Sunday, August 20, 2017

Spotted Turtle Research

Previously, we have posted on spotted turtles and Jacqueline Litzgus' research.

Dr. Jacqueline Litzgus, Ph.D. returned to the Lowcountry this week for the Turtle Survival Alliance's 2017 Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. She brought along some current and former Laurentian University students when she visited the old-growth swamp at the Francis Beidler Forest. Not only did Jackie want to revisit the site of her spotted turtle research (and marriage ceremony), she was hoping to locate one of her former subjects...and she did!

In her words:
That female spotted turtle we found is quite a special one!  I have my
PhD data on my laptop, so I looked her up when I got to my hotel room.
She is notch code 1R2L = 6F, and she is the same size and mass as she
was 17 years ago.  She was part of the mark-recapture study for 5 years,
2000-2004, I radio-tracked her for 3 years, 2000-2002, and she is the
first turtle I found nesting during my PhD research - see attached pics
- she is the one that taught me to look on the tops of rotten logs for
nesting turtles.  In 2001, she produced 3 clutches of eggs, which had
never before been reported for wild spotted turtles, so that prompted me
to publish the attached paper about multiple clutching in the species.
Unfortunately, all 3 clutches were eaten by predators that year.  But in
2002, I had the privilege to meet her 3 babies that hatched from her 1st
nest that year (she produced 2 nests, 2 weeks apart). 

(More from Jackie's perspective at Audubon South Carolina website)

6F's measurements - Image by Mark Musselman
6F's nest in 2001 - Image by Jacqueline Litzgus
6F's nest in 2001 - Image by Jacqueline Litzgus
Jackie Litzgus holding 6F on 8/5/2017 - Image by Mark Musselman
6F on 8/5/2017 - Image by Mark Musselman

Monday, August 07, 2017


Bobcat kittens - Image by Mark Musselman
While on patrol for destructive wild pigs on the east side of the swamp nearly opposite the Francis Beidler Forest nature center, I walked up on a female bobcat and her three kittens tucked inside a standing hollow tree.

Wild pigs numbers were greatly diminished after the extreme high water resulting from the 1000-year rain event in October 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. However, since the water level in the swamp has dropped, wild pigs have been rooting up every foot of exposed moist soil and reproducing and reproducing. Therefore, I was patrolling to survey the damage and was prepared to shoot any pigs that showed themselves in the open. Unfortunately, the damage was extensive and no pigs were spotted.

I was making a less-than-stealthy march through the dwarf palmettos on the way back to the truck, when a reddish-haired mammal began slinking away in front of me. It was obviously a mammal, but looked initially like a woodchuck low to the ground and somewhat flattened around the edges. It was not a woodchuck, as they are not in this area and the body proportions were wrong. The animal in question was longer. I thought maybe a red fox due to the hair color, but there was no tail. Even when the animal stopped, turned broadside to me and stared, I remained unconvinced it was a bobcat. Cat, definitely, but the hair was so reddish. It was too big to be a domestic cat, but a bobcat would not stand 20 meters from me and stare...unless there was something she really wanted to protect. Just as I began to scan the area for a possible den site, the sounds of young kittens began emanating from the base of the tree to my right. Bending forward and peering around the side of the tree, I could see it was hollow and occupied by three kittens.

Before mom decided to return and possibly fight for her offspring, I captured the short video linked below. I made an even noisier retreat to ensure the female bobcat knew that I was gone and it was safe to return to her kittens.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Alligator Nursery

We do not conduct any surveys of the alligator population within Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest. However, anecdotal observations point to a bumper crop of young alligators this year. No guarantee that those youngsters will grow to adults, but insects, frogs, and small fish should remain alert!

In the image below, four or five of the thirteen young alligators can be seen floating at the surface of the water along an old logging road that was built into the swamp. All were basking on the sunny road prior to our arrival.
Young alligators - Image by Mark Musselman
On another day along our canoe trail, a young alligator attempted to hide below the water's surface directly below our canoe. We were touring the property with Carolyn Davis, who was down on an inspection visit from the National Natural Landmark's Gettysburg, Pennsylvania office. As Carolyn was not getting a quality image for her report, we literally offered a helping hand.

Young alligator - Image by Carolyn Davis
In the 1960s, logging roads built in the swamp were created by "borrowing" soils and piling those soils onto non-target timber logs laid out like railroad ties. In most areas, the disconnected borrow pits remain alongside the roads, appearing to be ditches, and hold water throughout the year. The deeper water offers security for larger alligators, which go to the bottom to wait out any threat, as well as younger alligators, by offering a relatively predator-free environment with a protective mom always lurking within the pool.

The image below shows a pit forming a portion of a "ditch" along an old logging road. Note the clarity of the water within the pit. There was likely no large alligator activity within that pit.

Borrow pit - Image by Mark Musselman
The image below shows the same pit (right) from the above image and the adjacent pit to the north. Note the lack of clarity in the water in the pit on the left. Prior to the dozen or so young alligators entering the water from their basking areas on the road, a large alligator was heard launching into the murky water.
Borrow pits - Image by Mark Musselman
The image below shows the pit containing the adult alligator (somewhere below the water) along with the dozen or so young alligators, some of which can be made out floating near the surface below the cane at the bottom left of the pit. At the far end of the pit, a hole, sometimes called a den, dug into the bank has been exposed by the dropping level of the water.

Borrow pit - Image by Mark Musselman
 The image below shows a closer look at a den dug into the bank similar to the image above. 

Alligator den - Image by Mark Musselman
During the winter, alligators are usually safely below the water. They rise to the surface periodically to breath, but are generally inactive at our latitude. If the temperatures drop below freezing, alligators may retreat into the depths of a den they have dug. Earlier in the summer, some of the young alligators were observed retreating into the den for safety as we approached.

Although alligators in our area are generally inactive in the winter, that does not mean they are never active. On December 16, 2014, an alligator was encountered basking on an old logging road and blocking our path back to the truck.

That alligator probably got its start in a nearby borrow pit...maybe even the one it now calls home.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Northern Bobwhite in The Bend

Northern bobwhite quail have been steadily declining in numbers due to habitat loss brought on by changes in how humans manage the land.

From Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI): [which] is the unified strategic effort of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and various conservation organizations — all under the umbrella of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee — to restore wild populations of bobwhite quail in this country to levels comparable to 1980.

Bobwhites signify the decline of an entire suite of species adapted to grassland ecosystems in the United States. The root causes of the declines are the same, habitat loss at the continental scale: the near demise of the pine-barrens of the northeast; longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem of the south; the oak savannas of the central hardwoods; the shortleaf pine-bluestem ecosystem of the midwest; or the prairies of the southwest. These ecosystems were once maintained through fire and grazing which sustained a ground cover of vegetation with the appropriate structure and composition for bobwhites. The habitats bobwhites rely on have structural and plant composition characteristics that are shared by a myriad of species which, unfortunately, are also sharing a similar fate as bobwhites. 

Bobwhites and grassland birds can be increased and sustained on working public and private lands across their range by improving and managing native grassland and early successional habitats, accomplished through modest, voluntary adjustments in how humans manage rural land.

In order to understand habitat from the perspective of a bobwhite, you need to lie down and put one cheek of your face on the ground. This is a quail’s eye view of the world. For a bobwhite to survive, everything they need must be found within 6-10 inches of the ground, whether it is a clump of bunchgrass to nest in, a patch of ragweed or Croton to forage for insects and seeds with broods in, or a patch of brush for escape or loafing cover.

At the Francis Beidler Forest, we are focusing our northern bobwhite restoration efforts in The Bend, which is generally the land contained between I-26 and Four Holes Swamp where the swamp "bends" to the south on its run to the Edisto River. This area falls within South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Central Focal Region. We have begun identifying the types of land use within The Bend (yellow=residential; pink=agriculture; purple=loblolly pine stand; etc.) in order to see where restoration efforts should logically begin. The long-range plan is to create suitable habitat within The Bend or create corridors between suitable habitat which may already exists.
Land use map for The Bend - Map by Mark Musselman
In previous blog posts, we have described how we are restoring longleaf pine habitat, which will benefit northern bobwhites and other species. However, much of this habitat restoration occurs in areas inaccessible to the general public. Therefore, we have created several grassland and longleaf pine demonstration sites from old agricultural fields located along the road near the entrance to the Francis Beidler Forest. Here are blog posts detailing the grassland restoration and burning.

In April, various coreopsis species began flowering...

Longleaf pine/grassland at Cantley Rd. - Image by Mark Musselman
Coreopsis flowering - Image by Mark Musselman
 ...and by May the fields were full of flowers and the associated insect activity.

Grassland at end of driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
For the patient visitor, Painted Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and other bird species can be seen and heard in and around the grassland parcels. Two weeks ago, a visiting master naturalist group watched a Swallow-tailed Kite forage for, catch, and eat at least three large insects over the grassland parcel at the end of the driveway.

Last week, while checking on the longleaf pine planted in the field along Cantley Rd., a small group of flushed birds rose and dropped in short flight and ran about the fire break foraging like bobwhites. Could it be already?! Upon a closer look through squinted eyes, the "quail" turned out to be wild turkey chicks old enough for short flights. Scanning the higher vegetation in the grassland, the fleshy head of a hen strained tall to watch us. Eventually, the hen and 12 chicks moved across Cantley Rd. to one of the grassland parcels along Mims Rd.

Turkey hen and chicks - Image by Mark Musselman
Turkey chicks in flight - Image by Mark Musselman
In the following days, visitors and staff alike saw three hens with 20 chicks moving together between the various grassland parcels. As wild turkeys and northern bobwhite quails have similar habitat requirements, hopefully the quail are not far behind!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Day in the Swamp

As the land manager at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest, no two days are the same. This is an account for a recent day of boundary line painting.

With over 110 miles of exterior boundary and another 31 miles of interior boundary, there is always plenty of boundary to paint in any year. Some lines are easy to paint as they run parallel to a road or fire break, but some lines run through the swamp. The majority of the in-swamp lines are painted most easily when the water level is lower.  Therefore, before the last bout of rain, a long-neglected in-swamp line was attacked with bright orange paint.

Work in the swamp is a tough sell for most individuals. There are mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, ticks, chiggers, poison ivy, thorny vines, mud, it is hot and humid, one is required to carry all food and water (never enough), restroom options are limited, and there are only lat/long coordinates to give the 911 operator (if there is cell service) should the need arise. Oh, and then EMS needs to find their way to the spot in the swamp (see obstacles and hazards above), which is seldom near an address their system will recognize. For example, the address for lunch in the image below was N33.29782, W80.49187.
Lunch in the swamp - Image by Mark Musselman
Just prior to lunch, one of the swamp's residents moved away from the paint bucket. Wearing safety orange paint would run counter to its attempts to remain camouflaged.

Eastern Cottonmouth - Image by Mark Musselman
Farther east down the boundary line, a large, unseen gator dramatically thrashed the water in annoyance less than fifteen feet from the tree being painted. The alligator, in aptly named Alligator Lake, had obviously heard the less-than-stealthy painting patrol and had slipped quietly into the deeper water to watch. As it became clear that the man with the orange paint was preparing to cross directly atop it, the alligator made its move to the depths (less than three feet) and swam upstream. Approaching the deeper water, the question, "Do I try to wade across deep water to continue painting the line?" was asked aloud. The beast beneath the surface helped make the decision to find a detour crossing downstream

While walking the water's edge to find the downstream crossing, the basking site of the big alligator was encountered.
Alligator tail impression in mud - Image by Mark Musselman
Alligator skin impression in mud - Image by Mark Musselman
Alligator skin impression in mud - Image by Mark Musselman
Alligator foot impression in mud - Image by Mark Musselman
Downstream detour, good choice...not a bad band name either.

Not all encounters in the swamp have the potential to be painful or dangerous to painters, but they can be equally upsetting and do pose a threat to wildlife. Balloons, like the one found below, are an all-to-common discovery in the swamp. As @BalloonsBlow states, "Balloons blow, don't let them go!"

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New Mammal Sighting at Francis Beidler Forest

It is not often that the staff at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest gets to say, "We've never seen that before." Granted, we recently wrote a blog describing the discovery of a crashed USAF RF-84F jet, but in this case we are referring to the plants and animals of the sanctuary.

On Sunday, visitor Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien showed some images of a small mammal scampering on the boardwalk near #15. It looked like a weasel, but we had never seen one on our property. Initially, we thought it might be an escaped pet, but the Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) ranges throughout North America and on into South America. They simply do not present themselves often for easy viewing.
Long-tailed Weasel - Image by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien
Long-tailed Weasel - Image by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien
Long-tailed Weasel - Image by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien
After viewing the short video below, there is no doubt that a Long-tailed Weasel is living near the boardwalk at #15.

Long-tailed Weasel - Video by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien

For those keeping tabs on the Francis Beidler Forest Facebook page, #15 is also the location of the Barred Owl nest where both owlets died within days of each other. There are a number of possible reasons for the deaths, including disease, but the close proximity of an aggressive predator willing to attack prey larger than itself, adds intrigue to the situation. Additionally, Long-tailed Weasel young are born in the April-May timeframe and they too need to eat.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

USAF Wreckage in the Swamp

Last August, we were in the swamp checking for damage caused by wild pigs. Over the years of Audubon ownership, the area of the sanctuary in which we were stomping had been frequently visited. However, a portion of less than half of an acre had apparently avoided visitation or someone would surely have told this story by now.

At some point in the trek, what appeared to be the tail section of a military jet rested ahead on a small piece of higher ground. Fallen trees and logs at a distance can look like many things, but a closer look was warranted. As seen below, it was indeed the tail section of a military jet.

RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
Scattered about the tail section, which was the largest piece of wreckage, were various smaller pieces of the aircraft.

A wheel...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
A bomb rack...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
A  pedal control...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
A fuel bladder...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
...and various bits of steel and aluminum.

RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
Inside the tail section was the first clue as to the origins of the wreckage. The identification plate showed the aircraft to be a RF-84F.

RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F - Image USAF
Having never heard the story of a crashed jet in the swamp, we checked with Norman Brunswig, the original sanctuary manager, who arrived in 1972. He had heard a story, though it appeared to be a tall tale told to the newly posted out-of-towner, of a jet crash occurring in the few years before his arrival. Norman never encountered the wreckage during his tenure, which ended in 2014. With that information, we contacted the Air Force at Joint Base Charleston.

After initially being told that we would need to contact the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office, three members of the flight safety office came out to the swamp to satisfy their curiosity. After their initial excitement at seeing the older USAF insignia, they examined what could be seen of the debris field and concluded that the aircraft had impacted at a low angle generally from the east and that the crash investigation team likely took portions of the aircraft (engine, cockpit, and sensitive equipment like cameras). As Joint Base Charleston had no records of the incident, we sent our request for information to the FOIA office.

Upon returning from Christmas break, we found a letter from the FOIA office stating that they had no records of the incident in question. After a brief consultation with Fox Mulder, we were confident that there was no coverup involving the 1950s-era reconnaissance aircraft possibly encountering alien craft over Four Holes Swamp. However, we were also confident that the aircraft had not disappeared without someone in the USAF noticing (extra parking space on the runway apron; missed scheduled-maintenance appointments; extra set of keys on the sign-out board; inspectors pointing to serial number on an inventory list). Therefore, just like the movies, we went to the Internet for answers.

Unlike the movies, the detailed information we sought, including ventilation schematics for the aircraft hangers, did not immediately pop up on our computer screen. Earlier searches for military aircraft crashes in South Carolina had produced only a few high-profile crashes and mainly recent incidents. We searched for any military aircraft crashes and found a webpage showing all significant crashes from the 1940s until the present, but were overwhelmed by the volume of losses by the United States alone. We narrowed the search to simply F-84 models and once again were overwhelmed by the number of crashes, including eight flying together when ice formed on intake screens and all the engines flamed out. All of the USAF F-84 crashes occurred prior to the time frame we expected based on our local story, though F-84s flown by foreign governments continued to crash throughout the 1970s. After a rainy Saturday of searching, we found one webpage that showed numerous RF-84F aircraft crashes listed as impacting in South Carolina. Ignoring the Edisto Beach, Aiken and other non-local crash sites, we focused on the handful of crash locations listed as Shaw, AFB.

Looking back at the image showing the tail section of the aircraft wreckage, portions of the buzz number could still be seen. The buzz number was a large alphanumeric designation on the side of the aircraft to help those on the ground identify aircraft that buzzed low over their house, town, or facility. For the F-84 models, FS was the alpha- portion of the buzz number and the last three digits of the aircraft's serial number was the numeric portion of the buzz number. As the wreckage showed FS-89?, we looked at the two aircraft listed on the webpage that had 89* in their serial number. One aircraft was 51-1897 and one aircraft was 51-1895. Although the wreckage does not allow a full identification of the final number of the buzz number, it was clear that the number was not a 7, but could certainly be a 5. The RF-84F (serial #51-1895) was listed as possibly crashing in December 1956. With a specific aircraft and a more precise date for the crash, we emailed the FOIA office.

Before the end of the day, we received a call that, given the updated time frame, they had located the aircraft crash report and would be sending the releasable portions to us. They stated that the aircraft had crashed on January 7, 1957 in a dense swamp northeast of Dorchester, SC. Yep, that would be her.

Opening the manila envelope that arrived revealed photocopies of microfilm records with all names (pilot, maintenance crews, investigation officers, etc.) redacted. Reading the "Report of AF Aircraft Accident" was pretty straightforward: Dorchester, SC; 7 Jan 57; 1509 EST; Shaw, AFB, SC; flight duration 0:29; 21,000 feet; RF-84F-10RE; FltLt; British...what? We do not know the identity of the 168-lb, 71-3/4" Brit, but here is how his half hour went after taking off from TAC, 9AF, 363D TACRECONWG, 363D TACRRECONGRU, 18th TRS stationed at Shaw, AFB over 60 years ago. (Update: from my USMC roommate, 1/31/2017 - He found a webpage showing ejections from aircraft, which identifies the British pilot as Flt. Lt. John West. Update: from Grant Mishoe, 2/1/2017 - John West went on to be a RAF wing commander, flew the Canberra and died on 5/2/2008.)
From the report:
At 1330 hours, 7 January 1957, FLT LT XX briefed 2NDLT XX on a formation flight, during which close and tactical formation, oblique photography, and instrument flying were to be practiced. Flight conditions were VFR and the flight was to be conducted in the local area.

Engines were started at 1425 EST. The start of FLT LT XX aircraft, RF-84F NR 51-1895, was normal, with no indication of engine malfunction or over-temperature. Formation take-off was accomplished on Runway 22 at 1440 hours, FLT LT XX leading with 97 percent power for take-off.

Level off was accomplished at 23,000 feet and power reduced to 95 percent. After approximately 10 minutes of tactical formation, FLT LT XX was maneuvering and taking oblique photographs of LT XX aircraft, and after a turn of some 60 to 90 degrees while pulling a slight "G" force (2 to 2-1/2 "G's"), FLT LT XX heard a loud explosion in his aircraft, and the aircraft started to vibrate violently. Power setting was 95 percent, altitude approximately 21,000 feet, and airspeed 340 knots.

The wingman noticed a ball of fire come from the tailpipe, immediately followed by what appeared to be fuel pouring from the underside of the fuselage and sabre drain. The aircraft itself did not catch fire.

FLT LT XX retarded the throttle and turned the fuel valve off. As the airspeed slowed down to 270 knots, the vibration smoothed out and FLT LT XX had satisfactory control of the aircraft. FLT LT XX continued to decrease the airspeed, and at 230 knots the vibration increased again and he decided to eject.

FLT LT XX blew the canopy at 7,000 feet and ejected. The lap belt released automatically and FLT LT XX manually pulled the "D" ring. He retained his P-4 helmet and oxygen mask and landed, without injury, in a large pine tree.

The aircraft continued on in a westerly direction for 4 miles and crashed in a swamp area.

(Update: 4/13/2017 from Grant Mishoe, Flt. Lt. John West's description of his ejection.)

Elsewhere, the report states that the $665,162 aircraft was destroyed primarily by an engine explosion and secondarily by being abandoned in flight. The primary cause of the engine failure "was materiel failure in the first stage of the engine compressor rotor blades," which was caused by "metal fatigue in the compressor rotor blade serrations." The engine was a Buick J65-B3, serial number B-641288.

Annotations on an area map (I-26 and I-95 are conspicuously absent) shows the pilot landing in a tree in the area of the new Volvo plant northeast of Ridgeville. The sketches below show the flight of the aircraft before impact and the resulting debris field. The flight safety team from Joint Base Charleston was correct in their assessment of the crash.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report sketch - USAF

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report sketch - USAF
The other pilot (Update: 4/13/2017, 2ndLt. Charles L. Lustig) in aircraft 51-1879 landed at Shaw, AFB without incident. That aircraft went on to serve in 1958 with the Iowa ANG 174th TRS and in 1962 with the Michigan ANG 107th TRS.

A few black-and-white/microfilmed/photocopied images were included showing various aspects of the crash site. There was the engine, which was removed from the swamp and studied as part of the investigation.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
There was the wheel, which remains in the swamp and is shown earlier in this blog.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
There was the tail section with a much brighter USAF insignia, which also remains in the swamp.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
Finally, there was an image of the "negligible damage" caused by the aircraft as it impacted the swamp.
RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
With over 17,300 acres in the Francis Beidler Forest, we are going to keep stomping. We will let you know what we find.

(Related news coverage at ABC News4. Corrections: 1) Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest is not part of a national forest. 2) Land manager is responsible for 18,000 acres of Francis Beidler Forest not Four Hole Swamp. Francis Beidler Forest is a portion of Four Hole Swamp. 3) The aircraft in the image is the same model, but not the aircraft that crashed.)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grassland Burning

In the previous post, we showed the grasslands that Audubon South Carolina established in the fields across from the driveway at the Francis Beidler Forest. Earlier this month, we were able to burn all three fields.

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Burning the fields reduces the fuels on site by consuming the dead plant material, returns nutrients to the soil, and invigorates plant growth. New growth is more palatable to wildlife, including seeds and fruits. We look forward to what will emerge during the spring flush. We are also hopeful that the habitat improvements will attract Northern Bobwhite Quail as there are a few in the neighborhood.