Thursday, February 26, 2009

Career Fair and Facebook

We're still working through the death of the C-drive on the education computer at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The drive has been replaced, but all the software has not been loaded back to the computer. Everything should be as it was by the end of the day on Saturday.

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of presenting the career opportunities in environmental education and conservation to the students at the Rollings Middle School of the Arts in Summerville, SC. The image shows the table full of items from the center's touch table along with a "looks so real" Bobcat (Lynx rufus) and a plethora of flora and fauna images rotating every five seconds on the laptop screen. The items on the table included a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) leg, a Beaver (Castor canadensis) skull, a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) skull, a Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) skin, an Easten Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) shell, a Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) shell (with leg bones attached), a Barred Owl's (Strix varia) wing and talons, feathers (Barred Owl, Wild Turkey, Turkey Vulture [(Cathartes aura)]) and the "real, but dead" Bobcat. Did we note that the Bobcat was real, but no longer alive? The students still have plenty of time to decide what career it is that they wish to pursue, but we may well have met a future naturalist during our conversations.

Facebook now hosts the "I Love Francis Beidler Forest" group. If you are on Facebook or know someone who is, direct them to our ILFBF group. It is one more way that you can keep in touch with what is happening at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Additionally, you may strike a friendship with one or more of the 63 members currently in the group. You KNOW that we love it here, join the "I Love Francis Beidler Forest" group and let the world know that you do too!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, February 23, 2009

Project PROTHO and Kayaking

The death of the hard drive on the computer that holds all the image files, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) files, and other documents has slowed down the blog staff here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The files are backed up, but not easily accessible at this time.

On Sunday, Jeff Mollenhauer (director of bird conservation) gave a presentation on Project PROTHO to the master naturalists from the program hosted at the Caw Caw Charleston County Park. The birds will begin arriving at the end of March (stay tuned to this channel) and banding will commence immediately after that time. Limited volunteer opportunities will exist for the mist net work (contact Jeff Mollenhauer) and unlimited volunteer opportunities will exist for observing and recording banded Prothonotary Warblers as well as identifying nest locations. No need for observers to be expert birders. The Prothonotary Warblers are bright yellow and the only birds in the swamp sporting colorful jewelry on their legs! The more eyes we have in the swamp, the greater our database will become and the better we will be able to understand the behavior of our unofficial mascot!

After the presentation, the group was treated to a kayak trip through the abandoned rice fields on the south side of Highway 61. The fields were abandoned in the mid-1880s prior to the Civil War, so the trees considerably younger than those found at the Francis Beidler Forest. However, the experience of being on the water below the tall cypress trees is always a relaxing way to spend the afternoon. We were even protected from the near-hurricane gusts that were blowing through the area!

Image by Mark Musselman

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mixed Bag

It is the end of a busy week here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Therefore, today's entry is a mixed bag of topics.

Not everyone is convinced that spring is just around the corner, but the alligator in Goodson Lake has reappeared. The alligator actually never left, but during the cold-weather months, the alligator remains inactive at the bottom of the lake or in the shallow water. In other places of the swamp, alligators may dig a den into a bluff at the swamp's edge or into the banks of logging roads built into the swamp. Memo to forest denizens: The pool is closed until further notice. Swim at your own risk!

We continue to prepare Project PROTHO in anticipation of next month's return of the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) . Not only will we learn more about the Prothonotary Warbler (and any other birds that blunder into the mist nets), but citizens, whether or not they are expert birders, will be able to participate in the research. The Prothonotary Warblers will have unique color bands in conjunction with the typical aluminum identification band. The color bands will allow citizens to identify the individual bird without requiring the bird to be recaptured. Using the observation sheets provided in the nature center, citizens can record what banded bird they saw, what behavior the bird was exhibiting and where along the boardwalk the bird was located. "But we're not familiar with the boardwalk, so how will we be able to identify the bird's location?" The image shows the aluminum location tags we attached along the boardwalk's handrail. Observers will never be more than 25 meters from a location tag.

While attaching the Project PROTHO location tags, we came upon the Easter Bunny. Don't believe? Well, the Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) first made its appearance last Easter Sunday in the hollow log near #10. Read about it here. Although the day was not cold by recent standards, the rabbit had its fur puffed out for maximum insulating effect.

We're suddenly craving chocolate. TGIF!

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hunting Hawk

In past entries, we have reported on Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) hunting for prey on the ground outside the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. We have caught glimpses of the prey items, but we have not been able to positively identify the prey or even capture a blurry image. Yesterday was no different.

The day was grey and cool with intermittent drizzle. Today's bright sun and blue sky seemed to be a better day for hunting, but no hawk was in the area. Maybe yesterday was warm enough to get the small reptiles moving, but cool enough to make them easy meals for the sharp-eyed hawk. For over two hours in the early afternoon, the Red-shouldered Hawk moved from a low perch into a gliding attack on the ground. Not all of the attacks were successful and those that were successful ended quickly. One attack provided three bite-sized meals. No attempt was made by the hawk to reduce the size of the prey and the effort required to swallow the items was obvious. However, the speed at which the morsels were consumed prevented the taking of any images, though the prey items resembled ground beetles. Another attack yielded a skink snack (possibly an anole, but where's the alliteration in that?) and it too was consumed with a quick toss of the hawk's head.

Red-shouldered Hawks breed between April and June with an average of three eggs laid in the nest, usually in a tree trunk. The eggs will hatch in a month and the young will fledge six weeks after that. The parents will continue to feed the young for another 8-10 weeks. Maybe this summer we will see the next generation learning to hunt skinks in the shadow of the nature center!

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Some may already know that the only place in South Carolina to find a significant population of Dwarf or Carolina Least Trillium (Trillium pusillum) is at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. Along with migratory songbirds, the flowers of the Dwarf Trillium (T. pusillum)will return between March and May. The small flowers will bloom white and change to pink or purple. Don't blink or you may miss them!

Today's phone call from New Jersey was not about Dwarf Trillium (T. pusillum), but about Mottled Trillium (T. maculatum). A gentleman studying the trillium genus was calling to locate sites in the Charleston area that contained Mottled Trillium (T. maculatum). We did not know of specific sites, but we did know a source that would. Richard Porcher, along with Douglas Rayner, authored the book A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. Before calling Richard Porcher, we checked the trillium references in his book and discovered that we have Mottled Trillium (T. maculatum) within the sanctuary atop the limestone-bedrock bluffs. The book notes: "In Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee, this species was erroneously identified as Trillium cuneatum, which is actually a piedmont and mountain species. The difference between the two is slight...(omitted reference to image and appendix). Separation is necessary because their ranges overlap in the piedmont, although the two are never found together."

Based on the references available at the time, we had identified our plants as Little Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) when in fact they are Mottled Trillium (T. maculatum). However, due to the phone call soliciting information, we experienced a reversal of roles being the learner instead of the teacher. Actually, in the complex natural world, that occurs more often than we like to advertise!

Next month, the trillium that we will see blooming on the limestone-bedrock bluffs above the swamp will be Mottled Trillium (T. maculatum). We stand corrected!

Images by Mark Musselman

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Record-setting Great Backyard Bird Count!

The numbers are still being tabulated as Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) checklists can be submitted up to the March 1st deadline. However, as of this morning, over 59,000 checklists have been submitted, which is on pace to break the previous record. Although the 2009 numbers are not complete, comparing the South Carolina 2007 results to the 2009 (partial) numbers shows that some of the rural areas in our state are now being represented. Hopefully, we can continue that trend next year!

Except for those working behind the desk in the nature center, we were not here at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest for most of the weekend. Cool, wet whether on two of the GBBC days also dampened the desire for many to be outdoors. Even though we were not in the swamp counting, visitors likely saw many of the birds we noted in our February 6th entry. We're still about a month away from the migratory return of our breeding birds. When those birds return, not only will they find stellar breeding habitat here in the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp, but they'll find us ready with mist nets as we launch Project PROTHO!

This weekend, some of us were at the University of South Carolina promoting the GBBC at the South Carolina Geographic Alliance's semi-annual Geofest. Along with a description of the GBBC and an opportunity to grab binoculars and look for birds in the urban environment, teachers were given materials showing how the GBBC can be used in the classroom to teach across the curriculum.

On the way to Geofest, we spied our first birds through the cold rain. On a wire above Five Points, 325 pigeons (Columba livia) made the counting easy! Apparently, even pigeons don't like flying around on a cold, wet day. After lunch when our group of 15 teachers headed outdoors with the binoculars, the rain had ended, but the wind had picked up and was bitingly cold. Though the weather kept many birds grounded, we did not need to travel far to find our first bird. Just outside the building and halfway up a tree was perched a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) like the one we spied last week in the swamp. The hawk perched patiently as the crowd "Oooo'd" from below and enjoyed a close look through the binoculars.

Across the street and high above the park at the corner of Blossom and Pickens, we saw a pair of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) and heard a pair of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and a Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). From our vantage point on the hill, we were level with the rooftops of buildings situated around the university's former physical education complex. Perched on a chimney was a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) being continuously pestered by a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). In 15 minutes, we had, with little effort on a poor-weather day, observed a variety of birds and captured a snapshot of bird activity in Columbia 29208!

Please join us next year and help citizens and scientists survey our continent's bird populations!

Image by Mark Musselman

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count and Pennies for the Planet

Yesterday's blog announced the connection drawn between climate change and the shifting of bird species' ranges over the last forty years. The situation is complex and will need to be addressed on many fronts. Two ways that you can help are listed below.

Tomorrow begins the four days of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)! You can help scientists gain a better understanding of the status of birds by collecting data during this extended weekend. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds.

Not sure that you know enough about birds? Quickly, name a red bird in your neighborhood. What bird calls, "Caw, caw"? What red-breasted bird is associated with spring's arrival? Right! The Northern Cardinal, an American Crow and the American Robin. Even if you only knew one of the three, that's fine. When combined with all of the other observations across the continent, your observations help paint a more complete picture. Bonus points if you identified the little bird in the image as a Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). Click here to see how you can participate.

For the teachers or interested parents in the crowd, click here to view lessons associated with the GBBC as well as information on Saturday's GBBC presentation at the SC Geographic Alliance Geofest workshop.

Counting birds at various times of the year helps scientists identify trends and evaluate the overall health of bird populations, but birds need habitat in which to spend the winter and separate habitat in which to bred and raise their young. Habitat loss or degradation are a major threat to a great many plant and animals species and not simply birds. You can help protect critical habitat for birds returning to nest by supporting the Pennies for the Planet. One of the three critical habitats supported by the campaign is the old-growth, cypress-tupelo ecosystem in Four Holes Swamp protected by the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

No matter where you are, take some time this weekend to stop and take notice of the birds.  You will be amazed at what is out there.  Please don't forget to post your sightings at the GBBC page.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Birds and Climate Change

Yesterday, the National Audubon Society release the following:

Birds Movements Reveal Global Warming Threat in Action
Species Wintering Farther North Show Need for Policy Change

WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2009—The northward and inland movement of North American birds, confirmed by thousands of citizen-observations, provides new and powerful evidence that global warming is having a serious impact on natural systems, according to new analyses by Audubon scientists. The findings signal the need for dramatic policy changes to combat pervasive ecological disruption.

Analyses of citizen-gathered data from the past 40 years of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) reveal that 58 percent of the 305 species that winter on the continent shifted significantly north since 1968, some by hundreds of miles. Movement was detected among species of every type, including more than 70 percent of highly adaptable forest and feeder birds. Only 38 percent of grassland species mirrored the trend, reflecting the constraints of their severely-depleted habitat and suggesting that they now face a double threat from the combined stresses of habitat loss and climate adaptation.

Population shifts among individual species are common, fluctuate, and can have many causes. However, Audubon scientists say the ongoing trend of movement by some 177 species—closely correlated to long-term winter temperature increases—reveal an undeniable link to the changing climate.

“Birds are showing us how the heavy hand of humanity is tipping the balance of nature and causing ecological disruption in ways we are just beginning to predict and comprehend,” said report co-author and Audubon Director of Bird Conservation, Greg Butcher, Ph.D. “Common sense dictates that we act now to curb the causes and impacts of global warming to the extent we can, and shape our policies to better cope with the disruptions we cannot avoid.”

Movements across all species—including those not reflecting the 40 year trend—averaged approximately 35 miles during the period. However, it is the complete picture of widespread movement and movement and the failure of some species to move at all that illustrate the potential for problems.

Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and Boreal Chickadee have retreated dramatically north into the Canadian Boreal, their ranges moving 313, 246, and 211 miles respectively over 40 years. Continuing warming and development are predicted to have adverse impacts on the boreal forest and the species that depend on it.

Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, and American Black Duck, normally found in southern-tier states have all taken advantage of warmer winter waters and have shifted their ranges north by 244, 169, and 141 miles. Still, they are likely to be negatively impacted by the increased drought expected in many parts of North America as global warming worsens.

Only 10 of 26 grassland species moved north significantly, while nine moved south. Species such as Eastern Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow, and Burrowing Owl were likely unable to move despite more moderate northern temperatures because essential grassland habitat areas have disappeared, having been converted to intensive human uses such as row crops, pastures, and hayfields. In combination, global warming and ongoing overuse of grasslands by humans will doom grassland birds to continued population declines.


The full report, images, audio and additional information can be found here.
Image by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cooper's Hawk

During yesterday's walk around the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we spied a large bird that was having difficulty flying. We had just arrived at the rain shelter at #9 when the bird flushed from a low spot in the nearby cypress knees. The bird struggled to gain altitude, but remained low enough to fly under the boardwalk and out of sight.

In the swamp habitat, we would expect a bird such size to be a Barred Owl (Strix varia) or a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). However, our glimpse of the erratic and laborious flight made it impossible to positively identify the bird. Having not identified the bird, we crept quietly toward the spot where it appeared to have landed. Though the boardwalk blocked our view and the bird flew off before we could get any closer, we were able to capture the bird's upper half above the boardwalk decking and the bird's lower half in the water's reflection. Based on what we can see, our bird appears to be a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).

As the bird struggle to fly away again, we saw that it had prey of some sort (possibly a squirrel) in its talons, which would make flight more difficult. We left the hawk to eat its meal in peace. That reminds us that its time for our lunch!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, February 09, 2009

Warm Weather Critters

For the third day in a row, temperatures at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest have climbed into the upper 60Fs! Creatures that spend the winter months generally out of sight have begun to venture outside to soak in the warming rays of the sun. Several species of turtles and snakes have been seen from the safety of the 1.75-mile boardwalk that winds through the old-growth, cypress-tupelo swamp.

This time of year, reptiles are content to remain quietly in their sunny spots and one can take some spectacular pictures. Therefore, it is highly unlikey that any reptile subject, left unmolested, will pose a danger to a human on the boardwalk. One of the myths we attempt to dispel is that snakes are inherently dangerous. The only venomous snake in the swamp is the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) shown in the image. The snake in the image kept a watchful eye on us, but never moved, which is as far from aggressive as an animal can be. Left unmolested, this is the behavior we have observed during our decades in the swamp, including the many times we have encountered reptiles in the course of our various duties far from the elevated boardwalk.

Other reptiles out in the sun included an Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum), a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) in its Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) cavity, and a group of Yellow-bellied Sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) in the main creek channel near Goodson Lake.

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Bird Book is Coming!

Yesterday, while out on the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, we did see more than ice. As we took pictures of some of the winter resident birds, we recalled that our own Jeff Mollenhauer, director of bird conservation for Audubon South Carolina, will have his book Birding South Carolina: A Guide to 40 Premier Birding Sites published in March!

Even before being hired here, Jeff knew that the Francis Beidler Forest was one of the 40 and prime bird habitat even in the winter. Below is a sample of the birds we saw on yesterday's icy stroll around the boardwalk.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)

Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata)
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)

Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Icy Day!

We arrived at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest and the temperature was still below freezing. Cold enough that our DSL modem would not connect us to the outside world, so we headed out on the boardwalk to photograph swamp ice. After a few steps down the boardwalk, it was obvious that ice would be the only thing we would be photographing as the frozen deck boards cracked loudly with each footfall.

The cold did drive out a pair of normally-nocturnal racoons. One was apparently fishing in the water, while the younger-looking raccoon was exploring the area outside a dead, hollow bald cypress tree. After a few pictures, the raccoon retreated into the relative safety of the hollow tree.

We retreated into the relative warmth of the nature center!

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Holiday Season Flashbacks

The morning began with a flock of more than a dozen Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) moving through the parking area at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest. The unpaved parking area consists of the driveway and parking slots nestled between the trees. With no visitors to the swamp on the brisk morning, the parking area devoid of vehicles does not look much different than the open forest the birds naturally perfer. Holiday season flashback #1: Thanksgiving.

As the morning progressed, the sky grew grey and the breeze blew stronger. Peering out the window we saw...could it be? Yes! Snow! A flurry of large, slowly-falling snowflakes sent us to the weather radar webpage to see if schools would be closing and if workers would be sent home with instructions to stop by the grocery store for canned goods. Alas, the radar showed but a thin band of icy precipitation. Holiday season flashback #2: A white Christmas (Dec 1989).

Now, as lunchtime approaches, the sky has cleared and the sun is shining intensely! Holiday season flashback #3: Summer vacation! Ah, this just is still in the 30Fs outside. However, the days are getting longer, the flocks of robins appear more frequently, and the return of songbirds to Beidler Forest is but a month away!

Image by Mark Musselman