their visit to the swamp until the Prothonotary Warblers have returned north from their migration.

The image shows a female adding material, mostly liverwort from the bases of knees and trees, to her nest in a hollow cypress knee. Only the female builds the actual nest, usually over water, while the male will build several dummy nests. The pair remain monogomous.

Eggs laid in the nest cavity will hatch in 12-14 days and the young will fledge in another 11 days. The young can supposedly swim! Both parents will feed the young a diet of insects and snails. Prothonotary Warblers can be frequent victims of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird. The nest in the image would likely be safe due to the small opening in the knee, which would prevent the larger cowbird from entering and laying her egg. The Prothonotary Warblers at FBF are secure within the dense, old-growth swamp, while habitat loss and fragmentation elsewhere exposes Prothonotary Warblers and other birds to the parasitic cowbirds and their delinquent parenting.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Love is in the Air

Love is in the air and in the water of the swamp! On April 20th, a pair of Barred Owls (Strix varia) were observed mating on the ground near #1 along the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Barred Owl pairs are monogomous and pair for life. Despite the public display of affection, Barred Owls in Francis Beidler Forest are not in any danger from the feds. However, this cannot be said for the Barred Owls that have extended their range west into the territory of the endangered Spotted Owl. See the AP story here.

Two days ago, this blog showed an image of a male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) singing loudly on his territory near #7 along the boardwalk. We can only assume his mate was nearby sitting on the nest hidden within a bald cypress knee. As we listened to his song, dragonflies flew by as one reproductive unit.

Yesterday's image shows two Eastern Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) entwined on a log near #10 along the boardwalk. Repeated strikes by the female seemed to indicate that she was not enjoying what the visting first graders described as "wrasslin'". Ovulation only occurs in alternate years with gestation taking 3 to 4 months. The female will give birth to as many as 12 living young. Each new snake will have a brightly colored tail (see image) which it will use to lure unsuspecting frogs or minnows to within striking distance.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Newington Elementary

Newington Elementary School 1st graders had the boardwalk to themselves this morning at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Bracing for the 1.75-mile walk and a lunch that would be delayed 1/2 hour beyond their normal feeding time, these eager learners set out.

Using their height advantage (being closer to the ground) and superior observation skills, the groups spotted a Southern Black Racer, Yellow-bellied Sliders, Eastern Mud Turtles, Banded Water Snakes (basking and swimming), Eastern Cottonmouths, various skinks, a male Scarlet Tanager of the brightest red, Prothonotary Warblers, Barred Owls fishing for crayfish, battling Tufted Titmice, woodpeckers, damselflies, dragonflies, and a spectacular, virgin, old-growth swamp!