Thursday, October 30, 2008

A View from the Yard, Wednesday, October 30

It's that time of the year I start harvesting--if that's the right word--my crop of walnuts. I have three trees in the yard; two of which are mature enough to produce nuts.

There are a variety of uses for walnuts and I would take them to such a recycler if I knew of one. I have found that I can just use the sharp shovel or pick 'em up four at a time and about half-fill a sunflower seed bag. (I keep those empties just for this reason.) Too full and the bag gets too heavy. I am usually dismayed that I have so many bagged and so many still to go. And, of course, the two trees that fruit are not next to each other so I have nuts scattered all over the yard.

It's quiet out here in the evening. The wrens have abandoned for the fall their traditional houses in favor of the metal awning on the back porch. I keep spooking them when I go downstairs. They flee for a while and have returned each time but I suspect there will be a point when enough alarms will simply drive them off. The crows have been noisy. A few jays are around. No sign of the songbirds. I suspect the cardinals, titmouse, and doves are all hunkered down in the trees.

James Brooks, in Wednesday's paper, comments on the return of the white-breasted nuthatch. These delightfully entertaining birds like my trees and I look forward to seeing, and hearing, them soon.

The various evening bugs are about gone. The overnight lows are now in the upper thirties. I've put out sunflower seed and a suet block. I have some plans for various feeders to try this year. Got a book full of ideas for my birthday. Well, somebody has been eating my sunflower seed but not too quickly. I think what will pick up as the weather gets a tad colder. When I had a non-squirrel-proof feeder I went through a lot of seed. This feeder has the weight-powered ledge that blocks off the seed access to the squirrels. I'm hoping to cut down on how much seed the squirrels get.

Spring will be here before we know it. Yes!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

South Carolina 2008 [The S.C. 2007 trip is below.]

[The link in the title will take you Jean Potter's photographs of our recent trip.]

This last weekend, October 11-13, 13 of us from the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of TOS braved two days of hard rain and high winds and celebrated one glorious Monday to record 92 species around Georgetown, S.C. The Georgetown/ Huntington Beach/ Francis Marion National Forest are (all north of Charleston) has been one of the favorite destinations for east Tennessee birders for years. We can get on I-26 in Johnson City and never change routes all the way to Charleston. South Carolina is to be complimented for promoting naturalist sites and has a variety of terrain different, but not necessarily better, than Tennessee’s.

We visited the Francis Beidler Forest, in the Four Holes Swamp area, late Saturday afternoon. This was a mile-long boardwalk without much to show for our efforts, unless you count a great horned owl. The first and only sighting recorded there. This was the typical black water swamp with tupelo and cypress. That evening we returned (after having BBQ at Dukes--a local eatery in Ridgeville, as small a town as you’d imagine in rural South Carolina) for a night hike in the rain conducted by the staff. The leader attempted to attract barred owl and spotlight the alligators but no luck on either call. We were invited to make our way back to the center via the boardwalk without his help or without flashlights. It was quite an experience in a very dark and forboding place. But, fun, in retrospect. Next time we’ll have clear skies for the full moon effect.

On Sunday, we began at the Pitt St. Bridge in Mt. Pleasant although there is no mount, then the beach at the Isle of Palms Causeway, Garris Landing at Cape Romain which is more tidewater, the Hampton Plantation Historical Site, and finished at Island Road where we found the eagles--finally. The weather went from really windy and spitting rain to ugly rainy. At each stop we accumulated more sightings from a variety of habitats.

As usual, wet spirits were momentarily revived by food. We ate at the Seewee Restaurant below McClellanville. The Seewee was an old store with bench seats, cans of food on the wall, ice cream and Nehi, She-crab soup, fried eggplant, and the bathrooms opening onto the parking lot. It was different.

On Monday, when the weather cleared, we started in Georgetown, at the hotel, where off the balcony is 10 square miles of marsh and you have an elevated covered viewing stand--with coffee and bathrooms. We found breakfast at a diner that may have been opened since the weekend and we (13 of us) undoubtedly created a record sales for them. It was good eatin’, too. Our group this year and last year proved an Army marches on its tummy.

Then to the Santee Coastal Reserve, which is a pine forest, where we sighted the red-cockaded woodpecker and the brown-headed nuthatch, another eagle, and the complete set of marshland waders all on one log. Quite a sight. We finished up late Monday afternoon at dusk at Super Sod Farm near Orangeburg without too much to show for it except an interesting ride through acres of sod farm.

The species of the trip, in my humble opinion, was the red-cockaded woodpecker. I had one in the books, a gazillion years ago on one of the coastal tours organized by Fred Alsop and Diane Nelson. That one was to the Hobcaw Barony not far from where we found these. We saw several this time and evidence of many more. A second high mark might be the oystercatcher but definitely in there was the bald eagle at Santee reserve. It was within easy eyesight, soaring in bright blue sky.

Out of the 92 species observed by the group, this list is what we saw that we weren’t likely to find in East Tennessee: anhinga, great egret, snowy egret, little blue egret, tricolored egret, white ibis, wood stork, osprey, eagle, Northern harrier, red-shouldered hawk, Merlin, clapper rail, king rail, Virginia rail, sora, semipalmated plover, American oystercatcher, willet, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, Western sandpiper, dunlin, Wilson’s snipe, laughing gull, royal tern, Forster’s tern, least tern, black skimmer, red-cockaded woodpecker, shrike, fish crow, brown-headed nuthatch, marsh wren, Cape May warbler, black-throated blue warlbler, pine warbler, palm warbler, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, common yellowthroat, and boat-tailed grackle.

We missed ducks, mostly.

I was also thrilled at seeing the eagle soar in the blue sky right over our heads. You could almost touch him. I had never heard rails before. Several new birds this year, or for a long time, were the oystercatcher, brown-headed nuthatch, and the redstart.

For the non-bird kinds of things: anole, yellow-bellied slider, a very fast snapping turtle, millipede, toads, golden silk spider, long-jawed spider, Cardinal flower, and land crabs. And probably more stuff than I could ever list except this trip is not a list lengthening trip, it’s an exploration. We are perhaps better described as natural history buffs more so than bird watchers.

The terrain was mostly loblolly and/or long-leaf pine, palmetto, beach/ tidewater, or black water swamp. The loblolly and long-leaf are easier to tell after seeing them next to each other. For example, red-cockaded territory, I thought, was in lobloblly pine country. For some of us, obviously, knowing the difference between loblolly and long-leaf is a challenge and I am no longer sure of where I was (except to say I am sure I was in South Carolina!). We saw more than enough swamp (flooded forest. See the write up from the 2007 trip below.) We could fill an entire list with butterfly sightings. All the land we visited was low-country--literally. At Francis Beidler we were maybe 30-35 above sea level. With all the rain in the last few days, the ground was saturated, water was standing in the ditches, and the swamps were full. It was this that makes the area so interesting. Along the shore and tidewaters the tide was always turning, it seemed.

The party included Brookie and Jean Potter, Joe McGuiness, Kim Stroud, Jim and Darla Anderson, Lisa Tyler, Don Holt and Diane Draper, Mary Anna Wheat, and Eric and Cathy Noblitt. The trip was organized by Joe who, with Kim, organized last year’s great expedition to Marion Lake. However, the Potters and the Andersons had been to some of the spots on earlier trips and were well acquainted with the territory.

It was nice to return to coastal South Carolina without the drought effect.

South Carolina 2007

Ten of us from the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter (a charter chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society) ventured to the back country of South Carolina for three days of bird watching in October, 2007. Our group included: Jim and Darla Anderson, Diane Draper, Don Holt, Joe McGuiness, Charles Moore, Brookie and Jean Potter, Kim Stroud, and Mary Anna Wheat.

We spent most of our time at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, Santee, South Carolina, where I-65 crosses Lake Marion, and at the Congaree National Park, 20 miles southeastly of Columbia, with a side trip to the Old Santee Canal State Park (for our lone ibis.) For the weekend, we listed 78 bird species, untolled butterfly, and an assortment of other wildlife including alligators, coyote, spiders, anole, White-tailed deer (with yearling) and water mocassin. While it was easy to imagine a sense of danger being around alligators, water moccasin, and spiders, the real nusance was from the ticks. It was that season and, in the dried woods, ticks were abundant.

As expected we saw: comorant; osprey; eagle; fish crow; shrike (several); Caspian tern; Northern harrier; Barred and Screech owls; little blue (white morph) and great blue heron; snowy and great egrets; wood stork; red start; palm, black-throated blue, black and white, and Tennessee warblers; common yellowthroat; Eastern towhee; anhinga; Cedar waxwing; white-eyed and red-eyed vireo; ibis; red headed, piliated, and downy woodpecker (but no red-cockaded nor ivory billed); scarlet tanager; collared dove; and many of our area birds including blue jay, cardinal, phoebe, peewee, bluebird, and kingfisher.

There were several species that were underpopulated or missing including robin and killdeer, most of the waterfowl, pipers and plovers, and geese. For example, we didn’t see wood ducks until just before sundown the second day in an nearly dried up, back water inlet where nothing much else stirred. In the afternoons, the temperatures were very warm and the air still. You could hear boats on the lake and airplanes, and even though we were 10 miles from two interstates, we were spared the incessant road noise.

Because the water levels were also low in South Carolina--the drought there is as bad as any--Lake Marion was too shallow for our excursion boat to undock, let alone pick us up at the public dock. This lake was so wide that while the banks don’t show the dramatic decline in levels like our upper East Tennessee lakes, stumps were showing when they shouldn’t have been showing. The swamps were dry when they should have been under water. Where you would expect a swamp pond was instead a firm tract of land with lily pads, high and dry like sunflower. This same drought may have pushed birds further east and south or they simply were in small ponds not easily accessible from the roads.

Santee offers a good variety of habitat: lake, shoreline, swamp, forest, and farm lands. We went from lake to corn fields with just a short walk.

We spent an afternoon at Congaree National Park, outside Columbia. The contrast between this twenty-two thousand-acre park and metro-Columbia, just 20 miles up the road, is impossible to describe. Congaree boasts the largest collection of championship-sized trees in the east and they are magnificent. Also, we were able to enjoy a rare canoe trip in the back country, down a lazy creek and watch for birds (and snakes and turtles) from the river’s point of view, for once. It was pointed out to us that at flood stage the water level would be 12 feet above the current level. But, this was in the middle of the afternoon and the forest was pretty quiet.

In Congaree N.P., they watch for rain in the western North Carolina mountains, as opposed to local rainfall, to determine the water levels. What first appears as stereotypical swamp land is more accurately described as floodplain forests. The periodic soaking drives the growth of the forests. One result are a forest of champion sized trees.

A one-hundred-sixty-foot loblolly pine is a tall tree! One-hundred-foot Tupelo is ordinary. But, canoeing under a tree branch that may harbor a brown water snake --priceless.

Our thanks to Joe McGuiness and Kim Stroud for organizing this trip.