Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bogged Down in Beauty

The post was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of the now deceased South Carolina Magazine. For three years I wrote a column for the magazine called "Our Wild State." In the future, I'll be sharing several of those pieces with you all. You're probably asking yourself right now, just how did I get so lucky?

The incredible tenacity of nature never ceases to amaze me. Regardless of natural environment or circumstance, life tends to find ingenious ways, not only to survive, but to flourish. I can think of no better living testimony to this than the communities found in South Carolina's bogs. It is here, among the sphagnum and peat, that a truly incredible group of plants thrive in the face of adversity.

There is just something about carnivorous plants that seems to capture the popular imagination. Since the time of their discovery, the Palmetto State's wide array of “meat-eaters” have been a subject of much discussion. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they exhibit behaviors primarily only found within the animal kingdom, or that their alien-like appearances are so beautifully bizarre. In the end, we are simply drawn in by their charms much like the very prey that they seek.
Although many species of plants world-wide are considered to be carnivorous, arguably the most famous member of this clan – The Venus' fly trap (Deonaea muscipula) – is found solely along the Carolina coastline. The first formal announcement of the discovery of this species to the western world came on April 2nd, 1759 in a letter written by the famed botanist William Bartram. In it he writes, “We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon anything that touches it.” Over two hundred years later, we are still fascinated by this discovery. These fly traps are triggered by sensitive hairs found on highly modified leaves. When an insect brushes against these hairs, the leaf quickly folds, trapping the creature inside. Over a period of time digestion takes place.

In South Carolina, carnivorous plants are not limited to coastal and Low Country areas. In the mountains of the Upstate several species thrive in special bog-like areas called “cataract bogs.” One of the most unique examples is the very rare Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia jonesii) which only occurs in a handful of locations in the mountains of SC and NC. Pitcher plants are considered to be passive traps because they do not use movement to trap insects. Instead, they rely on large funnel-shaped leaves which are filled with digestive juices that dissolve the creature over time. Other pitcher plants found across our state include Frog Breeches (S. purpurea), and Yellow Trumpets (S. flava).
Contrary to what one might think, carnivorous plants don't just rely on the insects and small animals that they capture for nutrition. Their traps, which are comprised of modified leaves, actually employ photosynthesis just like everyday trees and shrubs do. However, in the case of these bog plants, the purpose of capturing prey is to make-up for the loss of vitamins which they are unable to extract from the poor, acidic soil in which they grow. The poor quality of the soil results from the fact that bogs receive most of their water from rainfall which allows very little mineral content to be added back into these unique wetlands.

Other types of carnivorous plants include bladderworts, sundews and butterworts. Each of these are very special in their own right and are worth seeking out and protecting for future generations. No matter where you live in South Carolina, the opportunity to see one of these amazing species is usually just a short drive away.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Interview on 'Sound Off South."

I was interviewed for a live TV broadcast for local NBC affiliate WYFF this morning (part 1 & 2). The segment, part of the station's 'Sound Off South' feature, was conducted by anchor Kelly Coakley who did an excellent job of steering me away from prattling on –for the most part. At one stage it suddenly occurred to me that I was on television and I quickly blurted out a mishmash of " like camera...spider furry." Topics include this blog, my photography and the natural diversity of South Carolina's various eco-systems.

I had a really good time and mangaged to avoid the 'Nixon sweats.' Fortunately, I've been told that it wasn't too obvious that my legs were going a little Elvis with nervous tremors. However, I can't vouch for this 100% as my 5 1/2 year old, who gave me the good review, watched the broadcast in swimming-goggles. Since I don't have the stomach to watch it myself, I guess that you'll have to be the judge!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pluff Mud & Oyster Castles

I spent last Wednesday in a spartina marsh, covered in dark, oozing pluff mud and absolutely loving every minute of it! When project leader Joy Brown asked if I liked the mud, my reply was that I preferred it to sitting in the office any day! I had been invited by The Nature Conservancy to document the organization's first coastal SC installations of Oyster Castles – a type of artificial reef– on a few privately held islands near Charleston. Over the next year, I'll be traveling down three more times to photograph the progress of these initial structures.
After leaving my hotel just past six, we headed to the dock and motored out to the project site with a three man crew from the SC Department of Natural Resources. During the short trip, I saw a small shark skirting the edge of the marsh, brown pelicans and just missed seeing an alligator riding a wake of its own across the channel. The morning was gorgeous, cool and foggy; perfect lighting for this type of shoot.
Upon disembarking from vessel, I promptly threw any apparent caution to the wind and stepped into a very unstable spot on the island; instantly sinking up to my knees into the concrete-like mud. Comedians seem to crawl out of the woodwork in moments like this and Joy asked me if I could stay where I was for a minute while she collected a plank for me to use as leverage. After barely pulling myself out with a audible sucking sound –surprisingly similar to the sound of my fleeting pride– I managed to head for the water and more solid ground; sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but just take my word for it.
In order to place the castles properly into the marsh, the biologists had to measure the distance from the water's edge to the nearest vegetation and space the structures equally apart from one another. This was done using hand-made frames which allowed for quicker measurements; each device was about a meter long. Joy would call out how many 'flips' it took to get to the vegetation and this was recorded for later calculations.
The Oyster Castles were constructed from giant concrete blocks, similar to over-sized LEGO pieces. Each block was composed of quite of bit of natural material such as shell and limestone so that eventually, they would be taken over by the marine life that the structures are created to house. At one point, I felt slightly guilty for not carrying the heavy blocks into the water's edge but, hey, someone has to document this stuff, right?
As the morning ended, I felt incredibly grateful to be allowed to witness this really important coastal restoration project and am looking for to heading down again later this summer. Next time, I'm hoping to focus on the fauna of the marsh-edge and the new life that we hope will be clinging to these palaces by the sea.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Newly Discovered Salamander Should Make Us Look Closer

(Photo courtesy of UGA)
News surfaced last week that a new species of salamander, dubbed the patch-nosed salamander and representing an entirely new genus, was discovered near a heavily traveled roadway in Toccoa, Georgia.

This newly described animal "represents the first new genus of four-footed creature discovered in the United States in 50 years.” The fact that the diminutive amphibian was serendipitously discovered during a routine biological survey in a highly populated area really emphasizes the importance of the local-level conservation that I’ve written about in several posts. So much emphasis is often placed on traveling abroad to wild & exotic locations to search for rare flora & fauna that we may possibly run the risk of overlooking the biological treasures right beneath our very noses.

After the initial specimen was discovered, others examples of this 2" long salamander were found in nearby Northwestern, South Carolina; only miles from my home. I feel certain that this area, which is considered part of the epi-center of salamander diversity, holds many more species waiting to be discovered. Although the conservation community in our region has made some great gains in recent years, there is still much work to be done. It is my hope that this discovery will prompt other researchers, biologists, conservationists and photographers to take a closer look at their own backyards.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Quest for Wide-Angled Macro Continues

I am continuing to refine my wide-angled macro technique. Some of you may be saying "enough of the wide-angled posts already!" Fair enough, I suppose, but if I'm going to air my dirty laundry –AKA the good, the bad and the ugly images that come from trying something new– you may just have to bear with me for a little longer as a small favor. I'm hoping that by revealing the process that I'm working through, you may be inspired to push your own personal boundaries as well. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this developing series.

I think that I'm beginning to attain a better balance between the foreground and background lighting with these. I'm also getting better at adjusting the lighting to alter mood as shown in the Veronica's Looking Glass (purple flowers). One thing that is faulty with this round of images is that (you might've noticed) the subjects have a bit of an outline on them. This is because I'm using a rear-curtain flash setting (a good thing) but the shutter-speed / flash duration are slightly under & over what they should be, ideally. Otherwise, things are looking better by my estimation. Now if I can just get these subjects to stay still...plants included!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Supporting Grassroots Conservation

Many of you who regularly visit this blog are probably aware that I'm very involved with conservation efforts here in South Carolina. One project that I'm working through at the moment is a privately funded book that will highlight land that has been protected through the South Carolina Conservation Bank. The conservation bank concept is a novel idea that was founded here in the Palmetto State; an idea that is reportedly being emulated elsewhere across the nation.

The image above is of a beautiful spartina marsh that I photographed last weekend on Edisto Island near Charleston, SC. This site was once a part of a shrimp farm but thanks to funding, in part at least, from the SCCB and the Edisto Island Open Land Trust, it will now be protected forever. Within the brief time that I spent at the property, I saw several amazing species such as the painted bunting and wood stork along with many species of invertebrates and plants.

Many of us who have a passion for conservation, and a desire to make a difference in our world often dream of heading off to a distant shore to do this type of work. However, in many cases, your best opportunity to really do something important for conservation lies just miles from you own front door.