Thursday, September 30, 2010

Are You Going to Eat All of That?

Although we have walked more than a thousand times the 1.75 miles of boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, each trip provides us with a first of some sort.  On Tuesday, it was too easy as Bells Elementary School from Ruffin, SC had never made a visit to the Francis Beidler Forest.  Being in a swamp was a first for most of the fifty students and visiting the old-growth of Beidler Forest was a first for all of the students.

With the recent heavy rain, the swamp along the boardwalk went from mostly dry with water in a few shallow creek channels on Friday to shallow water along the entirety of the boardwalk on Tuesday.  We observed numerous Eastern Mud Turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum) swimming below the water's surface as they investigated newly-submerged areas for food.  Juvenile White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) were scattered along the walk in groups of 3-4 birds probing the shallow water with their curved bills.  Several species of woodpeckers seemed to be announcing the progress of our walk to the other swamp residents.  Normally, the job of annoucing our presence in the swamp is left to the Barred Owls (Strix varia).  Though the owls were not vocal as we walked back toward the center for lunch, they did make a silent, low pass ahead of the group and perched nearby in the open for all to absorb a lengthy, first-time look at the species.

At one point during the tour, a sharp-eyed fifth grader spotted a small, smooth, reddish caterpillar on the boardwalk handrail.  We had never seen the species of caterpillar and did not have a field guide to identify this first for us.  Unfortunately, we did not have a camera available, so we did not capture an image to use for identification later in the office.  The next time we come across the species will be our first time to identify it for our insect list.

Finally, we spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) that had captured a giant, green caterpillar and was attempting to subdue its prey for easy consumption.  We have seen cuckoos before, but never one with prey.  We could not positively identify the caterpillar, but its size (approximately 12 cm or 5" long!) eliminates the vast majority of caterpillar species.  A prime candidate is the Royal Walnut Moth's (Citheronia regalis) caterpillar (a.ka. Hickory Horned Devil).  Field guides use words like "behemoth" to describe this fearsome-looking though harmless caterpillar.  Possibly out of fear of dropping its prized meal (easily 12 times the RDA for caterpillar protein), the cuckoo continued to move lower in the canopy with the squirming caterpillar in its sturdy bill.  Once on the ground, the bird repeatedly and vigorously beat the caterpillar on the ground.  The cuckoo flew off before we could see the act of caterpillar consumption, but tenderized or not, the pickle-sized caterpillar was going to be a challenge to swallow!

No camera was available for images.

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