Baby White-tailed Deer


The white-tailed deer, Orocoileus virginianus, is the smallest of all the North American Deer species. They have a vast range and can be seen in much of the United States, central and western Canada, throughout Mexico, and even into the northern parts of South America. Here in South Carolina, being a rural state, we have a very high population of these deer. This was a baby deer I found on a paddle along Wambaw Creek in the Francis Marion National Forest. These deer are very adaptable and can live in a range of different habitats (there are even some on Kiawah Island, SC that are more like pets than wild animals). At first I thought this little one was injured because it was sitting on the side of a creek that had a healthy alligator population, and I didn’t see it’s mother anywhere. Upon further research I learned that for the first weeks after birth, the young fawn cannot keep up with the mother as she feeds during the day, so she finds it a safe place to lie her child down and relies on its camouflage to keep it safe. That is one main reason that they have white spots on their back as a fawn, but loose them as they get older. Since I thought it was injured, I tried to “save” it. This one stayed perfectly still until I got so close enough I could almost touch it, then it bolted off. I’m glad it was ok. I’m also glad I decided to take my nice camera on this paddle so I could capture this cute little one. Thanks for reading!!

Some facts about the South Carolina White-tailed Deer Population click here

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

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Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.  It has been super busy at work and I haven’t had much time.  Luckily my job allows me to further educate myself about nature and get great pictures.  My wonderful wife got me a Nikon D3300 camera with at 55-200 mm lens package.  This now allows me to take far better pictures share with you.

This Picture I took was of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea).  I took it as I was guiding a tour on Shem Creek around Charleston, South Carolina. These birds live mostly in the Southeastern United States, but can be seen as far north as Ontario and as far east as Michigan.  They feed mostly on marine crustaceans like crabs, but will also feed on crayfish in their inland habitats.  They forage both day and night, and along the coast they forage mostly during low tide.  They catch their prey by ambushing them with their beaks, where they violently shake the crustacean apart so they can swallow the individual pieces whole.  They have also been known to impale their prey with their beaks to make them easier to deal with.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons breed around wetlands adjacent to water bodies.  They build small platform nests in trees above or adjacent to the water.  They can nest in trees as high as 60 feet above the water, or as low as a few feet off the water.  Both the male and female build the nests and they usually construct them out of dead twigs they break off of standing vegetation.  Around the coast their breeding time correlates to when the crabs emerge in the Spring.

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Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nest. Taken on Wambaw Creek in McClellanville, SC

The Population of Yellow-crowned Night Herons are classified as Least Concern.  This means that their population has stayed stable over the past decades.  However, destruction of wetland habitats has caused local decline in some populations and is threat to these organisms.  The oldest recovered fossil of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron is 2-2.6 million years old (found in Sarasota, FL) and we want to keep them around for millions more to come!!

Alligators are Back!!!

I have already done a nice post on the American Alligator.  This is a photo I took the other day with my new camera.  This picture was taken about half a mile from my house in someones back yard in Mount Pleasant, SC.  This alligator loves to sun in this spot and he (or she) can be found there quite regularly when the weather is warm.  Alligators lay on the banks and sleep all day so they can hunt for food at night.  They usually pose very little threat to humans, unless they are regularly fed by them.  However, they can pose a treat for small dogs and cats who, because of domestication, can sometimes be oblivious to the treats posed by natural predators.  This is an awesome sight and I am very happy that my neighbors haven’t tried to have it removed!!!

Here is a link to my previous post about the wonderful American Alligator.

Now that I have my new camera I will have more posts to come… Thanks!!

Talking “Birds” and Bees, Except Just Birds at Wild Birds Unlimited!!

This morning one of my friends, Jenny McCarthey Tyrrell, was giving a talk called “The Secret Love Life of Birds.”  I was in the neighborhood and decided I would stop by.  First off, Jenny has a ton of knowledge about birds.  I met her at the Bird Banding Station on Sullivans Island, which I volunteered at this fall (a post coming soon).  She heads up that banding station as well as working with other organizations, such as the Audubon Society and The Center for Birds of Prey.  She is a great resource to have when needing  information about birds.  It was a great opportunity to get to attend and I learned a lot.

Here are some highlights of things I learned:

  • Most birds, over 90%, are what we call socially monogamous.  This is all nice and good for them to pair up and have babies, right? Well, of those nice socially monogamous birds, only about 10% are sexually monogamous.  This means that there is a lot of cheating going on.  So if bird life were like a TV show it would be more like “Desperate Housewives” than “I Love Lucy.”
  • In a clutch of eggs, there can be as much as 30-50% that are not from the male mate,  So not only are these birds unfaithful, that unfaithfulness makes its way to the offspring.  This may be a good thing, however, because it leads to more genetic diversity in the next generation and a better chance of survival of the species overall.
  • Some birds, such as the Red-winged Blackbird, are polygamous.  Meaning that one male has many female mates.  So these would be the “Sister Wives” of the bird world.
  • Birds use a lot of different mechanisms to attract a mate.  If you have ever been awaken at dawn to the cacophony of bird sounds then you know that songs are one of them.  Dawn is when the air is the clearest during the day and the songs will sound better and carry further.  Plumage plays a big role in sexual selection.  If you have ever seen a peacock at the zoo you have seen an extreme version of this.  Also, many different courtship behaviors are displayed in mate selection.  I mentioned in a previous post about the red-headed woodpecker how they play a hide and seek routine while courting.  Some birds use multiple or all three of these mechanisms.  A class of birds called the Birds of Paradise, in the family Paradisaeidae, utilize all three of these methods in a very elaborate way to attract a mate.  Watch Here to see an example of the bird of paradise dance.
  • There are many variations in what birds call home.  They vary between cavities, cupped nests, platform nests, scrape nests, burrow nests, or cemented spit cave nests.  All of these different types have advantages and disadvantages and fit the birds that utilize them.
  • Egg shape and size as well as maturation rate are all variable.  Some birds lay large eggs, like Ostriches, and some have tiny eggs, like hummingbirds.  These are obviously relative to body size (the Kiwi lays the largest egg relative to body size).  Eggs have different shapes as well.  Nest or cavity birds can be round like a sphere, while birds that nest on a cliff ledge will be teardrop shaped so they do not roll over the edge.  Birds also have a lot of variation in the rate at which they mature.  Shorebirds can walk around and are pretty developed as soon as they are hatched, whereas birds like cardinals hatch and have to be fed and protected for weeks.

This was a great experience and I learned a lot.  Jenny was great and got to pick her brain afterward.  Wild Birds Unlimited is a great place for all your bird feeder and birdwatching needs.  Their staff is very knowledgeable about birds and all the different equipment.  I picked up some birdseed while I was there as well.  If you want to visit their website Click Here

Thanks for reading!!!

Red-headed Woodpeckers out for the Bird Count

Today I was lucky enough to attend the Roxbury Park Bird Count in Meggett, South Carolina.  It was a blast to get to meet up with friends and volunteer my skills to assist the park.  During the count, we logged 75 species of birds, two of which being new visitors to the park.   I was surprised at the amount of red-headed woodpeckers we observed throughout the day.  Everywhere we looked we saw the iconic checkerboard white and black flitting through the park.  This is surprising because these birds are usually not nearly as common as many of the other woodpecker species (i.e. downy, red-bellied, yellow-bellied sapsucker).

Red-headed woodpeckers are named for their striking red heads.  They can be found in pine or pine-hardwood forests in their southern range, and in mixed hardwood forests farther to the north.  During their breeding season, these woodpeckers tend to shift more toward the forest edges or in stands of trees adjacent to disturbed areas (i.e. a neighborhood or agricultural field).  They find trees that are dead or dying.  The male first seeks out an area to nest, the female inspects the area and gives a few taps of approval, only then will the male excavate a nest cavity (proving that even in nature a man needs permission before doing anything).  These woodpeckers have also been known to build nests on power poles or nest in natural cavities.  They are very fun to watch, the males and females play a “hide and seek” ritual when courting each other.  They are extremely protective of their habitat and will push other birds out by picking fights with them, even if that bird is over double their size like the pileated woodpecker (red-headed woodpeckers are scrappy little birds).

These birds have a varied diet.  Their diet consists of insects, fruits, nuts, and seeds.  They are among the most skilled flycatching woodpeckers.  Red-headed woodpeckers have the ablility to catch insects on the wing, a talent that most other woodpecker species do not possess.  They have historically been a pest to farmers as well, ravenously gorging down their crops.   Interestingly, they also are one of only a few woodpecker species in North America that store their food for later use.  They are even known to stuff live grasshoppers in crevasses so tight that the stay alive, but can’t escape.

These birds are sadly on the decline in the US.  They are categorized as a Near Threatened species.  Studies show they declined at a rate of 2.2% a year between 1966-2010 and accumulated a nearly 70% overall decline within that time span.  It is believed the cause is due mostly to the decline of the worlds forests and the fact that many dead trees are rapidly cut down so they don’t do property damage (there was a tree recently cut down for that reason in my neighborhood which had red-headed woodpecker nests in it the last 2 years).  Also, many large nut trees were killed off in great chestnut blight in the early 1900’s taking away a large food source for these birds.  These woodpeckers were so abundant at one time that farmers would offer a bounty for carcasses.  A famous naturalist, John James Audubon, reported 100 birds shot from one cherry tree in one day.  Conservation for species like this are important, but until they become classified as Vulnerable they won’t get the attention they deserve (an organism isn’t considered “threatened or endangered” until they reach the vulnerable classification).  How you can help is by leaving dead snag trees in place if they are not at risk of causing damage.  Besides the red-headed woodpecker, you will be astounded at the amount of diversity that you will be able to see on that tree after it is dead.  These birds have been around for over 2 million years (we know this because there have been fossils of them found dating that far back) and I would hate to see them dwindle away. These are awesome birds and I am fortunate I got to see so many of them in such a healthy habitat. Thanks for reading!

More about these birds Click Here

Notes on the picture – I took this with my new Nikon D3300 Camera with 200mm zoom lens.  This was taken in terrible light from very far away,  I will try and get a better picture next time I come across this species and will post it as an update.  Thanks!!

Check out an article wrote for Nature Adventures Outfitters!!

Here is a link to an article I posted on the blog at Nature Adventures Outfitters where I work.  We took a group out to help at the Francis Marion Forest Cleanup last Saturday.  Check it out and browse through the website and see all the cool stuff we at Nature Adventures Outfitters have to offer!!!

9th Annual Francis Marion Forest Cleanup

 

American Alligator, More Friend than Foe

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Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.  This is an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensi) that I came across on a kayak tour out at Wambaw Creek in the Francis Marion around McClellanville, SC.  This was a lazy one because it sat there the whole day, through 2 tours I gave.  These are very beautiful and misunderstood animals.  The first question I get before my tours is “Are we going to get eaten by an alligator?” when I people should be asking “do I have on enough sunscreen?” or “do I need water?”  This just goes to show that people are so worried about unrealistic things than they are about the actual risks on a kayak tour.  The biggest risks on a kayak tour are people getting severe sunburns, people getting overheated, people getting dehydrated, or people falling out of the boat.  But most of them don’t care about the actual risks, they are just scared they are going to get eaten by an alligator.

Lets ponder that thought for a while.  In the state of South Carolina there have been no fatal alligator attacks (since the 1970’s at least).  Naturally, alligators are afraid of humans.  As someone who has spent a lot of time sharing the same habitats as alligators, I can tell you that their natural reaction is to get away from you and hide.  They are not the aggressive beasts that everyone thinks they are.  Attacks are very rare and many times humans are the ones to blame.  Usually attacks occur when a gator is provoked, defending a nest or young, or have lost their natural fear of humans due to someone feeding them.  On the other side of that coin, sunburns happen nearly every time I go out.  With someone dying of skin cancer every 57 mins in out country (2), that is more of a risk than getting eaten by a gator.  Heat Stroke has caused 20-22 deaths since 2010-2014 (3).  Conversely, there have been 0 fatal alligator attacks in these years.  So I would say its more important to worry about having water and applying sunscreen than to worry about alligators.

Alligators are awesome creatures.  They are nocturnal feeders that eat fish, birds, small mammals, and other reptiles.  They love to sun during the day, mainly to warm their bodies up to have enough energy to hunt at night.  They live about 30-35 years in the wild and grow and average of 13 feet long (largest recorded was 19 ft. 2 in.) and can weigh over 600 lbs.  In the state of South Carolina they are the largest reptile and largest natural predator.  They lay their eggs in April-May and have a 60 day gestation before hatching.  The sex is determined by the temperature of the environment when they hatch (86 degrees F produces all females and 93 degrees F produces all males).  The mother will stay with the babies until they are large enough to fend for themselves.

An important thing to note is that alligators are ectothermic, which is what most people refer to as “cold blooded” (which isn’t correct because their bodies are the same temperature as the environment, which can be pretty hot).  These ectothermic animals do not have to spend energy regulating their body temperature.  Mammals and birds, which are homeothermic, have to spend energy to keep their body temperatures at a distinct temperature (humans around 98.7) which is usually warmer than their surroundings.  This means that mammals and birds need vastly more energy, in the form of food, than reptiles like the alligator.  A full grown alligator only really needs around 1 lb of food a day to survive.  They also do not have the ability to chew their food, they must swallow their food whole.  So an alligator does not usually pursue anything it can’t swallow whole and doesn’t need that much to eat.  Not the monsters that you thought they were, right?  The bottom line is they do not see us as food and for the most part do their best to stay away from us all together.

Now for how humans impact these alligators.  They are actually considered a Threatened species.  Before regulations, alligators were hunted for their skins and meat.  They are still hunted today, but it is more regulated.  They are also commonly shot because people fear them when they come in their yard.  In ranges where they are declining it is mainly due to habitat loss, which is caused mostly by human development.  When alligators are fed by humans they loose their natural fear of humans and will seek us out for food, they can then become aggressive and attack pets, kids, or adults.  These are called “nuisance gators” and most are executed by wildlife control when called.  So if an alligator were going on a “human tour,” a legitimate question for the alligator would be “am I going to get killed by humans?” because we kill many more of them than they kill us.  These are naturally wonderful creatures that have been around for about 37 million years and I hope they will be here for many more years to come.  Thanks for reading!!!

1) Basic Facts About American Alligators. (2012, March 2). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from                       http://www.defenders.org/american-alligator/basic-facts

2) Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts#melanoma

3) What To Do When Heat Stroke Strikes. (2014, June 28). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/heat-stroke-rates-are-rising-us-when-it-hits-cool-first-transport-second-290474

for common myths about alligators click Here

Coyote – Friend or Foe?

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This is a trail cam photo of a Coyote (Canis latrans).  It was taken at my in-laws house in Memphis, TN when I was visiting with them for the holidays.  They keep this camera up in an area where deer commonly cross trough their land, but this night it caught this prowler (the timing is not correct on the bottom of the photo, I believe the AM should be PM).  These animals are infamous around the country because, in fairly recent history, they have expanded their range to cover most of North America and now threaten to reach into South America.  The reason for this expansion can be mostly credited to human impacts on the environment.  These animals are usually around 35-45 lbs. as an adult, but can exceed 50 lbs.  They reproduce fairly quickly, having a 63 day gestation and 5-7 pups per litter.  As with most canine species, they live 7-14 years.  Coyotes typically live in small family packs, but can be solitary.  They are very opportunistic feeders, usually feeding at night.  Their diet can range from something as large as an adult white-tailed deer, to fruit and vegetable matter, and will rummage through our trash for scraps.  They typically feed on small animals in the wild, such as rats, raccoon, lizards, birds, snakes, etc.  They can also live in a variety of habitats from  dry arid deserts, to swampy wetlands, and even are recorded on our barrier islands around my home in Charleston, SC.

These animals historically ranged in the western, arid regions of the country.  Their numbers were kept at bay because of the larger Grey Wolf and Cougar that they shared a habitat with.  Those two animals are the coyotes only known predators (besides humans).  Through predation and competition these animals kept the Coyotes confined to a desert region and their population at smaller numbers.  Since humans have eliminated nearly all of the Wolf species and Cougars in North America, it opened up the niche for the Coyote to thrive and expand their range.  These coyotes were also moved around in early to mid 1900’s for “hound hunts” (Que Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” or in this case “The Coyote and the Hound”).  They were illegally brought into the State of South Carolina for these hunts in 1978, and now are present in all counties within the state.

There are many concerns that go along with these animals.  The general attitude that most people have toward them is negative, and I have found the same negative attitude toward them among naturalist and environmental agencies here in South Carolina.  The problems is that the are in nearly every environment, and their encounters with humans tend to be negative.  They steal livestock from the farmers, in the residential areas they are posing a threat to humans and pets, and in their forests they are taking the deer and small game which hunters are seeking.  They carry many diseases (canine distemper, rabies, hepatitis, and mange to name a few) and can spread them to humans and pets.  Here in Charleston, SC we have a Threatened and Endangered Species, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle which lays its eggs along the coast of our barrier islands.  The Coyotes have gotten onto those islands and are known to use the turtle eggs as a food source and wreak havoc on their nests (the same is true for some of our shorebird species that nest in the dunes along the beaches).  Because of these negative interactions with humans and the environment and the fact that they have vastly extended their native range, Coyotes are now considered by most an invasive species.

Little has been (or can be) done about the growing number of Coyotes throughout the country.  In South Carolina it is legal to hunt them year around on private, rural lands.  There have been some efforts to trap and relocate them in some high risk areas (such as barrier islands and gated communities).  Scientist have suspected that, over time, Coyote populations will stabilize and be able to coexist with the other animals in the region (but probably not humans).  These Coyotes are very beautiful, resourceful animals that have gotten a negative rap for their encroachment onto human lands.  It is sad that because of human interference into the natural habitats, we have made a villain out of these wonderful animals.  It brings up the topic of “invasive species,” which in most cases is not the fault of the actual species, but the fault of the humans that have been altering the plant since their arrival approximately 200,000 years ago.  I get mixed feelings every time I see these guys in the wild, but still like to tell their story.  Hopefully we can find some way to coexist with these Coyotes and can view them as the wonderful animals they are.  It has happened with there closest ancestor the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), which was hunted to the brink of extinction in the United States because they were viewed as a nuisance (and for their pelts), but now are on a comeback and viewed as the wonderful majestic animals which they are.

Just another cool fact:  If you are a dog lover, the Coyote is the second closest related species to the domesticated dog (Canis lupus familiaris) behind the Grey Wolf (which since 1993 scientist have actually found domesticated dogs and Grey Wolves are so closely related that dogs are now classified as a subspecies of the Grey Wolf).

More about Coyotes in South Carolina click Here

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

This is an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis).  This picture was taken at one of my feeders this morning.  It is about 70 degrees F here in Charleston, South Carolina today and we get a great reprieve from the cold snaps that have been plaguing the east coast of the United States these last few weeks.  This little one was chilling out and actually trying to get seed through the glass of the feeder which was pretty funny.  These are really cool little birds.  You can see that this bird has a slight goldish brown tent to his head and back, but during its breeding season in Summer that turns a very bright gold that is striking and hard to miss.  These birds live all throughout the continental United States and is the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington.  These birds are the only finch species that molt their feathers twice a year, both in late winter and late summer, which is why they look very different during the summer than during the winter.  The oldest known American Goldfinch is 10 years and 5 months old.

These birds are some of the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, eating almost solely seeds.  They actually breed later than most birds (in June and July) because they wait until many of the plants have fully produced seeds that they use for food.  They are common victims of cowbirds, which are “brood parasites” (meaning they lay their eggs in other birds nest and rely on the other birds to feed their young until they is ready to go out on their own).  The downside for the cowbirds is that the cannot subsist on an all seed diet so their young usually do not make it in a goldfinch nest.

The American Goldfinch is an example of a bird that is actually being helped by human activity.  These birds feed on small seeds, many of these seeds come from “weedy” species of plants (such as the ones in grasses, milkweed, thistles, etc.).  These “weedy” species of plants are very common in areas of high disturbance, like areas humans make when they clear forests to construct roads, houses, office buildings, farmland, etc.  Once the canopy of trees is taken off it opens up an environment where these low lying plants to take over and thrive, and because of this opens up more food available for these finches.  They are also very versatile birds and can thrive within a forest habitat eating the many seeds that are produced by the variety of plants in that environment (I see them a lot picking at the Sweetgum balls hanging on Sweetgum trees).

These little birds are a common site around the southeastern United States this time of year and I think we will see them for years to come.  Since they are seed eaters they do readily come in high numbers to feeders set up in you yard.  These cool little acrobatic birds are very fun to watch feed (either at the feeder or in the forest), and will commonly hang upside down and sideways to get after food.  So I challenge you to get outside and try to find some of the little guys for yourself.

More info on American Goldfinches click Here

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

This is a Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) that came to my feeder earlier today.  In Charleston, SC they make their way through starting now and I love seeing them come to my feeders.  It is very cool to see such striking colors up close, and I’m glad this guy stuck around to let me get this photo.  These birds are long distance migrants.  Their summer ranges reach as far north as Canada and there winter ranges are down in South America.  A fact I found out about the Baltimore Oriole is that they are not directly named after the city of Baltimore in Maryland.  These birds are in fact named because their orange and black plumage is the same colors as the heraldic crest of the Baltimore family in England (which the city of Baltimore, Maryland was named after).

These birds eat insects, fruit, and nectar.  During their breeding months they stick mainly to insects because the protein helps the baby birds grow faster.  During their migration and in the summer they love their sugary fruit and nectar.  This sugar is converted into fat and stored for their long migrations.  They have an interesting way in which they feed on these fruits, it is a behavior called “gaping” which they poke their closed bill into the fruit and open it to slice through the fruit, they do this until they can grab a chunk out for themselves.  They can be picky about their fruits though, they only eat dark colored, ripe fruit.  They will go after the darkest mulberries, the reddest cherries, and the dark-purple grapes leaving the duller ones behind even though they are just as ripe and edible.  They are also attracted to the color orange, so the best fruit to put out for them to eat are oranges (which are in my photo).  Another food that they like to eat is jelly, which this one was chowing down on for a while.

Their conservation status is Least Concern, but their numbers have been declining within their range.  This decline is mainly due to habitat loss.  Another big concern for these birds is that they are very susceptible to insecticides, which not only kills off their food source in insects, but also will poison them directly.  Since these birds are long distance, international migrants, it is hard know what problems they face in their southern ranges of South America or to do anything about it.  This is a common problem we see in many of our bird species that migrate outside our borders to other countries that do not have the same views on conservation as we do in the United States.

These are very wonderful birds that I love to see this time of year.  They are just passing through and will be gone soon, but I will be waiting for their return trip in the fall.

More info on the Baltimore Oriole click Here

My experiences with the wonders of nature