Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Allendale Kites Field Trip

The Audubon South Carolina Board & Friends Fun Day trip to Allendale on July 28th was a resounding success! Twenty-four people, some from as far away as Greenville and Conway, attended with hopes of seeing large numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites. They weren't disappointed. Based on photographs, there were at least 110 birds circling at the site.

Swallow-tailed Kites are a social species and once their nesting is complete in late July, they often gather in large feeding flocks. By mid-August most of the Swallow-tailed Kites will have left South Carolina enroute to their wintering grounds in South America. Swallow-tailed Kites are a state-listed Endangered species in South Carolina with an estimated 170 breeding pairs in 2004. Audubon South Carolina is working hard to protect Swallow-tailed Kites and their habitat.

The targets outside of Allendale were large coastal Bermuda hay fields. As the group pulled up to the fields around 10:00am, the first Swallow-tailed Kites were already swooping low over the fields in search of June bugs. June bugs are type of Scarab beetle and their green and black bodies are not much bigger than the size of a quarter. Fourtunately for the hungry kites, the hay fields were full of June bugs. With each swoop, the kites seemed to be effortlessly catching the June bugs with their feet. Unlike many other raptors in South Carolina which perch before eating, kites often eat their prey while flying.

Stay tuned...the land manager intends to cut another nearby field next month, which should once again attract a multitude of the Swallow-tailed Kites!
Edited text from Jeff Mollenhauer's upcoming newsletter article. Images by Jeff Mollenhauer.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Really Fast Food!

As the group of children from MUSC's STARS program were getting their orientation for the swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, one young man asked, "Is that a snake?" He was pointing high and back at the building, so it surely was a stick on the roof or some other "Bet you think I'm a snake" swamp prop. However, as the image cleary shows, it was a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) draped in the rain gutter.

Greenish Rat Snakes are superb climbers, so the snake's presence on the low roof was not alarming or impressive. However, the snake's focus of attention was ambitious to say the least. The second image shows where the snake was looking...a newly-installed hummingbird feeder on the second floor window. Again, getting to the location would not be impressive for a Greenish Rat Snake, but trying to catch a visiting meal would be a challenge. Unquestionably, that is "fast food". In the end, the snake gave a gaping (enough to drive a rat in) yawn to the crowd below, dropped into the gutter and began its exit from the area.

The hummingbirds have reason to be cautious. Smaller predators than snakes have dined on hummingbirds (praying mantis, praying mantis, spiders/dragonflies/frogs/fish) and some snakes are capable of grabbing bats out of the air (here).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Director of Bird Conservation

Please join Audubon South Carolina in welcoming our new Director of Bird Conservation, Jeff Mollenhauer. Jeff has a diverse background with birds, ranging from behavioral research to mist-netting and bird banding to coastal bird management to leading education programs. Before coming to work with Audubon, Jeff spent two years working as the Outreach Coordinator at SCDNR’s Marine Resource Division in Charleston.

Although he grew up in New Jersey, Jeff has been a southern Yankee for the past seven years. As far back as he can remember, which is sometime around his first backpacking trip at the age of five, he has always had an intense interest in nature and the outdoors. Jeff received his B.S. in Wildlife Biology at Penn State University in 2000. In 2003, he received his M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Mississippi. His M.S. research lead him all the way to northern Sweden, where he studied the migration of Bluethroats, a small type of thrush! Jeff has been an avid birder for nearly 10 years and has traveled all over the United States and world in search of birds. He has seen more than 500 bird species in the U.S. and nearly 1,000 in the world. Last October, he was selected by Falcon Guides to author “Birding South Carolina”, a book that will provide detailed descriptions of the 40 best birding locations in South Carolina. “Birding South Carolina” will help birders of all levels know when to visit each site and what type of birds to expect. The book is expected to be released around November 2008. Besides bird-watching, Jeff’s hobbies include learning foreign languages (German, Spanish, and Swedish), hiking, canoeing, and playing tennis. His most favorite southern food would definitely be the boiled peanut.

Jeff’s duties as Director of Bird Conservation will include directing and implementing Audubon South Carolina’s coastal bird protection activities within the Coastal Habitat Conservation Area (HCA), creating strategies to enhance the conservation of Swallow-tailed Kites within Four Holes Swamp/Edisto HCA and Pee Dee River/Winyah Bay HCA, working with partner agencies to develop a plan for the protection of bird resources within Mead-Westvaco’s East Edisto project area, assisting with Four Holes Swamp habitat protection activities, assisting in the writing of all bird and wildlife-related funding proposals, and developing a project to protect our neotropical migrant birds on their wintering grounds in Latin America.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Storks & Corks

The Audubon Center at Silver Bluff will be hosting its annual Storks & Corks on August 11th from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Here's your opportunity to spend the evening with an endangered species!

Guests will enjoy a sampling of wine and hors d'oeuvres following the viewing of the endangered Wood Storks (Mycteria americana) in the center's Kathwood Ponds. Bring your camera and support Audubon's efforts to protect North America's only stork and largest wading bird. Wood Storks can stand 3 feet tall, weigh up to 7 pounds and have a wingspan of 6 feet! With their large bill, they feed by snapping up anything (fish and crayfish) that they feel. Therefore, they require a high density of prey to feed efficiently. The ponds at Silver Bluff are stocked and the water level is lowered to allow effective feeding for flocks of 100 or more birds.

Storks & Corks! You can't be disappointed! Call (843) 462-2150 to register while space is still available. The cost of $25 per person goes directly to support Audubon South Carolina.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Four Holes Swamp Model

Work began today for a model of Four Holes Swamp along the low boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Although not perfect (north is actually 180 degrees off due to the terrain available) and not to scale, but the model will help visiting students visualize the Four Holes Swamp watershed and the activity occurring with the watershed.

A watershed can be defined as the area of land that drains to a single point. In the case of Four Holes Swamp, all water within the watershed drains to a point where it enters the Edisto River. Each stream within Four Holes Swamp has its own watershed with the collection of stream watersheds forming the watershed for the entire swamp. The boundary of a watershed is defined by the highest elevations surrounding the stream. A drop of water falling outside of the boundary will drain to another watershed. The area north of Four Holes Swamp drains to the Santee River (now under Lake Marion), the area south and west of Four Holes Swamp drains to the Edisto River, and the area east of Four Holes Swamp drains into the Ashley River.

Interstate highways 95 and 26 are included along with the three cement plants and the boardwalk at the Francis Beidler Forest. While digging the landfill used by Dorchester County which is located adjacent to Four Holes Swamp, the Three-lined Salamander (Eurycea longicauda guttolineata) shown in the image appeared near the hole. This salamander is a member of the Longtail salamanders, though this individual has lost a good bit of its normally whip-like tail. The wound was old, so the shovel operator was not at fault.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tracks Everywhere!

The falling water level has left in the swamp a palette of exposed mud upon which the many creatures of the Francis Beidler Forest have left their marks. One image shows where a snake spent some time coiled, possibly in ambush. However, nearby tracks suggest that a bobcat or fox (tough to determine from the boardwalk) walked nearby. Is it possible that the snake became a statistic in the food chain of death?

The second image offers definitive proof that snakes have no qualms regarding their murderous image. Tracks throughout the swamp showed that raccoons, ibis, and herons were busy hunting their next meal, while numerous crayfish parts suggested that some were certainly successful.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Maintenance Day

It was maintenance day at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. The education director worked on the education curriculum while the sanctuary manager checked the condition of the aluminum canoes and painted the warning stripe on the front door ramp.

The canoes are used for guided tours on the trail that departs from Mallard Lake (downstream from the nature center) and travels over 1.5 miles into the old-growth cypress/tupelo swamp. The canoes usually fare well on the way upstream, but the 1.5 miles with the current and back to the landing is a different story. Any familiarity with the canoe and current that an inexperienced paddler may have gained on the way upstream seems useless once the canoe is travelling with the current. Force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma). The trees in the numerous turns along the trail show scars from the current's slight increase to the accleration portion of this physics problem. Those collisions, many bow-on, take their toll on the rib-like supports of the canoes. A welder with some additional aluminum will soon arrive to make the repairs.

Besides the recently-installed, hand-crafted, cypress-imbedded door, the ramp over the threshold received some new paint. To prevent any tripping injuries, the small incline into the nature center needed to be painted with a warning color. The pedestrian black-and-yellow striping simply wouldn't do. Instead, a bright yellow food chain was brushed onto the deck. Ask your child to explain the concept to you when you next visit! Direct all comments regarding arrows to the sanctuary manager.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Growing Knees

More than any other year, the Bald Cypress knees at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest are growing! Visitors often come in and ask what is gnawing or rubbing on the spikes in the swamp.

The spikes are projections from the cypress trees' roots called knees. Nobody knows for sure what they do, but the theory that appears to be most accurate is that the knees help anchor the large Bald Cypress trees as they grow in the often saturated soil. If the soil could be scraped away, one would see intertwined all the horizontally-growing roots from all the various species of trees. The cypress knees grow vertically from the cypress roots through the horizontal tangle of roots. If one takes note of fallen cypress trees in the swamp, one would see that the trunk often breaks near the ground, but all of the roots remain below the soil. This is not the case for trees (pines and hardwoods) that grow on higher, drier sites.

Back to the growing! The knees in the image appear worn and orange on the top. Although beavers have appeared this year and chewed their share of young cypress trees (see image), the knees have not been attacked by beavers. The Bald Cypress bark is naturally orangish in color. Unless bark has been stripped from the trunk by the wind or nest-building animals, it appears a dirty gray due to exposure to the elements. Therefore, the knees in the images are showing orange because they are growing and not because an animal is gnawing or rubbing on them. Knees usually grow to a height comparable to the average depth of the water (deeper water, taller knees). We're not sure why so many knees are growing this year.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Red-shouldered Hawk

Although the Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) family by the front door of the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest did not fare well, the Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) appear to have produced a bumper crop.

Articles in Sunday's The Post & Courier documented juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks in yards around the Lowcountry, while the image here shows one of two young hawks in my Summerville yard. Here at the Francis Beidler Forest, the calls of parents to young can be heard throughout the day.

The young are fed a diet of rodents, snakes, lizards, insects and occasionally snails. They hunt along forest edges and open woodland near fields and can tolerate human disturbance if the high canopy of the mature forest is maintain. We have plenty of suitable habitat here at the Francis Beidler Forest, but habitat loss across the Red-shouldered Hawk's range is its greatest threat.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Blogged Too Soon

The scrap of snake skin at the entrance to the Carolina Wren nest suggests that the four young birds are in the process of becoming reptile cells. As in business, nest site selection is about location...location...location.

Friday, July 13, 2007

In Case You Didn’t Notice…It’s Hot!

You’ve got to know it’s hot when a cold-blooded reptile, like Jake the resident Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, spends the day in her water dish (yes, she was named before the vet had a chance to check her internal mommy parts). Actually, it is not hot in the building, so Jake was likely simply enjoying a nice bath.

Just as proximity to the coast moderates the air temperature, the canopy of the swamp allows for noticeably cooler temperatures down on the forest floor. There is no escaping the humidity, but a stroll along the boardwalk through the old-growth forest remains a pleasurable experience.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Feeding Time

The Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) family is doing well the second time around. The first clutch disappeared within two hours of the eggs being laid with the prime suspect in the abduction being a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata). The nest was constructed in the cigarette disposal bin by the front door of the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest and within easy reach of the sure-climbing snake. The image of the nest shows two of the four chicks displaying their colorful and gaping maws. Prior to their eyes opening, any movement near the nest entrance would ellicit this response. The chicks are slightly more selective with their begging now that they can see what (often the smiling face of a camper) is blocking the sunlight at the nest entrance.

The second image shows a Greenish Rat Snake that found its way INTO my home this afternoon. Mrs. Swampy called after having stepped over the 3-foot reptile at the base of the stairs by the front door. An over-the-phone identification gave her the courage to capture the snake in a box to satisfy requests from the children still here at summer camp. The snake will be release back into the yard to help control the rodent population. Peanut Butter, the pet hamster, may have lured the rat snake into the house, but the hamster is on the list of approved rodents (pets not meals).

First a Barred Owl (Feb. 2007) in the chimney and now a Greenish Rat Snake...what next? I'm not sure my wife really wants to hear that answer.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Longleaf Update

Once a quarter, we take images from the four corners of the property we burned and planted to Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris). The three images show the progress in the six months from January 3rd to April 6th to July 11, 2007.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Death in the Water

Death in the ancient waters that once covered the part of South Carolina now home to the Francis Beidler Forest was evident in the discoveries by summer campers at Lafarge Cement. Bones and vertebrae of long-deceased whales mixed with the ubiquitous sharks' teeth shed by the ancient predators. Today's 95+F temperatures coupled with high humidity threatened to drop any fossil hunters not drinking the water they carried to this former ocean.

Though the ocean has long since receded, water remains in sufficient quantities to form the Four Holes Swamp. A lack of rain has left the swamp relatively dry, but otters, raccoons, herons, and snakes hunt the small pools of water for water-dependent prey. The image shows a River Otter that, for some unknown reason, died beside one of those pools of water. The body was removed and placed in an area where decomposition and insects can clean off the skeleton. The skull will be saved for use in the education program. Undisturbed, the otter skeleton may have one day been found by a summer camper in the distant future studying ancient mammal species.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Swampy Was on Vacation

I took full advantage of vacation and shunned all computer use. Therefore, this blog went silent.

The time between summer camps seemed like the perfect opportunity to take the family north to visit relatives. The residents of Washington, D. C., Baltimore and New Jersey were thankful for the weather we ushered in with our visit. We brought highs in the upper 70Fs, low humidity, and nights cool enough to wear a jacket.

Counting Skimmers in Cape Romain NWR

Last week, Ann Shahid and Jeff Mollenhauer teamed up with SCDNR and USFWS to count nesting Black Skimmers and other beach-nesting birds on two islands in Cape Romain NWR. Skimmers are fascinating birds! Their bottom bill is actually longer than their top bill, a trait that is extremely rare in the bird world. They use their long bottom bill to skim through the water and catch fish. Check out the picture of this one skimming!

Their first stop of the day was at the south end of Lighthouse Island. A quick assessment of the island revealed that there were no nesting skimmers! Apparently, high tides washed over the island recently and wiped out all of the skimmer nests there. Beach-nesting birds are often at the mercy of the tides since they lay their eggs directly on the sand just above the high tide line. The next stop at the north end of Cape Island was much more productive. We counted more than 300 Black Skimmer nests (see image), most of which had 2 – 4 eggs! We also found 26 Least Tern nests, most of which only had one egg. Least Terns are the smallest species of tern in North America. They use their sharp, thin bill to catch fish by diving head first into the water. Check out the picture of Least Tern standing near its egg.

Beach-nesting birds, such as Black Skimmers and Least Terns, are extremely sensitive to human disturbance and you should never walk through a nesting colony. When adult birds are forced away from the nests, it leaves the eggs and young exposed to extreme temperatures and predators. If you approach too closely to a colony, the birds will often call loudly and dive bomb you. Many of the nesting colonies along our coast are roped off and have signs warning you that the area is closed for nesting birds.

text and images by Jeff Mollenhauer