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!"