Thursday, November 19, 2009

Never Saw That Before!

As naturalist guides at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we are occassionally asked if we get bored leading the same tour around the 1.75-mile boardwalk. The answer is "no" because it is never the same tour. The group of students or visitors is always different and without cages the animals are free to be anywhere doing anything. Therefore, each trip onto the boardwalk offers the opportunity to see something new. Yesterday was one of those days that we were able to say, "Never saw that before!"

The AP Biology seniors from the Westminster Schools of Augusta were visiting late in the day. The plan was to walk the boardwalk and then investigate macroinvertebrate samples in the outdoor classroom. Several things slowed our progress around the boardwalk.

First, we saw a Barred Owl (Strix varia) fly across the boardwalk ahead of us as we walked between #14 and #15. In the owl's talons was prey of some sort. We caught a brief glimse of the prey's yellow belly when the owl first perched low in a nearby tree. The owl quickly relocated higher up in another tree. As the owl flew, it appeared that its prey item was a bird. Looking through our binoculars, we could see the head of the bird (red arrow), which confirmed our initial identification of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). Although small mammals and invertebrates account for over 90% of the Barred Owl's diet, the owl is an opportunistic hunter with birds being approximately 5% of the diet. Sapsuckers maintain their sap wells on a daily basis. Possibly, this sapsucker was too occupied with its duties to notice the silent approach of death. We've all seen Barred Owls hunting and catching crayfish, but never have we seen an owl with a bird!

The next delay came as the group inspected the hollow Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) tree. The question was asked, "How many people can fit in the tree?" Never having tried to determine the maximum number, we didn't have an answer. The group of 11 began entering the tree. All but the claustrophobic individual in the group made it into the tree's interior. As the ten other individuals spilled from the tree like a car full of circus clowns, we took their pictures. Nine senior-sized bodies and one adult is the official, photo-documented, never-before-seen record.

Images by Mark Musselman

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