Archive for the ‘Natural History Expeditions’ Category

Scull Shoals, Greene County, Georgia

December 6, 2016

Scull Shoals is a ghost town located in Greene County, Georgia adjacent to the Oconee River.  People have lived at this site off and on for at least 8000 years and probably longer.  Archaeologists have excavated Indian artifacts, including broken pottery pieces and arrowheads, representative of the Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian Cultures.  After the Revolutionary War the U.S. government granted this land to war veterans.  The Cherokee Indians were not too happy to have their land granted to Europeans, so they attacked the first settlements in 1788 or 1789.  In response the settlers built Fort Clark here in 1793, and the Cherokees were eventually driven away from their homeland.

Location of Greene County, Georgia

What Scull Shoals looked like during the 19th century.  Note the barren almost treeless landscape.  It was surrounded by cotton and corn fields that were muddy moonscapes during winter.

The settlement was named for the beautiful rocky shoals in this part of the Oconee River.  These shoals are no longer visible because eroded soil has covered them deep under sediment.  The entire site was a magnificent virgin forest until European settlers ruined it.  First, they built saw and paper mills, hydropowered by mill races they constructed.  After they cleared all the trees, they planted row crops of cotton, corn, and wheat to be processed in flour mills, also hydropowered.  During summer corn and cotton fields extended from horizon to horizon but winter landscapes consisted of mud as far as the eye could see.  Short-sighted agricultural practices led to complete erosion of the topsoil into the river, covering the shoals.

Alternating floods, droughts, and recessions destroyed the economy of the village.  Floods spoiled the grain and cotton waiting to be milled.  Droughts caused low water when the mills couldn’t be hydropowered and were thus idled.  By 1930 the town was abandoned.  Land speculators sold the site to the federal government in 1959, and it became part of the Oconee National Forest.  Today, a mixed forest of 2nd growth oak and pine surround the site.  Water oak, sycamore, and sweet gum dominate the actual site of the town, and there is an undergrowth of bamboo cane.  Some of the trees are quite large and may be over 80 years old.  Ecologists believe it takes 1000 years to build 1 inch of topsoil.  The original topsoil was 12 inches thick, so it will take 12,000 years of reforestation before the topsoil is as rich as it was in the 18th century.

We saw an armadillo when we visited Skull Shoals.  The population of armadillos now outnumbers people here.

The kiosk in front of the old site of Scull Shoals.

The town general store.

The mill manager’s house.

This bridge spans the millrace.  Due to the drought, there is no water in the millrace.  Droughts contributed to the decline of Scull Shoals because they couldn’t run the mills without water powering them.

During times of normal water flow this millrace is filled with running water.

Note how low the Oconee River is.  The beautiful shoals that inspired the name of the town have been covered by eroded soil and are no longer visible.

Big sycamore trunk. The federal government bought the site in 1959 and added it to the Oconee National forest.

Scull Shoals is now a nice picnic area.  Dominant trees consist of water oak, sycamore, and sweetgum.

Armadillos outnumber people as permanent residents of Scull Shoals today.

Shell Bluff, Burke County, Georgia

October 24, 2016

40  million years ago, the entire coastal plain of southeastern North America was below sea level.  In Georgia sea shore occurred along a line that roughly corresponds with the latitudes of Columbus, Macon, and Augusta.  Rich zones of zooplankton nourished near shore oyster beds populated by a species that grew up to 20 inches in length. Fossils of this extinct giant oyster ( Crassostrea gigantissima ) are exposed at many locations along the ancient shoreline wherever rivers or creeks erode into Eocene Age formations.  Perhaps the best exposure can be found at Shell Bluff in Burke County, Georgia.  This site is a 30 minute drive from my house, and I have long wanted to visit it, but alas it is private property not generally open to the public.

Map of Georgia highlighting Burke County

Location of Burke County, Georgia.  Shellbluff is located on the eastern boundary by the river.  A small local community is named after the site.

http://digitalcommons.gaacademy.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=gjs

I couldn’t find a photo of Shellbluff that I could directly link to my blog, but the above linked Georgia Journal of Science article has a nice picture in the pdf file.

Old photo of the fossil oyster bed at Shell Bluff.

crassostrea gigantissima_griffins_landing_savannah_river_burke_co_ga_alan_cressler_2, I_AMC1300

Look at the size of the extinct Crassostrea gigantissima. A chemical analysis of these giant oyster shells determined a cool shift in climate occurred during the late Eocene.  Average winter sea surface temperatures were the same then as they are today, but summer sea surface temperatures were 3-12 degrees F cooler than those of today.

The bluff is 150 feet high and reportedly the giant oyster shell beds are 80-100 feet from the Savannah River.  The soil near the bluff consists of limestone and sandy marl, and it is rich in calcium.  Because of the unique microclimate and calcium-rich soil, there is a natural community quite different here from the surrounding fire-adapted longleaf pine/turkey oak sand hills.  This natural community is known as a bluff forest with northern affinities or as some other botanists refer to it, a mesic slope forest.  The steep slope and cooling river protect this forest from fire, and the north-northeast exposure helps keep temperatures cooler than in the surrounding terrain.  Many of the plants growing here are disjunct populations of species more commonly found in the Appalachian Mountains or the Midwest.  Species of northern affinities present at Shell Bluff include green violet, tall bellflower, wild ginger, black cohosh, ravine grass, and black walnut.  The overstory consists of white oak, beech, pignut hickory, basswood, and black walnut.  Dogwood, red buckeye, hop hornbeam, 2 species of pawpaw, beautyberry, Carolina buckthorn, and redbud comprise the midstory.  3 of these species–red buckeye, Carolina buckthorn, and red bud–are notable calciphiles (plants that prefer calcium rich soils).  Some rare plants grow here too such as the Ocmulgeee skullcap.

Ocmulgee Skullcap for sale buy Scutellaria ocmulgee

Shellbluff is home to this rare mint–Ocmulgee Skullcap (Scutellaria ocmulgee).

William Bartram found mock orange (Philadelphus inodorous) growing at Shell Bluff in 1775.

John Bartram and his son, William, visited this site in 1765, and William returned 10 years later.  They saw the forest before it was ever logged.  The virgin timber consisted of white oaks, beech, and sweetgum with trunks that were 5 feet in diameter.  Cypress trees were over 6 feet in diameter.  There are probably few, if any, trees this large at the site today.  Bartram included tupelo, tulip, and mulberry in his list of tree species here.  I’m not sure, if these species still exist on the site since it has been logged.  Other rare plants that Bartram cataloged may also be extirpated from the site including mock orange, leather wood, Carolina spice bush, and ginseng.

Bluff forests with northern affinities are relic habitats that represent natural communities formerly more widespread in the surrounding region.  Oak and beech forests with cool climate associates likely formed a more continuous range throughout the mid to deep south during cool moist interstadials.  (Though interstadials were warm phases of climate within Ice Ages, average temperatures were still cooler than those of the present day.)  But these mesic forests also waned during arid cold stadials when grasslands and scrub habitat expanded.  River bluffs have provided refuge for this type of forest during both hot and cold extreme shifts in climate, probably for millions of years.

Reference:

Edwards, Elliott

“Shell Bluff–A Fossiliferous Ridge, The Site of the Extinct Oyster Crassostrea gigantissima and History of its Identification”

Georgia Journal of Science 74 (2) 2016

 

 

Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) on Anastasia Island State Park

May 27, 2016

Access to swimming beaches near St. Augustine, Florida is not free, but for only $8 per car, vacationers can enjoy a day at the beach on Anastasia Island State Park.  My daughter and I wandered into the surf there one morning in mid-May (last week as I write this).  We experienced strong currents, sudden deep drop-offs, quicksand, and no lifeguard on duty.

Several boardwalks stretch over protected beach dunes, presenting a view of the part of the island known as “Bird Island. ” I saw some birds but not many…I saw more birds in downtown St. Augustine.  I saw a flock of 12 brown pelicans, a great egret, a red-winged blackbird, cardinals, mourning doves, and city pigeons.    But many of the birds I saw in St. Augustine probably nest in the dunes on Anastasia Island.  I’m sure the ring-billed and laughing gulls and the least turn that I saw on St. Augustine nest here.

We took a stroll around the parking lot, and I was excited to find 2 rare gopher tortoises, a living relative of 2 larger extinct species of Pleistocene tortoises.

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This gopher tortoise was walking by the side of the parking lot in Anastasia Island State Park.

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I saw this smaller gopher tortoise first.  Although I’ve seen gopher tortoise burrows, this was the first time I’d ever seen the actual tortoises.

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Anastasia Beach was not crowded mid-morning in mid May.

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Part of Anastasia Island is known as Bird Island.  The currents are depositing sand on the north end and building it up.  Gulls and terns are probably nesting in these beach dunes.  I saw an adult least tern across the bay in St. Augustine.  It may have hatched on this island.  Sea oats, sea grape, and cactus hold down the dunes.

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A brackish marsh.

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Red-winged blackbird.

The giant southern white butterfly (Ascia monaste) is abundant on Anastasia Island in May.  Larva of this species feed on saltwort and plants from the mustard and cabbage family.

I was too lazy to chase around butterflies , so I ripped off this photo from google images. Giant southern white butterflies were abundant on Anastasia Island.

A brackish lagoon bisects the island and wading birds hunt for fish and shrimp in it.  This state park consists of a variety of habitats–surf, beach dune, brackish marshes, and a kind of stunted maritime forest where live oak, myrtle, bayberry, and cedar grow.  The Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine is in the middle of a more mature maritime forest, and there is a boardwalk over a salt marsh within this park.  I enjoyed excellent birdwatching here and saw great blue heron, great egret, least tern, eastern kingbird, red-breasted merganser, and a white ibis.

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A fish taco at Joe’s Grill on Anastasia Island.  This was the best thing I ate on my vacation.  It’s a soft taco wrapped around a crunchy taco with well seasoned fish, lettuce, cheese, a delicious salsa, and a sauce.  And it only cost $5.25.  Most of the entrees offered on the tourist trap restaurants in St. Augustine cost $28-$40 during supper hours.

St. Augustine is a Tourist Trap

We stayed in the Best Western Bayfront Inn in St. Augustine.  They charged an additional $10 per night for a “self-parking fee.”  Most of the tourist trap restaurants and museums are not handicapped accessible, although Anastasia State Park, administered by the state, does offer free beach wheelchairs.  The restaurants in St. Augustine charge kiss-my-ass prices.  Lunch menus offer the same items for almost half the obscene suppertime prices.  I suggest vacationers stay in the cheaper less crowded hotels on Anastasia Island.  From there it’s a short walk across the drawbridge to the best attractions of St. Augustine–the Castillo de San Marcos and the Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.  The Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is located on Anastasia Island.  I would have liked to have visited this attraction.  They keep every species of crocodilian in the world.  However, my daughter chose the Fountain of Youth and it was cheaper anyway.

 

 

The Castillo de St. Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida

May 21, 2016

The Timucuan Indians lived in northeastern Florida when Spain established the first European settlement on the North American continent in 1565 at St. Augustine, Florida.  The Timucuans averaged well over a foot taller than the European settlers because of their high protein diet consisting of abundant venison, turkey, fish, shellfish, corn, and beans.  Nevertheless, superior Spanish weaponry and tactics gave the Europeans the upper hand in battle, and an inherited lack of resistance to Old World diseases doomed Native Americans all across the continent because their populations were regularly decimated by fatal illnesses.

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Mock-up of a Timucuan hut at the Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Park.

England and Spain competed for control of North and South America during the 17th and 18th centuries.  Spain began building a fort in St. Augustine in 1672 to defend Florida from the Anglo aggressors.  They built the fort using coquina–a fossiliferous sedimentary rock they quarried from nearby Anastasia Island.  Coquina consists of sea shells cemented together.  It’s soft when underground and therefore easy to cut, but it hardens when exposed to air, making it ideal material for repelling cannon balls.  Indian, then African slaves quarried the rock for 20 years, loading the stone on oxcarts that were hauled to barges and shipped across Matanzas Bay to the site of the fort adjacent to St. Augustine.  The fort, known as the Castillo de St. Marcos, took 20 years to complete.  It was never taken in battle, though St. Augustine itself was sacked in 1702.  The siege of the fort failed, and the British withdrew.

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The Castillo de San Marcos.

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The material used to build the fort was coquina, a type of fossil rock.  Note the embedded fossil sea shells in the wall.

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A 400 year old Spanish cannon.  Note the coquina it’s resting upon.

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Cannons on the 2nd story of the fort.  The fort was never taken in battle.

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An old fashioned mortar.

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A moat, now drained, surrounded the fort.  It was probably filled with alligators.  This prevented the use of battering rams that could’ve broke in the door.

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A watchtower with a view across Matanzas Bay.

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View from inside the fort.

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Ponce de Leon discovered this freshwater spring in 1513.  The Spanish established a settlement here because of this convenience.  The water tastes exactly like modern day St. Augustine tap water.  The tap water near south Atlantic states always has a sulfurous aftertaste.

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A cistern used for storing rainwater.  Fresh rain tastes better than the local spring water.

Spain gave Florida and the fort to England in 1765 as part of a peace treaty.  Spain regained control in 1783 after the U.S. kicked England’s butt in the Revolutionary War.  The U.S. bought Florida from Spain in 1821 and gained control of the fort.  The U.S. army used it as a prison for Indians during the Seminole Wars, and late in the 19th century kept Kiowa POWs here.  What a depressing chapter of American history.

The Castillo de San Marcos is a nice spot for bird watching.  The most abundant species are city pigeons, chimney swifts, boat-tailed grackles, mourning doves, and laughing gulls.  The city pigeons might be descended from birds the Spanish brought from Europe to raise as food as early as 1610.  Many of the individuals I saw were big and fat.  Another name for city pigeon is rock dove because they are native to rocky cliffs in Eurasia.  The fort offers ideal habitat for them.  They nest in the crooks and crannies within the fort and have access to seaside foods rich in iodine, an element beneficial for brain development.  People supplement their wild foraging.

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I fed some pigeons a piece of banana bread that fell on the floor.  They are greedy little pigs.

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Boat-tailed grackles are superabundant in north Florida and south Georgia near the coast.

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A snowy egret on the edge of Matanzas Bay.

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Peacocks roam the grounds at the Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth.

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An immature white ibis.

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A great egret and a great blue heron in the same frame.

While I was inside the fort, 3 wood storks soared overhead but not close enough for me to photograph.  I saw wood storks all 4 days I vacationed in St. Augustine.  I saw 4 species of animals for the first time on this trip–a greenhouse tree frog, gopher tortoises, a least tern, and a loggerhead shrike.  I saw the first 3 in Florida, but I saw the shrike in northern Burke County, Georgia while I was driving home.  It was in someone’s front yard about 10 miles south of my house.

The Fernbank Science Museum in Atlanta, Georgia

February 28, 2016

I took my wife to Atlanta for our 22nd anniversary.  We visited the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.  The museum has many spectacular murals and some interesting fossils and artifacts, but most of their displays consist of taxidermic mounts and reconstructed replicas.  Below are some photos of their interesting displays.  However,  I neglected to take a photo of their most interesting Indian artifact–a 300 year old dugout canoe made of a longleaf pine trunk.

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A fossil tree root of Paleozoic Age.  The grooves were made by extinct insects entirely unknown to science.  Millions upon millions of insect species lived but left no direct fossil evidence of their existence.

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A fossilized tree trunk, also of Paleozoic age.  This tree lived before the species of bacteria that decays wood evolved.  Therefore, it turned to coal.  The conditions that create coal don’t exist on present day earth because bacteria that consumes wood has evolved.

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Allosaurus tracks.

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The artist did a fantastic job with his mural.  However, it’s probably inaccurate.  Most of these species of dinosaurs probably had feathers.

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Real dinosaur fossils found in Georgia.  The foot bone of an Appalachiosaurus ( a species of tyrannosaur), and some bones of Deinosuchus–a 50 foot long crocodilian.

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Replicas of allosaurus and stegosaurus.

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Replica of a megatherium–a South American species of giant ground sloth.

Most of the Fernbank Museum’s revenue probably comes from school field trips.  I had an enlightening and amusing conversation with some middle school students in front of the megatherium display.

Student 1: What is it?

Student 2: A dinosaur.

Student 3: No, it’s not.  It’s a cousin to a bear.

Me: It’s a sloth.

Student 4: How did it get so big?

Before the pseudo-professor in me had a chance to explain they left the room.

Notice that none of the students bothered to read the label on the display explaining what the specimen was.  Also, the students seemed to have no concept of speciation or evolution.  It’s not the teacher’s fault.  The students are apparently too lazy to read.

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My favorite specimen in the museum.  The skull and some bones of an Eremotherium laurillardi–a giant ground sloth that formerly lived in Georgia.  This skull and most of its skeleton was found in the Frederica River behind St. Simon’s Island in 1991.  The museum plans to put the entire skeleton together and display it.

There is a 65 acre forest consisting of old growth timber behind the museum.  Last year, I read on the Tree Society Message Board that the Fernbank Forest was closed to the public.  I thought by now they would have surely re-opened it, and I was looking forward to walking through this extremely rare gem.  I was bitterly disappointed to find it was still closed to the public because they are still refurbishing the forest.  How do you refurbish a virgin forest?  I was pissed off.  I don’t want to endure Atlanta traffic ever again, but if I want to see this, I’ll have to come back.  Driving in Atlanta is torture.

I don’t understand how any Atlanta resident can be opposed to abortion.  There are too many damned people in Atlanta.  Do they want to spend most of their existence in traffic jams?  Being stuck in a traffic jam is not living.  A person trapped in a car for hours everyday might as well be living inside a coffin.  After driving in Atlanta, I feel like offing myself.

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This is as close as I could get to Fernbank Forest.  With the exception of a few guided tours, it is closed until summer.  GODDAMNIT!

 

An Alligator Bellowing at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, Augusta, Georgia

December 28, 2015

I live a short distance from the Phinizy Swamp Natural Area. I can hop in the car and get there in 15 minutes by driving on a back road behind a few factories.  The entrance is next to the Augusta Municipal Airport.  If I didn’t have to take care of my disabled wife, I would visit Phinizy Swamp at least once a week.  But I don’t want to leave my wife in the car by herself that often, especially during summer when temperatures are uncomfortable.  Last week, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, I decided it was the right time to look for winter migrant ducks at the swamp.  I left Anita in the car with her crochet, and my daughter and I hiked the trail that leads to an elevated boardwalk encircling a retention pond.  A surprise awaited us.

We heard a loud splash about 3 feet from where my daughter was walking.  I knew immediately that she had almost stepped on an alligator.  Augusta, Georgia is close to the northern limit of the American alligator’s range, but I didn’t realize there were any in this nature park.  We walked to the other side of the pond and heard the alligator bellow.  I’ve seen alligators on many occasions, but this was the first time I’d ever heard one bellow.  Alligators bellow during the mating season, and they also bellow to establish their territory.  Perhaps this alligator was telling us this was his pond.

On this blog I often lament the passing of the Pleistocene megafauna, so I must report that hearing the bellow of an extant species of megafauna makes me feel better…even thrills me.

Here’s audio/video from youtube of an alligator bellowing in the Okefenokee Swamp. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGyId1LMTnY

The bellowing of an alligator didn’t thrill John Lawson, the first European naturalist to settle in southeastern North America (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/ ) He inadvertently built his house (it was probably little more than a wilderness cabin) on top of an alligator den.  I just love his account of his experience.

I was pretty much frightened with one of these once; which happened thus: I had built a house about a half a mile from an Indian town, on the Fork of the Neus River, where I dwelt by myself, excepting a young Indian fellow, and a Bull-dog, that I had along with me.  I had not then been so long a Sojourner in America, as to be throughly acquainted with this Creature.  One of them had got his Nest directly under my House, which stood on high Land, and by a Creek-side, in whose banks his Entring-place was, his Den reaching the Ground directly on which my house stood, I was sitting alone by the Fire-side (about nine a Clock at Night, some time in March) the Indian fellow being gone to the Town, to see his Relations; so that there was no body in the House, but my self and my Dog; when all of a sudden, this ill-favoured Neighbor of mine, set up such a Roaring, that he made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times.  The Dog stared, as if he was frightened out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was , having never heard one of them before.  Immediately again I had another Lesson; and so a third.  Being at the time amongst none but Savages, I began to suspect, they were working some Piece of conjuration under my house, to get away my Goods; not but that, at another time, I have as little Faith in their, or any others working miracles, by diabolic means as any person living.  At last my man came in, to whom when I had told the Story, he laugh’d at me, and presently undeceived me, by telling me what it was that made that Noise.”

I also saw the migrant ducks I hoped to encounter, though they made it difficult for me to visually identify them.  Every time I stopped to take a photo with my new camera, they ran on top of the water and swam in the opposite direction, tantalizingly just far away that I couldn’t positively identify which species they were.  My new camera has a telephoto lens, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing the first time I used it.  I’m fairly certain I saw black ducks, pintails, female common mergansers, and goldeneyes.  Cinnamon teal may have been present…most of the ducks were brown.  Wading birds included great egrets and an immature white ibis.

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Cormorant.

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An immature white ibis.

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I think these are pintail ducks.  There were many species of migratory ducks here, but they wouldn’t cooperate and swam away when I tried to take a photo.  This was the first time I used this camera and didn’t realize I could have zoomed in even more.

Carvers Creek State Park in South Central North Carolina

October 27, 2015

Last Saturday, we visited my nephew who is stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.  This gave me the opportunity to hike around Carvers Creek State Park located nearby.  Past the entrance, a long wide path borders an old field on one side and a woodland of shortleaf pine with an understory of blackjack oak and sweetgum saplings on the other side.  I heard a constant chirping of crickets in the field, and grasshoppers were also abundant.  This is ideal habitat for loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus), a species in decline.  They nest in short trees but hunt for large insects (such as grasshoppers), mice, lizards, amphibians, and even juvenile venomous snakes; all of which can be found in this old field.  I’ve never seen a loggerhead shrike, and it’s high on my birding wish list.  I asked a park ranger where the shrikes were.  She told me they could usually be seen behind a fence where they keep their maintenance equipment, and birders using binoculars could stand near the fence and see them.  I didn’t have binoculars with me, so shrikes are still on my wish list.

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The first part of the trail borders an old field humming with crickets and grasshoppers.  Loggerhead shrikes inhabit this park.

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Much of the park is open woodland/savannah type environments.

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Big loblolly pine.

This path leads to the former winter house of one of the Rockefellers, but it is not yet open to the public.  The state park service probably needs to renovate it, so it’s safe for visitors.  Rotten floor boards can be hazardous.  It overlooks a millpond and has glassed-in porches on the 2nd floor of both the front and the back.

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The front of the WWI era Rockefeller winter home.

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Back of the Rockefeller winter home.  Most of the wildlife I did see was here behind the fence.  Note the glassed-in porch.  Nice.  It overlooks the millpond.

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Cypress trees ring the millpond.

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Millpond.

A live oak tree grows near the Rockefeller house.  Live oak is not native to North Carolina this far inland, though it does grow near the coast.  This specimen must have been transplanted here over a century ago.  I saw gray squirrels, chipping sparrows, and blue jays foraging on acorns under the tree.  One of the squirrels was rather large, and at first I thought it might be a fox squirrel, but I caught a glimpse of white underbelly.  Gray squirrels usually have white bellies, while fox squirrels are solid-colored.  The ranger told me fox squirrels can be seen on the loop trail around the millpond, but I didn’t see them.

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Live oak.

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The loop trail goes through a savannah.

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More open woodland/savannah.

I was surprised to see cypress trees growing this far inland.  Cypress trees grow on the edges of the millpond here.  I checked the range map and learned this site is about as far inland as they can normally be found.

The loop trail threads through open pine savannah.  I noticed fire marks on some of the pines.  This park must be managed with fire.

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The millpond is u-shaped. Note the cypress trees in the water.

Carvers Creek Park is a recent and valuable addition to North Carolina’s state park system.  Much of the area around the park has been transmogrified into pine tree farms, an environment that supports almost no wildlife at all.

 

Hitchcock Woods in Aiken, South Carolina

October 22, 2015

I visited Hitchcock Woods in 1990 and was not impressed then.  I considered it a boring pine-dominated woods.  However, South Carolina Educational Television recently showed episodes of Naturescene and Expeditions with Patrick McMillan that both featured this park, and I learned more about it and what to look for.  I revisited Hitchcock Woods this past Sunday and with more knowledge of the site, I had a much more favorable impression than I did 25 years ago.

William Hitchcock donated a 1200 acre stretch of woods to the city of Aiken, S.C. in 1939.  The Hitchcock Foundation has since added nearly 800 acres, so that there is about 3 square miles of wilderness in the middle of Aiken.  The trails are wide and sandy and littered with horse manure.  Horseback riding is popular in this town.

The soils consist of sand and kaolin clay that formed during the Cretaceous Age over 66 million years ago when this region was seashore.  The sandy clay soil is unproductive for agriculture and most of Hitchcock Woods has never been under cultivation.  It has also never been clear cut, though selective logging is part of the management plan for the woods.  I saw a great variety of trees here including southern red oak, post oak, water oak, black oak, white oak, overcup oak, red maple, silver maple, hickory, magnolia, persimmon, dogwood, loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, longleaf pine, slash pine, and Virginia pine.

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The soil here is sandy with nodules of kaolin clay.

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Tall old growth trees grow in these woods.

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A great variety of trees grow here.

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The trails are wide and sandy and littered with horse manure.

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More old growth hardwoods.

There are several interesting disjunct species here that are relics from earlier climatic phases.  The poor soils that prevail are a condition favorable for their continued existence at this locality, since they’ve disappeared from the rest of the region. Sandhill rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides) currently grows on the sandhills of Florida.  A relic disjunct population occurs in Hitchcock Woods.  This species likely was more widespread throughout southeastern North America during the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene when the region suffered through an especially arid climatic phase.  However, it may also have been more widespread during the most recent Ice Age Maximum about 20,000 years ago because climatic conditions were quite dry then as well.  Disjunct populations of Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) are also Ice Age relics that likely occurred throughout the region during colder climatic stages.

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Virginia pine growing around the chalk cliffs is a disjunct species normally found in the mountains.

Many of the trees in Hitchcock Woods are at least 200 years old.  Some longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) have red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) nesting cavities.  This species is the only woodpecker that makes nesting cavities in live longleaf pine trees.  The oozing sap repels predatory snakes seeking to eat nestling birds.  After years of fire suppression red-cockaded woodpeckers disappeared from Hitchcock Woods.  They require open conditions.  The Hitchcock Foundation began managing prescribed fires 20 years ago, and the red-cockaded woodpeckers could be re-established here some day.  For now the park’s 5 other species of woodpeckers use these cavities.

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I think this is a longleaf pine.  Some longleaf pines in Hitchcock Woods may be more than 200 years old and have red-cockaded woodpecker nesting cavities, though the birds have been extirpated from this area.

A population of fox squirrels (Scirius niger) lives in Hitchcock Woods.  The gray color phase predominates here.  Fox squirrels are uncommon and local in Georgia and South Carolina.  I hypothesize fox squirrels have difficulty recolonizing forests that have been clear cut.  The young dense forests that resprout following clear cuts are more favorable for gray squirrels (Scirius carolinensis).  Gray squirrels are more nimble and can escape predators by jumping from tree top to tree top.  Fox squirrels prefer racing across the forest floor to escape predation.  The presence of fox squirrels in Hitchcock Woods suggests they were formerly more common in southern forests before they were clear cut. I was hoping to see a fox squirrel, but they are more active in the morning, and my hiking companion doesn’t get out of bed until nearly noon.

Rain has eroded the clay and sand here into chalk cliffs.  This is where I found Virginia pine trees.

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Chalk cliffs are a naturally eroded environment.

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Another view of the chalk cliffs.

The Sand River is another interesting geological anomaly in Hitchcock Woods.  Water flows down this creek following a rainy spell, but normally it’s just a river of sand.  It’s located on the other side of Hitchcock Woods from the chalk cliffs.  I’ll visit that part of the park another time.

The North Georgia Zoo

June 23, 2015

On the way home from our stay in Helen, Georgia we stopped to visit the North Georgia Zoo.  I was determined to see animals on this vacation.  The North Georgia Zoo is located in the middle of the boondocks about 15 miles west of Cleveland, Georgia.  The petting zoo costs $10 but to see the good stuff requires a payment of $26 per adult and visitors must be accompanied by a guide.

My favorite animal was a cousin of the human race–a white handed gibbon.  These lesser apes are social animals but the owners of the North Georgia Zoo were unable to attain a companion gibbon, so they raised it with 2 basset hound puppies.  The 2 now fully grown dogs share the cage with the gibbon who likes to ride on their backs.

The zoo is home for several species of kangaroos and wallabies including the largest kind–a red kangaroo.  That individual was relaxing in the shade on the ground with his back toward us, and I didn’t get a good photo.  But a smaller gray kangaroo was hopping back and forth.

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Llama.  I saw a couple fighting and spitting their cud at each other.  Yuck!

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African crested porcupine.  This individual was friendly.  Audubon said porcupines made good pets.

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Collared peccary.  I could see its sharp teeth when the zookeeper fed it a carrot.

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This kangaroo stopped hopping just long enough for me to photograph it.

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New Guinea singing dog.

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White handed gibbon.

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A seriema–the closest living relative of the extinct terror bird.

The zoo has a cougar, a serval, a caracal, and an Eurasian lynx.  I noticed the cougar was behind a double switching cage.  The guide said it’s not a good idea to be inside the cage when the cougar is feeding.

The New Guinea singing dogs have an interesting history.  They are closely related to Australian dingoes.  Seafarers from the subcontinent of India brought dingoes to Australia about 4300 years ago. These same seafaring people visited New Guinea and some of their dogs escaped and established a population here as well during this same time period.  Since then, the New Guinea singing dogs evolved some differences from dingoes and other dogs.  They are shorter than dingoes and have broader skulls, and they can climb trees.  Oddly enough, the females have a peculiar vocalization during copulation.  In general they are noisy “singing” dogs, hence the name.  Dingoes also live in southeastern North America where they are known as Carolina dogs.  Paleoindians brought them to America from Asia.  Dingoes and singing dogs are very similar to the first dogs domesticated by humans.  Reportedly, dingoes make good pets but are harder to train than most dogs and have a tendency to escape captivity.  The ones I saw at the zoo seemed a bit high strung.

I took photos of a llama and a peccary.  These animals were common throughout southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  The zoo even had a seriema–the closest living relative of the terror bird.

The North Georgia Zoo is a noisy place.  A patron can hear a wolf howling, New Guinea dogs singing, the howls of basset hounds and gibbon, and the crowing of a peacock.

Friendly sheep dogs roam the grounds at night and protect the zoo animals from coyotes, foxes, and bobcats.

The deer and kangaroos could jump over the fences and escape, if they desired, but they are satisfied with their easy life in captivity.

Helen, Georgia and Anna Ruby Falls in Unicoi State Park

June 19, 2015

We stayed at the River Bend Hotel in Helen, Georgia; a tourist trap located in White County.  All the buildings are mandated to look like Bavarian village houses.  Few, if any, German immigrants settled here.  Instead, the whole town was dreamed up as a gimmick by Pete Hodkinnson in 1969 because he happened to like the look of rural German architecture.  I got bored with Helen after about an hour.  I did find a store specializing in exotic jerky.  They sell beef, buffalo, goat, elk, venison, kangaroo, marlin, tuna, salmon, and python jerky.  They also sell smoked rattlesnake in a small can for $20.  I bought a package of elk jerky.

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We stayed at the Riverbend Hotel.  This is the view of the Chattahoochee River from our hotel room.  The poor manager looked overworked.  I asked if he was hiring.  He admitted he was doing the jobs of 8 people.  Only a few hundred people live in Helen.  It’s hard to find people willing to drive from out of town to work for minimum wage and tips.

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This was the only bad thing about our hotel…the slick steep wheelchair ramp.  I dreaded pushing my wife up and down it every time.  I had to take my shoes off for traction.

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This hemlock tree has had the top removed but all of the other hemlock trees in Helen and Unicoi State Park look healthy.

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View up the Chattahoochee River from Helen.  It’s a good trout stream.

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We ate supper at the Old Bavaria Inn.  Overpriced and no better than my own cooking.

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George Costanza wasn’t joking.  There really is a jerk store.

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The whole town is mandated to look like a Bavarian village.  What a gimmicky tourist trap.

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Daphne and I went tubing down the river.  We saw a common water snake.

I was more interested in the nature in and around Helen than the faux German façade.  My daughter and I floated on tubes down the stretch of the Chattahoochee River that flows through town.  We spotted a common water snake.  I thought fish density was low in this part of the river–I looked through the clear water for fish and saw just a few darters.  But 1 morning I saw some serious trout fishermen with a string of 24 small brook trout.  I told them I didn’t think there were any fish in the river because I didn’t see any. The older fisherman said, “you can’t see them, but they could catch their limit of 8 in an hour or two.”

The most common birds in town were chimney swifts, robins, catbirds, and city pigeons.  The chimney swifts nest under bridges and hunt mosquitoes and flies.  I saw 6 chimney swifts mobbing a crow–behavior I’d never seen before.  On the way to Helen I saw a kingbird chasing an hawk at great speed, and the hawk turned in the air and tried to catch the kingbird to no avail.  Turkeys were visible in the fields and woods north and south of Helen.  Common trees along the Chattahoochee River here include silver maple, sycamore, sweetgum, hemlock, black walnut, river birch, tulip, and cottonwood.

The Old Bavaria Inn serves $21 entrees and $10 sandwiches, and of course, beer ranging in price from $3-$15 a glass.  I ate an 1/2 reuben sandwich with a cup of goulash.  It was the best reuben I’d ever had because the sourkraut was seasoned with bacon.  Their goulash was good but not as good as mine–I prefer more paprika and less salt.  The Rib Country Restaurant serves baby back ribs, pulled pork, and grilled hamburgers; all for $10 or less.  Their ribs are excellent, and their potato chips are made from scratch.  At the Bohemian Bakery and Café I had a delicious bratwurst wrapped in a flaky pastry, like pigs-in-a-blanket.  The side was even better–cooked red cabbage dressed in a creamy horseradish sauce.  Good luck trying to find a restaurant in Helen that serves fresh vegetables and fruit.  Just about all of them throw potato chips on the plate and offer no vegetables aside from slaw.

We visited Anna Ruby Falls in Unicoi State Park located about 15 minutes north of Helen.  The trail to the falls is a .4 mile hike up a paved but steep trail through a beautiful shady forest of tulip, hemlock, mountain chestnut oak,  hickory, maple, and mountain laurel.  The hemlock trees here appear to be healthy.  These are impressive falls.  I thought the forest around the falls was virgin because of the rugged terrain, but apparently after the Civil War some men  cut the original forest down.  They went broke–those despoilers of nature sent the felled timber down the rapid stream, and the wood was smashed to smithereens against the rocks.  Served them right for ruining such a gorgeous spot.  The forest now must be  over 120 years old.  At the beginning of the trail tourists can feed the trout congregating in a rocky pool.  I did see a few small ones, maybe 6-8 inches long.

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This chestnut tree in Unicoi State Park shows evidence of blight damage but the specimen next to it is twice as tall and still healthy.

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The bottom of Anna Ruby Falls.  It was nice and cool here in the shade by running water.

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The top of Anna Ruby Falls.

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The other side of Anna Ruby Falls.  The falls are bisected by dry rock covered by vegetation.

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Mountain laurel.

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Rock shelter.  Signs warn of rattlesnakes and copperheads but I didn’t see any snakes here.

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Great clouds of pretty blue butterflies fluttered throughout the trail to the falls.  Here are some drinking from a mud puddle.  They look white in the photo. I think this species is known as the spring azure (Celastrina ladon).

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Lake Smith in Unicoi State Park.  We picnicked and swam here.  I was on the look out for hot chicks in bikinis but kept seeing fat people instead.

We picnicked at Smith Lake.  It’s manmade and full of bass, bream, and obese Homo sapiens.  The water is clear enough to see the fish.