Sunday, February 24, 2013

Help the Forest Service Plan the Future of the Francis Marion National Forest!

Francis Marion National Forest -- I'On Swamp -- January 30, 2011

           You know how one thing leads to another, right?  Case in point:  I was researching on-line for a future blog post some potential publicly-accessible sites where a particular plant might be be growing.  The plant in question grows in calcium rich soil and, according to A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, by Richard Porcher and Douglas Raynor, shell mounds are a likely habitat.  The best known local shell mound, close to Charleston, is the Sewee Shell Mound in the Francis Marion Forest.  Well one link leads to another and I found a timely reminder of an important event that I had heard of once -- via one of our local TV news stations (I think).  The US Forest Service is seeking public input as they revise the Forest Plan (its land and resource management plan)  for the Francis Marion National Forest!   The last plan was completed in 1995 and focused on helping the forest to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.  Due to the significant changes in the surrounding communities over the past 17 years, the Forest Service faces new opportunities and challenges in managing the forest.  The 2012 forest planning rule will guide the Forest Service in designing the new plan and it places greater emphasis on public involvement than ever before.   Wow!  What an opportunity for all of us who love the forest,  the recreational opportunities and the protective wildlife habitat that it offers!   The comment period runs from February 11, 2013 to April 11, 2013 and can be easily done via an interactive on-line site.  You can access the interactive site via the Francis Marion National Forest page or via the Francis Marion Plan Revision 2012 - 2016 page.  The latter gives more details on the forest planning process as well information on a public workshop to be held this Tuesday, February 26, 2013 in North Charleston.  If only I did not have to go to work!   I imagine that several stakeholder groups will be in attendance and the squeaky wheel does get most of the attention.  I hope that representatives of various conservation groups will attend in good number as we need to protect the forest's diverse and critically important habitats for the most important stakeholders -- the wildlife! 

         To remind you of the beauty of the forest and the flora and the fauna that call it home, here are few of my favorite photos from various places within the forest boundaries.

Indian Pink -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2006
Summer Tanager -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 29, 2007
Red-cockaded Woodpecker -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 16, 2009

Pickerelweed -- Francis Marion Forest -- May, 16, 2009

Sweet Water-Lily --- May 16, 2009

Wild Turkey -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 16, 2009
Carl on I'On Swamp Trail -- Francis Marion Forest -- January 30, 2011

Sewee Visitor Center -- Francis Marion National Forest -- April 7, 2010

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher -- Sewee Visitor Center -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 7, 2010

Red Wolf -- Captive Breeding program -- Sewee Visitor Center -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 7, 2010

Barn Swallow -- Sewee Visitor Center -- April 7, 2010

Barn Swallow -- Sewee Visitor Center -- April 7, 2010
Damselfly -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011

Damselfly -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011

Dragonfly -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011
 I have looked at dozens of photos of dragonflies and I cannot find one like this one.  Perhaps one of my entomologist friends will be able to supply us with a species name.

Virginia Dayflower (maybe?) -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011

Six-lined Racerunner Skink -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011

Eastern Cottontail (?) -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011

Willow Hall & Whilden Roads Fish Pond -- Francis Marion Forest -- May 14, 2011

Coral Bean -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Carolina Chickadee -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Prairie Warbler -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Palamedes Swallowtail on thistle -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Palamedes Swallowtail on thistle -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Bachman's Sparrow -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Prothonotary Warbler with weird brown mark on head -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Common Yellowthroat -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

White-Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron -- Francis Marion Forest -- April 28, 2012

Starry Rosin-Weed with Skipper -- April 28, 2012

             I could not determine the species of Skipper on the flower above.  If any of my expert entomologist friends know, please tell us!

           If you love the forest, please do not hesitate to use the links above to have a say in its future management!  I hope that some will consider going to the meeting, too!   


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

This Past Weekend: The Chase for 3 Extraordinary Life Birds!

           I had promised myself to spend less time chasing birds this Spring so that I could devote more time to photography, blogging, exercising, etc. In fact, weekend before last, Carl and I did not do any birding excursions at all. Thus, as the week progressed, I was becoming very antsy to see some good birds! And with excellent, much coveted, potential-life birds being reported, I commenced planning my strategy.  After all, a birder just has to chase every now and then!  As it turns out, I was actually able to start last Friday afternoon, right after work! A Ross's Goose had reportedly been  grazing with some Canada Geese in the Village Green neighborhood West of the Ashley! So I e-mailed my colleague and fellow birding nerd from work, Francie, and asked if she wanted to chase it with me. Of course, she replied with an enthusiastic YES! We left work as soon as we could arriving 40 minutes later at our destination -- Ross's Goose on the corner of West Bridge and Stockbridge Roads -- easy as pie -- right where it was reported to be! They could have hung a house number on it.  This was my easiest rare life bird ever!

Ross's Goose --  Village Green neighborhood in West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

          This very small, adorable goose is just a wee bit off course.  Its primary wintering grounds are in the Central Valley of California with increasing numbers occurring in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and the north-central highlands of Mexico.  The grand majority (an estimated 95%) of its population breeds in Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the Central Arctic.  The rest breed along the western and southern coasts of Hudson Bay, on Southhampton and Baffin Islands and in the Western Arctic in Alaska.  How wonderful to have it vacation during this winter with us here in the Lowcountry! 

          This particular speciman is gaining quite the following as more and more area birders have come to see it.  While Francie and I were there, another birding friend, John Cox, arrived to take a gander at the goose.  After they left, I stayed on awhile to capture more photos of this cute goose!

Ross's Goose with Canada Goose in background -- Village Green neighborhood in West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

Ross's Goose -- Village Green neighborhood in West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

          With this Ross's Goose, my life list just bumped up another notch to 340!  I was not done yet!  I had made additional plans with birding buddy Andy Harrison and hubby Carl for a Saturday field excursion to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to go after the Cinnamon Teal that had been reported during the last week.  Our birding friends Pam Ford and Perry Nugent were also headed there.  But since we had also planned a pre-dawn side trip to Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) to watch the Tundra Swans awaken on Mary's House Pond, we decided to meet them at Savannah NWR later in the morning.  So as not to deviate from the essential topic of this post -- chasing 3 life birds -- the Tundra Swan side excursion will merit a post all its own.  Don't worry, I will let you know when that post is ready!  

           We arrived at Savannah NWR at about 9:30 am and found Perry and Pam at the entrance to the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive.  We birded with them and then Andy and I also birded sometimes on our own behind them -- always keeping in touch by phone when separated to alert each other to our sightings.  Carl, in the meantime, had taken off on foot.  He does not like birding from the car.  Carl moves along the trail more quickly on foot than do we in the car and thus he had the honor of finding the handsome Cinnamon Teal first.  He was lucky enough also to find the bird at a decent photographic range and he shot the photo below.  What a beauty with his russet coloration, the red eye, black bill and green and black feathers along his back!

Cinnamon Teal -- Savannah NRW -- February 9, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller
              Of course, Carl called us immediately and we flew along as quickly as we could to catch up to him.  Unfortunately, we had a bit of an anxious moment when we discovered that the bird had disappeared!  Thankfully, someone relocated him again a little further back in the same impoundment!  He was now too far away for decent photography but the views through the scopes were excellent indeed!  We all cheered a big Hoorah as this was a life bird for most of us!  Yes, several other birders had come along to join in on the scoping party!  For me, I now could add another notch to my life bird totem pole -- no. 341 -- the Cinnamon Teal!

             As Carl put it, this bird was LOST!  The normal range of the North American sub-species (there are 4 other subspecies in South America!) is in the Rockies and westward. 

             While celebrating with some of the Georgia birders who had joined in on our Cinnamon Teal scoping party, talk turned to our next target -- the Georgia-based Snowy Owl, newly arrived on Tybee Island -- just across the Savannah River!  This same owl had originally taken up residence in late December  on Sea Island and St. Simon's Island further south down the Georgia coastline.  It apparently is not much disturbed by the multitude of gawking birders who have traveled to see it.  In late December and early January, several SC birders had made the trek to see it but we hesitated and did not.  Then it disappeared for the past month and finally was re-sighted last week on the much closer Tybee Island.  

           Some in our group expressed concern that the Tybee Island Mardi Gras celebration with parade and a street party scheduled for the afternoon would cause this owl to depart.  Would it be worth going down there for no owl?  Considering the distance that we had already driven, now was the time for us to try.  We decided though to continue birding at Savannah NWR rather than head immediately into the hoopla of a parade and closed streets.  A Georgia birder graciously checked his iPhone for the latest updates on the owl's whereabouts.  It had been spotted a 10 a.m. on a building at Strand Avenue and 16th Street.  By mid-afternoon, we were ready to begin our trek across the state line.  The traffic to Tybee Island was not bad at all!  It was only within the last couple of blocks before our destination that the streets became thick with revelers.  Arriving at a roadblock for the still on-going street party, we turned left and entered a huge, crowded parking lot with the Ocean Plaza Hotel on one side and the dunes of the beach and the fishing pier on the other.  Luckily, we found a place to park.  At 4:30 in the afternoon with temperatures beginning to cool, the place was just beginning to thin out. 

          We climbed the beach access ramps and scanned the rooftops.  Top honors go to Carl again who first found the owl!  He is such a good spotter!  The owl was sitting up in the sun on the turquoise roof of a new condominium, facing away from us and very much backlit.  But it was most definitely a Snowy Owl!  We needed to get closer and on the other side of the bird for better photographic options.  So we trekked in that direction but soon lost sight of his roof  behind the thickly grouped houses and condominiums.  Finally, I got around to the other side of the condo and looked up to see him much closer, BUT flying away from me with 4 American Crows on his tail!  He had headed back up the beach towards the east .  We used the top of the beach access over the dunes to look for him again.  Carl again spotted him!  Now he was perched on the sign of the hotel's restaurant where we had parked!  

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013
Not knowing how close we would be able to come without flushing him, we took pictures as we approached.  

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013
As it turns out, this owl is very much non-plussed by all the attention he receives.  The crows may have flushed him earlier but the people below were not going to dislodge him from his perch.  We were able to hang out in the parking lot and point it out to the departing Mardi Gras revelers and beach goers.  I guess it is just a people-watcher!  Rather than assuming it would be disturbed by the Mardi Gras celebration, perhaps he enjoyed the curious spectacle!  He certainly did not mind us pointing our big lenses in his direction, thankfully! 

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013

We were able to watch and photograph him for quite some time. 

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 2013

I just loved his beautiful golden cat-like eyes!  I would call this owl, Life Bird no. 342, my King of Mardi Gras!

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013
          Our "Mardi Gras King" Snowy Owl is also a bit out of place.  Snowy Owl rarely venture this far south.  They are far more likely to winter in Canada and perhaps the very northern reaches of the Lower 48.  Last year was supposed to be an irruption year for them.  They were showing up in many more southerly regions of the U.S. -- but not here!  This year, however, we get our Snowy Owl!   Hooray!       
           I would have happily stayed longer to watch him take off for his evening hunt.  But I was surrounded by 3 growling stomachs -- mine included.  Thus, Andy, Carl and I concluded and celebrated our fabulous 2-Life Birds-in-one-day in a down-home Mexican restaurant, La Frontera, in Hardeeville, SC.  Yum!  I recommend the seafood soup!  

         Indeed another great birding weekend!  I so enjoyed the chase for the new birds.  You know, I had another similar chasing day back in December about which I have not yet blogged -- it was a 3-Life Bird DAY instead of a 3-Life Bird Weekend!  I guess I need to go work on those photos and deliver on that blog post.  Writing about that day will help me to savor those birding moments until ... I just cannot stand it again.  Then off I will go to find more birds -- hopefully some more really cool, extraordinary LIFE BIRDS! 

  • American Ornithologists' Union. 2003. Forty-fourth supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 120: 923-931.
  • Gammonley, James H. 2012. Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: 
  • Parmelee, D. 1992. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). In The Birds of North America, No. 10 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York. 
  • Ryder, John P. and Ray T. Alisauskas. 1995. Ross's Goose (Chen rossii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Visit to Bear Island Wildlife Management Area -- May 20, 2012

          As we contemplate the arrival of Spring and the re-opening of the Bear Island Wildlife Management Area down in the ACE Basin this weekend on Saturday, February 9, I have been reviewing some of our photos of a visit there in late Spring last year.

Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller
            Come summer, Carl and I are always eager to catch sight of our first Roseate Spoonbills of the season.  By the third week in May, we had read that a few had been spotted at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area  about an hour south of Charleston.  Roseate Spoonbills breed and raise their chicks in Florida in the winter and early Spring months.  In recent years, more and more Roseate Spoonbills make their way north in a summer post-breeding dispersal from their nesting grounds.  Sighting this species in our area is still a thrill for us and we eagerly respond to opportunities to see them.  Thus, that Sunday, we decided to run down and check it out ourselves.  We invited our friend and birding buddy, Carl Broadwell, along as well.  The Roseate Spoonbills had been reported in the Hog Island impoundment area off the left hand side of Ti Ti Road.  So that is where we started.  When we first arrived at the impoundment, we scanned for the big pink birds and managed to see three tiny pink dots in the far trees on the other side of the impoundment.  Binocular and scope views confirmed the ID.  We decided to follow the dikes around the impoundment to see if we could get any closer.  I will tell you now that we never did see the Roseate Spoonbills again that day and alas, we could not take any worthwhile photos from that distance.  However, that morning at Bear Island was one of my best visits ever for witnessing and recording wild bird behaviors!

         In this first impoundment, the water was very low as it was being drawn down.  Thus, the fish were were thick and the birds were feeding happily.  When Carl and I began birding seven years ago, finding American Avocets in our area was difficult.  Apparently, this is also now a bird that we can see readily in the Winter and the Spring months in places such as Bear Island.  We were used to seeing this bird in it's white and black winter plumage.  We were surprised that they were still in the area and delighted that we could see for the first time this beautiful bird in breeding plumage!

American Avocet at Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

American Avocets resting -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

The elegant American Avocet -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012
American Avocets feeding at Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012
We had seen the circular flock movement of a feeding flock of American Avocets before from a distance.  This time we were much closer.   A pair of Black Skimmers and Forsters Terns were also fishing in this area of the impoundment. 

American Avocets and Black Skimmer feeding -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

          Carl M, Carl B and I continued our trek around the impoundment to find an area bursting with wildlife and photographic opportunities.  For example, we were entranced by the bugs on the blooming thistle!  I do not recall ever seeing a white spider before.  Does anyone know what it is called?  Perhaps one of the "bug" men that I know can help identify these red ant-like bugs as well.  You know who you are, my friends, help us out, please!

Spider and bees -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Some sort of ant-like bug  -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Red ant-like bug -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

         As we continued along the trail going around the impoundment, we were impressed with the vast quantity of birds including the very large number of waders.  These Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibis were just a hint of what we would soon find further down the trail.  

Snowy Egret and Glossy Ibis -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20. 2012

Glossy Ibis -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

              Carl M likes to crouch down low in a marshy area next to the water and wait on the birds to photograph them.  As he sits still, eventually the birds become used to him and begin to behave as though he is not there.  In warm weather, I, on the other hand, do not care to join him alongside the potential gators.  So I let Carl go for those shots solo.  And he does get some great shots while I stay up on the bank and worry.

Black-necked Stilt -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Semi-palmated Sandpiper -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Tri-colored Heron -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

Tri-colored Heron stalking his prey -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012 -- Photo by Carl Miller

While Carl photographed his birds at eye-level, I made do with a couple of decent shots of shorebirds from my position on the trail.

Semi-palmated Plovers with a Semi-palmated Sandpiper in the background -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Lesser Yellowlegs (left) and Greater Yellowlegs (right) -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

       Carl B and I worked our way down the trail still hoping to find the Roseate Spoonbills while Carl hunkered down in the marsh with his Tri-colored Herons.  It was mid-morning and warming considerably so we were grateful to come to the shade of a wooded area next to the impoundment full of busy woodland birds and marsh-edge birds.  We delighted in seeing Painted Buntings and Great Crested Flycatchers as well as the usual assortment of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals.  We soon noticed that several waders -- Wood Storks, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets -- were flying just over the tree canopy above us to an open area just ahead.  We also began to discern through the wind a good deal of noise coming from a horde of waders ahead.  When we arrived at the edge of the marsh, we peered through the trees out onto this open area in the surrounding marsh.  In this small "watering hole", we saw at least a couple hundred waders -- Wood Storks, Snowies, Tri-coloreds, Great Egrets, and Little Blue Herons -- fishing in water that literally trembled with fish!  The Snowy Egrets literally danced across the surface of the water as they snatched up their prey.  Here's a video that I shot that shows a bit of the action followed by stills. 

Great Egrets, Wood Storks, Tri-colored Herons, Snowy Egrets -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Great Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, Snowy Egrets lined up on the bank and then a line would move out in unison to feed -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Wood Storks also lined up along the bank and moved out in small lines for "line-fishing!" -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Snowy Egret on collision course with Tri-colored Heron -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Wood Storks -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Snowy Egret with Wood Storks in background -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

          Seven Black Skimmers had joined the in on the feeding frenzy.  For the most part, their synchronized skimming passes were organized in a clockwise fashion.  This made it easier to anticipate their approach for photography!  Of course, they, too needed skill in timing and navigation in order to not collide with the many waders in this tightly packed area!

Black Skimmers with Wood Storks -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Black Skimmers -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Black Skimmers -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

Black Skimmers putting on a show for a photographer -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

        Carl M had sortied from his hideout in the marsh at his previous location and had joined us to witness this feeding phenomenon.  As long as we were still, the birds were not bothered by our presence.  As another birdwatcher and a photographer approached from the other side, the birds eventually became uneasy with this amount of human presence in this small area and began to move away deeper into the marsh.  We determined that it was time to leave to them their "trembling" (with fish) watering hole.  

        As we retraced our steps back to the car, I captured one more view of egrets flushing from the marshes.

Egrets flushing from the marshes -- Bear Island WMA == May 20, 2012

             We paused at Mary's House Pond on our way out to take a final glimpse at what Bear Island Wildlife Management Area had to offer us that day.  Mary's House Pond was also partially drawn down and several species of peeps were happily feeding on the mudflats.  Among them, a pair of Black-bellied Plovers rumbled a bit over turf.  They seemed willing to share with the many smaller birds but not with each other!

Black-bellied Plovers in a rumble among a variety of other peeps -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

I was also able to capture one more shot of an American Avocet reposing in the afternoon sun.

American Avocet -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012

This Loggerhead Shrike posed briefly for his portrait on the wires along the roadside.  We believe a pair was nesting in the small oaks along the dike at Mary's House Pond.

Loggerhead Shrike -- Bear Island WMA -- May 20, 2012
          What a fabulous day spent observing wildlife interactions in one of our favorite wildlife destinations!  Bear Island WMA never disappoints!  Below is a video that Carl composed that captures some of the highlights from his perspective from this glorious Spring day in nature!