HOOKED ON WILDLIFE (Part II)
by Stan Polinsky
In Part I of our story, I explained how we got interested in wildlife rehabilitation and rescue and the wildlife and humans who helped us along the way. Part II tells how I got out of the big city rat race and ended up purchasing a 217-acre former horse ranch in South Carolina that we are developing as a private nature preserve.
I Can't Take It Any More!
Although we generally enjoyed our semi-country feeling home in Fairfax, Virginia, I still could not escape the everyday grind and hassle of living in a large metropolitan area. Eventually, I took advantage of an early retirement program and began looking for a place to relocate that was more in line with my preferred lifestyle. With the support of my lovely wife, I began doing research on target areas for relocation and made up my mind if the right opportunity came along, I was out of here. Eventually, I landed a job in Augusta, Georgia.
Endless Trails Farm
Six months after arriving in Augusta, we bought the farm so to speak. Through an interesting set of circumstances, we were able to purchase a 217-acre horse ranch, called Endless Trails Farm, near Trenton, South Carolina, a town of about 225 people. The property is only a few miles from Sumter National Forest and is bordered on three sides by large wooded tracts, including a next door neighbor who owns 1000 acres.
Although we are not into horses, the property met our criteria for location and nature amenities. The property has a wide variety of woods (157 acres in pine and hardwoods) and fields (60 acres), 10 miles of trails throughout the property, a spring-fed 3-4 acre pond, a Federally protected wetland area, two streams (one of which has a small waterfall in the woods), and a 16-stall horse barn with a heated/air-conditioned office, bathroom, and workshop. Through hiking and research adventures, I also discovered the remains of a 40-year old liquor still, an abandoned 80-year old earthen dam built by mule teams, and two old home sites.
FIP and WHIP
Shortly after moving to the farm, I contacted the local Federal Conservationist and State Forestry Agent. I wanted to find out about any programs or other assistance available to help with our goal of attracting wildlife and improving the habitat for their sanctuary. Further, it would be nice if there was a way to generate income from the property in a manner compatible with our wildlife goals.
The Conservationist was eager to work with us as he noted we were very unusual for the area. Most locals want to manage their property for hunting, fishing, and/or farming of specific plants or animals. We, on the other hand, wanted to manage the property as a total eco-system; preserving, protecting, and returning the land to Nature as much as possible.
My vision was to pattern the property after a trip we took to the Galapagos Islands several years ago. On the Galapagos, nature has priority, wildlife can touch humans but humans cannot handle wildlife, no one is permitted to venture off designated trails, and no one is permitted on the islands without a Naturalist escort. I wanted the same basic ground rules for our property.
After several discussions and visits, our Conservationist prepared a comprehensive land management plan developed for our specific needs. The plan contains a wealth of information on best practices for forest and wildlife management, a soil composition map, and specific guidance on planting, thinning, maintaining, and otherwise improving overall habitat over the next several years. Sources, along with prices, for thinning, burning, and planting are included to facilitate decision-making, and there is even a section on Historical and Archaeological Information and Threatened and Endangered Species specific to my area. Although no known historical or archaeological sites; or rare, threatened, or endangered species have been observed on the property in the past, there are recorded endangered species for the County. They are: Red Cockaded Woodpecker, Relict Trillium, and Bald Eagle. Our planting of Longleaf Pines, in particular, will help the Cockaded Woodpecker and Eastern Diamondback rattle snake. To further motivate landowners to increase forests, reduce erosion, and improve wildlife habitat, several cost-sharing programs are available.
Two cost-share programs we are currently operating under are: Forestry Incentive Program (FIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). The FIP program provides assistance (thinning, planting, treating, et cetera) on managing our forest and provides cost-sharing (FIP pays 45% of our cost) for the 42 acres of Loblolly Pine we planted for long-term income. The WHIP program provides cost-sharing (WHIP pays 40% of our cost) for wildlife plantings, early plant succession, and prescribed burning of underbrush. Thus far we have planted 2 acres of wildlife hedgerow (Laurel Oak, Gobbler Oak, Long Leaf Pine, and Red Cedar) and plan to burn 30 acres of underbrush in the future. Twenty acres have been left for return (early succession) to natural fields. Interestingly, we were paid $75 the first year to leave the fields untouched. Easiest money we ever made! Thus far, we have planted 28,070 trees.
A testament to our unique and varied property find was when our Conservationist called to ask if he could bring several biologists over to visit. Conservationists and biologists visit each other's areas to learn and share information about state plants, soils, and wildlife. Our Conservationist told us our property was a good candidate for their visit due to the high concentration of desirable features (e.g., trails for easy access, rare location of a waterfall in our area, varied soil types, variety of trees and plants in various stages of maturity, spring fed wetland and pond combination, et cetera). Our personal interest in many of their conservation goals didn't hurt either.
I spent about 6 hours walking with the group and listening to their discussions. While very informative, they often reminded me of working with accountants, where no two ever point in the same direction. Due to their varied backgrounds and expertise in different areas of the discipline, they seldom agreed on any of the observations or issues discussed. This situation was exacerbated due to their prototyping of a newly designed Habitat Type Index (HTI) survey form. This form is used by biologists to assess habitat quality via a set of weighted criteria using a point system. There are criteria for Cropland Habitat, Old Field Habitat, Pastureland/Hayland Habitat, Pine Woodland Habitat, Hardwood Woodland Habitat, and Waterfowl/Wetland Habitat. I was happy to see that we had something to assess in every survey area, meaning we had a little bit of everything on our property. As expected, each biologist came to a different conclusion about our habitat quality. Since everything can always be improved upon, it really didn't matter what grade we got. We were going to work on improving everything anyway. The learning experience derived from having 6 seasoned biologists tour our property and point out interesting details was well worth the coffee and donuts I handed out.
On Spring-Fed Pond
While the Land Management Plan helped us form a basis for managing the land, we had no such plan for the pond and wetland area. We had no knowledge of its overall condition. For that we turned to the South Carolina Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. After completing a Pond Management Consultation Application form, two biologists came out to survey the pond and provide preliminary advice. They performed a pH test of the water and conducted a fish species population sampling count. As a result, they recommended adding lime to the pond at a rate of two tons per acre to improve water quality, as the pH level was low. I later found out that low pH is common in South Carolina ponds due to the high sand content of the soil in most of the State. They further recommended harvesting 5-10 pounds of Bass per acre to improve fish population balance, as the high Bass population was feeding on the Bream and other species, adversely affecting their populations.
Interestingly, when queried about waterfowl, beavers, snakes, turtles, frogs, and other aquatic species we had, they were not able to help. As our Conservationist had initially noted, the pond guys stated we were unusual in our total pond management objective. Again, most locals manage for fishing or duck hunting, not for both, and not to attract other species. Thus, at this point we do not have a comprehensive plan for managing the pond and wetland as an eco-system and have been doing research to this end on our own. From the large numbers and variety of frogs, turtles, and snakes we see, and listening to their wild parties at night during spring, it is safe to say the pond is not a bad place to live. Further, we get 50-75 noisy Wood Ducks roosting every night during winter and regular sightings of Blue and Green Herons. This indicates we at least have adequate cover and roosting sites. Our research in this area so far points to a lack of adequate food and nest sites for ducks and other waterfowl, thus impacting the ability to retain mating and nesting pairs. That explains why we get lots of ducks each evening, but have few hang around during the day. Apparently, they roost in our pond at night, but feed and breed elsewhere during the day.
Living With Wildlife
Unlike many people, who live on one side of the street, with wildlife living on the other in parks or designated natural areas, we live with nature at our front door every day. As a result, we get to observe some interesting behavior not often seen by today's average citizen. I walk the trails during the day on a regular basis for exercise and to look for critters. At night, I walk with a large spotlight looking for glaring eyes and listening for strange sounds. I see something neat almost every day!
We have seen an obvious increase in wildlife activity during our second year on the farm. Now that horses, people, and domestic animals are gone, and the pond, woods, and pastures are returning to a more natural state, animal buddies are showing up everywhere. It's almost as if they know we will be good to them so they return the favor by letting us observe them close up.
One of the more enjoyable times on the property is during spring and early summer when trees and wildflowers are blooming and animals are nesting and having babies. During our first year, for example, we had a very friendly pair of Canada Geese stay with us the entire summer. They must have been used to humans, as they would walk right up to me, often standing on my foot, and take bread from my hand. Each morning they would walk from the pond to the house for breakfast and then follow me around the yard throughout the day. They built a nest and allowed us to paddle right up to it. Of course I usually took bread with me when out to visit the nest. They would often hop in the boat for a snack.
Other interesting close encounters have included watching: a Blue Heron (see picture) stalk fish. They sure have more patience than I do when it comes to fishing; a Timber Rattlesnake sunning on the driveway; baby Green Herons in their nest on the pond, where we could approach the nest quietly without causing alarm. The mother would quietly walk away from the nest and return after we checked on the babies. She didn't seem to have any problem with us being there; a Bobwhite mother and her brood on a trail. Although they could easily run into the thicket, they elected to walk ahead of me on the trail, the baby's legs going as fast as their little bodies could go; baby Wild Turkeys hunting grasshoppers in the pasture. While reading the Sunday paper by the pond one morning, a Turkey strolled down for a drink and sand bath about 25 feet from where we were sitting; Barn Swallows dive bombing me in the summer each time I work in the barn and gradually settling down in their nests once they realize I am not a threat; a Cottonmouth snake (see picture) discovered under the boat when I reached down to turn it over into the pond. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was visiting so I asked him to take a stick and push the snake into the pond while I held the boat up. Like any good Cottonmouth, he lunged at us after being poked. My brother-in-law eventually flicked the snake into the pond where Mr. Cottonmouth swam away, I suspect, to look for a less crowded beach; Numerous American Toads all around the house and barn. I call them my guard toads; and, Turkey Buzzards feasting on deer and opossum that have died on the property. This does not include the numerous deer, rabbits, lizards (see Fence Lizard picture) and song birds seen throughout each day. One has to be careful mowing in early spring and summer when baby animals are out and about, as baby animals don't have street smarts at that age. Last year I encountered 4 baby bunnies (see picture) while mowing. Fortunately, I was able to catch all 4, which had scattered by now, and relocate them to a safe area. Their instinct to run 10 feet and freeze allowed me to scoop them up pretty quick.
At night there is a whole different set of encounters to experience: a Beaver building his lodge, nibbling on a branch close to shore, and finding a mate this year. If all goes well, we should have baby beavers later this summer; a Gray Fox dining at the feeder located right outside our den window. I caught him with a chicken egg in his mouth as he took it from the feeder; and an Opossum climbing a tree close to the house after he spotted me walking toward him.
I note these sightings to demonstrate the variety of wildlife encountered in our own back yard on a regular basis and relatively close-up. There have been many more sightings of lizards, frogs, turtles, bats, raptors, songbirds, and mammals too numerous to present in this article. My wife says I am the only person she knows who takes a backpack, binoculars, spotlight, and machete with him to go for a walk in the yard. I view it as one big science project.
As time permits, I construct nest boxes and bird houses for Wood Ducks, Blue Birds, Owls, Raccoons, and other species that need additional housing on the property. Two weeks ago, we planted a small experimental wildflower and sunflower meadow in the corner of the yard. We also have plans for additional plantings around the house and along the trails to encourage wildlife to visit and live on our property.
And yes, I am still seeking ways to work directly with wildlife. Two interesting possibilities I am considering at this time is assisting Dr. Lehr Brisbin at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and our veterinarian, Dr. Clarence Bagshaw, with research on Carolina dogs, New Guinea Singing dogs, or Red Junglefowl chickens. All are rare or endangered species. Dr. Brisbin has been featured on Animal Planet and Dr. Bagshaw has been on Wild Kingdom. The second possibility is working with Alpacas. I recently visited a new Alpaca ranch and have invited the owner to visit our place to discuss the possibility of using our property for boarding, breeding, and/or shows for fun and profit.
Maybe there will be a Part III to this story in the future