Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dam or Damn!

The day at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest started out well! Chigger damage from yesterday's off-boardwalk foray into the tall grass under the powerline was minimal. Today's off-boardwalk exploration was intended to help orient the new seasonal naturalists to the swamp within the loop of the boardwalk.

Before heading into the boardwalk loop, we took a slight detour to check on the beaver (Castor canadensis) habitat-alteration project under the powerline (see previous entry). With almost no water in the swamp, walking off the boardwalk was not at all difficult. However, as we approached the beaver dam, the mud became soft enough that we sank up to the top of our socks. The upstream side of the dam looked like no place else along the boardwalk except the deep hole at Goodson Lake. Large fish broke the water's surface and a female Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) could be heard long before she arrived at her perch on the powerline above the deep pool.

After exploring the inner loop of the boardwalk, we headed for lunch via the boardwalk to the nature center. Near #15, we spotted a few Yellow Jackets near a decomposing tree trunk. On closer (with binoculars) inspection, we could see that a nest of Eastern Yellow Jackets (Vespula maculifrons) had been disturbed by a large animal. Feral hogs (Sus scrofa) have been actively rooting in the area. If a hog did tear open the log, it most certainly met with an aggressive and painful defense by the insect inhabitants! Hogs will readily eat turtle eggs and salamanders found in decomposing logs, but neither of these prey items packs the punch that dozens of repeatedly-stinging yellow jackets can inflict. Yellow jackets, like the Southern Yellow Jacket (Vespula squamosa) shown in the image, kill insects for food and will eat nectar for energy that they use for flight. Unlike bees, wasps do not lose their stinger and can sting as often as they have venom.

Unfortunately, later in the day while helping to trim branches along a different portion of the boardwalk, Rachelle stumbled into another ground nest and received multiple, painful stings. Animals don't need to be big to command respect.

Images by Mark Musselman

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