Category: Nature Park Blog

Wetland Plant Series: Spanish Moss

Wetland Plant Series: Spanish Moss

By Aaliyah Ross, Environmental Educator

Spanish moss on Bald Cypress trees, Floodplain Boardwalk

Spanish moss on Bald Cypress trees, Floodplain Boardwalk

Long, wispy strands of gray-green moss draped over Live Oak branches is a familiar scene often associated with the Southeastern US. But although Spanish moss is one of the most recognizable plants at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, its history and ecology are often misunderstood. Here are some interesting facts about this unique wetland species:

What’s in a Name?

The common name “Spanish moss” is a misnomer—the plant is neither Spanish nor a moss. Its native range extends from Argentina and Chile north through Virginia. Indigenous tribes called the plant itla-okla, i.e. “tree hair”. French explorers named the plant barbe espagnole, or “Spanish beard”, after the long beards worn by many Spanish conquistadores who were also in the Southeast at the time. The strange name stuck, and evolved over time into “Spanish moss”.

Trichomes on a strand of Spanish moss, which help the plant absorb and retain water. Source: www.clemson.edu/extension/horticulture

Trichomes on a strand of Spanish moss, which help the plant absorb and retain water. Source: Clemson University Extension, www.clemson.edu/extension/horticulture

Spanish moss is a bromeliad, the same family of plants that pineapples belong to. In fact, looking at a strand of Spanish moss under a magnifying glass reveals a pattern of overlapping scales (called trichomes) similar to that of a pineapple rind!

An Epiphyte, not a Parasite

Spanish moss is an epiphyte, which is a plant that grows on another plant for physical support. Contrary to popular belief, it does not remove water or nutrients from its host tree. Rather, the trichomes covering its strands are specialized to trap water from rain, fog, and water vapor in the air. This adaptation is why Spanish moss does not need roots. The relationship between Spanish moss and its host tree is best described as a commensalism; an ecological relationship in which one species benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed.

Red Alert

Another common misconception is that Spanish moss contains chiggers, also known as red bugs. The biting larval forms of these tiny arachnids (adults don’t bite) often hang out in pine straw and tall grass, waiting for a passing host. They may also inhabit Spanish moss that has fallen to the ground, but Spanish moss on trees is unlikely to harbor chiggers.

Two Forms of Reproduction

Spanish moss produces small, inconspicuous flowers that are pollinated by wind.

Spanish moss produces small, inconspicuous flowers that are pollinated by wind.

On school field trips, one of the most common questions we get about Spanish moss is “How does it get in the tree in the first place?” Like many plants, it has two forms of reproduction. New Spanish moss plants are created when wind-dispersed seeds land in crevices in the bark of trees. It can also reproduce asexually when growing portions are broken off and carried by wind or birds to new trees, where they continue to grow.

On your next visit to the park, stop and take a minute to appreciate the incredible survival skills of this beautiful bromeliad!

Benefits of an Increasing Beaver Population

Benefits of an Increasing Beaver Population

By: Damon Mullis, Research Scientist

beaver

Photo by Jennifer Holcomb

Freshwater ecosystems are under constant pressure from a growing global human population and an ever-increasing demand for water resources. Because of these factors decision makers, stakeholders, and resource managers have resorted to techniques and strategies that have altered natural systems to better suit the needs and demands of a growing society. Such alterations include construction of dams, channelization of rivers and streams, and transformation of wetlands to dry land. These changes can eliminate the ecological services that freshwater ecosystems provide. In doing so, not only have we changed the potential ecological benefits that we receive from these systems, but we often decrease biodiversity by eliminating organisms that depend on these systems for habitat and resources. While some organisms have been inadvertently lost due to habitat losses, pollution, or other anthropogenic causes, others are purposely removed because they are considered to be a nuisance. One example of such an animal is the North American beaver. Beaver were common throughout North America before European contact, but by 1900, exploitation for the fur trade brought them to the brink of extinction. Over the past century beaver populations have rebounded, and beavers now inhabit most of their former range. This increase in beaver range and population size has raised interest as to their influence on aquatic ecosystems.

Beavers are considered ecosystem engineers because they convert free flowing streams into areas of standing water. Their activities also increase habitat heterogeneity and thus increase biodiversity through the creation of wetlands and the increased connectivity with adjacent floodplain habitats. This increase in riparian area allows for the colonization of new aquatic habitats by plants, insects, birds, and mammals, resulting in increased biological diversity.

Beaver dams also affect stream flow and hydrologic regimes, which lead to changes in nutrient cycling, organic matter retention and downstream export of particulates. Streams of the southeast are generally heterotrophic and dissolved organic carbon generated as leachates from allochthonous inputs of detritus represents an important energy source for aquatic communities.  These inputs of organic material must be retained in a stream and processed into fine particulates and dissolved forms to contribute to the local food web.  In addition, due to the low gradient of local streams and rivers and high retentive capacity of fine mineral substrates, woody debris (snags) can be an important coarse substrate providing stable habitat. Other effects of beaver impoundments include modification of bank erosion and altered stormwater water runoff and flooding patterns. A result of modern urban development and agricultural schemes is the transformation of perennial flow regimes to “flashy” ephemeral flow that can scourer or flush aquatic organism. Beaver activity can return a measure of stability to stream flow. It is because of these habit alterations that beavers have been viewed as agents of stream restoration.

Phinizy Wildlife Report: July 12th

Phinizy Wildlife Report: July 12th

By Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern

Summer heat is here, and the animals are doing their best to stay cool. Insects seem to be immune to the warm temperatures, though. Dragonflies and Butterflies are abounding in this unpleasant heat. Slaty Skimmer, Great Blue Skimmer, Four-spotted Pennant, Carolina Saddlebags, Blue Dasher, Eastern Pondhawk, Common Whitetail, Widow Skimmer, Halloween Pennant, and Needham’s Skimmer are dragonflies currently present. Some butterflies seen this week include: Hackberry Emperor, Black Swallowtail, Zebra Swallowtail, Common Buckeye, Broad-winged Skipper, and Red Admiral.

The birds are hiding more right now during the day, but at dawn they are active as ever. Although no Whistling-Ducks have been reported this week, they are probably still hanging around at dusk or daybreak. Roseate Spoonbills were seen from the 3 Ton Bridge last week (July 2nd) but have not since been relocated. This is the first time they have been seen in the park in many years. Wood Storks have returned as expected. At least two individuals are present in the immediate area. As always, swallows are everywhere. Tree, Cliff, Barn, and Northern Rough-winged are around. At twilight they flock together in the hundreds and feed on the hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes that emerge after dark (please note the park closes at dusk). Osprey and Mississippi Kite soar in the skies while Barred Owls call at dusk and dawn.

mosquito Uranotaenia IowiiOne great record from the wetlands this week was a type of mosquito called Uranotaenia lowii – a very rare species of mosquito in Richmond County. It is a small mosquito adorned with iridescent blue scales that feeds exclusively on the blood of frogs and toads.

As far as reptiles and amphibians go, Alligators are ubiquitous as always and snakes, lizards, and turtles of all sorts are out.

Pokemon, too, are out. Mostly Pidgeys and Rattatas, but Eevee, Zubat, Squirtle, Meowth, plus a plethora of possible creatures are waiting to be caught out there. Come enjoy virtual and real wildlife together!

Phinizy Wildlife Report June 2, 2016

Phinizy Wildlife Report June 2, 2016

By Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern

Summer continues as always. Not much has changed in the last few weeks. Dragonflies and Damselflies abound – notably the uncommon Yellow-winged Skimmers – and the regular Butterflies are out and about, too.

Reptiles and Amphibians are loving the warm weather. Cricket Frogs, Green Treefrogs, Leopard Frogs, Bronze Frogs, and Bullfrogs can be seen or heard throughout the park. The Alligators are sticking their heads out at the surface of the water, watching the world above water. Take caution – some brave alligators have been seen out on the trail along the Distributional Canal. Snakes of all sorts are around, including Cottonmouths and a Canebrake Rattlesnake.

As far as birds go, the swallows have been congregating in the hundreds on the wires along the Constructed Wetland Trail, right by the campus. Cliff, Barn, Northern Rough-winged, and Tree Swallows are in these flocks. Blue Grosbeak, Painted and Indigo Buntings, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Prothonotary Warbler are common songbirds in various areas of the park. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are still present, most active at dawn and dusk. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are common at this time as well and Least Bittern can be seen flying short distances across the bulrushes in Cell 5.

Photos Left & Top Right by Liam Wolff; Photo of Rattlesnake Bottom Right by Chalisa Fabillar

Photos Left & Top Right by Liam Wolff; Photo of Rattlesnake Bottom Right by Chalisa Fabillar

Five Ways to De-stress at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park

Five Ways to De-stress at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park

By Aaliyah Ross, Environmental Educator

destress at Phinizy

Recent research has supported the idea that spending time in nature comes with a host of mental and physiological benefits. In addition to improved attention and mental clarity, being in a natural setting is associated with a noticeable reduction in stress. Here are 5 great ways to de-stress in nature at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.

IMG_65871. Take a hike

The Park features 14 miles of hiking trails through several different landscapes. Come out and explore on your own, or register for a guided 2.5- mile Swamp Saturday hike (held 9:30 – 11:30 on the 1st Saturday of each month). If you have a child 8 or under, join us for a Children’s Hike with Story Time 9:30 – 11:00 on the 2nd Saturday of each month.

2. Get creative

Plein Air Class Fall 2015, photo Leroy RobertsCreating art has also been shown to relieve stress and improve attitudes, so double your stress-reduction potential by getting artsy at the Nature Park! There are many opportunities to bring out your inner artist this summer, including:
• Drawing Patterns from Nature – a 2-session workshop with local artist Jay Jacobs
• Nature Printing on Fabric – led by Master Nature Printer and teacher John Doughty
• Plein Air Oil Painting – a 4-week class with well-known teacher and painter Dick Dunlap

Learn more about Nature and Art classes offered at Phinizy here.

3. Find your balance

YogaPhysical activity in any form has long been known to have mental and psychological benefits. Yoga in particular, with its focus on breath, balance, and stability, is a great way to ease the mind while getting the blood flowing. After a brief break, group yoga classes are back at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park! A free 4-H Yoga class is held at 9:00 a.m. on the 3rd Saturday of each month.

4. Walk our new labyrinth

labyrinthLabyrinths have been used for thousands of years as meditation tools to provide spiritual and mental clarity. The act of walking a labyrinth is thought to help bring inner peace by focusing the mind on the path ahead. This spring, a wonderful group of volunteers from Starbucks helped build a labyrinth at the front of the Park, near the new Pollinator Garden. Take some time to walk the labyrinth and increase your inner peace.

5. Bike the constructed wetlands

Bike Tour with grassIf you prefer to de-stress with more vigorous physical activity, a bike ride through the constructed wetlands is a great choice. Although any of the Park’s 14 miles of trails can be navigated by bicycle, the gravel berms crisscrossing the 360-acre wetlands complex offer endless possibilities for both long and short biking routes. Remember to bring your helmet!

Phinizy Wildlife Report, June 2nd

Phinizy Wildlife Report June 2, 2016

By Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern

Apologies for the lack of posts, I was in Texas for a large portion of May and had to miss a few weeks of Phinizy wildlife! The Phinizy wildlife was not unforgiving when I returned, though! Many wonderful creatures are out and about in the warm weather, most particularly insects.

Dragonflies such as Blue Dasher, Four-spotted Pennant, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Common Whitetail are all over the park. Butterflies such as Zebra Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, American Snout, Common Buckeye, and Broad-winged Skipper thrive in the sun too.

Naturally, the birds are taking advantage of this. Especially the birds that are breeding. The Barn Swallow nest on campus has five young birds that are almost ready to leave the nest, whereas the Eastern Phoebe nest in front of the research building has just hatched its second clutch! The (now) somewhat secretive local Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have been eyeing a cavity in a dead cypress ~50ft from the concrete bridge near the campus. They are most active at dusk and dawn. Not many migrants are left, but one exciting find was a Willow Flycatcher last Friday! It was calling “fitz-bew!” from willows along the Constructed Wetland Trail between the campus and the trail sign. This is the first record of this species in Richmond County and, needless to say, a first for Phinizy Swamp as well.

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Weekly Wildlife Report, May 6

Weekly Wildlife Report, May 6

by Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern

Everything has been busy lately, including the wildlife. Migration is at its peak right now, even though this season has been unusually slow.

Weekly Wildlife Liam

Photos by Liam Wolff

Many neotropical migrants have been missing this year and the Glossy Ibis that had been in the Equalization Pond left when the storms moved through. However, birds like Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, and Yellow Warbler were seen in the park within the last two weeks, mostly at the end of the Equalization Pond. Bobolinks are all over the wetlands, feeding on grass seeds in the cells and the Distributional Canal. At least 800 were seen on Saturday. Buntings and Blue Grosbeak too are thriving on the bulrush seeds. Both Painted and Indigo are singing from short trees or powerlines. Kestrels, Barred Owl, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, and Osprey were seen this week. The Red-shouldered Hawk young on Cattail Trail are already branched and will likely start roaming soon. The Red-shouldered Hawk nest by the Equalization Pond has downy young in it. Swallows are all over the Equalization Pond, hundreds of them swooping low over the water, catching bugs of collecting mud for their nests. Northern Rough-winged, Tree, Barn, and Cliff Swallows were all seen there on Thursday.

Weekly Wildlife Liam

Photos by Liam Wolff

Bugs seem this week include the usual Zebra Swallowtail, Common Buckeye, Red Admiral, Broad-winged Skipper, Painted Lady, and American Snout for butterflies, and Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Four-spotted Pennant, Blue Dasher, Eastern Pondhawk, Common Whitetail, Fragile Forktail, and Rambur’s Forktail for dragon and damselflies.

Reptiles and Amphibians: Yellow-bellied Slider, American Alligator, Eastern Ratsnake, Black Racer, Brown Watersnake, and Cottonmouth for reptiles and Leopard Frog, Green Treefrog, Bronze Frog, Bullfrog, and Cricket Frog for amphibians.

Mammals: Raccoon and Nine-banded Armadillo on the Constructed Wetland Trail and Muskrat at the 3 Ton Bridge.

PhinizyMap

Quiz: Non-point source pollution. Are you part of the problem?

Quiz: Non-point source pollution. Are you part of the problem?

Could your daily activities be polluting your neighborhood stream? Answer a few questions to see!

1. Do you clean up pet waste from your lawn?

YES       Great job for being a responsible pet owner!

NO         When it rains, pet waste can be washed into a nearby stream and cause E. coli and other bacteria to increase in numbers in the streams. By walking through your yard a couple of times a week to clean up after your animals, your yard will not only smell nicer, you can know you are not contributing to increased pathogen levels in the stream.

2. Do you read and follow the instructions when applying fertilizers to your lawn?

YES        Awesome! So, you already know that more does not equal better, and to never, ever apply fertilizers before it rains.

NO         If excess fertilizer is applied to your lawn, or if applied just before it rains, the nutrients are washed into the stream and becomes food for algae. This can cause algal blooms and lead to depleted oxygen levels in the stream, often times causing other wildlife in the stream to die. Next time, read the label for application instructions.

3. Do you blow your leaves or yard clippings into the storm drains on your street?

YES       Storm drains lead to the closest creek or stream, so when you put yard waste into your storm drain, you are contributing lots of organic matter into the stream. When this extra organic matter in the stream begins to break down, it will use oxygen from the stream, and can contribute to depleted oxygen levels in the stream. Again, this can cause organisms in the stream to die if oxygen levels drop too low.

NO         You rock! Want to be really awesome? – Use your yard clippings to create a compost pile in your yard to simply return those nutrients back into the soil in your own yard! Or use the compost for your own garden next year.

Just a few small changes to our daily activities can help keep our streams happy and healthy! Stay informed and educate your neighbors to keep our local environment clean.

Weekly Wildlife Report, April 22nd

A really great week for wildlife!
Phinizy Wildlife Report April 22, 2016

By Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern

This weekend is Phinizy’s Birding Festival, and it couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time. Migrants are arriving daily. This week Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Prairie Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Red-eyed Vireo, Broad-winged Hawk, Little Blue Heron, and Solitary Sandpiper are all new arrivals in the park. By far the most exciting find this week was a new bird for the park – Wilson’s Warbler found by Sam Murray in the bushes near the Osprey nest. Other rarities seen this week include a Red-breasted Merganser hen in Cell 1 and a Glossy Ibis in the Equalization Pond. It is possible that a Black Rail was heard in the wetland cells after dark, but there was no confirmation (please note the park closes at dusk). American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal are the only ducks remaining in the Equalization Pond, but Wood Duck are still present throughout the park, closer to the wooded swamps like the River Scar Trail. Osprey, American Kestrel, Red-shouldered Hawk, Barred Owl, Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture are raptors seen in the park this week. Also heard was a possible Barn Owl, calling between the windshear tower and the silos. Least Bittern can be heard calling from the Rain Garden Pond and Cell 3 and American Bittern were heard calling and seen flying, once in a group of 3! At dusk, a Black-crowned Night-Heron was seen flying over the wetlands, possibly one of the birds from Cell 3 in the Winter. Needless to say, the Birding Festival will encounter many awesome birds!

Dragonflies and Damselflies this week include: Eastern Pondhawk, Common Whitetail, Great Blue Skimmer, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Green Darner, Carolina Saddlebags, Fragile Forktail, Rambur’s Forktail, Ebony Jewelwing, Sparkling Jewelwing, and Variable Dancer. Butterflies this week include: Zebra, Black, and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Cloudless Sulphur, Viceroy, Common Buckeye, American Snout, Question Mark, Red Admiral, and Broad-winged Skipper.

Reptiles this week include: Alligators (Cell 1 and Clarification Pond), Southern Banded Watersnake, Cottonmouth, Eastern Box Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Spiny Softshell Turtle, Five-lined Skink, Ground Skink, and Carolina Anole. Frogs heard: Green Treefrog, Leopard Frog, Bullfrog, Bronze Frog, and Southern Toad.

Barn Swallow (Top Left), Glossy Ibis (Middle Left), American Alligator (Bottom Left), Rambur's Forktails (Right)

Barn Swallow (Top Left), Glossy Ibis (Middle Left), American Alligator (Bottom Left), Rambur’s Forktails (Right), Photos by Liam Wolff

The Rambur’s Forktail

The Rambur’s Forktail

By Liam Wolff, Phinizy Research Intern

Male Nominate, Female Blue Male-Like; Photo by Liam Wolff

Male Nominate, Female Blue Male-Like; Photo by Liam Wolff

Male Nominate, Photo by Liam Wolff

Male Nominate, Photo by Liam Wolff

The Rambur’s Forktail, Ischnura ramburii, is the most abundant species of damselfly at Phinizy Swamp and probably the most common wetland damselfly across the Southeast United States as a whole. Its range expands west to California into Mexico with an isolated population in Hawaii. One of the most interesting features of the Rambur’s Forktail is its polymorphic variation. Polymorphism is the occurrence of a species that displays two or more forms. These forms are determined by dominant and recessive alleles that are inherited at fertilization. Rambur’s Forktails, like many insects, demonstrate this polymorphism on top of sexual dimorphism. With sexual dimorphism, the males and females of the species are apparently dissimilar – they differ in appearance. To make things even more complicated, the color morphs are different at varying ages.

Rambur's Female Orange

Rambur’s Female Orange, Photo by Liam Wolff

Rambur's Female Green Male-like; Photo by Liam Wolff

Rambur’s Female Green Male-like; Photo by Liam Wolff

Nominate form males are light green on the thorax with similar coloration on the abdomen and a blue terminal end. Nominate females tend to be olive in coloration across the abdomen and thorax. As immatures, female Rambur’s Forktails are a bright orange. There are two female morphs that are very similar to males, though. One form is bright green like the male, but the colors are less defined. The other has a green abdomen with a blue terminal segment like the male, but the thorax is a sky blue. At Phinizy, most of the damselflies we study are in their larval stage. However, at this age it is very difficult to differentiate between species. Unlike many macroinvertebrates in the Savannah River which are scrapers or filter-feeders, the suborder Zygoptera (damsels) consists of predators.

Rambur's Female Olive

Rambur’s Female Olive; Photo by Liam Wolff