Archive for the ‘Natural History Expeditions’ Category

The Carolina Bay Nature Reserve in Aiken, South Carolina

March 26, 2020

I finally visited a Carolina Bay.  I’ve written several articles about these curious geological features (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/?s=Carolina+Bays ), but this was the first time I ever had an opportunity to see 1 in person.  Carolina Bays were formed during Ice Ages when local environments were much more arid than those of the present day.  Wind blew out sand and sediment leaving oval pits behind.  During subsequent wetter climate cycles, these pits filled with water, and wind-pushed water continued to erode the pits into elliptical shapes.  Carolina Bays actually migrated across the land, gradually pushed by wind, leaving behind visible scars.  There are thousands of these Carolina Bays across southeastern North America, and they provide important wetland habitat, especially for amphibians.  Most Carolina Bays have been drained for agriculture, but the 1 I visited in Aiken, South Carolina is used as a retention pond to prevent flooding in the local subdivisions and shopping center parking lots.

Image

Carolina Bay in Aiken, S.C.

Image

Another view.  Note the willow and cypress trees growing in the water.

I talked to a man who caught a green sunfish while I was there.  He says this Carolina Bay dries out during summer.  Many Carolina Bays hold water just seasonally.  He said all the fish die out during summer droughts, so  the fish here are young and small.  The pipes draining into the Carolina Bay must be connected to nearby streams where the new population comes from every winter and spring.  Before the Bay was used as a retention pond, it was probably fish-less.  The absence of large predatory fish allows amphibian populations to flourish here.  I saw many green frogs (Rana clamitans).

Image

I saw this green sunfish being reeled in.

Image

Green frog.  Extremely abundant here.

Image

Mr. Snapping Turtle.

A single solitary goose floated on the pond.  I saw a pair of hawks that may have been ospreys, but I didn’t get a good enough look at them for a positive identification.  I also saw a robin and heard cardinals, Carolina wrens, and a cuckoo.

Image

Canada goose.

The Bay is surrounded by a forest of loblolly pine, slash pine, water oak, red maple, sycamore, sweet gum, and holly.  Cypress, willow, and ferns grow directly in the Bay.  I saw a gray squirrel and a muskrat lodge.

Reed Creek, Columbia County, Georgia; a 20,000 Year Natural History Timeline

January 3, 2020

The U.S. Army stationed my nephew at Fort Gordon, a short drive from where I reside.  As a consequence, we didn’t have to go out of town to visit relatives for the holidays.  He is renting an house in an hilly wooded neighborhood with nice 2 story houses, and on Christmas day I took a stroll around the vicinity.  I came across Reed Creek, a minor tributary of the Savannah River.  The name of this stream intrigues me.  Common reed ( Phragamites sp. ) is not native to North America, and whoever named this creek was likely  referring to bamboo cane ( Arundinerea gigantea ), a species that used to occur in pure stands for miles along piedmont rivers and streams.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/canebrakes-are-forlorn-landscapes/ ) I did find a very small patch of short cane near the creek, but this plant’s distribution is nowhere near as extensive as it was 200 years ago.  Most of the houses in this neighborhood are no more than 40 years old.  As I walked I began to imagine the natural history of this Reed Creek vicinity before houses were built on it.

From the map it looks like Reed Creek is impeded by 8 manmade dams and flows under 7 major roads and through a sewage treatment plant before emptying into the Savannah River.

Rocky shoal in Reed Creek.  Note the sewage pipe.

This boulder alongside Reed Creek existed 20,000 years ago, but there was likely no flowing stream next to it, and it may have been more exposed and surrounded by scarce vegetation, maybe some pine trees and grass. There was no ravine either and the land where the creek is now was level to it.  Maybe a saber-tooth cat rested in the shade of it once in a while on an hot afternoon.

Reed Creek likely did not exist as a flowing stream 20,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum because the water table was lower then.  Less precipitation fell and the ocean was farther east than it is today.  Instead, along the route of the present day stream, there were disconnected isolated springs that emerged above the ground.  These wetland habitats were surrounded by centuries old cottonwood, sycamore, water oak, and white oak trees.  Cottonwood is often found today growing next to rivers that flow through prairies.  The water holes attracted mastodon, mammoth, bison, horse, llama, peccary, and deer.  Wolves and big cats waited in ambush along the megafauna game trails leading to these water holes.  Condors and ravens perched in the trees, looking for dead meat.  The surrounding hills were covered in widely spaced shortleaf pine and post oak with an understory of grass, flowers, and bare dirt.  Scrub vegetation grew on the top of the hills.

15,000 years ago, glaciers to the north melted, releasing an increase in precipitation.  Between 15,000 years BP and 8,000 years BP, water began to flow between these isolated springs until they joined the Savannah River.  Formerly, the river was braided and clogged with sandbars, but now it began to meander and a period of supermeanders following huge storms caused its banks to overflow, flooding and killing trees.  Bamboo cane, up until that time a minor local component of the flora, thrived in the sunny environments where leafless dead trees did not block out the sun light.  Herds of bison, horses, and mammoths increased at first because the bamboo provided a rich new source of food.  But man, newly arrived in the area, ambushed the herds, wiping out all the megafauna in the region, except for deer and bear that learned to avoid men.  The surrounding hills became more thickly wooded in the wetter climate with greatly reduced large mammal populations, though turkey and smaller animals still abounded.

For thousands of years Indians continued setting fire to the  woods to improve habitat for game.  The thermal pruning created an open environment where scattered ancient old oaks, hickories, and pines grew far apart in beautiful grass and flower-covered meadows. The frequent fires burned all the way to the edges of Reed Creek, further improving habitat for bamboo cane.  During the 17th century diseases introduced by Europeans decimated Indian populations and the corn fields they abandoned near the creek also gave way to bamboo cane.  When the first Europeans settled in this district 100 years later they saw an extensive impenetrable stand of bamboo here, and they called it Reed Creek.

Europeans drove away the remaining Indians, killed all the deer, bear, and turkey; and stopped the annual practice of setting the woods afire.  Trees shaded out some bamboo groves, farmer’s livestock fed on others until they were gone, and planters converted the rest of the creek bottomlands to cotton fields.  Soon, the surrounding hills were clear-cut, and the vicinity looked bare and ugly.  The boll weevil infestation bankrupted the farmers during the depression, and they left, and the trees grew back.  The deer returned.  40-50 years ago, real estate developers took ownership of the land, and now the surrounding hills have houses filled with human beings inside who shit into pipes that lead to the sewage plant where it is treated and released into Reed Creek.

Adding a Loggerhead Shrike to my Bird Photo Checklist

November 30, 2019

I’ve made several unsuccessful excursions to look for loggerhead shrikes because they are an uncommon species.  They prefer cow pastures with plenty of short trees–a landscape that is being replaced by expanding suburban development.  My sister and her husband recently moved to a gated community in south Florida that was formerly a cattle ranch but has been converted to an housing development built around a golf course.  Abundant wildlife still occurs in the neighborhood, and on my first visit I was able to get a nice photograph of a large bobcat.  I visited my sister on Thanksgiving and was able to get several photographs of a loggerhead shrike–a species I had only seen 3 times prior to this occasion.  I never thought I would get a good look at this bird, let alone get a photo of it.

Loggerhead shrike in Bradenton, Florida.  Click to enlarge.

I’ve written a blog entry about shrikes previously.  See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/pleistocene-pastures-and-loggerhead-shrikes-lanius-ludovicianus/

I took a walk around the golf course on Thanksgiving.  It is a maritime forest consisting of live oak, loblolly pine, saw palmetto, Carolina palmetto, red maple, grape vine,  a non-native flower related to evening primrose, and sedge.  The water traps host anhingas, herons, cormorants, coots, and many other birds.  I saw red dragonflies and azure butterflies.

This is a non-native plant related to evening primrose.  It is very common in this woodlot.

At the hotel I saw the same species of birds as I did last Thanksgiving.  A flock of white ibis must live there year round.

The same flock of white ibis I saw last year along with a great egret.

The Alcovy Conservation Center Revisited

August 31, 2019

I wrote about the Alcovy Conservation Center about 2 months ago.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2019/06/22/the-alcovy-conservation-center-part-i/ )  I didn’t realize that if I would’ve continued my walk for just a few more minutes, I would’ve reached 1 of the features of the preserve–a cypress/tupelo swamp.  This type of natural environment is common in the coastal plain of Georgia but rare in the piedmont.  On my 2nd visit I followed the trail to the swamp and found it was more like 1 tupelo tree next to a creek, rather than a swamp.  However there are other trails in the preserve, including 1 with a boardwalk that goes through a swamp.  I’ll have to check these out at a later date.

1 tupelo tree does not equal a swamp.

I was also hoping to find ripe pawpaws.  This is the only site in Georgia where I have ever seen wild pawpaw trees, not counting the trees I’m growing in my yard.  Pawpaws usually ripen during mid-September.  The pawpaws here weren’t quite ripe yet, but I picked some anyway, hoping to ripen them at home.

These pawpaws didn’t look quite ripe yet, but I picked them anyway.

I did find ripe muscadine grapes.  They were the best tasting wild muscadines I ever ate.

These muscadines were blackish purple and very good to eat.

I came at the wrong time of day again to see wildlife–another sultry afternoon.  I did see 5 species of butterfly, but they flittered around so I couldn’t take a photo or identify 2 of them.  I did recognize a black swallowtail, a great sulphur, and a common sulphur.

 

The Alcovy Conservation Center (part I)

June 22, 2019

We took my daughter to Atlanta for her birthday, so she could see a Braves game with her aunt and a friend.  I stayed in an air-conditioned hotel room with my wife and mother-in-law and watched the game on television.  The best way to attend a Braves game is to rent an hotel room in Battery Park and walk to the stadium because the traffic  and parking are a nightmare.  My wife is disabled and a sports stadium is just no place for a person in a wheelchair (think bathroom logistics).  That’s why we didn’t go ourselves.  We were hoping to have dinner with my daughter next to the stadium before the game, but the traffic was so bad we got separated (we were in 2 different cars) before I had a chance to give my daughter my camera.  Otherwise, this blog entry would have photos from inside Sun Trust Park. She did take photos with her phone but hasn’t figured out how to upload them to the computer yet.  I got stuck in Atlanta traffic.  Getting stuck in Atlanta traffic makes me feel like committing suicide.  This was vacation 2019 for us.  Actually, my idea of an ideal vacation is to get drunk and listen to music, then watch internet porn the following day to forget how shitty my hangover makes me feel.  Oh wait…that sounds like every Thursday night.

The original plan for the following day was to visit Fernbank Forest, but I learned online those bastards charge $18 to walk in their woods.  When I visited Fernbank Museum a few years ago their forest was closed for repairs and I couldn’t see it even after I paid their damn fee.  (Why does a natural forest need to be repaired?)  I guess I will never see it.  As an alternative, I chose to visit the Alcovy Conservation Center in Covington, Georgia.  It is maintained by the Georgia Wildlife Federation and it is free.  It’s mostly used for school field trips.  Visitors are supposed to check in but there was no one there, not even other visitors.  (The Fernbank Forest is notoriously crowded.)

Kiosk at Alcovy Conservation Center.  The land includes 115 acres of woodland, meadow, and wetland.

Big black oak.  There were a number of really big black oaks in this park.

Open woodland.

This is an old fencerow in an old pasture.  Birds and squirrels planted these trees.

I enjoyed my visit to the Alcovy Conservation Center.  I had time to see just half of it.  I didn’t even see what it is most famous for–a tupelo swamp.  This type of natural community is common in the coastal plain but uncommon in the piedmont where the conservation center is located.  There are just 4 other sites in the piedmont region with tupelo swamps.  I also didn’t see the canebrake and marsh.

I did see some enormous black oaks.  Other common plants I encountered were water oak, willow oak, river birch, sweetgum, shortleaf pine, loblolly pine, hickory, pawpaw, dogwood, muscadine grape vine, and trumpet creeper.  This is the only site in Georgia where I have seen pawpaw growing in the wild.

Pawpaw tree.  I wonder if the pawpaws will be ripe when I visit again in late August.

I didn’t come at a good time to see wildlife–it was late morning and sultry.  There were many small drab birds, probably sparrows, but they wouldn’t stay still for identification.  I saw dark phase tiger swallowtail butterflies.  I didn’t know tiger swallowtails came in a dark phase until I searched my field guide for identification.  It too wouldn’t cooperate for my camera.  Charles Wharton, the late author of The Natural Communities of Georgia, wrote white tail deer grew larger along the Alcovy river bottoms than anywhere else in Georgia.  They were sensibly resting in the shade, while we slogged through the heat, and we didn’t see them.  The squirrels were also resting in the shade.  I walked on a path known as fox squirrel trail but saw no squirrels of any kind.  This site hosts a disjunct population of the bird-voiced tree frog, but it is probably past mating season for them.  However, on the plus side, I didn’t see a single fly or mosquito.

The Georgia Wildlife Federation encourages wildlife here.  There is a chimney swift tower, many bluebird boxes, and they even have at least 1 bat box.  I’ll be back to see the parts I missed.

Chimney swift tower.  Chimney swifts with their nestlings live in my home chimney.  I notice some people put caps on their chimneys to prevent birds from nesting there.  If you put a cap on your chimney to block chimney swifts, you can’t be my friend.

Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Florida

March 3, 2019

A few months ago, I went to Payne’s Prairie State Park and saw about 6 species of birds in over 2 hours, but last week when I went to Sweetwater Wetlands Park I saw 15 species of birds plus a large alligator in less than 30 minutes.  The preserve was established to replace parts of Payne’s Prairie that had been drained and to restore water flow into the prairie.  It is manmade.  The list of species I saw included coots, common gallinules, a mallard duck, turkey vultures, great egrets, a snowy egret, a cattle egret, great blue herons, green herons, a white ibis, a glossy ibis, cormorants, anhingas, an unidentified species of sparrow, boat-tailed grackles, and red-winged blackbirds.   On this trip to Florida I saw 2 species of birds I had never seen before–glossy ibis and ground doves.  I was unable to get a photo of the former.  For the first time I was also able to take some nice photos of sandhill cranes.  I have seen them before, but I was driving on the road and couldn’t stop to take a photo.

Green heron

Boat-tailed grackle.

Common gallinule.

Flock of coots.

Snowy egret and common gallinule.

I estimate this is an 8 foot long alligator.

Outside my mom’s nursing home in Bradenton, Florida we ran into a pair of sandhill cranes.  They were not afraid of us at all.

I think these are common ground doves and not mourning doves (which I also saw) perched on a roof in Bradenton, Florida.  This species does not range north of Florida, south Texas, and southern California.  It’s common in Mexico.

Paynes Prairie State Park in Florida

November 26, 2018

My visit to Paynes Prairie State Park was a colossal disappointment.  Paynes Prairie is an area where the Florida aquifer (a gigantic underground river) comes close to the surface.  During periods of heavy rain it fills with water and becomes marshy, but during droughts the water level recedes and parts of it host grassy environments.  The fluctuating water levels prevent trees from becoming established, and it contributes to the open nature of the landscape.  A forest dominated by live oak, slash pine, palm, and red maple with an undergrowth of saw palmetto surrounds the prairie.  Supposedly, bison, cracker cattle, and Spanish horses roam the park; and guides claim it is 1 of the best bird-watching sites in the U.S.  I didn’t see any of the megafauna and only saw a paltry 4 species of birds–an egret, a turkey vulture, a red-shouldered hawk, and a small gray bird with a white tail that I have frustratingly been trying to identify for years.  I’ve seen this bird in Augusta, Georgia too, and it always seems to be hanging around water, but it doesn’t resemble any the pictures in my field guides.  I also heard chickadees and an eastern phoebe.

This egret was the only wading bird I saw in the park.

Fluctuating water levels create an open landscape at Paynes Prairie.  I took this photo from a watchtower that swayed in the wind.

I didn’t see the bison, cracker cattle, or horses.  I did find deer hoof prints.

Some of the live oaks were 6 feet thick in diameter.

I saw more wildlife in Florida outside the park than I did inside it.

Next to my hotel in an urban area of Bradenton, Florida I saw a flock of 13 white ibis.

I got an even better photo of an egret next to my hotel than I did in the park.

The Pinhotti Trail in North Georgia and Alabama

August 28, 2018

The Pinhotti Trail connects with the more famous Appalachian Trail and is 335 miles long.  I hiked the first half mile from the Georgia side a few days ago.  This section of the trail goes up a rocky steep mountain side, and the forest is dominated by mountain chestnut oak, hickory, and Virginia pine with an undergrowth of maple saplings, dogwood, and muscadine grape vines.  I also saw silver maple, red maple, black oak, and overcup oak.  It is excellent habitat for chipmunks, though I didn’t see any.  Chipmunks like to tunnel in the crevices under boulders, and the oak and hickory trees provide plenty of acorns and nuts for them.  Perhaps I didn’t see any chipmunks because they were hiding from a weasel or skunk.  The distinct odor of a mustelid was present near the entrance of an hollow log.  Weasels kill prey in bunches–far more than they usually consume–so maybe the local chipmunks had been recently decimated.  A camera trap could probably produce video of a weasel going in and out of the hollow log.  I didn’t see any birds, but I was only on the trail for about 25 minutes.  I did hear a chickadee and the partial call of a woodpecker, and this time of year there is the ever present mating sound of cicadas.

Image result for Pinhotti trail map

Map of Pinhotti Trail.

The forest here is dominated by mountain chestnut oak, hickory, and Virginia pine.

Mountain chestnut oak leaves.

Can anyone identify this species of mushroom?  I can’t find it in my field guide or on the internet.

Chipmunks like to tunnel in crevices under boulders like this.  This part of the trail is excellent habitat for chipmunks.

Boulder field.

I could smell the odor of a skunk or weasel near the entrance of this hollow log.

 

Manatee State Park and Bradenton, Florida

May 20, 2018

I visited southwestern Florida last week to see my Mom for Mother’s Day.  We spent some time at Manatee State Park as well, and I saw lots of wildlife on my trip through the state.  There are no manatees in Manatee State Park.  Manatee Lake is a manmade reservoir, created when the Manatee River was dammed.  Manatees live in the river but they can’t get past the dam.  Manatee State Park is about 500 acres and hosts a mostly scrub environment of saw palmettos, grape vines, stunted live oaks, and Florida sand pine.  Supposedly, fox squirrels occur in the park, but I just saw gray squirrels.

I saw interesting wildlife on my trip while driving from Augusta, Georgia to Bradenton, Florida; but unfortunately I couldn’t take photos while traveling 70 mph down the highway.  I was lucky enough to spot an extremely rare whooping crane standing by I-75 south of the Tampa exit.  There are only about 100 whooping cranes in Florida.  I expected to see sandhill cranes (which I also saw), but was shocked to see a whooping crane. I saw swallowtail kites 5 times but couldn’t take photos of the birds because they wouldn’t stop moving.  My sister lives on a golf course that recently was a cattle ranch, and the wildlife hasn’t left yet, despite the development.  I did get a decent photo of a bobcat, though it was walking fast.

The list of species I saw in Florida included whooping crane, sandhill crane, swallowtail kite, Mississippi kite, osprey, king rail (I think), cattle egret, great egret, green heron, great blue heron, Canadian goose, turkey, turkey vulture, black vulture, white ibis, mourning dove, mockingbird, rufous sided towhee, blue jay, laughing gull, brown pelican, cormorant, crow, red-winged blackbird, boat-tailed grackle, chimney swift, cardinal, black bellied whistling duck (I think), house sparrows, gray squirrels, and bobcat.  I saw road-killed opossum, armadillo, raccoon, and white tail deer.  I heard barred owl, chuck will’s widow, and tufted titmouse.  In south Georgia species I saw that I didn’t also see in Florida were loggerhead shrike, red-shouldered hawk, feral chicken, and starling.

I remember riding through central Florida in the late 1970s when citrus orchards could be found on both sides of the highway for long stretches.  I didn’t see a single orchard.  Instead, the orchards have been replaced by beautiful cattle ranches with pasture surrounding groves of live oaks.  Big flocks of cattle egrets follow the grazing cows.  It is excellent habitat for black bears and cougars.  Black bears do occur in central Florida, and cougars may eventually establish a permanent population there, but currently breeding females are mostly restricted west of Lake Okeechobee.

Click on the photos below to enlarge them.

Despite the sign, my daughter and I swam in Lake Manatee.  A couple of British tourists were astonished that we dared swim in the lake..  Actually, riding in a car is much more dangerous than swimming with alligators.

Lake Manatee supplies drinking water for 2 counties.

Stunted live oaks at Manatee State Park.  Gray squirrels foraged for acorns here but I didn’t see fox squirrels.

Saw palmetto dominates Manatee State Park.

Love bugs (Plecia nearctia) were mating and were everywhere.  Dead love bugs covered my front fender.

I saw this cormorant drying its wings from my sister’s back porch.  (At least I think it is a cormorant and not an anhinga.  It’s difficult to tell from the back.)

I took a blurry photo of a bobcat on the golf course behind my sister’s house.  It was walking fast and wouldn’t let me take a clearer photo.  It was headed toward an area inhabited by wild pigs.  We heard a squeal shortly after I took this photo.  Maybe the cat grabbed a piglet.

I think this is a black bellied whistling duck.  Initially, there were 3 of them on my sister’s roof.  The fulvous whistling duck also lives in Florida.  Both of these Central and South American species are expanding their range north.  All the houses in my sister’s neighborhood were built with these hurricane-proof roofs.

 

The Chesser Island Boardwalk in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

May 16, 2018

Miles of open pine savannahs formerly surrounded the Okefenokee Swamp, but that land has been almost entirely converted into enormous pine tree farms with much less floral and faunal diversity.  100 years ago, developers tried to ruin the swamp itself as well.  They felled cypress forests and attempted to drain the swamp with canals.  Thankfully, they were bankrupted because the swamp was too resilient and impossible to develop, so the government designated it a wildlife refuge.  There is a nice boardwalk at the end of Chesser Island Road that leads to an observation tower.  I walked to the tower last Saturday with my wife and daughter and took the following photos.

The entrance road leads through a slash pine savannah with an undergrowth of saw palmetto, ferns, and wiregrass.

2 big alligators were hanging around a lily-covered roadside ditch.

Ferns are abundant in fire-adapted landscapes, like the Okefenokee.  Ferns were the first plants to sprout following the K-T impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Fire creates the open landscape of the Okefenokee.  Without fire it would become a closed canopy cypress forest.

Barred owl.  They are common in the swamp.

The fire of 2013 killed lots of cypress trees.  Note the charred trunks.

The boardwalk is 3/4 of a mile.  I was able to easily push my wife’s wheel chair all the way to the observation tower.

I heard pig frogs and cricket frogs at this pond, and an eastern kingbird was hunting insects over the water.

Open Okefenokee marshes are called “prairies.”

Spanish moss.  Strange as it may seem, Spanish moss is related to pineapple.

Soft shelled turtle.

The list of animal species I saw on this excursion in less than 90 minutes included alligator, soft shelled turtle, rabbit, pileated woodpecker, barred owl, black vulture, red-winged blackbird, boat-tailed grackle, mourning dove, mockingbird, eastern kingbird, yellowthroat warbler, laughing gull, great egret, black swallowtail butterfly, and at least 4 species of dragonflies.  I heard chimney swifts, pig frogs, and cricket frogs, and raccoon scat littered the boardwalk.  I was surprised I saw just 1 wading bird.  On a previous trip to the Okefenokee I saw none.  I saw the laughing gulls near the county landfill just outside the refuge. I couldn’t determine if the rabbit was a cottontail or marsh rabbit.  It slipped into the palmetto before I could take a photo of it.