Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Water's Up!

The December rain we received at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest has kept the swamp looking like a swamp. The region is more than 8" above normal since December 1st. The rain doesn't need to fall directly within the boundaries of Beidler Forest as the Four Holes Swamp watershed extends from Orangeburg to Ridgeville before emptying into the Edisto River upstream from Givhans Ferry State Park.

The last two doses of rain have pushed the swamp's water level to within three feet of the boardwalk's deck (see image)! Even the Spotted Turtles were having trouble finding a basking site out of the water.

Rain if forecasted for Friday, so it doesn't look like the swamp will be dry again any time soon. Anyone remember exactly what a cubit is?

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, January 25, 2010

Birding on the Radio

Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

A call-in discussion of birds and other natural history topics. Clemson University naturalist Patrick McMillan, the host of Expeditions with Patrick McMillan is joined by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, Forest Wildlife Ecologist and Certified Wildlife Biologist in the Clemson University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. Listeners may call in with questions via the toll-free number 888-539-8859.

In addition to the audio webstream, this edition will feature live streaming video. Hear and see the program live at http://yourday.clemson.edu.

After the show, stop by the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest to put in practice all that you learned !

Image by Mark Musselman

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bird Migration

Male Prothonotary Warbler at nest along boardwalk at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
At the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we are set to begin the second year of Project PROTHO. With the help of schools like R. H. Rollings Middle School of the Arts, we are collecting 1/2-gallon milk/juice cartons that will be transformed into nest boxes by students, including 5th graders from St. James Gaillard Elementary School in Orangeburg Consolidated School District Three. Master Naturalists, including graduates from the Lowcountry Institute on Spring Island and Coastal Master Naturalists from the Caw Caw program, will be volunteering to place the nest boxes in degraded areas of the swamp where Prothonotary Warblers cavity sites for nesting. Project PROTHO is truly a CITIZEN-science project!

The only component that we are missing is the Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea)! Of course, like other species, these birds have migrated south for the winter and will not return until the last week of March. We'll be ready! In the meantime, we would be keenly interested in where the Francis Beidler Forest birds winter in Central America or the northern coast of South America. It is possible that a banded bird could be captured or a dead bird found and that information relayed to the Bird Banding Laboratory (North America), but it is unlikely due to the limited number of birds we have banded and the lack of studies on their wintering grounds. It would be nice to outfit the Beidler Forest birds with tracking devices similar to the ones used to map the migration patterns of the Arctic Terns.

While we wait, students will continue to construct nest boxes and we'll debate which one of us will see the first flash of yellow or hear the first "tsweet tsweet tsweet tsweet!"

Image by Mark Musselman

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Senseless Snakes, Winter Berries, and a New President

Before today's rain drove the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) back into its den behind the nature center at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest...wait, that didn't happen. Even though yesterday's warm, dry weather gave way to today's cool, wet weather, the snake remained out of its den and exposed on the forest floor. Some things do not have enough sense to get out of the rain.

Eastern Cottonmouth at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Yesterday before closing, we watched a pair of Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) chase each other outside our office window. Hermit Thrushes winter here and breed in the Northeast, across Canada to Alaska, and west of the Rocky Mountains. The disagreeable birds were not protecting breeding territory, but they may well have been defending their wintering territory. Although the last few days have been mild, we recently experienced more than a week of below-freezing weather, which will sap energy from birds. Therefore, winter territory that has ample food opportunities is worth defending. During a rare and brief break in the action, one Hermit Thrush was able to locate and consume a Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens) from the ground-hugging plant. Here's an entry regarding Partridge Berry and other red berries.

Hermit Thrush at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Hermit Thrush at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Yesterday was also a noteworthy day for the National Audubon Society. John Flicker, president of Audubon, resigned. The full story can be found here.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Finally Warm!

After a stretch of cold days and freezing nights, the swamp is experiencing a warm spell. Look what came out to enjoy the sunshine at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest!

Just outside the nature center (near #102) an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) has a den below a tree stump. Although reptiles become less active as the temperatures drop, they will only sustain damage to their cold-blooded bodies if they are exposed to below-freezing temperatures. Therefore, finding a cavity below ground, within a tree, or within a log is sufficient protection from the elements and all but the most industrious predators.

With the rain this weekend, the area around #1 is once again under water. In the spring, this is the best place to see Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) as they like isolated wetlands out of the main flow of the swamp. These turtles are seldom seen, especially during the cooler months, after they aggregate for breeding purposes in the spring. However, the warm weather lured out three basking Spotted Turtles and an Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum).

Just beyond #5 on the boardwalk, a cavity in a large Bald Cypress tree is once again the winter den for a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata). Moving on to #7, we spied a Barred Owl (Strix varia) snoozing in the full sunshine. It did not look like anything moving around below had anything to worry about from the sleepy predator.

Finally, at Goodsen Lake there were a dozen or so Yellow-bellied Sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) basking on exposed logs. Although ice had formed around the edges of the swamp and the bases of some trees, the water never froze completely across its surface of to any significant depth. Therefore, turtles resting at the bottom of the lake (or hole) were in no danger of freezing.

The forecast is for a warm rain tomorrow, but there are certainly colder days ahead. Enjoy the warm weather while it lasts!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, January 18, 2010

Folly Beach Mayor Responds

Wood Storks soaring over Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
In case you missed the letter to the editor in today's Post and Courier, the mayor of Folly Beach responded to the previously-published image of dogs chasing birds on the beach. We commented on the subject in an earlier blog entry.

While on the topic of bird conservation, it is a good time to remind everyone that the Great Backyard Bird Count is less than a month away! Make plans now to be a part of a continent-wide citizen-science effort! Remember, you do NOT need to be an expert birder. There are even tips on how to involve groups and students.

Image by Mark Musselman

[from the GBBC page]

IT’S AS EASY AS 1, 2, 3!

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count for longer than that if you wish! Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day. You can also submit more than one checklist per day if you count in other locations on that day.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time. You may find it helpful to print out your regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you're likely to see in your area in February. You could take note of the highest number of each species you see on this checklist.

3. When you're finished, enter your results through our web page. You'll see a button marked "Enter Your Checklists!" on the website home page beginning on the first day of the count. It will remain active until the deadline for data submission on March 1st.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Winter Birds of Beidler Forest

The cold snap has finally ended! After eleven nights of below-freezing weather and daytime temperatures in the 30F-40Fs, today's high is well into the 60Fs! The warmer weather already has us talking about the return of spring migrants. Seems like it is too early, but it is only six weeks before the Yellow-throated Warblers begin singing, followed by the Northern Parula Warblers and by the end of March we will be spotting Prothonotary Warblers!

Here are a few of the winter residents we spotted from the boardwalk yesterday:

Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)
Blue-headed Vireo at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)
Black-and-white Warbler at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Black-and-white Warbler at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
Northern Flicker at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)
Golden-crowned Kinglet at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)
Pileated Woodpecker at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Pine Warbler (Dendroica striata)
Pine Warbler inspecting curled leaf at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Pine Warbler inspecting curled leaf at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
Red-bellied Woodpecker inspecting under bark at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with holly berries at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Barred Owl (Strix varia)
Barred Owls at their feeding perch at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Good Day to Take it Easy

The temperature warmed into the 40Fs at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest with a promise of 60Fs by Thursday! However, the cool weather kept the number of visitors to seven and kept most of the wildlife out of sight or resting.

Black Vulture at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Barred Owl at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

Not a single reptile, not even a lizard, was spotted around the boardwalk and only a few birds made their presence known. Two that remained quiet, but were spotted anyway, were the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) perched in the sunlight high atop a Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) snag and a Barred Owl (Strix varia) in an oak that the owl pair has adopted as their "digesting tree." Vultures often depend on warm rising air (thermals) to lift them high above the ground and limit the energy required to stay aloft. Cold days like today offer little in the way of thermals.
Crayfish loaded Barred Owl pellet at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Owls do not digest all the parts of the prey that they eat and regurgitate those parts in a compact pellet. Barred Owls tend to select a feeding perch near their nest. The oak this pair selected is at #14 and across the boardwalk from their nesting tree. The pellets and waste on the boardwalk give away the feeding perch's location. Depending on the species and their dietary preferences, the pellets will be composed of differing material. Here in the swamp, the Barred Owls often eat the easy-to-spot-and-catch crayfish. The owl pellet in the image appears to be made up entirely of crayfish exoskeleton. However, in the past, we have found owl pellets on the boardwalk that contained small mammal bones and hair. Additionally, we have observed a Barred Owl catch and eat a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

On the topic of sapsuckers, the two in the image spent an extraordinary amount of time chasing each other near the observation tower at Goodsen Lake. Several times, one bird drove the other into the water. They need to be careful...the owls look like they've finished digesting their last meal!

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, January 08, 2010

It's Freezing!

Ice in swamp at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
The staff at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest knows that there are plenty of places on Earth that are colder than the Lowcountry of South Carolina! However, we are not used to sustained below-freezing weather. Last night was the seventh day in a row with low temperatures at freezing or below, which is one day short of the record set in 2001 at the National Weather Service office at the Charleston airport. The high temperatures remain well below normal. The death of one of the nature center's heat pumps did not help the situation!

Although ornamental plants and family pets need special care during the cold weather, native plants and animals have evolved to handle the natural variability of our climate. Obviously, individuals that are weakened by age, injury, disease, etc. may not survive a prolonged cold snap. Many of our bird species have migrated south to warmer weather and greater food supplies. Most reptiles have found shelter (under bark, below ground, under fallen trees, etc.) that will keep their body temps above freezing. Trees, including the swamp's needle-bearing Bald Cypress, have dropped their leaves and will remain inactive until the warming weather of spring.

Yesterday in the late afternoon, there was still some ice hugging the edge of the swamp or encircling the bases of trees and cypress knees. Meanwhile, Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) methodically marched through the upland forest in search of acorns or insects hidden within the leaf litter.

Wild Turkey at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman
Wild Turkey at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest by Mark Musselman

It may be tough, but the strong will survive (especially now that the heat pump has been replaced)!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, January 04, 2010

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The holiday break is over and it's time to get back to work at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Opening today's paper only highlighted how much work still needs to be done. On the front page of the local section, The Post and Courier ran these images with a brief description.

What's wrong with this picture? The caption in the paper left no doubt as it noted that "some dog owners braved the wind and cold Sunday on Folly Beach and released their pets to chase birds..." There is never a good time of year to allow dogs to chase birds on the beach, but certainly not when even dog owners need to brave the wind and cold. The various species of shore birds are hunkered down on the beach conserving energy and avoiding the same wind and cold! Each time dogs or humans flush the birds into the air (remember, it's cold and windy), the birds consume valuable energy they require to survive the winter! Imagine every 15 minutes being rousted from your bed and chased out into your yard to run around in the cold and wind for a few minutes. How many times would you allow that to happen before crying foul? (pun intended)

Enjoy the beach, even in winter, but realize that you are the guest and please respect the residents...they're lives depend on it.

Photo by Brad Nettles