BIRDS OF A FEATHER

Birds of a feather… like to flock together, and so it was in late April, when members of the Francis M. Weston Audubon Society participated in a weekend fieldtrip to the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center located in the Conecuh National Forest near Andalusia, Alabama. First a quick word about our chapter:  the Board of Directors is made up of highly motivated individuals, all volunteers, who work tirelessly to develop educational information for schools and teachers, attend festivals to focus awareness on our feathered friends, who develop and present learning materials to various organizations and clubs – or courses focused for novice birders, who help local city, county staff, and elected officials mitigate potential threats to our feathered friends, and who identify and bring in top notch speakers for presentations to the membership and guests.  Our community is fortunate to have this stellar organization which is eager to learn and share their findings with others.

The Solon Dixon Center is a special place because this 5,000+ acre parcel is used by Auburn University as a learning laboratory for Forestry and Wildlife Courses.  This working forest was donated to Auburn by Solon and Martha Dixon in the 1970s to help teach hands-on forest management and sustainability of natural resources for future generations.

Our weekend field trip included an active itinerary (expertly organized by Lucy Duncan) starting with dinner and an introduction to the facility and its mission by John  Gilbert, Assistant Director. The next day and a half could be described as ‘Summer Camp for Grownups.’ Activities included an early breakfast, a birding field trip, lunch, a woodland field trip with tips on foraging, dinner, and a speaker. The next day followed a similar schedule venturing into other habitats within the forest.

This hands-on teaching facility allows interested parties to see the differences between fire-managed forests and fire-starved forests.  Comparisons of plant species and overall diversity were obvious between areas burned once versus more than once (2-3 year rotation), with every increasing fire application increasing plant diversity.  The Coastal Plain, our geographic and geologic address in NW Florida and S Alabama, flora and fauna has evolved with fire mainly due to our summer pop-up storms and the many lightning events.  Long before we fragmented the landscape with roads and structures, lighting strikes began fires which were carried by the deadfall of the previous years and crept along; fueled by wind, until they bumped into wet marshes, creeks, or rivers – or were drowned out by a rain event.

Longleaf pine dominated this landscape and adapted to fire by creating thick layers of bark which could burn and still protect the tree.  The long pine needles, actually its leaves, are adapted to carry fire insuring that not too many plants grow underneath these giant sentinels. The greatest diversity of plants occurs below the knee in these forests – which are bathed in a soothing dappled light which moves throughout the day as the sun rises and falls and the mighty branches move with the winds.  The multitude of plants attract the assorted insect world, many of which are so specialized through evolution that sometimes only one type of moth can pollinate one type of flower.  And of course the insects play a vital role in the forest as they provide food for a host of forest dwellers including our many feathered friends.

Not all pine on this property is longleaf, as the life cycle for this important species wasn’t understood until the 1960s.  Early attempts at restoring clear cut forests relied on slash pine, loblolly and even sand pine.  As the science of forestry developed, the importance of the longleaf pine ecosystem and its place as a keystone species began to emerge.

The longleaf pine forest ecosystem, once a defining characteristic of the South, has shrunk from more than 92 million acres in pre-settlement times to fewer than 3 million acres today. Heavy deforestation in the pre-1900s reshaped the land to serve agricultural, industrial, and other human needs. Despite this, southeastern forests still represent at least 30 percent of all forested land in the United States. Land conversion to timber production has been a key factor in maintaining forest cover, and since the 1980s forested land in the region has shown signs of slow but continued growth (e.g., Blackwater Forest and Conecuh National Forest).

Historically, concerns about forest health overwhelmingly focused on the eradication of undesirable pests and disease-causing pathogens, such as insects and fungi, or the environmental disruptions such as fire, which could weaken or kill trees. However, damage, decay, and destruction are essential components of healthy forests. Insects that feed on trees are fed upon, in turn, by other animals. Fungi that rot away trees replenish the soil with nutrients that would otherwise be locked away in wood. In fire-dependent ecosystems, fires clear the undergrowth and make room for new trees to grow. So the death of individual trees in the forest is not always cause for alarm—in many cases, it is integral to the continued health of the entire ecosystem.  The art of recycling has been a big part of nature for eons.

The forests of the Solon Dixon Center are diverse and indispensable – from the quiet cypress swamps and longleaf sandhills to the hardwood forests which harbor the swift little Blue Creek flowing through limestone outcroppings into the Conecuh River (and eventually becoming the Escambia River as it enters Florida).   Long before our coastal regions became overly developed, all of our NW Florida creeks were like this.  Narrow and swift, some with sandy bottoms, others with cobble bottoms, sheltered from the sun by a thick canopy of understory plants including red buckeye, swamp dogwood, eastern hophornbeam, American beech, mountain laurel, black cherry, witch hazel, and a host of native azaleas.

Blue Creek comes out of the ground adjacent to a limestone outcropping lined with maidenhair ferns and the ground covered in southern shield ferns.  The groundwater at this location is 68-72⁰ (F) all year long, making this a favorite place to hang out in the heat of summer.

These creeks are important to the landscape, and their origin on the landscape plays an important role on their water chemistry.  For instance, the limestone outcropping amid a pine-dominated landscape reveals that water chemistry would have a hardness associated with this creek system as compared to a seepage slope where ground water surfaces as it meets with a clay layer.  Certain species of fish (sturgeon) and virtually all clams and mussels require a higher than background calcium carbonate level to lay their eggs or create their shells.  It’s difficult for a clam or mussel to develop its shell in acidic and low pH water.

Many insects we know in their mature adult form actually spend their early stages in aquatic environments, which are also dependent on good water quality and specific plant species or their woody material to develop into terrestrial species.  In their aquatic form, these insects have developed interesting adaptations to capture food, by building nets open to a current or scraping algae and bacteria off leaf matter.  Unbeknownst to many, the pH of the water, hardness, alkalinity, plant species, flow rates, and a host of other chemical queues dictate the best environmental condition to support many of these species.  Having shed their gills when they emerge from their aquatic world, they become important food sources for many of our feathered friends.  This synchronized event, insect emergence with nesting birds, foragers or migrant visitors are all critical to maintaining our natural resources.  If just one piece of the puzzle is incomplete, the ecosystem can begin to crumble.

Meadows and slopes are important features in our forest ecosystems as they transform themselves into wet meadows and seepage slopes after rain events.  Fire ecology is still in its infancy as new discoveries are continually documented.  Just a short 5-7 decades ago, the Forest Service reminded us through their famous mascot Smokey Bear, that only you could prevent forest fires.  Fast forward to the late 20th century and we discovered how prudent burning in both growing and dormant cycles could be for the landscape.

Pitcher plant prairies suddenly sprang up in these areas once the competing plants were removed by fire.  Over time, more plants emerged from the dormant seed bank.  On this particular trip we encountered species of Sarracenia, including the yellow trumpets, the crimson, and the parrot pitcher plant.  Another great find in this dry prairie, as it hadn’t rained in several weeks, were several species of ground orchids including the yellow fringed orchid, the grass pink orchid and rose orchid.

One of the most interesting sites we visited was the bottomland tupelo gum swamp which had cypress trees covered in Spanish moss.  The buttresses of several of these trees told a story about how long they had been standing in these swamps.  The ground was alive with tiny cricket frogs blending in with dark leaf litter.  Across the water, a nest was visible with four baby anhingas, easily the size of their parents but covered in golden down. The parents apparently had been pushed out by their growing clutch, and sat watchfully nearby.  Although one might expect the swamp to support a swarm of mosquitoes, none were observed.  Before long, tiny ripples on the water were observed and the sound of small chirps could be heard.  Small, newly hatched alligators could be observed gliding across the water, and before long the guttural call of the mom answering them was heard.  Now it fell in place, the small cricket frogs were likely a snack, similar to popcorn for these young gators!

Herpetologist Jimmy Stiles went on to explain that this area was an ephemeral swamp, drying out during extreme droughts, which is why herpetologists flock from all over to study amphibians and reptiles.  Many of these species cannot co-exist in waters that have fish, so these areas are coveted by those who search for salamanders, snakes, frogs and toads.  The occasional alligator may even get a baby anhinga if one is pushed from the nest.  Nothing goes to waste in these systems; nature has a way of recycling everything. With more than 4,533 documented species, Alabama ranks fifth among the US states in terms of overall species diversity.

Of course we went birding and we birded in woodland habitats, freshwater marshes, swamps and bottomlands and longleaf restoration sites, as well as riverine systems.  At the end of the weekend 63 bird species had been counted and observed.  The prize was seeing a Swainson’s Warbler and hearing the owls call back in the evening.

Joel Martin, the director of the facility provided an overview of the types of projects students work on while at the facility. Invasive species (plants and animals) are a significant threat to our forests, so a large component of the education is identifying what should and should not be in the ecosystem.  Fire management helps to control many plant species and addresses insects which may get a foothold after weather related injury such as tornados and hurricanes.  The field trip introduction to the landscape included experimental plots in which chemical applications to different species are monitored over time.     Early detection and eradication are proven to be the best defense in land management practices.

So whether you are new to the area or have lived here a lifetime, consider joining one of the field trips developed by this organization, F.M. Weston Audubon.  The people you meet and the information gained is an incredible foundation to understanding our natural resources and how we fit into protecting them for future generations.

Growth in this region of Florida is on the fast track.  Our interstates are expanding with several new exchanges planned for the near future; our four lane bridges are being replaced by six lanes and everywhere you look people are building.  Planned growth is not a bad thing as long as it is adapted to our landscape.  Retreat from low lying areas which are prone to flooding.  Don’t build in riparian zones prone to flooding.  Retreat from the water’s edge and always allow natural emergent grasses to buffer the region between open water and upland.  Utilize native plantings within your landscape to support native fauna, especially for our feather friends.  Native plants, once established do not require chemical applications or supplemental irrigation.  Healthy uplands equal healthy waters.  Healthy waters support a healthy community, and a healthy community will support a healthy and sustainable economy for our area.

By Barbara Albrecht