Friday, May 30, 2008

We're a Wetlands of International Importance!

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an inter-governmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 158 Contracting Parties (countries) to the Convention, with 1,722 wetland sites, totaling 160 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. That is larger than the combined surface area of France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland! Wetlands are selected for inclusion on the Ramsar list, based upon their international significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology, or hydrology.

The National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest, located in Four Holes Swamp, South Carolina will be the 23rd designated Ramsar site in the United States and the first ever in South Carolina! It is also the first National Audubon Society property in the United States to receive this designation. Beidler Forest will join other elite American Ramsar “listers” as the Everglades National Park, Okefenokee Swamp and Chesapeake Bay.

Beidler Forest qualified for listing on the following criteria:
1. Importance to Biogeographical Region’s Representative, Rare or Unique Wetlands (the 1,800 acres of virgin swamp);
2. Importance to Endangered, Threatened or Otherwise Sensitive Species (16 species of fauna, 3 species of flora); [see image of Dwarf Trillium (Trillium pusillum)]
3. Importance in Maintaining Regional Biological Diversity (over 300 vertebrate species and over 300 plant species);
4. Importance as Habitat for Critical Stage in the Biological Cycles of Plants and Animals (eg. Designated as an Audubon Important Bird Area);
5. Importance to fish for food, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration paths for fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere.

The official name of the treaty, The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as waterfowl habitat, reflects the original emphasis upon the conservation and wise use of wetlands primarily as habitat for water birds. Over the years, however, the Convention has broadened its scope of implementation to cover all aspects of wetland conservation and wise use, recognizing wetlands as ecosystems that are extremely important for biodiversity conservation and for the well being of human communities.

How much press do you think South Carolina will receive when being #1 on a list is unique and of international significance? Nonetheless, thank you to all whose support allows us to preserve the Francis Beidler Forest!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Will someone please check the weather channel and verify that it is almost June? Today, it was overcast and 65F at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest! With the misting rain, it felt much cooler than that. The weather kept some of the Multiple Sclerosis Support Group from making the trip to the swamp and kept all but three reptiles (all turtles) from appearing. Even the birds seemed to be taking off the day.

With the low water levels, the Yellow-crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) could not afford to take off a day. The crayfish are easy targets in the shallow pools of water for all sorts of predators and the sole diet item for the herons. The upper bodies of the crayfish litter the mud, handrails, and fallen logs throughout the swamp testifying to the ease at which they can be captured and consumed by Raccoons (Procyon lotor). Raccoons do not waste time with anything but the meaty crayfish tail. The Yellow-crowned Night Herons consume the crayfish whole after some judicious crunching with their large, powerful bill.

Joe Kegley captured on video a successful Yellow-crowned Night Heron near the boardwalk.

Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rest easy...the scat has arrived!

Scat is the scientific word for poop, #2, doo-doo, etc. It may be difficult to answer the question, "Does a bear scat in the woods?" However, based on the image, it appears that a bear will scat on an environmental educator's desk!

Tracks and scats have been purchased as part of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest summer camp program. The Black Bear (Ursus americanus) and Beaver (Castor canadensis) scats were on backorder. Today, with much relief, we received the precious piles via UPS.

Obviously, the large track is from a Black Bear as is the black scat. The lighter-colored scat is from a Beaver and the plaster cast is of a White-tailed Deer. The vinyl tracks will be used to make impressions in the sand for campers to then make plaster casts of the tracks. The scat and any bones we have lying around will be placed with the tracks for campers to identify using a field guide. In the meantime, the staff best watch where they sit, because it is well-documented that, "Scat happens!"

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer Camp Still Has Space!

There is still room during all three one-week sessions of the Audubon at Francis Beidler Forest summer camp, but space is filling quickly! During the week, campers will experience Native American art and culture, construct animal traps and snares, identify and make casts of animal tracks, make fire, observe wildlife and much more. The full schedule can be found here.

Summer camp at Beidler Forest is like no place else on Earth...because there is no place else like it on Earth! The virgin, old-growth, cypress-tupleo swamp is the largest remaining old-growth tract of its kind. Campers will spend each day from 9 am - 2 pm in this wonderous setting.

Don't delay, make your reservation today!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

Audubon South Carolina's mission is to protect habitats and the animals, especially birds, that live therein. On Memorial Day, we remember the millions of men and women that have served and those that have sacrificed their bodies and lives so that we may live the lives of our choosing, including protecting and teaching about the unique place that is the virgin, old-growth swamp of the Francis Beidler Forest.

Unfortunately, human evil does not cease on this holiday or any other day of the year, so there continues to be a need for men and women, military or otherwise, to serve and protect our freedoms. The natural world does not rest either. Atmospheric and geologic interactions with mankind are in the headlines, while the ever-present struggle for survival dominates the remainder of the living world. Previously, we have shown the nests of Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) hidden in the many thousands of Bald Cypress knees. This past weekend, one of those nests was discovered by a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata). You can see the images taken by Ron Wright by clicking here and then clicking on "slideshow" in the upper right corner.

Semper Fi!

Image by Fred W. Baker III, Department of Defense

Friday, May 23, 2008

Five-lined Skink

Love is still in the air in the Francis Beidler least in the reptile world. As we've previously noted, identification of skinks can be difficult if you don't have the lizard in hand. The images clearly show the five lines that give the Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) and the Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Eumeces inexpectatus) their names. However, without checking the size of the scales under the tail, we cannot tell which species is shown.

No matter the species, the images show a female with a beetle and a male with his orange, breeding-season head. The female is focused on eating the beetle, while the male is focusing on the female. He followed her all around the boardwalk handrail as she ate. Mating occurs during April-May. The female will lay 6-15 eggs in leaf debris, rotten logs, or sawdust and will stay with the eggs until they hatch in June-August. As the image shows, arthorpods are the main prey item of these lizards (note the ant trying to get its share).

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, May 22, 2008

When Momma Ain't Happy...

A couple from Massachusetts received a rare treat as they toured the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. They heard something large moving through the forest. What they saw and heard was a female White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) thrashing and snorting with a fawn in tow. Between the visitors and the doe was the object of the doe's agitation...a fleeing bobcat (Lynx rufus).

The secretive bobcat is larger than a domestic cat, but not large enough to take down an adult deer. The fawns, however, are fair game. To avoid detection by predators, the doe will find a secluded spot away from other deer when she is ready to give birth (around mid-May). Once born, the doe will frequently groom the fawn in order to keep the fawn as scent-free as possible. The doe will feed the fawn at a spot some distance from the fawn's bedding site so that the doe's scent will not contaminate the bedding site. Additionally, the doe will consume the fawn's urine and droppings, which provide the doe with supplemental nutrition, to further remove any scent from near the fawn. The fawn's spotted pattern helps it blend into the dappled sunlight forest floor, although the fawn in the image has failed to take advantage of its coat by bedding down on the swamp's muddy floor.

If you find a fawn lying "helplessly" in the woods, mom is likely nearby, attentive, and well-aware of your presence. The fawn is not helpless and if you're not careful, you may get the same treatment as the bobcat!

Images by Mark Musselman with bobcat added photoshopically

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


"If there is one aquatic insect that is always associated with the art of Fly Fishing, then the May Fly is that insect. All aquatic insects are under a constant attack from insect predators such as; their own kind, diving beetles, salamanders, frogs, back swimmers, birds and of course the fish. These insects have a technical name, (Ephemeridae), which translates into the phase, 'lives but a day.' These insects emerge from their underwater world without mouthparts and therefore can't eat. Now, you know why they live only but a day. "(Maine Fly Fishing)

Today's Zits cartoon reinforces the fact that adulthood for mayflies is brief albeit sex-filled. Nymph stage mayflies are indicators of good water quality and fed upon by predators like dragonfly nymphs. As adults mayflies provide food for fish, reptiles (mainly lizards), and all those hungry bird mouths we've noted previously. If fact, we saw more than one Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) transporting a mayfly to a cypress knee nest cavity.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What Is A Point Count?

What is a point count? We're Audubon South Carolina, so it doesn't have anything to do with's all about birds!

Answer: It is a survey method for estimating breeding bird density. An observer stands in a fixed location for 10 minutes and counts all the birds heard and seen within 25 meters, 50 meters, and 100 meters. Obviously the observers have to be pretty good at identifying bird species by sound, hence the rigorous training that Brad & Denise (our seasonal naturalists) have undergone during the past two months.

Let's say we wanted to know the density of breeding Hooded Warblers at Beidler Forest. If we conduct a point count, we can determine the density of breeding Hooded Warblers per acre for that particular location. Multiply that number by 16,000 acres and we would have an estimate for Beidler Forest. However, unless all of Beidler Forest is represented by the habitat at the particular point where we counted, we would have a bogus estimate. That is why we have laid out 100 point count locations that are representative of the habitat composition of Beidler Forest: 80 in forested wetlands, 8 in pine plantations, 8 in non-forested wetlands, and 4 in mixed upland forest. Once we have conducted all the point counts, we can average the density of breeding Hooded Warblers per acre for all 100 points and that number will be representative for all of Beidler Forest.

Don't we already know this information from the bird surveys that are conducted each year at Beidler Forest?

Answer: Past bird surveys at Beidler Forest have focused on the old-growth portion of the sanctuary. They provide excellent estimations of breeding bird density within the old-growth forest, but provide no data for the 14,000 acres of Beidler Forest that are not old-growth.

What do we gain from conducting point counts?

Answer: The biggest benefit will be determining the breeding bird density for all of Beidler Forest. After conducting point counts this year, we will have baseline data that we can compare to future point counts at Beidler Forest and point counts other sites. The point counts will help us monitor changes in populations of breeding birds at Beidler Forest.

Another interesting benefit is that it will help us with land management and acquisition. We can go back to the 100 point count locations in June/July and do vegetation surveys, which will help us determine which particular habitat characteristics Kentucky Warblers, Swainson's Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, or other species are focusing on at Beidler Forest. As property comes on the market, we will have a much clearer picture as to which bird species would benefit from such an acquisition.

With the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, we thought we heard a flashback, "Larry BIRD stops...'s good!...and a foul, the point counts!"

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, May 16, 2008

Where's That Stimulus Check?

Although we already spent our stimulus check on a new camera (a.k.a. The Patriot Camera), there will be no such payment for the many families living near the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

While watching a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nest for an hour, we saw the female return approximately every five minutes with another protein-rich morsel for the hungry, red maws hidden in the nook formed by several cypress knees. Normally, the male helps with the feeding, but in this case he was absent. The female brought a variety of food items, including several LARGE caterpillars, a green specimen from the grasshopper family, and an individual missing legs and wings (possibly a dragonfly like the one shown in the image with a male Prothonotary Warbler at a separate location). The chicks will fledge in approximately 11 days. As noted previously, it matters not that the nest cavities are over water as the chicks supposedly have the ability to swim.

While still watching the female Prothonotary Warbler return with food and depart with a fecal sac (a clean house keeps predators away), we spotted the family of River Otters (Lutra canadensis) that we reported seeing over the weekend. Mom and her two pups probed under the water for food around the bases of the trees and eventually hauled out on a fallen tree to preen. Well, mom preened and the two pups knocked the stuffing out of each other and tumbled back into the water.

So many mouths to feed and so little time!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Audubon Nature Odysseys

Ever wonder where the Audubon staff who work at wonderful sactuaries like Francis Beidler Forest and Silver Bluff go on vacation? Well, when they go on vacation as the official Audubon guide, there is a varied list of possibilities. Two of Audubon South Carolina's staff, Paul Koehler and Mark Musselman, will be leading two trips later this year.

Paul will be leading a train trip to explore the wonders of America's Rockies, Sierras & Napa from October 1-7, 2008. Leaving from San Francisco, the train will travel through Napa Valley through Donner Pass to Salt Lake City. After travelling to Grand Junction, CO, passengers will visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks before travelling on to the final destination in Denver.

Mark will be leading a train trip to explore the wonders of The Great Northwestern National Parks from September 13-21, 2008. The trip will be aboard North America's premier private train, the GrandLuxe Express (formerly the American Orient Express). Departing from Jackson Hole, WY, the train will travel to the Grand Tetons National Park, on to Yellowstone National Park and then stops in Helena and Missoula, Montana. Visits to the Glacier National Park, the Columbia River Gorge, and Mt. Ranier National Plark round out the trip before it ends in Seattle.

The reservation form for Paul's trip can be found here, while the reservation form for Mark's trip can be found here. Both Paul and Mark will be bringing their cameras, so be watching this space later in the fall.

Image by Robin (the masseuse at the Bobby Burns Lodge)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mutant Turtles

Catching the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) earlier this month with the bite mark on its shell, got us thinking about other strange turtle shells we've seen over the years here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

In January 2005, we found a male Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) fast asleep in the middle of the driveway. We were outside enjoying the warm sun just as he was. As we took our closeup shots, we noticed that we would be able to see his face even if he close himself in his shell. At some point, something had chewed a small crescent out of the carapace above his head.

In July of 2007, we found another Eastern Box Turtle near the low boardwalk. As can be seen in the images, the turtle's shell has likely been pitted by a bacteria infection like Citrobacter freundii or Beneckea chitinovora. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, "Bacterial diseases are common in all reptilian orders. Most infections are caused by opportunistic agents that infect immunosuppressed hosts."

Finally, on April Fool's Day 2008, we found a Spotted Turtle moving through the shallow water near the low boardwalk. The front end of its shell has been deformed. After quickly ruling out the possibility that the turtle had experienced a high-speed collision with a solid object, we checked with Dr. Jackie Litzgus as she has studied this species of turtle for many years. Her hypothesis is that the turtle suffered a predatory attack while it was quite young and its shell was not yet fully-developed.

That's alot of calcium trama! We thought breaking both collarbones...twice...was a big deal.

Images by Mark Musselman

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Early Bird Gets...

Although not always planned, there are some benefits that go along with being early. Yesterday, we arrived at work early for several reasons. First, of course, we love this place and pinch ourselves each time we receive a paycheck from the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Second, we woke 15 minutes before the alarm clock sounded. Third, we only had $10 for $20-worth of strawberries from Dantzler Farms, so we needed to drop off a check before work. Finally, we are still trying to learn the new camera!

We arrived under clear skies with what appeared to be a 100% chance of sun! However, as soon as we hit the boardwalk, a low deck of gray clouds moved in. The swamp is dimly lit even at midday, so the diminishing light made shooting photographs nearly impossible without a tripod. We weren't going back for a tripod, since this was truly a training session. With a few overeager raindrops attempting to shut down the photo shoot, we were able to digitally capture but a few of the secretative denizens of the swamp.

A pair of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) gave their best impression of themselves in the headlights.

The super-secret Swainson's Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii) made a brief singing appearance.

A female Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans) fluttered weakly from the boardwalk to a nearby tree, her wings and body having yet to stiffen after emerging from the aquatic exoskeleton she wore for many years.

An Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) hauled out onto a log awaiting the sun that would warm its body and encourage the leech (moving from the left rear of the carapace [upper shell]) to disembark.

As the rain picked up and we headed for the center, we caught sight of a female River Otter (Lutra canadensis) moving along the swamp's edge with her two pups. The wary mom also caught sight of us and quickly led the family into a hollow Bald Cypress tree via an underwater entrance. As can be seen with human children, the young do not always listen to mom. The pups came out to wrestle before one heeded mom's call to come back into the tree. The second pup became confused because it could hear the others in the hollow tree, but appeared to have forgotten the location of the entrance. After some time, the mom came out and gave us a stern look. Between the look and the rain, we decided to pack up and leave the swamp's early morning crew to go about their routine.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, May 09, 2008

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Earlier this season at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, the very thin, nasal zeewv zeef zeff of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) was ubiquitous. Now, the robust songs of the numerous other songbird species mask the thn call of the gnatcatcher. However, if you look closely, you can still spot the very small bird (L=4.5").

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher spends most of its time in the middle- to upper-level of the forest searching for small insects. The bird is constantly active and the tail is always flicking side to side or up and down. The conspicuous black and white tail and the pale, blue-gray back are distinguishing characteristics. They are in our area year-round. Surprisingly, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a frequent host to the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), which lays an egg in the gnatcatcher's nest that is 50% larger than the gnatcatcher's egg.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ebony Jewelwing

The Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) is a damselfly and not a dragonfly.  The name comes from the Greek "kalos" or beautiful and "pteron" or wing along with the Latin "macula" or spot, which refers to the spot on the female's wing.  Remember, the female's accessorize.  The female's body is also more gray to black while the male's is a metallic blue or green.

Visitors to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest will see plenty of Ebony Jewelwings.  As damselflies, they move their wings like a butterfly and fold their wings in the vertical position when they are at rest.  Dragonflies move their wings rapidly in a near-horizontal plane and keep their wings in the horizontal position when at rest.  Both dragonflies and damselflies are of the order Odonata.  

Like dragonflies, damselfly mating is complicated.  The male transfer the sperm from the terminal end of his abdomen to the hamules (a secondary sex organ) about midway up his abdomen.  The male then clasps the back of the female's head with the end of his abdomen, which in some species of damselflies and dragonflies can injure the female.  The female then bends her abdomen to receive the sperm from the male's hamules.  This give the "wheel" or "heart" appearance when the male and female or paired.  The female will then force her eggs singly into soft plant tissue below the water's surface.  The naiads that hatch will live in shallow water.  Like dragonfly naiads, damselfly naiads prey on small aquatic insects and other arthropods.  Many naiads achieve "jet propulsion" locomotion by shooting water out of their rectal openings.  Feel free to use that in middle school science class!

Image by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Swampy Snake Slam

There are five species of snakes that can be found in the swamp at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The snakes are the Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota), the Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata), the Red-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster), the Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata), and the venomous Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus).

As we guided groups around the 1.75-mile boardwalk, we seldom see all five species on the same walk. Seeing all five species of snakes in the swamp is like hitting for the cycle in baseball. The cycle involves hitting a single, a double, a triple, and a homerun in a single game. Although we have occassionally seen all five species during a single tour, we never had any official recognition for the feat. Now we do (see image).

On Friday, students from the 6th grade at Rollings Middle School of the Arts were the first to receive recognition for completing the Grandslam of Swampy Snakes. The newly-created certificate will be sent once all the students' names have been added. Today, students from the 3rd grade at Fort Dorchester Elementary School got close, but were unable to find a Banded Water Snake.

Any visitor that can provide photographic documentation of all five species as seen from the boardwalk on a single day can also receive a certificate!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Pileated Woodpecker

Staff and visitors at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest have long sought a good picture of, even a good look at, a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). This large woodpecker is fairly shy and quickly flies off when it detects nearby humans. As periodic news accounts air or are printed, this is also the woodpecker that is mistaken for the thought-to-be extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Yesterday, visitors heading to the Francis Beidler Forest discovered a Pileated Woodpecker near the side of the road. When they approached the bird, it did not fly off, so they assumed that it had been hit by a passing car. They called the nature center and reported that they would be bringing in the bird. As luck would have it, Jeff Mollenhauer, Audubon South Carolina's Director of Bird Conservation, was on weekend duty. A quick look at the bird told Jeff that it was uninjured, but could not fly as it had not yet developed the necessary flight feathers. The images show the young bird that had left its nest cavity prior to developing flight capability. The parents were likely nearby and will continue to feed their young even if the young remain grounded. The bird was quickly returned to the spot where it had been "rescued."

Pileated Woodpeckers bond year-round and remain on the same territory during that time. The male will roost in the nest cavity prior to egg laying and will roost in previous years' cavities at other times of the year. At night, the male incubates the eggs. If a nest cavity is compromised or the tree itself falls, Pileated Woodpeckers have been observed carrying their eggs to other nest cavities. The chicks are fed a mixture of regurgitated insects (75%), fruits, nuts, acorns, and sap. Yum!

If you hear the Woody Woodpecker chatter of the cartoons, take a quick look around and you may catch a glimpse of the red mohawk-wearing headbanger of the swamp!

Images by Cole McKinney

Click here for an image by Ron Wright