Monday, August 30, 2010

Something's Fishy

At the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, we don't often see the fish in the swamp.  However, in May when dissolved oxygen levels were low in the water, we spied multiple fish species lurking near the surface.  Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) and Bowfin (Amia calva) were present, but their ability to gulp atmospheric oxygen allows them to survive longer than other fish species in low-oxygen conditions.  Unfortunately, a low-oxygen water is but one of the threats facing fish in South Carolina.

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Redbreasted Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)

Spotted Sunfish (Lepomis punctatus)

Warmouth (Chaenobryttus gulosus)

Previously, we have noted that fish in the Coastal Plain, especially in Four Holes Swamp, are contaminated with mercury introduced into environment as a result of burning coal to generate electricity or to power industrial operations.

The Post and Courier reported that an Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula) was killed by a bow angler on Lake Wateree.  The fish is not native to South Carolina and was likely placed into the lake.  Although the caught fish was only four feet long and 27 pounds (more the size of the native Longnose Gar), the Alligator Gar can grow to 10 feet and 200 pounds!  Hold on to your children!  In the article, SC DNR's Scott Lamprecht is quoted as saying, "Just one more complication to our ecosystem.  It just creates an ecological disaster."  Sound familiar?  Humans need to stop dumping species into ecosystems that have not co-evolved and generated some checks and balances.  It is why South Carolina made it illegal to transport wild hogs.

Longnose Gar

Now, back to what is in the native fish.  As noted above, mercury is present Coastal Plain fish, which accumulates up the food chain to be deposited into the tissues of the top predators (man, otters, alligators, etc.).  Besides Alligator Gar, Lake Wateree also has a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) problem.  PCBs, used in fire retardants and insulators, have been banned in the United States since the late 1970s due to their cancer-causing risk in humans.  However, PCBs spilled or dumped on the land or in the water persist in the environment.  As land is developed, especially around lakes, PCBs can be exposed and carried away with eroded soils.  PCBs will settle into the lake's sediment, but can work up the food chain as sediment-living organisms are consumed by predators which are in turn consumed by larger predators.

Maybe this is a preview of next summer's blockbuster..."Ten feet and 200 pounds of toxic terror!  Alligator Gar of Wateree!"

Images by Mark Musselman

Friday, August 27, 2010

Norman's Boardwalk Sign

At the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest, sun and time have taken their toll on the interpretive signs around the boardwalk.  Signs have become dingy and faded, which is unacceptable when standing in the foreground of nature's beautifully-constructed old-growth swamp.  With the help of sponsors, all of the degraded interpretive signs have been replaced.

One of the replaced signs was sponsored by Phyllis and Ray Brunswig in honor of Norman Brunswig, their son, for his decades of service to the Francis Beidler Forest and the National Audubon Society.  Norman arrived in 1972 to become the first sanctuary manager at the Francis Beidler Forest.  Though his job titles have changed over the decades (currently state director for Audubon South Carolina), he has remained in the old-growth forest of Four Holes Swamp.  It is appropriate that the "Islands of Life" sanctuaries sign was the one honoring Norman.  The sign describes how the National Audubon Society began, what sites are currently being protected, and the goals for the sanctuary program.

Protection - minimizing human impact on fragile sites
Research - gaining critical insights into ecosystem dynamics
Education - teaching appreciation of wild places and wildlife
Advocacy - promoting wise environmental public policy

Life in the old-growth swamp moves unmolested toward the future with 1000-year-old Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees continuing to stand tall, Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) reproducing, and fledgling Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) contemplating flight. As a result of Norman's eye to the Francis Beidler Forest's future, the sanctuary has grown from the original 3,400 acres to over 16,000 acres and additional strategic parcels are sure to be acquired.

Here's to many more years of service!

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

High Water

Check local listings, but it appears to have rained every day within Four Holes Swamp.  A walk along the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest reveals water in locations that have been dry since early spring!  Animals have been quick to take advantage of the changing habitat.

Areas in the swamp that were previously dry are now accessible to fish seeking food and shelter from predators.  Larger fish and snakes follow the smaller fish into the new aquatic territory.  Amphibians, especially frogs and toads, are busy laying eggs in the pools of water formed in various depressions throughout the higher, drier forest.  Mosquitoes are also taking advantage of these fish-free sites, though both insects and amphibians run the risk that the rain will end and the pools of water will dry before their young can emerge from their aquatic stages.

Above the water, Barred Owls (Strix varia) rest in the shade while keeping an eye on the shallow water at the swamp's edge.  Crayfish exploiting access to new food sources expose themselves to a variety of predators, but none as deadly efficient as the Barred Owl watching from on high.  Owls will spot a crayfish in shallow water, grab it with their talons, pull off the claws, and swallow the rest whole.  Owl pellets found on the boardwalk are often nothing but undigested crayfish exoskeletons.

As late summer is not normally a time of high water, it is a pleasant change to see deep, dark water reflecting the palette of green leaves and blue sky!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hog Wild!

During the past year, wild hogs (Sus scrofa) have become on increasing problem around the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest.  Not only have the animals been seen from the boardwalk by staff and visitors, the habitat often looks as though a rototiller-armed platoon of gardeners has assaulted through the area.  Beyond the rooted earth, an unknown number of ground-nesting bird eggs, turtle eggs, and amphibians may have been consumed by the non-native, omnivorous hogs.  The serious threat to the old-growth habitat within eyesight of the boardwalk has forced us to aggressively seek solutions to the invasion of wild hogs.

Last Wednesday, we attended workshop at the Clemson Extension Service's Columbia-area Sandhill Research and Education Center on the topic "Managing Wild Hog Damage in South Carolina."  The workshop's title is somewhat misleading as the wild hog problem is not simply a South Carolina issue or a southeast United States issue, but it is a global issue.  Not all habitats are suitable for wild hog survival, but the species exists on all continents except Antarctica.  It is a global issue not only due to critical habitat destruction, negative impacts on native wildlife, and water quality degradation, but also due to the real and potential economic losses.  Economic losses include crop damage and losses (consumed), failure of reforestation (seedlings consumed), predation of livestock (lambs and calves), resource competition with game species, and damage to suburban landscapes. Finally, there is the threat of disease transmission to the domestic hog stock or to humans. This threat can lead to loss of livestock and/or orders for pork by consumers.  Diseases and risks associated with wild hogs include pseudorabies, swine brucellosis, classical swine fever, African swine fever, bovine tuberculosis, influenza, anthrax, tularemia, West Nile virus, E. coli, Salmonella, trichinosis, streptococcus, ticks, fleas, lice, and intestinal parasites.  Yikes!

The workshop's plethora of experts covered the following topics:  history and ecology of wild hogs in the Southeast; diseases and safe handling techniques of wild hogs; negative impacts of wild hogs; South Carolina hog harvest trends; research and management update; state regulations of wild hogs; management techniques to reduce wild hog populations; and demonstrations of various hog traps.  Folks, it does not look good for South Carolina's native wildlife and habitats.

Hogs are not native to this continent.  European settlers brought hogs, which had long-since been domesticated from the Eurasian Wild Boar population.  Some of these domesticated hogs were released to forage or escaped on their own into the wild to become feral hogs.  In the early 1900s, pure Eurasian Wild Boars escaped a hunting enclosure on Hoover Bald, NC and began to breed with the feral hog population producing the hybridized wild hogs now found throughout the Southeast and within 45 of 50 states in the United States.

Although wild hogs will eat almost anything, they have habitat requirements that restrict their ranges.  Wild hogs need year-round access to food, water, shade, and escape cover.  Water and shade are critical for hogs in order to regulate their body temperature.  Wallowing in wetland areas degrades water quality by destroying the habitat and associated wildlife, increasing sedimentation and soil erosion, and introducing fecal material into the water system.  In our state, the hotspots include swamps within the Coastal Plain, especially the Congraree River (Congaree National Park) system, the Wateree River system, the Pee Dee River system, and the Edisto River system, which includes Four Holes Swamp and the Francis Beidler Forest.

Wild hogs reach sexual maturity between three and six months, breed year-round (2-3 litters per year), and have an average litter size of six (can be as many as 16).  With those reproduction numbers, killing 7 of 10 hogs would only maintain the population at its current level.  With hogs favoring swampy areas with ample escape cover, trapping multiple hogs at a time is the most effective management technique, but hunting and law enforcement are also required.  Wild hogs have few natural predators, they are alert, and they quickly learn to avoid human threats and traps, which have been ineffective or which have captured only a few of the sounder (group name based on the grunts used to keep the group together in poor visibility). 

Unfortunately, the main deterrent to successful wild hog management and the preservation of our native wildlife and habitat is the illegal practice of releasing hogs (domestic or wild-caught elsewhere) into the wild for the purpose of hunting.  Act 211-2010, 50-16-25 SC Code of Laws states that, "It is unlawful to possess, buy, sell, offer for sale, transfer, release or transport for the purpose of release a hog into the wild."  If you know of any such violation, please contact your local Department of Natural Resources officer.

Don't allow our water quality, habitat, and wildlife to be destroyed by non-native hogs!

Images by Mark Musselman

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Stormy Weather

Yesterday afternoon as we were set to depart the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, it became as black as night outside and the skies opened to begin dumping over 5.6" of rain!  Winds drove the rain against the building.  Lightning sizzled and thunder added the exclamation point to the storm's dramatic entrance!  Needless to say, we got soaked heading to the car.

Sunday mornings are usually quiet with visitor traffic slowly building as the day progresses.  This morning, however, we were greeted at the end of the driveway by a sodden, ivy-covered pine trunk blocking our path.  Though the log was not so large that it couldn't be moved by hand, it was still securely anchored into the ground and ample poison ivy (Rhus radicans) guarded access to the trunk itself.  Among the Prius' qualities one will not find 4-wheel drive or off-road capabilities.  Unable to pass the log or handle it manually, we were left with no option but to walk the mile to the barn and fire up the old tractor. (Note to self: Get instructions on how to operate a tractor.)

After a quick, over-the-phone class on basic tractor operation, we notice the flat front tire.  After a quick shot of air from the compressor to inflate the tire, we fired up the tractor and backed it out of the barn.  We immediately noted that the tractor's steering is more sensitive than that of the Prius or any other vehicle we've driven.  The small, water-filled ditches on either side of the driveway, which we've previously given little thought beyond, "Wonder if there are any tadpoles in there?", suddenly appeared to be Panama Canal-size hazards.  The tractor, possibly having experienced a previous life as a Stephen King character, seemed determined to steer itself into one watery abyss or the other.

Once at the log, the difference in elevation between the driveway and the sloping road edge made it difficult to use the tractor's bucket to push the log completely to the side.  Eventually, however, the mission was completed without any roll-overs or damage.  For a first-time driver, that is a win.

After driving the tractor back to the barn, there was the mile walk back to the car, which was still marking the spot on the driveway where travel had ended more than an hour earlier.  By now, the neatly ironed Audubon staff shirt was drenched with sweat incapable of evaporating into the already-saturated August air. (Oh, yeah. That's what was missing in Europe...humidity!)  Walking down the maintenance road from the barn, we came upon a Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) coiled in the sun at the road's edge.  It was undoubtedly in the same position when we made our walk in to get the tractor and went unnoticed as we contemplated the possible issues associated with first-time tractor operation.  It did not rattle, or strike, or even is usually the case.

Now, for those not paying attention during summer camp or previous blogs...ivy is poisonous and snakes, like the Timber Rattlesnake, are venomous.  It's never to late to learn the difference.  Afterall, it took almost 47 years to drive our first tractor!

Images by Mark Musselman

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Euro Trash

Several years ago, the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest got out of the trash hauling business.  With limited staff and resources, hauling visitors' trash to the dump was consuming an unreasonable amount of time and fuel several times a week.  Communities around the country struggle with the issue of waste management and local newspapers report nearby counties struggling with diminishing landfill space.  Europe, with its longer history of habitation and limited land space has had to scrutinize its waste stream.

In Ober-Ramstadt, Germany, the trash is collected once a month.  In the image above, the blue can is for recycling paper and the gray can is for trash.  Glass must be taken one of the collection sites around town.  All plastics (not just #1 and #2) are collected in designated plastic bags and collected at the curb.  As only one couple lives at the house where the image was taken, the bottom half of the gray container is blocked off with a board.  Therefore, a month's worth of trash for two individuals must not exceed the capacity of the gray container's upper half!  Obviously, recycling and composting are absolutely necessary and excess packaging can be costly to consumers.

Not only is getting rid of the non-recyclable, non-compostable trash expensive, water is expensive.  One can fertilize the garden of flowers or vegetables with compost from the kitchen, but plants need water too.  Rain barrels capture and store water running off of the roof via the gutters.  Whenever the garden needs a drink, one can simply dip into the barrel and extract some stored rain.  Inside water-efficient appliances, low-flow toilets and low-flow shower heads help keep down the water bill.

Recycling and composting will not eliminate our waste stream or eliminate the need for landfills.  However, both will reduce the amount of the waste stream heading to the landfill and thereby prolong the lives of existing landfills.  The next landfill will be more expensive to operate and will inevitably be in an unhappy someone's backyard.  As the dumpsters in London show, being a TREEHUGGER should not be a derogatory term as it actually makes financial sense for the entire community.

While you're thinking about how you can keep your waste out of the landfill, ponder over what "nasties" the Brits are keeping out of their carbonated beverages.

Images by Mark Musselman

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back From Europe!

This blog has been silent during the last two weeks while the Education Department at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest took a break to visit Europe!

Our travels began with the aircraft landing in Frankfurt, Germany with our base of operations being in the small, nearby town of Ober-Ramstadt.

Although train travel took us to Paris, France; Brussels, Belgium; and London, England, the cities offered few bird sightings beyond Wood Pigeons (Columba palumbus), native House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and Carrion Crows (Corvus corone).  St. James Park in London did have a collection of waterbirds including white pelicans, various species of ducks and geese, Common Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), and Eurasian Coots (Fulica atra) shown below with a fuzzy-headed chick.

In Paris, we noticed a feline high above the street and theorized that its presence may be having an impact on the local bird population.

We also spotted a familiar friend in London's St. James Park.  Although the tag identifies the tree as a Swamp Cypress, the scientific name, Taxodium distichum, informs us that the Bald Cypress too is merely a tourist from the southeastern United States.

Most of our bird sightings occurred in the fields and woods around Ober-Ramstadt.  Actually, we first heard the birds.  Many of the sounds reminded us of birds we knew from our surroundings in South Carolina.  There was a chickadee-like call, a red-bellied woodpecker sound-alike, and a red-shouldered hawk cousin.  Upon inspection with our binoculars, we spied Blaumeise (Parus caeruleus) and Kohlmeise (Parus major), which are unmistakable cousins of our Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) in the Family Paridae.  The woodpecker was a Buntspech (Dendrocopos major), which shares the Family Picidae with our Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).  The Maeusebussard (Buteo buteo) stationed on the fence post ignoring the large European Hare (Lepus europaeus) loping by is related to our Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) and Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

Unfamiliar birds included the European Magpie (Pica pica), which is in the crow family (Corvidae) and has a reputation for stealing shiny objects for its nest treasure collection.

In the local fruit trees, we saw the Serin (Serinus serinus).

At the field's edge, a Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) picked seeds from unharvested crop.

Farther into the field was perched a European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), although the Amsel's (Turdus merula) size and behavior is more likely to remind one of the American Robin (Turdus migratorius).

Throughout the countryside, we saw large flocks of Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in their native habitat (no need to add European to the head of their common name).

Although happy to be back in the swamp, we did not miss the humidity!  Fortunately, the humidity here does not bring out European Red Slugs (Arion rufus).  Even the slightest rain in Germany would cause thousands of these 4-inch mollusks to ooze out onto the trails and sidewalks.  Not a pleasant experience when encountered by the tread of a running shoe or the wheel of rolling luggage.

Images by Mark Musselman.