Posts Tagged ‘wood stork’

Pleistocene Storks of North America

January 29, 2015

At least 4 species of storks lived in North America during the Pleistocene.  The wood stork (Mycteria americana), the only surviving species, is nearly absent from the fossil record.  It is known from just 1 fossil site–a tar seep in Cuba.  This fossil specimen was found associated with fossils from 2 other species of stork including Wetmore’s (M. wetmori), a similar species but distinctly larger.  Fossil evidence of Wetmore’s stork has also been excavated from sites in Florida and California, indicating it was a widespread species.  Prior to the discovery that wood storks co-existed with Wetmore’s storks on Cuba, scientists assumed the former didn’t colonize North America until the extinction of the latter at the end of the Pleistocene.  But this discovery casts doubt on that assumption.  Wood storks may have lived in parts of North America where the process of fossilization was uncommon.  There is evidence that 2 species of large owls lived in Georgia during the Pleistocene, but the fossil material is so scant scientists are unable to as yet describe the species.  This demonstrates how incomplete the fossil record can be.

The other species of stork that lived in Cuba then was an unknown and undescribed species in the Ciconia genus.  There are 7 extant species of storks in the Ciconia genus including the well known white stork (Ciconia ciconia), a bird that winters in Africa, summers in Europe, and according to legend, brings babies to awaiting parents.  The maguari stork (C. maguari) ranges throughout South America where flooded grasslands predominate. It’s the only extant American stork in the Ciconia genus.  The extinct asphalt stork (C. maltha) was a North American bird, named for specimens found in the asphalt-like tar pits of California. Fossils of this species have been excavated from 34 sites in Florida, 2 sites in California, 1 site in Idaho, and 1 site in Mexico.  (The Mexican specimen was not conclusively identified.) The sites in Florida date from the early Pliocene to the late Pleistocene.  The asphalt stork, as a species, existed for at least 5 million years and likely occurred over a wide continental range for most of that timespan. Though it was closely related to the white stork, the asphalt stork probably occupied an ecological niche similar to that of the marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeriferus).

Maguari stork  (Ciconia maguari) of South America

Video of marabou storks sharing a carcass with African vultures. Note the featherless head and neck.  This prevents contamination from toxic bacteria on the rotting meat they eat.

Video of marabou storks vs. a pack of mongoose.

The marabou stork scavenges and hunts the African plains but nests in woodlands.  They catch and eat small mammals, bird nestlings, reptiles and amphibians, and insects.  They also rely on carrion, garbage, and even feces.  They often follow vultures, waiting for them to tear open the carcasses before taking advantage of the meal. Stork bills are incapable of opening tough hides.  Species closely related to Old World vultures lived in North America during the Pleistocene.  The asphalt stork likely followed vultures and scavenged in  much the same manner as the marabou stork.  The extinction of North America’s megafauna led to the extinction of avian scavengers including teratorns, Old World vultures, and asphalt storks.

The asphalt stork was a big bird, reaching 4.5 feet tall.  It would have been entertaining to watch scavengers make carcasses disappear during the Pleistocene.  Giant short-faced bears ruled, but if they weren’t around, there would have been battles between coyotes and storks.  With their big bills, storks probably held their own against the smaller canids.

Reference:

Saurez, William

“The Records of Storks (Ciconidae) from Quaternary Asphalt Deposit in Cuba”

The Condor 2003

 

Wakulla Springs, Shellpoint Beach, and The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

June 6, 2013

The drive from Augusta, Georgia to the Florida panhandle takes over 7 hours.  I chose a route of mostly back country highways that bisect farmland, abandoned farmland, and second growth forest.  I saw almost as many species of birds while traveling on these back roads as I did when I visited Wakulla Springs State Park the following day, but spotting birds while driving 60 mph is not as enjoyable as spying them on a leisurely boat ride.  We stayed at the Best Western Hotel in Medart–a beautiful, clean, and spacious base of operations for my natural history explorations.  I went for a swim after the exhausting hot drive and was excited to find a dead giant waterbug in the swimming pool.

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Giant waterbug. (Lethocerus ? sp.).  They prey on tadpoles and minnows by grasping them with their front legs and sucking the life out of them.  They’re considered a delicacy in Asia. 

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Courtyard of the Best Western Hotel in Medart.  It’s newer and nicer than the Wakulla Springs Lodge.

We went to Wakulla Springs State Park the next day, and the rich variety of wildlife quickly eliminated any doubt over my choice of vacation.  Even my wife and daughter were impressed, and they don’t share my love of nature.  The cost of admission is $6–a pittance compared to the value.  We saw 4 manatees and big schools of mullet right away before we even went on the boat ride.

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Mastodon leg bone excavated from Wakulla Springs.  Most of the Pleistocene mammal fossils were collected between 1859-1930.  I doubt there are any left to find.  During the Ice Ages many rivers in Florida dried up and the river beds consisted of isolated springs instead.

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Here’s a big school of mullet in the crystal clear waters of the spring.  I tried to take a photo of the manatees, but they weren’t at a good angle and they don’t show up clearly in the picture I took.

One of the flat-bottomed boats was handicapped accessible, so my wife was able to go with us.  Rides cost $8 per adult.  The captain serves as a guide and identifies all the plants and animals on the 45 minute journey.  A flat bottomed boat is necessary because the water is shallow, except where it bubbles up from a deep underground cavern.

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Map of the springs underground.  Several roads are as much as 200 feet above the underground part of the springs.  Signs on the local roads let drivers know this fact.  I guess that’s so drivers won’t be surprised if the road collapses.

The bird life is spectacular.  I saw a cattle egret rookery, common egrets, a great blue heron, little blue herons, a green heron, a yellow crowned night heron, a white ibis, wood ducks, pied billed grebes, anhingas, ospreys, coots, prothonotory warblers, red-winged blackbirds, crows, mockingbirds, and blue jays.  I also heard a woodpecker.  This was the first time I’d ever seen 3 of these species–the yellow crowned night heron, the white ibis, and the prothonotory warblers.   I have seen ospreys before, but this was the first time I ever saw an osprey nest, though I saw one again the following day at Otter Lake.  The guide said just about every tree snag was home to a wood duck nest.

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Cattle egret rookery.  I really need to get a telephoto lens.  Cattle egrets are common all across the rural countryside now where they hunt for insects stirred up by livestock and farm machinery.

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White ibis.  This was the first time I’d ever seen this species.

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If you enlarge the photo, you can see the wood duck in the middle of the picture.  Wood ducks are abundant here.

Alligators and large turtles known as Suwannee cooters were common.  We also saw a soft shelled turtle.

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Alligator in the upper left hand corner.  The Suwannee cooters were too far away for me to get a photo.

The water was so clear I could see the bottom everywhere, even in the deepest part of the spring, despite the guide’s claim that the water wasn’t clear enough that day to see the bottom in the deepest part which is 90 feet.  Looking into the spring was like looking into an aquarium.  We could see all the fish.  Mullet swam in big schools and was by far the most abundant fish, but I saw several long-nosed gar, 3 black and white sunfish, a warmouth sunfish, and someone else saw a bowfin.  Little red crayfish crawled on the sandy bottom.  It’s easy to understand why native Americans inhabited the area around Wakulla Springs for 15,000 years.  Spear-fishing was a cinch.  They had such a great variety of easily obtainable animal and plant foods that they could remain well fed without agriculture.  Fish, duck, turtle, squirrel, manatee, and deer were available protein year round.  Duck potato (Sagitteria sp.), cattails, wild rice, nuts, and acorns provided the starches.

Originally, Wakulla Spring had a mostly sandy and limestone bottom, but invasive hydrilla now covers much of it and gives the water a greenish tint.  The water wells up from deep underground, and the chill surprised me when I went for a swim after the boat ride.  I saw cold blooded reptiles swimming in the water and mistakenly assumed the water would be warm, like a bathtub.  Instead, the water temperature was at least 20 degrees F cooler than the air temperature.  What a shock.

The woods around Wakulla Springs consist of white oak, live oak, hickory, sweetgum, cypress, red maple, ash, loblolly pine, pond pine, willow, dogwood, and wax myrtle.  The trees are large and much of the tract looks like it holds virgin timber.  The productive hickory supports an abundant population of gray squirrels.

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Picnickers left their lunches unattended while they went swimming.  Crows and squirrels were in the process of looting their food.  I saw a crow fly off with half a sandwich.

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Spanish moss covers this white oak in the parking lot.  It had unusual leaves for a white oak.

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Hickory trees are abundant here.  This 3-pronged one is quite large.

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This cypress tree is 5 feet in diameter.  Scientists cored it and found it to be 200 years old.  A cypress tree next to it is less than 1/2 this tree’s size in diameter, yet scientists found it was 600 (yes 600) years old.  It had s stunted growth due to nutrient deficiency.

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Pickerel weed (the purple) and duck potato (Sagitteria) blooming.

Cypress wood is rot resistant.  The guide noted a leaning dead cypress snag in the middle of the channel that looked like it was about to fall over.  He said it looked that way when he first started working in the park…in 1957.  Pickerel weed and duck potato were blooming.  I saw 2 kinds of grape vines growing in the woods including muscadine and some type of bunch grape that had a lot of young grapes on it.  As we left the park, we saw a white tail deer feeding in the middle of the day.

Shellpoint Beach

We arrived at Shellpoint Beach about midmorning and had the whole beach to ourselves before other sunbathers joined us 30 minutes later.  I didn’t find any interesting sea shells.  Oyster shells were the only common ones here.  Shellpoint Beach juts into Apalachee Bay and is known more for fishing than swimming.  There are seasons for grouper, red snapper, sea trout, cobia, and scallop harvesting.  There are no waves over 8 inches and those are caused by boats.  Laughing gulls and boat-tailed grackles hang around the pavilion, hoping to share scraps with picnickers.

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Nice pavilion at Shellpoint Beach, Florida.

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Apalachee Bay, Florida.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge sprawls all along the coast of Apalachee Bay.  I visited the northern half during the heat of midday which is the worst time for viewing wildlife.  Nevertheless, I saw a turkey as soon as I pulled into the refuge.  Near the lighthouse, several naive juvenile cotton rats foraged at the base of the palm.  They didn’t know they were supposed to be afraid of us.

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St. Mark’s Lighthouse.  It’s 180 years old.  It’s not open to the public.  I assume park officials are worried about liability issues.  Too many suicides.

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Young cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus).  It didn’t know it was supposed to be afraid of us.  Herons eat these mammals.  I’ve seen these quite often in roadside dtiches but never close up.  I didn’t realize they are a cute animal, especially compared to invasive Norway rats.

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A saltwater storm surge killed these loblolly pines in 2008, creating an open habitat.

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A freshwater lilly pond within the wildlife refuge.  Home to alligators, largemouth bass, shellcracker bream, bullhead and channel catfish, and warmouth.

Later that evening, I went to the southern part of the St. Marks NWR to look for fox squirrels.  An article in The Eagle Eye, a pamphlet published by the refuge biologists, reported the presence of fox squirrels in a pine flatwoods near Otter Lake.  I didn’t see any fox squirrels, but I spotted a pair of endangered cockaded woodpeckers.

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I saw  2 red cockaded woodpeckers in this vicinity.  I didn’t even bother trying to photograph them without a telephoto lens.  Refuge officials maintain this environment with fire which is evident from the abundance of burned wood on the ground.  Frequent signs say “We prevent wildfire with prescribed fire.”  Actually, prescribed fire is no more beneficial than wildfire.

This pine flatwoods hosts loblolly pine, live oak, southern red oak, runner oak, saw palmetto, grasses, and ferns.  The mosquitoes weren’t bad this time of year in Florida but a species of yellow-green horsefly or deerfly was bothersome.  They thought I tasted good.

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There’s no swimming at Otter Lake.  The sign warns of alligators.  I heard sheep frogs here.

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There’s an osprey nest in this snag.  Note the osprey at the top of the tree.

To top off my trip, while I was driving home through Emanuel County, Georgia, I saw some endangered wood storks foraging in a flooded ditch in a farmer’s field.  I was satisfied with seeing a white ibis and wood storks until I arrived home and read a vintage ornithology book written in the early 20th century.  That author saw 25,000 white ibis on a wet prairie in Florida and 5,000 wood storks at a rookery also in Florida.  The Florida of 1910 is gone forever.

Wakulla County Eats

We dined at 3 restaurants in Wakulla County during our stay.  I thought Barwick’s Seafood and Deli was the best,  I ate grilled mullet and it was excellent, though I suspect it was broiled or sauteed rather than grilled.  All the local family restaurants have $12 entrees and $9 sandwiches.  Popular items found at most of them include fried seafood of all kinds (mullet, shrimp, flounder, catfish), grilled grouper sandwiches,  and pulled pork barbeque smothered in an overly sweet sauce.  An interesting breakfast item on the menu at the Coastal Restaurant is mullet and eggs.  Mullet is really abundant in Florida.  Many of the locals order farm raised catfish instead.  Catfish is bland compared to mullet.  One stand offers smoked mullet dip.  Most of these restaurants could shave a few dollars off their prices, if they didn’t serve ridiculous oversize portions.  No wonder Americans are so fat.  I had 5 slices of mullet on my plate, plus a big pile of french fries and hushpuppies and a salad bar.  Do Americans really expect dinners this large?  I’m a member of the clean plate club and managed to finish my portion, but I exercise hard everyday.

The worst restaurant was Hamahocker’s Barbeque.  I ate their smoked brisket.  I’m pretty sure smoked brisket is supposed to be more tender than shoe leather.  The potato salad tasted like someone dumped a load of sugar on it.  I like my own cooking better than any restaurant, but I can’t cook when I’m staying in a hotel.

The Silver Bluff Audubon Center

November 28, 2011

I planned to visit the Moody Nature Preserve over Thanksgiving break, but I changed my mind because I hate driving.  Instead, I went to The Silver Bluff Audubon Center near Silver Bluff, South Carolina.  It was a 45 minute drive from my house vs. a 3 hour drive to the Moody Preserve.  The shorter distance beat sitting in a car half the day.

The SBAC is located in the boondocks.  Silver Bluff Road runs off Old Jackson Highway, an area of second growth forest, agricultural land, and factories.  The latter are located here to take advantage of the state’s anti-union oppression.  A large wheat field borders the bird sanctuary.  The last 2 miles of Silver Bluff Road consists of unpaved but well graded dirt.  The road leads to the Savannah River but to reach the hiking trails it’s only necessary to drive about half that distance.

Map of the SBAC. I hiked the Tanager Loop Trail.  It’s supposed to be about 2 miles, but I think it’s slightly longer than that.  The Tanager Trail is well marked and easy to follow.

This ancient dwelling is near the beginning of Tanager Trail.  It looks like an outhouse, but someone probably lived in it a long time ago.  Perhaps it was a hunting cabin.  It’s surrounded by overgrown chinaberry trees (I think).

Over 200 species of birds have been recorded at the SBAC, and I saw about 5 % of them in the hour I was there.  I suppose, if I could have stayed all day, I could have easily doubled that number.  I didn’t see any of the rare birds that make this preserve special–bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks, wood storks, Bachman’s sparrows, prairie warblers, Swainson’s warblers, and loggerhead shrikes.  All of these species breed here, but some are migrants.  I didn’t see the ponds where the water level is managed for the wood storks.  Wood storks require shallow water that supports an abundance of small aquatic vertebrates.  They nest close to shallow water, making it easy to feed their young.  I did see a wood stork last spring around the corner from my house as it flew over a wooded stream.

The 10 species of birds I did see were common–white breasted nuthatches, Le Conte’s sparrows, downy woodpeckers, rufous sided towhees, mourning doves, cardinals, crows, redwinged black birds, and turkey vultures.  This was the first time I’d ever noticed and identified the white breasted nuthatch, though I realize now I’ve seen them many times in the past.  They occur in pairs, and I did see 2 flying together.  The other hiking trail is actually named the White Breasted Nuthatch Trail.  On the way to this preserve I drove on bridges over Phinizy Swamp, Merry Brickyard Ponds, and the Savannah River, and I spotted 4 additional species–black vultures, common mergansers, great blue herons, and egrets.  None of the birds in the SBAC cooperated with my attempts to photograph them.  They kept flitting about and perching high in the trees.

There’s an open pine savannah with longleaf pine and wire grass alongside the unpaved road that leads to the trails, but I didn’t stop to photograph it.  I didn’t see any longleaf pine trees along the trail I hiked, though much of the forest is quite open there, and the fires they use to manage the savannah have undoubtedly spread here.

Much of the forest in the SBAC is open like this.  It consists of a few species of pine and many species of oak.  These are loblolly pine, I believe.  Shortleaf pine and loblolly pine hybridize and some of the trees showed characteristics of both.

Many of the pine tree trunks are charred, showing evidence of fires.  The fires used to manage the open pine savannah evidentally spread here.  Both pines and oaks are fire resistant.  Most pine and oak trees over 3 years old can survive light ground fires.  Some species of oak, however, are somewhat less fire resistant.  They may survive, but the fire damage makes them vulnerable to diseases which rot out the wood and create snags.

Here’s an oak tree that was wrecked by a storm, probably earlier this past summer.

Common trees along the Tanager Trail that I identified include loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, hybrid pines, water oak, laurel oak, Shumard’s oak, southern red oak, black or cherry bark oak (I can’t tell the difference), blackjack oak, swamp chestnut oak, post oak, overcup oak, sweetgum, hickory, beech, and tupelo.  The composition suggests what botanists might refer to as a mesophitic river terrace forest because most of the species prefer moist sites.  I had never noticed and identified Shumard’s oak before, though I’ve certainly seen it.  Shumard’s oak can grow to 100 feet tall.  It’s a valuable species utilized for reforesting bottomlands due to its fast growth rate.  Swamp chestnut oak occurs here as well.  It’s also known as cow oak because its acorns are palatable enough for cows to eat.

Spanish moss grows on most of the hardwoods here.

Is this a dried out Carolina Bay?  I took this photo while standing on a boardwalk, but last summer must have been so dry the water here completely evaporated.  Tupelo trees grow here.  They normally grow partially submerged.  I think this might be a Carolina Bay.

There’s lots of snags in these woods.

The tree on the right is a beech.  I’m always excited to find this northern species in Georgia.  I couldn’t identify the tree on the left because the leaves had all fallen off, but there were a lot of hickory leaves on the ground around the trunk.

Note the woodpecker hole at the very top of the debarked tree.  Did the woodpeckers debark their nesting tree?

A windstorm knocked this tree precariously over the trail.  Several other trees were knocked over in a neat row.  Tornado or downburst?

Photo of the trunk of the leaning tree in the previous photo.  The base is cracked.

The trail goes through a planted pine plantation.  I couldn’t believe the trail sign pointed this way.  I thought some practical joker had twisted the sign because a trail criscrossed this one.  Luckily, I did follow the sign.  Trees are harvested here, but for the most part the management is beneficial for the birds.  This was the dullest part of the trail, though a big flock of redwinged blackbirds flew over us here.

I saw deer tracks and heard a squirrel barking–the only mammal life I detected here.  Surrounding this deer track are fallen leaves from laurel oak, water oak, and overcup oak.

If I would have had more time I would have walked down the unpaved road to the river.  I hiker can easily get over 5 miles of enjoyable walking here on the trails and unpaved road.  On the Friday after Thanksgiving there were only 2 other cars parked here, so it’s not at all crowded.