Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Master Naturalists Visit

Yesterday, the master naturalist class from the Lowcountry Institute on Spring Island visited the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.  What a difference a day makes!  A visit today, after the passing of the cold front, would not have produced the variety of wildlife sightings described below.

Upon entering the swamp, a Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) greeted us with a call as it flew inches off the ground between its inspections of decaying logs.  With the water level remaining low due to the lack of rain, we concentrated our wildlife searches around the few shallow creek channels.  Either the wildlife lives in the water or it eats something in the water.  We had our first hit along the channel near #5.  As we pointed out a frequently used deer trail, free of leaves and with fresh tracks embedded in the mud, a member of the group spotted an Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) wedged low between two trees.

Eastern Cottonmouth - Mark Musselman
As photos were being taken, another member of the group spotted a second cottonmouth nearly obscured by a log off the other side of the boardwalk.  A brief walk to #8 and another cottonmouth was discovered basking on a log.

All was relatively quiet at Goodson Lake and around to #14, which is halfway back on the return loop.  Beyond #14, a Barred Owl (Strix varia) was spotted low on a branch a few meters left of the boardwalk.  For several minutes, the owl tolerated the group of twenty-five adults along with the "aahs" and clicking camera shutters.  Eventually, it flew to a slightly more distant perch and gave a brief hoot to let us know it was time to move along.

Barred Owl - Mark Musselman
As we turned, we spotted the owl's mate ahead of us on the hand rail.  The second owl attempted to catch something on the ground to the left of the boardwalk and then flew to a low perch next to the hand rail.  Again, the cameras came up as the model posed patiently for the art gallery shots.

Barred Owl - Mark Musselman

Barred Owl - Mark Musselman
Having not yet finishing discussing the fortuitous close encounters with the owls, we came upon a large Banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata) that appears to have sensed the cooling weather and has established a den near the fallen water hickory.
Collis Boyd repairing boardwalk - Mark Musselman
We continued on to the nature center for lunch and then made the short drive to the marl bluff along the southern edge of Mallard Lake.  The Six-lined Racerunners (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus) were absent this trip, but we did capture a young Southern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) in the dry, sandy upland habitat.  A short walk down the steep slope, approximately 20' change in elevation, brought us to a seep.  Seeps form when rain peculates vertically through the soil until it reaches the impermeable layer of marl.  Water then travels laterally until emerging from the base of the slope in a narrow (5'-6') and short (20'-25') wetland.  The cool, permanent and fish-free water is prime amphibian, especially salamander, habitat.  We quickly located a Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) and a Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera) before being distracted by a small, beautifully colored Eastern Cottonmouth.  The snake quickly retreated to its likely den in an exposed root mass and we moved away from the bluff to explore the dry swamp.

An immediate and somewhat satisfying find was the skull of a wild pig (Sus scrofa), a scourge we have discussed previously in this blog.  Note the gnawing by other wildlife, mainly rodents, as they seek to meet their calcium needs.  Stirring leaves and rolling a few logs produced a variety of frogs, including a Southern Cricket Frog (Acris gryllus), a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) , and a Pine Woods Treefrog (Hyla femoralis) as well as a beautiful Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)!

Wild pig skull - Mark Musselman

Marbled Salamander - Mark Musselman

Marbled Salamander - Mark Musselman

Pine Woods Treefrog - Mark Musselman
Finally, before heading back up the bluff to the vehicles, Kelley Luikey snapped a photo of a richly colored Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus).  With today's cool, breezy weather portending overnight freezes, these spiders will not be around much longer.

Marbled Orbweaver - Kelley Luikey

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