Archive for the ‘Natural History Expeditions’ Category

Cades Cove

June 19, 2017

Most of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is heavily wooded, and wildlife usually stays hidden in thick vegetation.  Cades Cove is 1 of the few areas in the park where tourists can reliably see wildlife because it is an open beautiful valley of fields and thin fingers of forest, resembling what many southeastern landscapes looked like until the mid-19th century.  Indians set fire to the valley annually to improve habitat for game animals, and white settlers maintained the open nature of the valley by using it as pasture and by planting row crops.  The valley remained open when the National Park Service took over the site 90 years ago.  Today, a 1-way loop road encircles the valley, making for the best accessible wildlife watching in the park.  I rode my car on the Cades Cove loop road last Saturday evening with my wife and daughter.  We saw >50 horses, 20 deer, 2 black bears, 1 squirrel, 1 turkey, and lots of crows and chimney swifts.

The herd of tame horses is located near the beginning of the loop road.  Many different breeds are represented including spotted palominos, Clydesdales, and solid black and brown horses.  I saw cowbirds foraging between the horses.  Fossil evidence shows horses did inhabit this region during the Pleistocene.  I would like to see the park service allow horses to go wild here.  Wild horses belong in North America.

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There’s an herd of over 50 horses near the entrance to the Cades Cove loop road.

Black bear sightings caused several traffic jams on the loop road.  There are hundreds of signs telling tourists to pull over when they want to stop and see the wildlife, and other signs constantly warn to stay at least 50 yards away from bears and deer.  Most tourists ignore these signs.  They stop their cars in the middle of the road, rush toward the bear, and get as close as they can to photograph the bruin.  We were stuck in 1 traffic jam for 20 minutes.  At least I did get to see wild black bears for the first time in my life.  I’d rather live in a world where bears outnumber people.  It has been thousands of years since bears outnumbered the entire population of Homo sapiens on earth but before the development of agriculture they did.

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We saw 20 deer.  This buck snuck behind me.

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This was the only turkey I saw in Cades Cove.  I expected to see more.  While driving through the park the following day I saw an hen with 2 chicks cross the road.  Why did the turkey cross the road? 

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There are 4 deer in this photo.  2 are laying down but their antlers are visible.

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This was the only live squirrel I saw in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I was surprised I didn’t see more.

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We saw 2 black bears on the Cades Cove loop road.  Look at how close these 2 stupid asses got to the bear.  They are underestimating how dangerous this situation is.  There must be at least 100 signs telling people to stay at least 50 yards away from the bears and deer.  Instead, people rush in and try to get as close as possible to take a photo.  That bear could be mauling them in about 2 seconds.

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These are the rare and extirpated species that used to live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted skunks are rare, Indiana bats are endangered, northern flying squirrels are probably extirpated here, fox squirrels haven’t been seen for decades in the park, and northern water shrews are uncommon.

I was surprised I didn’t see more turkeys or squirrels.  The latter probably stay in the tree tops for much of the day.  I also expected to see woodchucks, rabbits, and maybe wild boars.  Woodchucks are more active in the morning, and I did see 4 of them while driving through the North Carolina mountains on the way home the following day.  I can’t explain the absence of rabbits because there is plenty of excellent habitat for them in Cades Cove.  Perhaps they were hidden in the tall grass.  Ironically, I saw a road-killed wild pig 5 miles from my house on the drive home the next day as if the wildlife watching Gods wanted to reward me with a kind of epilogue to my trip.  Despite how common wild pigs are supposed to be, this was the first road-killed specimen I’ve seen in the Augusta, Georgia area.

The National Park Service should introduce bison, elk, and cougars to Cades Cove.  I know the addition of cougars would be controversial, but the park service should be inspired to come as close to possible to establishing a complete ecosystem here.  More open areas should be created as well so that wildlife populations could increase.

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The National Park Service should introduce bison and elk to this side of the park to fill up this empty space.

Bird watching at Cades Cove was not as good as in Townsend, Tennessee where our hotel was located.  I saw 5 species of birds in Cades Cove compared to 11 species in town.  However, I did encounter 1 unexpected species outside of Cades Cove but inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I saw a raven while driving in the higher elevations, then saw another raven on the way to Cades Cove at a lower elevation.  This was the first time I’d ever seen live ravens in the wild.  I mistakenly thought ravens were rare here because there is only 1 raven nesting site in the entire state of Georgia.  But according to the National Park Service, the raven is a fairly common year round resident in the park.  Ravens look like humongous crows.  The birds I saw were far too large to be crows.  They were about the size of a red-shouldered hawk.  Crows are more common here, however. In addition to the 5 species of birds I saw at Cades Cove, I heard the constant song of the field sparrow.  Eastern meadowlarks are also supposed to be common here, but I didn’t see any.  I have never seen an eastern meadowlark.

Night fell by the time we left the Cades Cove loop road.  I was surprised at the abundance of lightning bugs.  Special tour buses take tourists through the park at night to see the amazing light show displayed by the synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) during late May and early June.  We probably saw some of the other 18 species of lightning bugs found in the park because it was too late in the season for P. carolinus. Lightning bugs are not bugs, nor are they flies.  They are beetles.  Their larva prey upon snails, slugs, and insects for a year or 2 before they transform into flying adults for the final few weeks of their lives.  Different species flash at different intervals and that is how males and females of the same species recognize each other.  Lightning bugs are only seen occasionally in Augusta, Georgia.  They are abundant in the Great Smoky Mountains because the moist forests support a large population of their favorite food–escargot.

Video from you tube of the synchronous fireflies.

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Fort Pulaski National Monument Near Savannah, Georgia

February 24, 2017

Casimir Pulaski saved George Washington’s life during the Battle of Brandywine.  The Americans were losing this battle against the British when Pulaski, an experienced cavalry officer, discovered the British were attempting to cut off retreat and capture Washington’s entire army and command.  Pulaski took 30 of Washington’s personal guard on a reconnaissance mission, and they found an escape route.  Washington used this avenue to lead his soldiers in an organized retreat, so they could live to fight another day.  Just imagine how different American history would be, if George Washington would have been killed or captured in this battle.  Without his military leadership America might have lost the Revolutionary War.  Or if Americans won anyway, a different first president might have established the executive branch as a kind of dictatorship.

Pulaski was appointed general in charge of the American cavalry following his heroic valor during the Battle of Brandywine.  There were only a few hundred men in the American cavalry then.  He participated in many battles before he was killed by cannon fire during a cavalry charge on British-held Savannah, Georgia.

The U.S. began building coastal fortifications after the War of 1812 because during this debacle the British had captured American ports with impunity.  Construction of a coastal fort in Savannah began in 1829 and it was completed in 1842.  The fort was named in honor of Casimir Pulaski. However, there was little danger of a foreign invasion after the fort was built, and it was manned by just 2 men at a time.  Confederate traitors seized the fort at the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1862 Union naval forces bombarded the fort, forcing its surrender in less than 2 days.  Ironically, the only battle that took place at Fort Pulaski demonstrated coastal fortifications were obsolete against naval ships with newly developed, accurate, rifled artillery.  Union forces held the fort, bottling up the port of Savannah for the duration of the war–a critical strategic advantage for the north.

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The U.S. named a coastal fort in Savannah, Georgia after Casimir Pulaski.

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The fort is surrounded by a saltwater moat.

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A Civil War battle, the only battle that took place at this fort, proved that coastal defenses were obsolete.  Union naval forces made the fort surrender after 30 hours of bombardmentIncidentally, there are no guardrails on the inside here.

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The jailhouse at the fort held Confederate prisoners during the war and political prisoners after.

My wife and I visited Fort Pulaski last week on our 23rd wedding anniversary.  There is some interesting nature at Fort Pulaski National Monument.  The endangered diamond backed terrapin finds refuge here, but they live in the surrounding salt marsh, and I didn’t see any.  I did see big flocks of robins and chimney swifts.  They stop and roost here on their way north during spring and probably fall migration.  On a nature trail I saw rufus-sided towhees, Carolina wrens, and sparrows, and there were black vultures, turkey vultures, common crows, and ring-billed gulls flying over the fort.  I think I saw an osprey landing on a light post, and fish crows perched on telephone wire while I was driving on Island Expressway, the road that leads to the fort.  Fish crows are smaller than common crows, but small individuals of the latter may overlap in size.  Fish crows have a distinct call.  I didn’t have an opportunity to hear them and make a definitive identification.  Raccoons crap on the sidewalks here.  They are feeding upon palmetto berries this time of year.

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There is a lot of raccoon scat on the sidewalks at Fort Pulaski.  They are eating palmetto berries.  The park service should introduce Burmese pythons to reduce the raccoon population here.

Last fall’s Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5, left a big impact on the local forest.  Many trees were uprooted, and crews were still cleaning up the mess.  A storm surge killed several acres of live oaks and red cedar, though some Carolina palmetto survived.  The salt water that flooded and killed the trees is still standing in some places.  The storm surge created a kind of ghost forest, and it will be interesting to see what it looks like in 10 years.

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Saltwater storm surge from Hurricane Matthew created a kind of ghost forest with acres of standing dead trees.  Note the standing salt water over 4 months after the storm.

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Hurricane Matthew uprooted many trees here. Tiger mosquitoes attacked me while I was on this trail, and it is just February.

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Although this fig tree located inside the confines of the fort looks sickly white from storm surge, it survived the hurricane.  I saw green buds.

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.