Home is now behind you. The world is ahead.”
While contemplating this picture and quote, listen to Concerning Hobbits, one of my favorite songs from the Lord Of The Rings movies.
Home is now behind you. The world is ahead.”
While contemplating this picture and quote, listen to Concerning Hobbits, one of my favorite songs from the Lord Of The Rings movies.
I wrote this for my MatadorU travel writing course, and thought it would be fun to share here. It’s about some of the field work I was doing while I was in South Carolina last year.
When I leave the house in the morning it is dark enough to use the brights. I drive my truck along a paved road, which turns to dirt. The packed dirt is first tan, then reddish-orange, then almost white. A nightjar stares me down from the middle of the road, but as I slow it flies off into the dark.
A red-cockaded woodpecker foraging in a pine. Note the black and white barring on the back, white cheek patches, and black hood. The males will have small red patches on the back of their heads, which typically can’t be seen unless the bird is riled up and raises its feathers.
The dark is softer when I arrive at Compartment 20, my destination. I wait in the truck, drinking tea from my thermos and listening to the radio, until the sky lightens. Just before sunrise I take one last sip and then slip into place with my spotting scope, binoculars, and notebook. I position myself about 100 yards from the nearest cavity tree and wait. The cavity I’m watching, a dark hole about 25 feet off the ground, partially hidden between branches, looks lifeless.
After ten minutes I see what I’ve come for: a red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) bursts out into the morning, chattering loudly. It forages in a nearby tree, tapping here and there on the bark, flaking off pieces that swivel to the ground. After a few minutes another RCW joins, and the two flit from tree to tree calling and foraging, taking stock of the day.
Fully grown, an RCW is the size of a robin with black and white stripes running across its back, sometimes called a ladder back. Like clowns, they have giant white cheek patches and tiny black caps. The males have red cockades, or small red patches, on each side of their black caps.
I follow the pair for the better part of an hour before I leave them to their business. Back at the truck I take a sip of now-cold tea before reading through my notes. Both RCWs were unbanded, which means they had not been captured and fitted with aluminum USGS numbered bands or colored plastic bands, which we use to identify individual birds. Because there were just the two of them, they are most likely a potential breeding pair, or a pair of mated RCWs who for whatever reason didn’t nest this year.
I was out this morning doing an early morning nest check, observing what was going on in a particular cluster of RCW cavity trees. These checks help to determine the overall breeding status and size of the RCW population on the refuge. They also mean that I get to spend early mornings in the woods staring at trees, hoping birds will show up so I can follow them and see what they’re up to.
In 2012 I spent three months as an endangered species intern, studying RCWs with the biologists at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. My internship, arranged through the Student Conservation Association, provided me with the opportunity to do hands-on conservation biology and work with government biologists to study an endangered species, a bird that few have heard of, let alone seen. My background in biology, and specifically ornithology, the study of birds, has taken me around the country to different wildlife refuges and protected areas, where I’ve had the privilege to experience many different aspects of the natural world.
Carolina Sandhills is located just outside of McBee, South Carolina, which is located just outside of the middle of nowhere. As a local intern explained to me, towns in the region are defined by whether or not they have a Wal-Mart. McBee does not have a Wal-Mart.
Carolina Sandhills NWR is divided into 21 compartments; each typically has 10-12 clusters of cavity trees. The maps give us an approximate idea of where the trees are, and we then find them on foot using a compass and a large dash of intuition. It sometimes took a while to find particular trees, as the maps are not entirely accurate.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) have been on the endangered species list since 1970, and the current population is estimated to be about 12,500. Like many endangered species, RCWs are closely tied to their habitat, in their case the longleaf pine ecosystem. There once were about 90 million acres of longleaf habitat spreading across the eastern United States, from New Jersey south to Florida and west to Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Only 2 million acres remain, in mostly isolated patches scattered through the southeast.
That much ecosystem doesn’t just disappear on its own. Logging, agriculture, the turpentine industry, tree farming, and urbanization, along with the suppression of natural fires, contributed to the decline of longleaf pine. Of these, burning is perhaps the most critical, because when fires are suppressed the composition of the forests changes. Fewer fires promote the growth of hardwoods, which the RCWs have no use for. They need pines, and pines need fire.
Natural fires, caused by lightning strikes, are typically low-intensity burns. These fires incinerate the fallen needles and grasses and leave mature trees undamaged. This keeps the area around the longleaf cleared, reducing competition and providing open areas for their seeds to quickly absorb nutrients from the ash. Longleaf pine forests are typically composed of just longleaf; there is an obvious lack of mid-story trees. The ground is covered with a high diversity of plants, all of which benefit from fire as well. Frequent forest fires “acted as the thread which held the longleaf pine forest together (1).”
RCWs are the only woodpeckers that nest in living pines. Connoisseurs, they prefer their trees aged: old-growth longleaf pine being most favored. The best longleaf will have red-heart disease, which softens the heartwood enough for the birds to easily excavate a cavity, anywhere from 10 to 80 feet off the ground. Longleaf pines have a high resin yield, and are very sticky trees. RCWs will open up sap wells all over the tree, which are especially good at keeping away rat snakes that will try to climb up and eat their eggs and nestlings. It is easy to spot cavity trees once you know what to look for—a large reddish section of bark midway up the tree, encrusted with sap.
Biologists (and interns) monitor most of the trees on the refuge with cavities, of which there are over 1,300. Thankfully, we only need to monitor the ones with recent activity, about a third of the cavity trees. The refuge is 45,348 acres, so there is a great deal of driving and hiking involved in this line of work.
Later in the morning, I drive to the office to fill out the official observation form for Nancy, the refuge biologist. Grabbing up my notebook and the spotting scope, I head inside.
“So how did it go out there?” Nancy asks.
“I had two. They stayed mostly in Compartment 20, then headed towards that farm across the road off the refuge, then back towards Compartment 21.”
“That’s interesting; I wonder why they went over there. Ok, good. I thought I had heard birds out there during nest checks. Did they have bands?
My peeper, leaning on a marked cavity tree. All known cavity trees are marked with a broad band of white paint to help not only biologists but also the firefighters who set prescribed burns on the refuge identify them. Peepers are about five feet tall and extend up to 35 feet.
“Nope, both unbanded.”
“What trees were you watching?”
“I was set up on 93, and the first RCW came from the cavity near the top of the tree. The other came from behind me, probably 97.”
We talk a little more about details of my observations, and Nancy shares her morning experiences in a different compartment. I fill out the official observation form, and she gives me my instructions for the day. I have five trees to inspect, checking up on nestlings we banded about two weeks ago.
“How’s your peeper been working?” she asks. Peepers are cameras on telescoping poles, which we use to ‘peep’ into RCW cavities. They keep us from having to climb the trees so we can make our observations more quickly, which means less stress for the birds, though not always for us. RCW cavity openings are about 2 inches in diameter, and directing a camera head smaller than your fist into a 2 inch hole 30 feet or so above the ground takes a bit of skill and practice. As a rule, the sun will be in your eyes, it will be windy, and/or there will be branches in the way.
“Okay I guess, but sometimes the arm that holds the camera up doesn’t stay tight, so when I pull it out of the cavity it flops straight down, and then I have to lower the entire thing and re-adjust it if I need another look, which is a pain.”
A RCW nestling, about 7 or 8 days old. Its eyes are unopened, and the feathers are just starting to come in and poke through the skin. Their feathers grow in tracts, the darkened areas on the bird’s head, back, and wings. It takes RCW’s about 20 days to become fully feathered and reach adult size.
Woodpecker nestlings are altricial, which means they are born without feathers, eyes closed, and are pretty much helpless. It takes about 20 days for RCW nestlings to grow in their adult feathers. Juvenile males will have the distinctive red crown patches on their temples; females’ just plain black and white. I peep into cavities and look for splotches of red, jotting down the number of nestlings and their sex: male, female, or unknown, if they are being uncooperative and sitting on top of one another so I can’t see the back of their heads.
As I drive off through the refuge towards my first cavity, I hear the chatter of brown nuthatches in the pines to my left. They sound like so many squeaky toys, jumping around in the trees like little yippy dogs. Listening closely, every once in a while I hear the “sklit, sklit” of an RCW flying overhead.
1. Auburn Forestry site: The Longleaf Alliance
Blog posts about my experiences:
First you must bait the fields, which have been disked properly by an approved U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee. The area where the bait is placed must first be raked smooth, so the doves can see the bait and have a nice landing area to wander around in and leave footprints. You should probably not joke about leaving dirt angels (like a snow angel, but in dirt) when asked by your boss if you did raked and baited correctly. (What kind of question is that though, really?) Also you should probably not leave messages written in the dirt for said boss, though said boss never did see it.
|Baiting the dove field.|
After you put out the bait (sunflower seed is what we used) place a metal trap over the bait pile. There is an art to putting out bait. It must be perfectly arranged under the trap or the mourning doves won’t come. They’ll just hang out around the outsides of the traps and not go inside and get caught.
|Whitney with the seed bucket.|
After an hour or so, go back and check the traps. If there are doves in them, cover the trap with a sheet to calm them down so they don’t hurt themselves against the wire before you get them out.
|Whitney removing a dove from the trap while Brady busies himself with the bands.|
If you’re really lucky you’ll catch more than one or two doves at a time. However, in my experience, you only catch multiple doves when a big storm is blowing in and the last place you want to be is crouched over a metal trap in the middle of a wide-open field as the lightning gets closer and closer. Then you’ll catch 20 at a time. Other days, maybe 5.
|Lauren removing a dove from the trap. Brady stands in the back being exceptionally useful.|
After removing the mourning dove from the trap, determine age, sex, and molt status. If any of the feathers on the body and wings have buffy tips, it is a young (hatch year) bird. If it is a hatch year, then the sex is unknown. If it is an adult, males have a slate colored patch on the crown and rosy-tinted feathers on their breast. Females are plain and boring looking. Molt is determined by looking at the wing feathers and seeing which one is growing in, and therefore is shorter and a slightly different color than the older feathers.
|Whitney figuring out molt status.|
Once you have all that information figured out, a numbered band from the USGS is placed around the right leg of the dove. We were given 100 dove-sized bands, so once 100 are caught we’re done. The banding is done to help gather information about the doves during the dove hunt.
|Brady preparing the bands.|
Once the band is on, and the the information is written down, release the dove and start over!
|Lauren with a dove.|
|You can’t really tell, but this is an adult male mourning dove. Most of the adults we catch are males. Nancy thinks this is because males are dumber than females. Might make an interesting study…|
Though you might not realize it from reading my blog, there are in fact other animals at Carolina Sandhills in addition to red-cockaded woodpeckers. Here are a few pictures of some of them and fellow intern Whitney’s arms. There may be a full-body shot in there somewhere too.
We found a turtle! This is a male yellow-bellied slider. Male because it’s flat on the bottom (in fancy terms his plastron is slightly concave). The theory is that this helps the males to climb on top of the females when they breed.
|I like the shadow of Whitney’s hands and the turtle on the ground.|
We found a small tiny lizard that tried to climb Whitney’s pant leg during one of our vegetation surveys. Our best guess is eastern fence lizard. Whatever it is, it’s cute.
Whitney found a land snail and brought it in the kitchen! She was outside the bunkhouse one evening making a phone call, and found this dude on the stoop. Actually, this snail might be a dudette, or both (many snails are hermaphrodites) so let’s just stick with “dude.”
One afternoon as we were driving back to the office, we saw a dark shape lumbering down Wildlife Drive. We first thought it might be a raccoon, but as we got closer we realized it was a beaver. We stopped the truck a respectable distance away, got out, and took some pictures. Instead of staying away from us, the beaver strolled right up, crossed the road in front of the tuck, and trundled along just a few feet away from where Whitney was crouched taking pictures. It then crossed back over the road and headed into the pond.
|Close encounters of the beaver kind.|
The Beaver Song, which I learned from Chris at Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm. There are also hand motions, which I’d be more than happy to show you sometime. I only remember the chorus, which is a call and response.
Long tail (Long tail)
Big buck teeth (Big buck teeth)
Swimmin in the water (Swimmin in the water)
Chewing on trees (Chewing on trees)
Building up a dam (Building up a dam)
You know who I am (You know who I am)
I’m a Beaver, I’m a Beaver, I’m a Beaver! (I’m a Beaver. I’m a Beaver. I’m a Beaver!)
|Swimming away, looking for trees to gnaw on.|
Beavers can weigh up to 60lbs, and can be 23 to 39 inches long, excluding the tail, which adds an additional 8 to 12 inches. Not something you typically expect to see trucking down a paved road in the middle of the afternoon, especially as beavers are usually nocturnal.
And these pictures don’t have Whitney in them (and therefore are not nearly as interesting) but I did find this really neat insect while I was cleaning my peeper– the telescoping camera we use to look in woodpecker cavities. Not sure what it is, but it’s cool!
Friday was the last RCW banding of the 2012 season. It’s been a busy few months, and while it is nice to not be as busy (especially in this heat!) I am sad that there are no more trees to climb and ugly baby woodpeckers to play with. My time here at Carolina Sandhills is almost up, and it’s been fantastic. I am exceptionally glad I took this internship and was able to spend 12 weeks here working with RCW’s. Birds are always fun, and climbing trees is awesome, but I think the best part of this internship has been all the people I’ve been privileged to work with. While I’m not always excited about getting up early or having to tromp through the chigger/horse fly/ poison oak infested forest to look for cavity trees, every day is still fun because of the people here. I’m not sure where the future will take me after I leave this place, but I’ll never forget the experiences and people. Especially Brady Vaassen, fellow intern and one of my housemates, who is sitting here on the couch next to me asking when I’ll write a blog post about him and trying to get me to move so he can have the entire couch. Just because you’re 6ft 5in and a bit doesn’t mean you always get to hog the couch.
|20ft up a longleaf pine at a RCW cavity. And yes, I do have a turkey feather stuck in my hair.|
|Trying to get the nestling out of the cavity with my noose.|
|Nestling secured in the bag slung around my back, and heading down to the ground to get it banded.|
|Getting ready to band (or standing around looking important). That’s Evan Brashier on the right (not an intern, he actually gets paid), he banded the chick since I got to climb up and noose it.|
|Chick in hand, I make my stand, ready to band, best in the land.|
|The passing of the RCW chick.|
|Evan banding the chick. It was about 9 or10 days old.|
|Climbing back up to put the newly-banded nestling back home.|
|I don’t normally get this excited about putting nestlings back, but there were some interesting comments coming from the peanut gallery on the ground (aka Whitney and Evan).|
|The Pine Straw Festival did have a bouncy slide, which I suppose was pretty exciting. I don’t know they would have let us on, though. Maybe if we had a small child they would have, but there weren’t any around we could borrow.|
|Small line-up of old cars and some people I don’t know.|
|Don’t have booths like this at home in Ohio…|
|I bought a basket of these delicious strawberries, some of the best I’ve ever had. And now I have a sweet white plastic basket that says Mac’s Pride.|
|Yummy-looking peaches. Haven’t had any yet, but the peach ice cream was good.|
|They also have a small museum with all sorts of neat random old stuff, including cars, artwork, cash registers, cases of old knives, a row of rocking chairs, and these decoys.|
|Wall of tools and things.|
|One of the collection of old fans sitting next to the collection of cash registers.|
This may be slightly mind-boggling, but Patrick is both a place AND a person.
This Patrick (the place) is located in South Carolina, roughly 17 miles from McBee, which is slightly left of the middle of nowhere South Carolina.
This Patrick (the person) is currently located in Florida, somewhere on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, probably doing something fun like spraying invasive plants.
He can both talk the talk and walk the walk, and is an expert cogon grass eradicator. Don’t let his mild-mannered appearance fool you, he’ll kill him some cogon grass or old world climbing fern before you can say Bazinga! Although it’s much more exciting if he does it while you say Bazinga!
This Patrick has seen better days.
This Patrick is better days.
The most exciting thing about this Patrick is that the Dollar General is now open on Sunday.
Though I do hear that the Pine Straw Festival is a good time.
This Patrick mingles with NASA astronaut cut-outs. And touches lightning bare-handed. Even the astronaut has to wear gloves. This Patrick is basically a superhero. Pine straw just can’t compete.
This Patrick has a post office and a church (one of each),
but this Patrick has a USFWS hat (jealous) and a pretty purple passion fruit flower. Pretty purple passion flowers are always preferable to post offices.
The people of Patrick probably think I’m nuts because I pulled over to take pictures of signs around town (which consists basically of what you see here, a few houses, and a gas station). I also get the impression out-of-state plates are not welcome, probably especially when those plates are attached to a car with a Skunk Ape bumper sticker. I received several hostile looks.
I know this Patrick thinks I’m nuts (especially after writing this blog). However, his looks are something less than hostile. (And none of his used parts are for sale).
This blog post is what happens on weekends when you’re slightly left of the middle of nowhere South Carolina, looking through pictures from your last internship in Florida.
Thank you to Meghan for supplying some of the Patrick photographs. This blog would not have been possible without your assistance.
Currently, I am an intern at the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, located near McBee, South Carolina. I spend my days working with the biologists to study red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species. These are pretty awesome birds, and it is very exciting to spend every day running around in the pines looking at a bird species that many people have never seen.
|A bad picture of an adult Red-cockaded Woodpecker.|
Here are step-by-step instructions for how to peep a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW for short):
1). Assemble your equipment. This includes a peeper (see picture) and battery, a massive 4-wheel drive government truck, a map, a compass, a notebook and a pencil. Water and food are also advisable, because you will be out all day. Also a radio or cell phone so when you get lost you can call someone.
|A peeper. It is leaning on a RCW cavity tree, marked with white paint and a numbered metal tag. There is another RCW tree in the background.|
|This thing is a beast. I have yet to come up with an appropriate name. I have also yet to get stuck, though not for lack of trying. Apparently I am not very good at choosing places to turn around. 4-wheel drive rocks. Hard.|
2). Using your map, locate and drive to your first cluster of RCW cavities.
|This is compartment 9. There are 21 total compartments, with usually around 12 clusters (the red circles) of RCW cavities in each compartment.|
|I hate cluster 7. Hate. With a passion.
I was searching for tree 109, which it turns out is not in front of tree 64, as shown on the map, but instead a good quarter-mile behind it, right next to tree 98, which was also not on the map. I penciled them in after I eventually found them on Friday. When you stand in front of tree 64, where tree 109 should be, you can see all the other trees, but not 109 (because it’s actually a quarter-mile behind you, hidden in the pine plantation). The first time I went looking for tree 109 it was late in the afternoon, I was hungry, and I was this close to kicking a tree or throwing myself on the ground and having a minor temper-tantrum. But that would hurt, and I’m not a fan of poison ivy, so instead I went back to the truck, turned on the A/C, and blasted the radio. Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas does wonders.
3). Once you have arrived at the first tree to peep:
4). The wireless camera on the end of the pole will transmit an image to the LCD screen at the peeper base, where you are. You will probably have to jiggle the antenna around in order to get a clear image of what is in the cavity.
5). Write down what you see in the cavity (chips, eggs, nestlings, flying squirrels, RCW’s, nothing) in your notebook.
|Adult RCW on eggs, refusing to budge out of the cavity so I can see how many. Not cool dude, not cool.|
|Three RCW fledglings. Baby woodpeckers are not cute, they are featherless little blobs with giant heads and they flail about helplessly, trying to hide under each other when you stick the camera in.|
Below is a video I took of some flying squirrels all piled up in a RCW cavity. I’ve only ever been able to see three at a time, but I’m sure they pack themselves in pretty good. I guess the ones on the top are the low guys on the totem pole, because they’re the ones that would get picked off first if someone tries to reach in there for a flying squirrel snack during the day.
|Four RCW eggs in a cavity.|
6). Pull the camera down, and get your hands covered in sap. Somehow throughout the day you will get sap on your hands, shirt, pants, shoes, notebook, pencil, water bottle, steering wheel, and sunglasses. Periodically worry about it getting into your hair and having to cut it out/shave your head. Then decide that this might be the way to go, as it’d probably be pretty cool (temperature-wise, not in any other -wise) in the summer.
7). Drop your pencil in the poison ivy/oak growing everywhere around base of tree (this step is optional, and highly probable).
8). Gather up all your things, variously forgetting the battery, maps, beating stick, and pencil at different trees.
9). Once in the truck, buckle in the peeper for the ride to the next cluster.
10). Forget you probably have poison ivy all over your hands and rub your face/eat lunch without washing hands.
11). Repeat until 4 p.m., when you’re done for the day.
This is pretty much how I spend my days. Even when I’m lost, hot, sweaty, covered in sap and being bitten by flies, I still can’t get over how lucky I am to get to do things like this. Being a field biologist (or intern) is the best job ever!
I suppose that’s inaccurate, because I don’t know for sure that Dave got his gorilla here, but if you’ve ever wanted a giant concrete gorilla just like the one outside of the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee Florida (and I know I have), then I know where you can get one: Bethune, South Carolina, conveniently located just 7 miles from McBee, South Carolina, which is not conveniently located near anywhere.
If you ever happen to journey to Ochopee FL, the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters are a must. I can honestly say that conversing with Dave Shealy was one of the more interesting conversations I’ve had, and I’ve had some pretty interesting conversations. If you’ve ever talked with my little brother or my friends Max, Patrick, or Meghan, you’ll know what I mean. Also, let me just mention that I’m the only one who actually talked with Dave Shealy, as Meghan and Patrick were both suddenly attacked by the shy bug, the poops. Yes Meghan and Patrick, I just called you both poops. On the internet, where it never goes away. So HA.
The Skunk Ape website:
|Bethune, South Carolina|
(the one in the middle is the gorilla)
|Outside the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
(and campground, reptile and bird exhibit, $5 per person, 5 and under free).
|Not a Skunk Ape, but we love it anyway.|
|The place to get your very own genuine concrete products, including gorillas, giraffes, giant roosters, fish, bears, elephants, pigs, palm trees, and an intriguing variety of fountains and statues. Not sure if they ship, but I could be convinced to rent a UHaul and drive your concrete giant rooster to you (in the continental US, of course).|
They also have giant giraffes, like the one I saw on the side of the highway at a fireworks store near Pioneer, Tennessee. And giant roosters, and a hugging Jesus, and palm trees, and a lighthouse, pretty much anything you could want made out of concrete. If they don’t have it you don’t want it!
I know what I’m putting on my Christmas list this year: giant concrete rooster.
It’d look lovely in our garden at home, don’t you think Mom?
|Bethune Pottery. I like the giant roosters (they have more than one out front, in different colors) and the Jesus under the palm tree.|
|Outside a fireworks store off I-75 in Pioneer, Tennessee. They don’t have pink elephants at Bethune Pottery, but they did have grey ones.
I took this photo on a road trip in early 2010, when my trusty road-tripping companion and I drove from Ohio to Colorado via the Florida Keys. It was a long drive.