Francis Beilder Forest

Tucked away in a section of Four Holes Swamp, a tributary of the Edisto River in South Carolina, lies a pocket of remarkable forest. Currently owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beilder Forest protects the largest virgin bald cypress and tupelo swamp remaining in North America.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree surrounded by other treesBald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a deciduous member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which includes juniper, white-cedar, arborvitae, incense-cedar, Sequoia, and redwood. Like hickory trees, however, bald cypress shed their pinnate leaves each fall and grow new leaves in the spring. This characteristic inspired their common name since the trees are “bald” for at least part of the year. The species is long-lived and its wood is rot resistant. Recently, cypress logs dating back 25,000 to 50,000 years have been uncovered from sand quarries along the Pee–Dee River.

Visiting the Beilder forest is easy, requiring only the ability to traverse a level, 1.75 mile-long boardwalk. Walking into the forest, I could immediately see this was a special place.

black water swamp in winter with reflections of trees in waterBald cypress swamps experience seasonal flooding, and when I visited in mid December the forest was covered in a blanket of tea-colored water stained brown by tannins. The day was relatively warm and temperatures reached above 60˚ F. A few turtles and snakes took the opportunity to climb out of the water and sun themselves on fallen logs. My attention, however, was consistently drawn to the canopy and the craggy tops of centuries- and millennium-old bald cypress trees.

silhouette of large bald cypress treeBald cypress is one of the longest-lived trees in North America and the longest-lived tree in the eastern U.S. The oldest known tree at Beilder is nearly 1,600 years old. Along the boardwalk, you can find a 1,000-year giant, which outwardly looks healthy enough to stand another thousand years. (I asked the Audubon staff if I could see the 1,600 year-old tree and to my delight it could be found along the boardwalk. But, I won’t disclose its exact location since the staff would like to avoid making it a target for vandals.)

silhouette of large bald cypress tree

A thousand year-old giant in Francis Beilder Forest. This tree grows adjacent to the boardwalk and is identified by a sign.

At Beilder, many trees are massively trunked, resembling the silhouette of giant sequoia. Above their basal swell, they barely seem to taper until their branches splay outward in the canopy.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree; tree is surrounded by a boardwalkWhen you live to be over 1,000 years old you’re bound to acquire a scar or two. Reaching over 100 feet high, each bald cypress carries a legacy of the battles with insects, fire, and severe weather like thunderstorms, tornados, and hurricanes.

crown of large bald cypress with broken branch

Some time ago, a large branch broke off of this tree, perhaps allowing carpenter ants an easy means of entry. Larger holes in the same branch are the work of large woodpeckers like pileated woodpeckers. One hundred and fifty years ago, ivory-billed woodpeckers would’ve inhabited this place too. Could some of these woodpecker holes be from this extinct bird?

top of trunk of hollow bald cypress tree

The charcoaled interior of this large bald cypress preserves a moment in time when it was struck by lightning and burned.

Collectively and individually, these trees tell a fascinating story, if we are willing to listen. Maybe the most poignant of those, from my perspective, is loss.

I marveled at the trees at Francis Beidler, but I marveled at a fragment. Their longevity and physical proportions might only be remarkable because we’ve eradicated nearly all other bald cypress of the same size and age. Francis Beidler Forest is one of the few places where old-growth bald cypress trees still exist. According to one estimate, over 42 million acres of bald cypress forests once covered the southeastern United States, an area nearly the size of Missouri. Now, only 10,000 acres remain, equivalent to .02% of the original bald cypress forest! The rest was logged for lumber, furniture, and shingles with no forethought for future generations who may find great value (monetary or otherwise) in healthy ecosystems or for the species who depended on this habitat.

Through uncontrolled hunting and the loss of old-growth forests like bald cypress swamps, we drove the Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker to extinction. Knowing what we consumed in the past, understanding that we continue to cause extinctions and change the climate today, can we ethically expand our footprint on Earth? How much extinction does it take before we say enough is enough?

The trees at Beilder felt the pounding of the ivory-bill and heard the calls of parakeets. Perhaps they were even enveloped by passenger pigeons, a species once so abundant in North America that their flocks extended for miles and blackened the skies. The air in this forest used to ring with the echoes of these birds. When we lose forests, we lose much more than trees.

 

Someone’s eating the berries

In low elevation areas at the foot of the North Cascades, salmonberries are quickly ripening and I have plenty of competition in the race to harvest them.

ripe salmonberrySalmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) are moderately tall shrubs with compound leaves and bright magenta flowers. The flowers later produce large, raspberry-like fruit in various shades of yellow, orange, or scarlet. According to Cascade-Olympic Natural History, the plant’s common name derives from the fruit’s ability to cut the greasiness or fishiness of salmon, not from their color. Like many sugary, wild fruits, they are relished by more than humans. Recently, other critters have beaten me to the choicest berries.

stem of plant missing its fruit

Increasingly often, I find salmonberry shrubs stripped of their ripe berries.

 

Bears, of course, will eat salmonberries, but most of the berries I’ve seen have been plucked a bit too delicately to be the work of a bear. Bright red or yellow berries aren’t just an advertisement for mammals. They attract birds as well. Cedar waxwings, in particular, are pronounced frugivores and I recently watched a few in the act of stripping a salmonberry shrub clean.

I’ll gladly yield the fruit to these birds, since they’re doing the legwork (or is it wing-work?) to disperse the seeds. In the waxwing’s digestive tract, the seeds are carried far and wide, and if the seed is extremely lucky the bird will deposit it in a moist, sunny spot with rich soil.

More than waxwings influence this plant’s reproduction, however. Earlier this spring, I watched many rufous hummingbirds visit its large magenta flowers.

magenta colored flower with five petals

The salmonberry flower.

Salmonberry blooms relatively early in the spring (I found it in full bloom in mid April this year), a time when few other hummingbird flowers are present. Salmonberry plants aren’t exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds, but I watched hummingbirds frequently visit more than one patch of salmonberry blossoms this spring, so it may be an important early source of nectar for them.

In blossom and in fruit, salmonberry is tied to birds. Have you noticed similar connections in your local ecosystem?

Nests and Fledglings

Standing in a driveway in western Pennsylvania yesterday, a robin flew quickly from a garage as I walked by. Today I watched a robin, probably the same as yesterday, flush from the same place. Both times the bird flew maybe ten meters before perching and making several alarm calls. Both times it remained nearby, calling, until I left. The robin had a good reason to stick around. Inside the garage, in an old hanging basket, it had a nest with several mostly naked chicks.*

naked robin chicks in nestAmerican robins, due to their tolerance of humans and our habitations, are fantastic birds to seek out in the spring, especially if you want to watch the nesting process. Last year, a robin built a nest under the roof eave of my house. It was a perfect location for the bird—secluded, hidden, and difficult for predators to access—and for me since the nest was only two feet outside of my bathroom window. It was a great opportunity to witness the growth and behavior the chicks in the nest, and I could watch it with minimal disturbance to the birds. Several times a day I watched the nest, the highlights of which I compiled into a video.

For American robins, the timespan from the start of incubation to fledging is very short, generally less than one month total. All the robins in the video above fledged within 13 days of hatching, growing nearly to the size of their parents during that short time.

Adult robin (upper left) and fledgling robin (lower right) perched on tree branches. Tree is big leaf maple.

A robin fledgling (lower right) follows one of its parents a day after fledging.

 

After these young songbirds fledged, their parents still had work to do. The fledglings followed mom and dad, continuing to beg for food, and the parents had to keep a watchful eye for predators. It’s difficult job and most robin chicks don’t survive to adulthood.

Once they leave the nest, fledglings of many species aren’t silent. I found this yellow-rumped warbler fledgling last spring by its impressively loud begging calls.

In temperate North America, mid spring to early summer is an exciting time to watch birds. The next time you’re outside, watch and listen carefully. You may find many birds very busy with the business of reproduction and survival.

*Please watch bird nests ethically. The nesting season is a stressful and difficult time for young and adult birds alike. Adult birds will likely view you as a threat. Some birds are very sensitive to disturbance and may abandon their nest and young. Careless footsteps may trample eggs or chicks of ground nesting species. Some birds, like killdeer, will expend considerable energy trying to distract and lure you away from their nest. Keep enough distance between you and the nest to avoid disturbance and watch through binoculars.

A Bufflehead Meets Its Demise

On a recent ski, I was daydreaming for a moment or two, just staring down at the snow. I glanced up for a moment to see a raptor flying away from a dead snag. It didn’t fly far and landed in another dead standing tree about a hundred meters away. Through my binoculars, I saw an adult peregrine falcon staring back at me.

bird perched on tree branch

Peregrine Falcon

Moving slightly farther on my skis, I spooked a second peregrine. This one though flushed from the ground and when I looked toward its place of origin, I saw a pile of feathers. The falcons had been eating breakfast.

feathers and blood on snow near tree

The peregrines were feeding on a bird when I accidently spooked them.

Curiosity compelled me to investigate the kill. I skied over to the bird on the snow. It was a duck, a bufflehead to be specific. This duck hadn’t been dead long. Blood had yet to coagulate and the falcons had only eaten parts of the back and most of the neck.

dead bird on snow

Peregrine falcons had not been feeding long on this bufflehead when I found it.

Buffleheads are diving ducks that feed mostly on aquatic insects in freshwater environments. The Stehekin River was not far away from the scene, but the river at the location, just a mile or so downstream of High Bridge, is too small to meet the habitat requirements of this species. Buffleheads prefer deeper, more open water found on ponds, lakes, coastlines, and larger rivers.

What might the bufflehead be doing so far upriver? I suppose it could’ve been in the water, but peregrine falcons are adept aerial hunters. Buffleheads are strong flyers, yet peregrines, as the fastest animal in the world, could have overtaken the bufflehead in a spectacular stoop, a swift dive when they strike and kill the bird in the air. The bufflehead might’ve been flying up valley, migrating to a different area, when it met its demise. The cliffs above the river valley in this location would be ideal places for peregrines to perch and hunt birds from.

After a moment or two, I left the falcons to their meal after watching them perch in the trees. When I returned later in the afternoon on my way home, I revisited the scene and found only a smattering of downy feathers and blood stains on the snow.

Feathers and blood on snow with shadow of photographer.

By mid afternoon, only feathers and a few blood spots remained of the bufflehead.

This was a bad morning for the bufflehead, but a good one for the falcons.

 

 

In the Salt Marsh

Along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, from Newfoundland to Florida, you can find a special habitat—the Spartina salt marsh. A transition zone between the land and the sea, this is a challenging place to live for many organisms. I found myself with some spare time while visiting family in South Carolina, so of course I couldn’t resist exploring a nearby salt marsh, one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. This habitat produces more biomass per meter than almost any other biome. Only tropical rainforests are more productive.

brown grass in salt marsh meadow

A typical salt marsh scene in winter: golden-colored cordgrass.

I reached the marsh near low tide, which exposed soggy ditches and mud flats. The mud was soupy in places, sucking at my boots.

Looking down on boots in soupy, dark brown mud.

Oysters clung together in the lowest reaches of the tidal flats and ditches. The tips of their shells may be fragile, but they are also extremely sharp, as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. I don’t know whether the shell’s sharpness is an accident of evolution or an adaptation to protect them from predators like drums, rays, and clumsy humans like me. I do know that I’ll never forget the first time I tried to walk over a few oysters while only wearing flip flops. Trust me, it’s not a pleasant experience.

oyster shell with sunlight passing through translucent upper portion of shell.

The edges of many oyster shells are thin and fragile, but also very sharp.

Walking was easier where vegetation was firmly established. On the U.S. Atlantic coast, most salt marshes are dominated by Spartina grasses. There are several species of Spartina, but the most abundant is salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Cordgrass thrives in this habitat, despite the harsh conditions—flooded twice-daily by tides, exposed to high salinity, and mired in anoxic (oxygen-free or oxygen-limited) mud.

golden brown grass, trees seen on horizon

Salt marsh cordgrass is the most abundant and ecologically important plant in East Coast salt marshes.

Most flowering plants have a fairly low tolerance for salt, but the cordgrass is watered by the ocean twice a day. Cordgrass meets the salty challenge by sequestering salt in its shoots and excreting the salt through glands in its leaves. The grass deals with the challenge of low oxygen levels in the deep mud by exchanging gases from roots in the upper few centimeters of mud to those underneath. Few plants have these dual abilities, which is the reason cord grass so thoroughly dominates salt marshes. Once you learn to identify salt marsh cordgrass, you can easily and accurately judge the average level of high tide, since cordgrass is usually limited to areas that receive substantial flooding with each high tide.

brown grass of salt marsh, taller rushes on left of photo, trees on horizon

The transition between the low marsh to the high marsh is marked by plants other than salt marsh cordgrass. The high marsh lies above the typical high tide line. Plants like black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus), salt meadow hay (Spartina patens), salt grass (Distichlis sp.), and saltwort (Salicornia sp.) begin to compete with cord grass where tidal flooding is less frequent. Needlerush is the taller plant on the left of the photo.

pinkish, segmented stem of saltwort

Saltwort is a noticeable member of the mid to high marsh community.

Unlike salt marsh cord grass, saltwort tolerates high salt levels through its ability to retain water in its stems, but it cannot withstand the same level of submersion that cordgrass can. Saltwort always captures my attention though, not only because it is a pretty plant, but because it is tasty. Late December is not a choice time for nibbling on saltwort stems. Few were even standing, but the sight of them reminded me of their pleasing salty bite. (I’ve also pickled saltwort using a recipe I found in a Euell Gibbons book. It tasted surprisingly good.)

Before leaving the marsh, I took some time to watch birds out on the lower fringes of the exposed mud. A casual scan through binoculars revealed over a hundred semipalmated plovers. On the edge of the marsh, these birds work to survive the winter before returning north to their breeding grounds from Newfoundland and Labrador west to Alaska.They were also finding a few more invertebrates than I was.

shorebird pulling a worm out of mud with its bill

Worms are yummy for plovers.

My urge to get a little closer to the exposed mudflats brought me to the edge of the cord grass where the mud was very soft. While plovers were pulling invertebrates out of the mud, I was having some difficultly extracting my boots from the mud. Salt marshes are challenging places to live and, if you’re human, difficult places to travel.

looking down on very muddy pants and footware

Salt marsh trekking is dirty business.