Author: Camilla Sherman

Rivers…Streams…and Sediment

Rivers, Streams and Sediment

Written by Carson Pruitt, Intern with Phinizy Center for Water Sciences

Rivers and streams do much more than just transport water downhill. They carry anything in their paths along with the water, many times all the way to the ocean. One of the most important substances that streams carry is sediment. In fact, excess sediment has been identified as the number one pollutant of waters in the United States. There are two main ways that water transports sediment—by rolling sediment along the bottom, called bed load, and by sediment that is suspended in the water column, called suspended load. We also refer to the clarity of water as turbidity. Generally, when you look at a stream that is ‘muddy’ during or following a rain event, we say that it is very ‘turbid’.

As part of The Phinizy Center’s research on rivers and streams in the area, we measure the amount of sediment that travels downstream. Above is a graph showing actual water levels of Rock Creek over time during a particular storm. You can see the water level (black line) go up as the rain (blue line) falls with the red dots highlighting times when we took water samples.

The picture below shows the water samples that were taken during the storm that correspond to the labeled red marks on the graph. The sample labeled ‘Bl.’ is drinking water that is used as a reference. It is easy to see the progression of turbidity in the samples over time; sample 3 is clearly the most turbid. If you look at sample 3 on the graph, you’ll notice that it is the sample where the water level is the highest. This makes sense because, as the water rises during a storm, the velocity and shear stress of the water increases, enabling it to carry more sediment. As the water level comes back down after sample 3, the turbidity also decreases.

Become a Certified Georgia Master Naturalist!

Become a Certified Georgia Master Naturalist!

By Ruth Mead, Director of Environmental Education

As we look for stress relief in our busy lives, we need to look no further than our natural habitats for experiences beyond belief. Become a member of an exciting team through a 10 week Georgia Master Naturalist course offered through Phinizy Swamp Nature Park and discover some of the many wonders of our natural world.

Phinizy’s Master Naturalist program includes a series of all-day field trips which explore ecological topics such as basic ecology, wetlands, field ornithology (bird watching), spring wildflowers, rock outcrop geology, lichenology, forestry, stream ecology, mammalogy, and more. Light the woods on fire with us on our forestry day. Examine skulls and pellets as we discover more about our native mammal populations. Float the canal as we examine the health of our local waterways. Each week’s field trip seems to outdo the previous week!

The course starts with an evening introductory program on March 8 with the field trips starting March 9 and continuing every Thursday through May 18 (no field trip Master’s Week). Here’s what past participants have said:

“This course opened my eyes to a new way of looking!”

“This has been one of the most interesting programs I’ve ever done and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding our place on this planet”

“One of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I thought I was familiar with nature only to find that I am just beginning to learn. This will initiate a whole new appreciation for what I experience in nature”

“I’ve been what I thought was an “outdoor nature enthusiast” but this course made me look outdoors in a much deeper way.”

“The perfect course for aspiring naturalists!”

Georgia Master Naturalist is an adult environmental education program of the Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources and the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. For more information or to register go t0: 

The Tress are Full

Red-winged Blackbirds

Jen McGruter, Environmental Educator

How many of you evening park visitors out there have been witness to this lately? The seemingly chaotic, loud chatter you hear high in the trees above the wetlands just so happens to be the evening return of our beloved Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The sight of the every-morning mass exodus of this species is just as enthralling to watch as well, if you ever get the chance to come to the nature park closer to sunrise.

Every day these birds leave their roosting spots in the wetland grasses and shrubs in search of better foraging grounds for the day, sometimes traveling up to 50 miles away! Each string of birds in flight almost seems like one of the most coordinated events that you might ever see in your life, almost as if the Marching Band Leader has given the signal and every single individual thereafter knows exactly when to take flight and follow along in the miles-long parade. And there seems to be just one parade after the other for what seems like forever. We estimated there to be about 3,500 band members in the multitude of parades the morning of our Christmas Bird Count last month!

I imagine the heeds of birds split off to take advantage of different foraging areas throughout the state, but when leaving the nature park they all seem to be heading in the same direction – West to Southwest. I’ve even spotted one of the parades marching high in the sky above the town of Hephzibah around 7:30am on my way to take my son to school. If they are traveling in that direction up to 50 miles away, they could be flying all the way to Macon, GA (by my uncanny estimation of straight flight distance on googlemaps) and back again every single day!

This time of year Red-winged Blackbirds are known to forage on ‘weedy seeds,’ like ragweed and cocklebur, but at the nature park they seem to love the sweetgum balls still hanging from the American Sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). The last time I walked down the sidewalk from the campus buildings toward the front parking lot and passed a sweetgum tree with a slurry of Red-winged Blackbirds hanging out above me, I had to stop a moment. It took me a long minute to realize that it wasn’t beginning to rain and that the sound I was hearing, that sounded almost exactly like rain drops falling in forest, was just the falling of leftover seed trash uneaten by the birds overhead. Yet another amazing, mind-blowing experience that the birds have given me! Oh, how I love the gifts of nature.

For anyone that hasn’t experienced the amazingness of our Red-winged Blackbird population here at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, I encourage you to find the time to take a walk in the early morning or late afternoon to take part. These birds, just like many, are just wonderful!


Pond Sliders

Species Profile: Pond Sliders

by Aaliyah Ross, Environmental Educator 

If you’ve spotted a group of turtles basking in the swamp at Phinizy, chances are pretty high that they were pond sliders. Pond sliders are the most common species of turtle at the Nature Park, and are very common throughout the Southeast in general. They are found in all aquatic habitats throughout the Park, and can frequently be seen from the Floodplain Boardwalk basking on stumps or logs.

Pond sliders have yellow bands on the carapace (upper half of shell), most commonly in younger specimens. Many individuals darken with age, obscuring markings on the skin and shell. The plastron (lower half of shell) is yellow with black markings around the edges. Males have long claws that are used to grip the female during mating.

There are two subspecies of pond sliders: Red-eared sliders and yellowbelly sliders. Many, but not all, red-eared sliders have a broad red stripe behind the eye. Yellowbelly sliders often have a yellow blotch in the same location, but this mark is often obscured in older, darker turtles. Yellowbelly sliders are native to the East coast, whereas red-eared sliders are native to the Midwest, from Illinois and Indiana south to Texas and Louisiana. Red-eared sliders are one of the most popular turtles in the pet trade, which has resulted in this species being exported throughout the world. Red-eared sliders can now be found living in the wild on every continent except Antarctica. They have also been found here at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.

The release of red-eared sliders outside of their native range is highly discouraged. They have been found to outcompete other species, including our native yellowbelly sliders, for food, basking areas, and other resources. Research also suggests that these two subspecies have mated in the wild, further complicating the issue.

Sliders are less conspicuous this time of year, as cold temperatures force these ectotherms to seek refuge in the mud or underneath stream banks. They often come out of hiding to bask when temperatures rise, and go back once it gets cold again. Occasional, brief warm periods in the middle of winter are fairly common in Georgia. On the next sunny, [relatively] warm day, you’re likely to spot pond sliders basking throughout the swamp.

South Carolina Water Conference

 A Strong Presence At Water Conference

By Jason Moak, Research Manager

Phinizy Center scientists contributed four poster presentations and six oral presentations at the South Carolina Water Resources Conference in Columbia this week.  This is a biennial conference organized in 2008 by Clemson University for the purpose of sharing important and useful information regarding water research, policy, and management.  This year’s conference had over 300 attendees that included students and professors from multiple universities, state and federal resource agency personnel, consulting firms, utilities, and other non-governmental organizations.

Oscar Flite led off for Phinizy Center Wednesday morning with a presentation on the results our initial river metabolism study which involved continuous dissolved carbon dioxide measurements while floating for five days and 150 down the Savannah River.  That afternoon, Carson Pruitt presented the results of our ongoing effort to describe and predict how rainfall affects water flow in Augusta’s urban streams.  That evening, Oscar, Damon Mullis, Katie Johnson, and Jason Moak presented their posters detailing some preliminary results from our study of Savannah River oxbow lake ecology and hydrology which we recently completed.

Thursday afternoon was a busy one for Phinizy scientiests as we gave four oral presentations.  In the Stormwater session, Katie provided an in-depth look at the methods we are using to assess the geomorphology of streams in Augusta.  Damon presented results illustrating how water temperature from Thurmond Dam effects the communities of aquatic insects downstream in the Savannah River.  Kelsey Laymon explained the experiment we conducted in which we compared differences between aquatic insects collected using three different types of passive sampling devices.  Lastly, Shawn Rosenquist, who is now with Savannah State University, provided an interesting look at the history of nutrient levels in the Savannah River and what implications they may have for future planning.

Phinizy Center’s presence at this conference was impressive and important.  It allowed us to share our research with other scientists and resource managers and further build our reputation for conducting useful basic and applied water science.  It also allowed us to strengthen and build new relationships with other regional scientists and learn about their work .


Swamp Treks – Getting Children & Teens Outdoors

Swamp Treks – Getting Childrens & Teens Outdoors

By Gina Lusignan, Park Events and Volunteer Manager

We hear it often, “children need to spend less time in front of screens and more time being active”. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 3 and up should spend no more than 1 to 2 hours in front of a screen. Instead of screen time, the AAP suggests children should engage in play: walk or run the family dog, ride a bike, take a nature walk, or skateboard with a friend. The benefits of play for kids is very substantial; it builds energy, invites creativity, relieves stress, and creates healthy habits.

Growing up, some of my best times were spent exploring the small creeks and nature paths next to my home. Along with a friend or cousin, I would spend hours looking for secrets paths, interesting rocks, and racing leafs down the water. That might be part of why I now work at a nature park, but besides instilling a love for nature, it was great for my physical and mental health. Young children and teens thrive outdoors. Due to their brain development, teens succeed when they are taught through active learning alongside peers. They value their friends and are able to think creatively, solve problems, and connect new information, together.

Knowing how important it is for children and young teens to interact with and enjoy nature, I, along with my coworker Kim, have created a program called Swamp Treks to help your 3rd – 8th grade student step away from the screen and get outdoors with their friends. Every 3rd Saturday of the month starting in November, Kim and I will lead children on a nature hike through Phinizy Swamp Nature Park. After the hike we will focus on a few nature based activities ranging from camping survival, nature printing, terrarium making, and animal communications.

We would love to have your 3rd – 8th grade child join us! For more information and to register, please visit



Lorain, Peter. “Brain Development in Young Adolescents, Good News for Middle School Teachers” (2002) National Education Association.

Robb, Marina and Mew, Victoria. “Learning with Nature.” (May 2015). Edutopia.


Beekeeping: Update from Phinizy Beekeepers

Beekeeping: An Update From Phinizy Beekeepers

By Kim Dillard and Jen McGrutter

Being a Beekeeper isn’t that hard, especially if you have a passion for it. BUT being a beekeeper today requires you to offer a little help to these girls, and being on time with it! No Ifs, Ands or Buts.  Both of our colonies have declined. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a strong queen/colony then the threat of disease and parasites can become real issues for you and your pollinators. AND if you don’t maintain and treat your hives ON TIME then you have double the odds stacked against you.
Both of our hives had issues with Varroa mites (a small parasitic arachnid) and European Foulbrood Disease or EFB (a bacteria that infects and kills the young); we made the mistake of not treating our hives in a timely matter for Varroa mites. The effect was lowered immunity and then EFB. Being our first year of beekeeping, this was a very big learning lesson, but also a fatal one for our little honey bees.
Although we are heartbroken by this happening, it has not discouraged us from trying again. With honey bee populations declining around the globe, the bees need us to keep trying. Quite frankly, WE also need us to keep trying. One third of our food here in the United States is dependent on honey bees! We need to help the honey bees out, even if for no other reason than to help ourselves.

Some people feel indifferent about honey bees because there is a stigma attached to them as being dangerous and aggressive insects that want to sting you. A species called the Africanized Honey Bee can be very defensive and aggressive, but most other honey bees want nothing to do with you (including our Italian Honey Bees we had here at the park). They don’t want to sting you, they want to work and take care of their colony and hive. If they feel threatened, then of course they will defend their colony, but stinging is a last resort (because if honey bees sting you they die).

Studies have shown that many things from pesticides to parasites and disease are the major reason for bee population declines around the world. We have been no exception to this struggle. We hope to begin anew in the coming spring. Please continue to support our cause as we travel through our beekeeping journey here at the nature park.

Red-Winged Blackbirds

A Message From The Park:  

If you come to the park over the next few weeks you may hear the noise of airboats out in the wet cells. The airboats come annually (from Louisiana) to push down the vegetation in the wet cells. This occurs to deter the Red-winged Blackbirds from roosting in the vegetation over night and then flying out in the morning, and again in at night, directly across the flight path of the airplanes coming into and going out of Augusta Regional Airport.

Read More about the Phinizy Red-wing Blackbirds below

Red-winged Blackbirds 

By:  Ruth Mead, Sr. Environmental Educator

The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), one of the most abundant land birds in North America, is a member of the troupial family—named for their habit of gathering in large flocks—or troupes. They can be found in wetlands from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

While the genus name Agelaius means “belonging to a flock,” the species name phoeniceus and common name refer to the distinctive coloring seen on the adult males, which are mainly black with red shoulder patches, or “epaulets”. This coloring can be seen when the bird is flying or displaying. A pale yellow wingbar is also visible on perching males. Females, which are slightly smaller than the males, are mottled brownish with a sharp, pointed bill. Immature birds typically resemble females.

Red-winged blackbirds feed mainly on plant materials, including seeds from weeds and waste grain such as corn and rice. About a quarter of their diet consists of insects, such as dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, moths, and flies, but they also consume snails, frogs, eggs, carrion, worms, spiders, and mollusks.

During summer months, red-winged blackbirds roost in small flocks. In winter, they form huge congregations of several million birds, which flock together to roost in the evening and disperse each morning.

The History of Red-Winged Blackbirds in Phinizy Swamp

Red-winged Blackbirds have used the nearly 7000 acres Phinizy Swamp and surrounding Savannah River floodplain for hundreds of years. These wetlands provide excellent habitat for roosting, breeding, and foraging. In winter months, millions of blackbirds have been known to use these wetlands. Twice daily the skies are filled with blackbirds as they disband in the morning for daily foraging and return in the late afternoon for roosting.

From November through March these large flocks of blackbirds have caused concern for Augusta Regional Airport, located directly adjacent to Phinizy Swamp. As birds create a flight risk to the planes, several accommodations have been made to keep passengers and crew safe. No plane activity is allowed for 20 minutes during dawn and 20 minutes during dusk, around the time that the birds usually fly over the airport. Although this approach is effective, it’s also too passive to change the behavior of the birds.

The Constructed Wetlands and Red-winged Blackbirds

Construction of the man-made wetlands, housed within Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, began in 1996. These wetlands were built SOLELY as the tertiary treatment for Augusta’s wastewater. As the constructed wetlands became established red-winged blackbirds, as well as many other birds and animals, discovered the wetlands as wonderful habitats and moved in. Even though the birds were in the area long before the constructed wetlands were built, their use of the wetlands has created a liability for Richmond County.

In recent years there have been attempts to discourage red-winged blackbirds from roosting in the vegetation in the constructed wetlands. These attempts include plowing down the vegetation in several wetland cells with airboats and burning the vegetation (which proved unsuccessful as the burning windows were too narrow and the fires extinguished quickly).

In December 2008, the marshy grasses of every wetland cell were flattened with airboats. Noise-making devices were placed in the constructed wetlands in an attempt to scare off the blackbirds and discourage them from returning. The noisemaking devices are set to go off in the morning and late afternoon/evening, during the red-winged blackbirds normal flight patterns.

So far, the recent efforts to remove the blackbirds from the constructed wetlands have been effective. A mere 200 blackbirds were counted during the 2008 Christmas Bird Count, while past counts have been over 3 million birds. The red-winged blackbirds are still in Phinizy Swamp and surrounding river floodplains, but the liability of the birds in the constructed wetlands seems to be under control.

Most of the airports around the world are located near wetlands—which we know are important habitats for migrating birds as well as other wildlife. What responsibility do we share for the flight-interruption dilemma and what is the best solution?

The Healing Power of Forests

The Healing Power of Forests        img_4674

By: Dr. Oscar Flite

Dr. Dick Dunlop, a retired internist turned plein air painter, flagged me down on the way into the park the other day.  He was excited to share an article that he recently read in Time Magazine, called The Healing Power of Nature (July 25, 2016 issue).  Dr. Dunlap and I have talked a lot about science and about nature over the past few years but this was the first time we were able to really connect the two topics.  While there have been many studies showing the healing power of nature, such as the study in the 1980s that showed surgery patients recovered quicker if given a room with a window view of nature as opposed to a window view of a brick wall (Ulrich, 1984), or another that showed mood and self esteem were more improved by weekly walks through the countryside and urban parks versus weekly trips to a social club swimming pool (Barton et al., 2012), this article pointed to a potential underlying reason why.

It is well known that trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.  Oxygen that trees exhale originates from water molecules that the tree pulls from the ground.  Carbon dioxide that trees inhale from the air is converted to organic molecules like sugars and other carbon-based chemicals.  Some of those carbon-based molecules are gases, like the carbon dioxide that they resulted from originally, are then exhaled by the tree; those carbon-based gases are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

A group of those tree-derived volatile organic compounds, generally known as phytoncides, have been shown to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties and help trees protect themselves against bacterial, fungal, and viral threats ( Li, 2008).  In essence, a tree protects itself by making its own “insect repellent” which it “sprays” throughout the forest.  As we walk through the forest, we inhale those chemicals too.  Over the past two decades, there has been an increase in scientific evidence that phytoncides have considerable health benefits to humans as well.

Phytoncides have been shown to decrease the amount of stress hormones in humans giving people an overall calming effect after walking through a forest.  Furthermore, protective cells within the human body, that are important for our own defense against viruses, bacteria and tumor cells, have been shown to increase in numbers and activity within the body as a result of phytoncides (Li, 2009).  It was found that the effects on protective cells lasted up to 30 days after a walk through the forest.  When compared to an equivalent walk through the city, they found there was no response on the numbers or activity of the same protective cells, in fact, the city air was found to be completely devoid of phytoncides!!

As a result of over nearly 4 decades of research showing the positive health  effects of walking through the woods, Japanese researchers have coined the term “forest bathing”, or shinrin-yoku, for the therapeutic practice of spending time in the woods.  What is really going on is that the trees are breathing life back into us, literally.

Given the positive benefits of phytoncides on human health and that a stroll through the woods at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is free, our new saying at the park is, “A stroll a day will keep the doctor away”.  Please take the challenge of trying it out for yourself for the next month; let us know if you feel better as a result.

Oxbow Lake Study – Bluegill Abundance

131d30de-0151-4db9-92e0-350e0846395a-thumbnailOxbow Lake Study – Bluegill Abundance  

By Jason Moak, Phinizy Research Manager

Our study of four oxbow lakes along the Savannah River has ended and we are in the process of analyzing the results and drafting a study report.  During this investigation, we collected a total of 3,287 fish representing 15 families, 25 genera, and 38 species.  Numerically, bluegill were the most abundant species, representing 39% of all fish captured.  As such, it is worth taking a closer look at this common species.

The scientific (genus and species) name for bluegill is Lepomis macrochirus (Greek, lepis = scaled, pomis = gill cover (operculum); macrochirus = large hand).  Bluegill belong to the Centrarchidae fish family, native to the freshwaters of North America and commonly referred to as “sunfishes,” which include other common species such as largemouth bass and crappie.  The genus Lepomis includes 13 individual species, most of which are commonly referred to as “bream” (pronounced brim).

Bluegill are characterized by a dark-colored (blue or black) opercular (ear) flap, and have a dark blotch at the rear base of their dorsal fin.  They can have rows of dark vertical bars along their body, and breeding males often have brightly-colored orange “throats.”

Bluegill are widely distributed in north American freshwaters, especially in lentic (slow-moving water) environments such as lakes and ponds.  They are usually found in our near cover, such as aquatic vegetation, snags, docks, etc. Bluegill feed on a variety of invertebrates, incluing zooplankton, mollusks, terrestrial and aquatic insects, worms, and even small fish.

Bluegill spawn during the spring and summer, and individual fish may spawn several times during these warmer months.  Males construct nests consisting of shallow circular depressions excavated in shallow margins.  Males guard the nest until fertilized eggs hatch (2-3 days) and larvae are able to swim.