Archive for the ‘Natural History Expeditions’ Category

My 4th Visit to Phinizy Swamp

May 28, 2020

Phinizy Swamp is a protected wetland located in Augusta, Georgia about a 20 minute drive from my house, and if I could, I would visit it more often than I do.  We strolled through the swamp 2 weeks ago for the first time since my daughter almost stepped on an alligator’s head here.  I wasn’t expecting to see as much bird life during late spring because wintering ducks have already migrated north.  However, I did see big flocks of spotted sandpipers (Actitis macularious) and chimney swifts flying over the water, and I also saw a couple of lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes).  The spotted sandpipers and lesser yellowlegs winter south of Augusta and spend their summers farther north.  Both are migratory transient species for this area.  The lesser yellowlegs breeds in Alaska, so these particular individuals were lagging far behind.  Spotted sandpipers breed through much of the Midwest.

2 spotted sandpipers and a lesser yellowlegs.

8 spotted sandpipers, 1 lesser yellowlegs, and a yellow-bellied cooter.

This was the biggest yellow-bellied cooter I’d ever seen.

We encountered a classroom with a professor and students who were studying the macroinvertebrates and water quality of the swamp.  Some of the macroinvertebrates they may have collected were backswimmers, a bug in the Notonectidae family.  These true bugs (Hemiptera) should not be confused with water boatmen of the Corixidae family.  Backswimmers swim on their backs, while water boatmen swim right side up.  Backswimmers are predators that feed upon insects, tadpoles, and minnows; water boatmen feed upon algae.  Surprisingly, both can fly and find isolated puddles where they won’t be eaten by fish. There is a dragonfly in the below photo as well.  Dragonflies are beneficial predators that eat mosquito larva.

Blue dragonfly perched over backswimmers.

The forest around the swamp consists mainly of water oak, loblolly pine, red maple, sweet gum, and cypress.  My favorite trees here, though, are the beech–otherwise rare in Augusta.

A week after I visited the swamp a man posted a photo on facebook of a bald eagle in Phinizy Swamp.  I hope I get to see a bald eagle here on my next visit.

 

Spirit Creek State Forest and Wildlife Management Area in Richmond County, Georgia

April 9, 2020

The fascist germaphobes closed all the parks in my area, but we were able to find a nice place for a nature walk anyway.  The Spirit Creek State Forest and Wildlife Management Area covers about a square mile in south Richmond County, Georgia.  It’s the former site of farmland used to produce food for Gracewood State Hospital and School.  The former opened in 1921 when many people still relied on their own food production.  Later, it was leased as pasture to cattle farmers before state foresters converted it to a state forest and wildlife management area where hunters can shoot deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit, and waterfowl.  Some areas are designated for archers, and turkey can only be killed with bows or shotguns.  Oddly enough, hunting for feral hogs and coyotes is not allowed here.

Map of Spirit Creek State Forest and WMA.

Spirit Creek, a tributary of the Savannah River, flows through this protected area.  Marcum Branch and Middle Fork Creek originate near the Columbia County/ Richmond County line, and they join to form Spirit Creek, and the tributary is dammed upstream from Spirit Creek Forest to form Gordon Lake–a golf course water trap.  On our nature walk we journeyed down a gravel road and butterflies led the way.  Seemingly, the same butterfly, a dark phase of a tiger swallowtail butterfly, flitted ahead the entire way, as if it wanted to show us a beautiful scene that made the trip worthwhile.  I saw several species of butterflies including a black swallowtail and a small brown skipper that wouldn’t stay still for identification.  I also observed the regular phase of tiger swallowtails.  I heard cardinals, a tufted titmouse, Carolina wrens, and mockingbirds; but I heard and saw more species of birds in my backyard earlier that morning. I spotted a gray squirrel and deer prints were a common sight on the gravel road.

The forest is species poor.  Originally, this location was likely a rich bottomland forest along the creek and a typical piedmont oak-hickory-pine forest on the hills.  Now, it consists mostly of planted loblolly and shortleaf pines.  Supposedly, longleaf pine grows here, but I didn’t find any.  The only oaks were some overcup oak saplings.  Black cherry and sweetgum are common here.  Birds distribute cherry pits in their droppings, and cherry trees thrive in the open conditions.  I did encounter 2 interesting plants–a sourwood tree and a tobacco plant.  Sourwood normally grows in rich hardwood forests and this specimen stood out in the otherwise monotonous woods.  The poisonous nicotine in tobacco deters most animals from eating it.  Nevertheless, the larva of 17 species of butterflies and moths feed upon it, making them in turn toxic or bad tasting for birds.  Tobacco is native to North America and was cultivated by Native Americans, though I wonder if this particular plant occurs here naturally or descends from a tobacco patch planted a long time ago. Spirit Creek Forest is regularly logged, and evidence of logging is all around.  I took a photo of a logged over section, but it’s so ugly I’m not even going to show it here.

Here’s an unexpected plant–tobacco (Nicotiana sp.).

Spirit Creek State Forest used to be a cow pasture..

Dark phase of a tiger swallowtail butterfly. It seemed like this butterfly led us down a half mile of the trail to show us the waterfall.

At the end of the trail we found what I imagine the butterfly was showing us–a beautiful little waterfall.  It was only 18 inches high, and I suppose a naysayer could call it a rapid but I prefer to have a more enthusiastic attitude.  Our nature walk was a welcome diversion from being quarantined.  We had the whole forest to ourselves.

Surprise.  I wasn’t expecting the waterfall.  Maybe less than 24 inches tall, but I’m calling it a waterfall.

View up Spirit Creek.

There are more rapids up Spirit Creek.

The picnic tables next to the waterfall need repair.  I found an empty beer bottle and an abandoned college textbook here.

The Carolina Bay Nature Reserve in Aiken, South Carolina

March 26, 2020

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

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Carolina Bay in Aiken, S.C.

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

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

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I saw this green sunfish being reeled in.

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Green frog.  Extremely abundant here.

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Mr. Snapping Turtle.

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

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Canada goose.

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

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

January 3, 2020

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

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

Rocky shoal in Reed Creek.  Note the sewage pipe.

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

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

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

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

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

Adding a Loggerhead Shrike to my Bird Photo Checklist

November 30, 2019

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

Loggerhead shrike in Bradenton, Florida.  Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

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

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

The Alcovy Conservation Center Revisited

August 31, 2019

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

1 tupelo tree does not equal a swamp.

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

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

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

These muscadines were blackish purple and very good to eat.

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

 

The Alcovy Conservation Center (part I)

June 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

Open woodland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Florida

March 3, 2019

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

Green heron

Boat-tailed grackle.

Common gallinule.

Flock of coots.

Snowy egret and common gallinule.

I estimate this is an 8 foot long alligator.

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

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

Paynes Prairie State Park in Florida

November 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pinhotti Trail in North Georgia and Alabama

August 28, 2018

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

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Map of Pinhotti Trail.

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

Mountain chestnut oak leaves.

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

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

Boulder field.

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