Sunday, October 4, 2015

South Carolina, Pt. 1

As you might know, I am currently taking Ornithology (the study of birds) at Ohio University. This is one of the required classes for my Wildlife and Conservation Biology major, and also one of my most-anticipated classes of my college career. We go on weekly field labs (You can read about each one at this link), but we also get to go on two big trips. One of these trips is to Lake Erie, which is coming up in November, but the other trip was last week. As you might guess by the title, it was a trip down to South Carolina. The point of this trip was to expose us to birds we would normally never see in Ohio, and so we were doing some relatively intense birding to find all those special species. If you've ever went birding to that degree, you probably know that taking photos is pretty difficult, as you simply don't have the time for it. So sadly I don't have a bunch of photos, but I'll try to make do with the ones I did take.

Hunting Island State Park
We left Athens, Ohio, at 8 AM on Thursday, September 24th. Eleven hours and a slight detour later, we arrived at our destination, Hunting Island State Park. Hunting Island State Park is located in extreme southern South Carolina. The entire park is located on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. This island is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands located within the so-named Sea Islands, which is a chain of tidal and barrier islands ranging from mid-South Carolina to extreme northern Florida. Hunting Island has a subtropical climate and consists of several different ecosystems. On the Eastern side of the island is the Atlantic Ocean, shown above. The Western side consists of extensive salt marsh habitat. The island itself consists mainly of maritime forest. In this part of the world, maritime forests are dominated by evergreen trees, with the majority of those trees being pine trees. In this case Loblolly Pine was the dominant tree, with Slash Pine, Southern Live Oak, and other trees mixed in. The iconic Cabbage Palm occupied the mid-story, which you can see in the photo above. Those tall pines pictured are the Loblolly Pine. The understory was occupied primarily by Saw Palmetto, Serenoa repens. An interesting and well-recognized species of fern-like palm, Saw Palmetto is restricted to the Southern Atlantic Coast and Eastern Gulf Coast. It can be found in only one county in South Carolina (Beaufort), which is where Hunting Island is located. There are other similar-looking palm species found in the understory here though as well, such as Needle Palm.

We arrived near sunset, ate in the city of Beaufort, and then headed toward the park in the dark. It had began to rain by the time we arrived, which added a whole new dimension of fun as we frantically tried setting up our tents before they got too wet inside. That rain turned into a storm with incredible lightning, Earth-shaking thunder, and torrential rain. It turns out that storm system also spawned an EF-2 tornado in Johns Island, which was only a mere 35 miles away from us. Thankfully we just received heavy downpours; a tornado might have put a slight damper on the trip, to say the least.

Hunting Island State Park
When morning came, the rain had stopped but the skies were still pretty overcast. We ventured out to the beach to look for shorebirds and other related birds. Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and various terns quickly greeted us. A few shorebirds were out and about, including a Ruddy Turnstone, multiple Willets, and some peeps we couldn't identify. A lagoon on the other side of the dunes held a Bald Eagle, Osprey, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets. Many warbler species flitted about the trees, and Brown-Headed Nuthatches squeaked like a dog toy from the canopy.

Hunting Island Salt Marsh

After a few hours, we moved to the Western side of the island. This side of the island has an extensive salt marsh. A salt marsh is essentially the area between open salt water and dry land. This area gets routinely flooded with salt water every day due to the tides, which in turn creates a soggy and salty salt marsh. I took this photo during low tide, and you can see how the salt water is restricted to a shallow river (named Johnson Creek). Once the high tide comes in, the water level will rise (in the case of the day this was taken, it rose 7 feet), and most of the Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, that you see will be nearly covered.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin South Carolina
The saltmarsh produced more herons, including our first Tricolored Heron of the day. Four Wood Storks, a federally-listed Endangered Species, flew over us, drawing ooh's from the class. Several Willets, a species of sandpiper, foraged along the exposed mud bank of Johnson Creek. For several minutes, a Clapper Rail ventured out into the open along the bank to forage next to a sleeping Laughing Gull. To our surprise, a dolphin also made an appearance. Due to the location, I'm nearly certain that it was a Common Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. There are other species of dolphin near South Carolina, but most of these are more open-ocean species. The Common Bottlenose Dolphin is the only species which commonly swims to the shore, into lagoons and marshes, and up estuaries. It was amazing to see one so close!

Black Skimmers in South Carolina
We then went to Paradise Pier, a 1,120 foot pier that juts out into Fripp Inlet. Here we had 30+ Brown Pelicans, dozens of Laughing Gulls, 2 Herring Gulls, another Bald Eagle, more heron species, and the birds on the sandbar in the photo above. This sandbar, which was just off the pier, was a very productive piece of land. About 20 Sanderlings (a species of sandpiper) and 3 Willets foraged by the water's edge. A group of terns flew in a few minutes later. There were Caspian, Royal, and Sandwich Terns in the group. Then the most exciting species of the pier flew in: 3 Black Skimmers (the black birds on the center-left). We also got to see two cool fish species. One fisherman pulled up a large Red Drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, which was probably around 2 and a half feet long. Another caught one of the Dasyatis stingray species, which was incredible to see in the wild! I'm not sure of the exact species, but it was either the Atlantic, Bluntnose, or Roughtail Stingray.

Nephila clavipes
One of the best parts of this trip was seeing so many new things that I've wanted to see for years. I haven't been near the ocean since I was 4, and so I was looking at everything around me with new eyes. Every other bird I looked at was essentially a lifer. Every plant I looked at was a species I had never seen before. Plants I had learned about in class, like the Loblolly Pine, finally came to life in front of my eyes. I'm a bird guy first and foremost, so the birds were obviously the stars of the trip, but this spider was definitely one of the stand-out highlights. This is the Golden Silk Orbweaver (more commonly known as the Banana Spider), Nephila clavipes, a species of spider I have wanted to see for years and years. When you're into biology, you'll often find yourself doing things that the average person would not do. For example, I was walking to the bathrooms the first morning when I ran face first into a huge, very strong orbweaver web. The web was larger and stronger than any I had seen before. Now, the average person would have freaked out and tried to get away as fast as possible. The first thing that jumped to my mind though was "OH MY GOSH, CAN IT BE A BANANA SPIDER?!?" I looked up to my left to see the massive palm-sized spider frantically running away from me. It was! My lifer Banana Spider! I was ecstatic and quickly went to get an even closer look. This is an absolutely beautiful species. Although big and "frightening" looking to some, these are really harmless spiders that won't do anything unless you handle them roughly.

Fiddler Crabs
Fiddler crabs, Uca sp.
We ended the day a little before sundown. Our awesome TA Brandan Gray made everyone jambalaya, and we had a wonderful (and much-needed) dinner as the sun set through the pines at our campsite. A little bit later, the class decided to head off to the beach. Due to Loggerhead Turtles nesting on the beach, lights of any sort are banned for the Summer until the end of October, but there was a nearly full moon out which lit up the beach. It was nearing low tide, so a large portion of the beach was exposed. As we walked along the beach, Brandan yelled out "Dolphin!" and pointed to a blob swimming about 30 feet from shore. We looked out and I noticed the creature had a heterocercal tail. That meant one thing. I yelled out "THAT'S A SHARK!" and sure enough it was. It was the first time I ever saw a shark out in the wild, and I was beyond ecstatic. I have no idea what species it was, but it was about a 5 foot long individual who was slowly swimming parallel to the shore about 30 feet out. We followed it down the shore until it disappeared back into the ocean, marking the end of an amazing day.

Since it would be too long to list out all the species here, you can see my bird checklists for the day at the following links:

1. Hunting Island SP Forest, Lagoon, and Beach
2. Hunting Island Salt Marsh
3. Paradise Pier (Hunting Island SP)

I should have Part 2 up by tomorrow, so stay tuned! Part 2 can be found right here!