Posts Tagged ‘reptiles’

Remarkable Nature Places: Beidler Forest


Thursday, October 11th, 2012
Beidler Forest

Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Remarkable Nature Places: Beidler Forest

The National Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest, located in Four Holes Swamp, SC – less than an hour from Charleston – contains within its 16,000+ acres the largest remaining stand of virgin Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum swamp forest left anywhere in the world. Here, 1,000-year-old trees and native wildlife abound in a pristine sanctuary that has been untouched for millennia.

Beidler Forest

1,000 year old tree Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

A 1.75-mile self-guided tour along the boardwalk trail allows visitors the chance to safely venture deep into the heart of the swamp… to experience the peace and serenity that have characterized the area for centuries… to hear the sounds of bird and bug and breeze that have echoed through the trees for ages… to take a relaxing and informative walk back into time… to see a swamp the way nature intended.

A swamp is a flooded forest. There are many different types of swamps, but one thing they all have in common is trees in the water, for at least part of the year.

Beidler Forest

Swamp Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Bald Cypress

Largest in U.S. — 17 feet in diameter, Cat Island, LA

Largest at Beidler Forest — 10 feet in diameter

Oldest Known — 1600 yrs, Black River Swamp, NC

Oldest Known at Beidler Forest — 1500 yrs (2nd oldest in the world)

Beidler Forest

Hollow Tree Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Tupelo Gum

Largest in the U.S.  8 feet in diameter, Kinder, LA

Largest at Beidler Forest 5 feet in diameter

Oldest Known at Beidler Forest?? Most over 18’’ are hollow

Beidler Forest

Goodsen Lake Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Cypress Knees

Despite much research, cypress knee function remains a mystery. One thing is certain – knees grow in response to the presence and depth of water. A Bald Cypress growing on dry ground will have only a few small knees, if any. One in deeper water will have taller knees. Generally, the trend we find is the older the tree, the more gnarly the knee.

Beidler Forest

Cottonmouth Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Beidler Forest

American Alligator Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

NO turtle can leave its shell.

NO venomous lizards exist in South Carolina.

NO venomous snakes with lengthwise stripes in South Carolina.

NO such thing as a Hoop Snake or Pilot Rattlesnake.

NOT all snakes in the water are venomous.

• Milk snakes do NOT milk other animals.

• Coachwhip snakes do NOT chase and whip people.

• Copperheads are NOT female rattlesnakes.

• Of 38 snake species in South Carolina, ONLY 6 are venomous!

• Glass Snakes are legless lizards and should be called Glass Lizards

Beidler Forest

Deer fawn Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

How would you have described a swamp BEFORE your visit here? Look around. Smell the air. Notice the lack of bugs? Is the swamp what you expected?


“Buggy” Mosquitoes prefer not to lay eggs in flowing water.
“Snakey” Most snakes prefer to sit still on a log, and of all the water snakes, only the cottonmouth is venomous.
“Gatory” Alligators prefer deeper water and sunshine, not the shallow and shadowy channels in a swamp.
“Smelly” Abundant plant life acts as an air filter. Plus, periodic floods help to flush decaying material.
“Muddy” The swamp floor is mostly hard-packed sand.
“Polluted” The water that flows through Beidler Forest is some of the cleanest in South Carolina due to miles of filtration and percolation.
“Evil” Walking through a swamp is a peaceful and relaxing activity.
“Spooky” No monsters or mythical creatures have been reported…yet.
Beidler Forest

Prothonotary Warbler Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Since 1979, Breeding Bird Censuses have been conducted on two 20-acre plots on the sanctuary. One is located in the old-growth stand, the other in woods cut in the 1960’s. Routinely, the old-growth plot has been found to contain some of the highest densities of nesting songbirds per acre for forested habitats in the eastern U.S.

The diversity of tree species, the variety of tree ages, and the multi-layered structure of the forest cover found in the old-growth stand all work together to provide spectacular habitat for birds of many species.

Beidler Forest

White Ibis Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, despite their nesting success here, many species are in decline due to habitat loss in their summer breeding grounds, along their migratory routes, and in their Central and South American wintering grounds.

Beidler Forest

Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

• Canoe and Kayak Tours – Accompanied by one of our trained guides, let us take you through the heart of the swamp on a peaceful paddle for either a 2- or 4-hour trip. Bring the whole family to experience close encounters with wildlife. It’s a wonderful trip for great photography!

• Night Walks – See the forest under a new light. The swamp is particularly active when the sun goes down. Walking beneath a moonlit sky guided by an Audubon naturalist, we listen to the music of the night and search for nocturnal animals.

• Other Walks and Events – Scattered throughout the season we have a slew of great activities including bird walks, swamp stomps, flower walks, and social events. Ask the staff at the visitor center for more information.

Barred Owls Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

Beidler Forest

The boardwalk Photo courtesy of Mark Musselman, Audubon South Carolina

The Galapagos Islands


Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Gene with a statue of Charles Darwin

The Galapagos, an archipelago over a thousand miles from the west coast of Ecuador, is a strange, contradictory place. Extensive lava formations and exotic plants contrast with beautiful, quiet, sandy beaches and harbors full of yachts. Snorkeling and scuba diving attract young adventurers. For others it’s a more mythic place – with huge land-tortoises, creepy black iguanas, misplaced penguins, stinky seals, porpoises, and schools of rays. Limited numbers of unique birds are a bonus.

Two “celebrities” dominate Galapagos publicity: Charlie Darwin and Lonesome George.

Lonesome George is a huge Galapagos Tortoise who is suspected to be the last surviving member of his subspecies and “the world’s rarest creature”. But he was in a dark corner of his zoo enclosure, as uninterested in me as he is, evidently, in sex. His near relatives crawl freely if slowly in meadows and cow pastures. They also engage in extremely slow-motion tortoise sex, complete with guttural wheezes and moans.

Large Tree-Finch © Renato Espinosa

Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835; there’s a large statue of him, splattered with guano from boobies and frigate birds, near where he first set foot. From his observations of four different kinds of mockingbirds on separate islands, he is said to have first devised his theory of evolution. All four mockers originated from an Ur-mockingbird couple and evolved differently.

More interesting are the 13 (or 14, depending on how you split them) finches that are now the islands’ main birding attractions. These “Darwin’s finches” also evolved, i.e., changed their shapes and behavior as necessity dictated. Ground Finches, Tree Finches, Warbler Finches, Cactus Finches, and Woodpecker Finches: they’re all just slightly different. Even though they’re as tame as chickens, coming fearlessly with arm’s reach, accurately identifying some of them drove me nuts!

Woodpecker Finch © Renato Espinosa

Fewer than 150 species are on the checklist for Galapagos birds. Of these, only 23 are endemic – birds you can’t see anywhere else. Put “Galapagos” in front of the following species names, and you’ll get some idea of the variety of endemics: Penguin, Dove, Hawk, Flycatcher, Mockingbird, Rail, Martin. All are stuck on the Galapagos and worth stalking and ticking.

But some of the birds you can see elsewhere (Yellow Warbler, Barn Owl and Short-eared Owls, for instance) are slightly different from their continental cousins. They’re stuck here too, and better off because of it. Unable to migrate, Yellow Warblers on Galapagos, for instance, are slightly bigger, more colorful, and more robust in their singing than the ones that expend vast amounts of energy getting to North America.

Barn Owl © Renato Espinosa

Perhaps they’ll continue to evolve. If so, I’ll be able to add Galapagos Yellow Warbler and a dozen or so other species to my life list some day – provided I live to be 10,000 years old. Wait; maybe global warming will make evolution speed up a bit.

The Undiscovered Egg


Monday, April 9th, 2012

Eggs by Jungle Pete

On Easter morning, my baby escaped from his sleeping mother’s grasp, toddled into the hallway and found a basket full of “grass” and a few starter eggs. He then proceeded to instinctively embark on an egg hunt throughout the house. He was a noisy predator and was discovered quickly, but we permitted the search to continue.

Eggs in the wild are not meant to be discovered. They are buried, camouflaged or tucked away. They are laid singularly with maximum parental protection or in multitudes with the hope that a percentage will survive. The effort that reptiles, birds, insects, amphibians (and yes the mammalian Platypus) go through to protect their potential offspring is perhaps what makes it so interesting to seek out and discover eggs.

When an egg is found, there are often plenty of clues that suggest who might emerge at the conclusion of incubation (if at all). The cotton candy-colored, spherical eggs in the top left corner are less than ¼ inch in diameter and have been deposited on a blade of cattail in a freshwater marsh. Tiny Florida Apple Snails (Pomacea paludosa) will hatch and descend to the water just several inches below.

Many birds camouflage their eggs with unique colors and markings. As the egg descends and rotates through the oviduct, fixed pigment glands color the shell and create unique works of art on the eggs of the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) (top right corner).

The five glossy white Purple Martin (Progne subis) eggs in the bottom left corner would be conspicuous in any hanging bird nest, but in the cavity of a tree or in a bird house, color serves little purpose.

Not every nest is successful. The turtle eggs in the bottom right corner were dug up and eaten. The colorless, ping pong-sized eggs were discovered, most likely by an animal with a good sniffer.

Brown Anole by Jungle Pete

Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei) will lay one to two eggs in soft soil or under leaf litter. Their eggs range from white to speckled brown.

I can still recall the thrill my sister experienced when she found an Easter egg at my grandmother’s when we were kids. My parents were amused. It was the day before Easter and this well hidden, well camouflaged egg had remained undiscovered for nearly a year.

Stuck – The Southern Black Racer


Monday, March 5th, 2012

Souther Black Racer by Jungle Pete

It’s Sunday night and I find myself in a predicament. The story I wish to write involves a mystery to which I never solved and I’ve invested all of my time and thought into writing about this particular subject matter. I am stuck but I have no choice but to plow forward. My wife found a Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) in our back yard in Lehigh Acres, FL. It was dead with its head firmly entrenched in a hole in the ground. The body was unscathed. I have no idea how this happened.

Ignore the “constrictor” part of the species name for the racer. The snake most often uses its speed to chase down prey. Once in its toothy grasp, it will eat its prey live rather than squeeze it to death as the species name might imply. The racer is most likely to freak out those with snake phobias. When threatened, it will rapidly shake its tail, causing nearby vegetation to vibrate and simulating the sound, as best as possible, of a rattlesnake. More commonly they will simply dart off with impressive zip. You can’t really call it a slither. More aptly they tear off like black lightning.

None of this helps me come any closer to solving the mystery of the snake with its head buried in the sand. I grab it by the tail and by its midsection, attempting to retract it from the hole. A series of internal pops discourages me from pursuing this tact. I switch to a shovel, which ironically is how many snakes die. In this case I gently pry the sandy soil from under the snake to discover that the hole was no deeper than the two inches the snake had progressed. The snake had nothing in its mouth and nothing seemed to be hanging on to the snake.

Southern Black subspecies © Brian Kenney

Had the snake chased after prey in an undiscovered subterranean hole? Had the snake investigated a hole and simply got stuck? Or had a predator chased it and the racer died trying to make its own escape route? I don’t know and I’m left with a mystery and stuck with a story I don’t know how to end.

Ant Buffett


Monday, February 27th, 2012

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper by Jungle Pete

For a moment the corpse moves and thinking it’s still alive, I shift backward from my seat on the ground. The insect that is being consumed by an army of ants has long since expired, but the communal efforts of the tiny insects to break the hopper into pieces have caused it to list. I, with my macabre fascination with the grisly side of nature, have spun the scene into an imaginary Zombietown of arthropods. In fact it’s a simple scavenge site and underneath the roiling cloak of ants is a spiny-legged, flightless Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera). Chances are the lack of useful wings led to death by wheel, and its present state.

How the mouse met its end is a mystery, as is the curious rubble pile surrounding it. Based on the reddish pelage on top and the white below, I would say this is a Cotton Deermouse (Peromyscus gossypinus) that once lived in the swamps of the Picayune State Forest east of Naples, FL.

Cotton Deermouse by Jungle Pete

Considering the masses of formic foes piled upon the remains of the snake, you’d think it would be hard to identify the creature beneath. The telltale marking is a yellow band around the neck, which makes it easy to identify as a Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus). I often find this secretive snake under logs or debris on the ground. When threatened they will expose their brightly colored dorsal side to warn would be predators away.

Ringed-necked Snake by Jungle Pete

From a distance, the ant traffic was so heavy it could have been mistaken for a slender snake. The sinuous band of ants ended at a well-picked apart Pig Frog (Lithobates (Rana) grylio). Similar in size and shape to the American Bullfrog (Lithobates (Rana) catesbeiana), only the Pig Frog is found in South Florida. Both species are sought after for their edible legs. This one kept them but little good that did.

Pig Frog by Jungle Pete

Death is unkind. I certainly have sympathy for all of the creatures that meet with an untimely end, especially those that are victims of human carelessness. In the end, their deaths are not in vain. A colony of ants will feast.

Stop It – The Burmese Python – Part II


Monday, February 20th, 2012

Burmese Python by Jungle Pete

In 2008 the USGS released a potential range map for Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) in the United States. The startling suggestion was that the lower third of the continental US could be prime habitat. What it neglected to point out was that this tropical weather-loving snake can’t take the cold.

As evidence, in 2000 the Everglades National Park removed two Burmese Pythons. In 2005 they removed 94 more. In 2009 they removed the highest number ever at 367 followed by a decline in 2010 to 322 and in 2011 only 169 were found. In 2010 Florida suffered a sustained period of cold weather. For ten days, the temperature remained un-Florida like and the consequence was the death of many of the invasive species (as well as many of our native one like the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) and American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

West Indian Manatee

The snakes are a huge problem. Necropsies have found the endangered Florida Woodrat (Neotoma floridana), Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger avicinnia), Wood Storks (Mycteria americana), Everglades Mink (Mustela vison evergladensis) and recently a 76 pound deer in the belly of the snakes.

Wood Stork, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Compounding the problem is the protective nature and prodigious offspring output of a female Python. One female can lay up to ninety eggs. Cold will keep them from spreading north. Strict laws are being put in place to ban the importation of the largest and most dangerous of the invaders and most of the locals are intent on dispatching them.

If only I could enlighten the media a little.
1) Alligators rule the Everglades
2) A handful of pet Anacondas have been found and they are not known to be breeding in the Everglades.
3) The Everglades is over four million acres. The study of mammal population declines occurred in the Everglades National Park. The pythons do not have “voracious appetites”, nor are they “picking the Everglades clean”.
4) The media has a stranglehold on their readers. We have a right to well researched, well written information. Not sensationalism.

To those that would release invasive snakes into the Everglades and to those in the media who perpetuate the python myths – Stop it.

Stop It – The Burmese Python – Part I


Monday, February 13th, 2012

Everglades Guide Jason with a Burmese Python

We must do everything we can to rid the Everglades of all invasive plant and animal species. That’s a seemingly impossible task at this point for the supposed invasive species capitol of the world. We must also prevent the importation and introduction of any new species to protect the currently out of whack balance of South Florida’s ecosystem. Having said that, I am enraged by the ignorant media coverage regarding the “big snakes” in the Everglades. In December of 2011 an article titled “Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park” was published and the media-led hysteria that followed offered tabloid style headlines that fed into people’s natural fears.

“Pythons Rule Florida’s Everglades”
“Pythons and Anacondas Dominate Food Chain”
“Burmese Pythons Picking Florida’s Everglades Clean”
“Pythons have stranglehold on Everglades”

A local NBC anchor suggested without a trace of skepticism that the population of the invasive giants was well over 200,000. This is a stunning climb up the food chain from a few years ago when the estimate was 9,000, then 15,000, 30,000 and then inexplicably 150,000. Now 200,000 plus? Stop it.

Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are endangered in their native Southeast Asian range, thanks to poaching and exportation for the pet trade. People buy them as pets because they’re cuddly or they’re constricting. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. They get to be big, growing to lengths over 20 feet. Eventually they’re the ideal pet they once were and owners dump them in the Everglades. Many were thought to have escaped into the swamp in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead, Florida, home of many reptile breeders and importers.

Northern Raccoon

The scientific paper that has flamed the frenzy claimed that Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor), Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) and bobcat sightings (both live and road kill) are down about 99% from a period of time that predated the python infestation. Now one of the co-authors is distancing himself from the suggestion that pythons are to blame. He says it’s possible, but he blames the media for drawing a correlation between the two.

Virginia Opossum with young © Jack Dermid

They did note that top predators like the Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) and Coyote (Canis latrans) (an Everglades new comer), populations had increased but did not suggest that they could be culprits in the population declines of prey species such as raccoons and opossums. Nor did they mention the severe drought the Everglades National Park has experienced and what effect that might have on the need for certain species to seek out better habitat.

Florida Panther © Brian Kenney

The analysis of the scientific paper was lacking and the media did not do their due diligence to understand the entire issue. The shocking headline was enough to craft an exciting tale of reptile Armageddon. I’ll explain more about the biology of the pythons, the threat they pose and what we need to do to stop it. Next week.

After the Fire Part 1


Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

After the Fire by Rosemary Allen

It has been almost three weeks now since this prescribed burn, and as I surveyed these burnt woods in this Lee County preserve I was first impressed with the clear view I had of the scope and bones of the woods. With no brush, vines or understory plants to obscure my view I focused on the berms and mounds that seemed so prominent now.

Some pines and Cabbage Palmettos had been destroyed and the forest opened up. The beginning stages of new growth were making an appearance on the Saw Palmetto, but the mounds and subsequent aprons of the Gopher Tortoise burrows drew me closer. These burrows may be as long as 20-40 ft and up to 6 ft deep; a perfect protection from fire. Gopher Tortoises can live commensally with other animals and provide habitat for the Eastern Indigo Snake and Gopher Frogs. Some 360 species of vertebrates and invertebrates have been documented using these burrows. But as I entered the hardest burned areas and examined the entrances to their homes, they appeared to be abandoned with no fresh tracks from the tortoises or other animals. At the northern edge of the burn I did find signs of life as a smaller tortoise about three inches in length backed into his hole as I walked by. Determined to get this picture and sure that he would resurface to soak up the sun, I set up my tripod and waited, even though warblers’ songs beckoned me to come closer to the green edge.

After the Fire by Rosemary Allen

As I waited, varieties of butterflies flew by including Orange-barred Sulphurs, Gulf Fritillary, Common Buckeye and the Zebra Longwing, some landing on the charred ashes. With the staccato of grasshoppers’ wings and buzzing flies surrounding me I became distracted enough from my task at hand to notice tracks, showcasing the animals that use this sandy forest floor as a pathway. These tracks included a variety of birds, a few deer, raccoons, bobcats and snakes.

Cowboys in ranch land further north have reported cattle often eat the charcoal after a fire; maybe some of these animals did as well. I felt grateful for the observations that waiting for this shy young tortoise brought me, but I decided to move closer to the green edge following the pattern of Gopher burrows as I stepped.

Gopher Tortoise by Rosemary Allen

Then, as I took in the larger view, I spotted the largest Gopher Tortoise I have ever seen. Seeing what was perhaps the oldest and youngest of this ancient species in this renovated and reinvigorated environment was reassuring, to say the least. I can already imagine the bounty of food that will provide for this species now the sunlight can reach the ground. So, goodbye dense forest and hello to an open canopy with plenty of herbaceous plants to follow!

Obnoxious Weed – Water Lettuce


Monday, January 30th, 2012
Water Lettuce

Water Lettuce with Pied-billed Grebe & American Alligator by Jungle Pete

People are often surprised to find I don’t like to swim. Considering I was born and raised in South Florida, it shouldn’t be a surprise. When the ocean is warm enough to swim in, the air is disgustingly hot and humid. In the winter when Florida is full of Canadians, the water feels Polar Bear cold (anything below 68 for me). To add to it, just about every fresh water lake, pond or river is occupied by an alligator, which leaves swimming pools. I didn’t have one and the local community pool was full of something far more insidious than alligators: public pool peers.

Aquatic wildlife species have it tough when it comes to waterways choked with Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes). This floating plant, which is often found in Bald Cypress swamps, grows vegetatively as well as sexually and can blanket the surface of fresh waterways. It looks like a head of lettuce growing on the water and has the green vibrancy of a week-dead treefrog trapped between my sliding and screen door.

There is debate as to the origin of the plant’s native status in the United States with some saying it was introduced from the ballast of ships coming from Africa or South America. Native or otherwise, it is considered a noxious weed in many U.S. locations where it is found clogging up waterways.

Water Lettuce makes life tough for the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), a freshwater diver that seeks crayfish, fish and aquatic insects. Not only does the Water Lettuce block the light and limit visibility for diving birds, it also prevents the growth of other plants, leading to the reduction of nutrients and biological diversity.

Pied-billed Grebe - adult, breeding © Garth McElroy/VIREO

For the carnivorous American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), there’s no chance in partaking of a salad but I have watched gator pups lounge about on several heads of water lettuce like they were tubing down a slow-flowing river. Sounds like fun, but still no chance of me going in that water.

American Alligator © David M. Dennis

Aquatic Ferrari – The Florida Softshell Turtle


Monday, January 16th, 2012

Softshell Turtles and American Alligator by Jungle Pete

There’s a tremendous advantage to having a tall carapace (upper shell) and sturdy plastron (bottom shell) if you’re a turtle in the southeastern United States. Here there be alligators and despite the fact that an alligator can exert thousands of pounds of pressure of chomping power on their prey, if they can’t slam their jaw shut on their oversized meal, they have to look for lunch elsewhere.

Sliders and Cooters are the SUVs of the turtle world. They’re hefty, relatively slow moving but strong bodied. I’ve often seen tooth marks where an alligator has cracked a hole in the carapace but got no further. Florida Softshell Turtles (Apalone ferox) on the other hand have soft, flexible upper and lower parts that are covered in skin as opposed to the keratinous, fingernail-like covering on other turtle shells. Softshells are the Ferraris of the turtle world. While the shell doesn’t afford them much protection against the crushing bite of an alligator, I have seen them use their speed to their advantage. The bottom right photo shows the head of a large female softshell in the toothy grasp of the alligator. The turtle didn’t panic and seemed content to be escorted around. Instead of struggling and wasting energy, it was biding its time. When the alligator opened up to get a better bite, the softshell took off with a burst of speed. Sorry gator.

American Alligator © Robert P. Falls Sr.

The Florida Softshell can be distinguished from other softshells by the bumpy ridge above the head on the carapace. Males grow to be around 12 inches while females are sizably larger at 20 inches. Florida softies are omnivorous and aquatic, although they do bask out of the water and cross roads as necessary. In the spring the females will find a soft-soiled area to lay their eggs or if they’re feeling lucky, the female will sneak her eggs into the side of an alligator’s nest where ironically they are protected from nest predators by the mama alligator.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you’re an SUV or a Ferrari. What matters is how long you’re in the race.