12 August 2009


during my most recent marriage, i followed my (ex)wife's career around the country -- from arizona to south carolina, pennsylvania, washington state, and finally tennessee. when we made the move from tucson to charleston, we arrived one month before hurricane hugo, whose northwesterly course precisely centered on our coastal suburb of mt. pleasant. the entire population of charleston was ordered to evacuate inland by the governor, since the hurricane's storm surge would coincide with normal high tide, creating monster flooding.

in the northern hemisphere, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise. if you imagine yourself following the storm, you can see that the winds to the right of the hurricane's eye are moving away from you, and the winds to the left of the eye are moving toward you. thus the forward motion of the storm adds to the force of winds to the right, and subtracts from the force of winds to the left. hugo's sustained winds peaked at 160 mph, making it a category 5 storm. add the 20-30 mph forward motion of the storm system, and you can see that the potential for devastation was immense, especially to the right (north) of the eye. and indeed, the destruction to human habitat and the francis marion national forest near the coast was catastrophic.

a most inauspicious welcome to the coastal lowlands for us, at first glance. but the very damage caused by the storm provided me with a job -- performing habitat restoration within the swampy forest for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, or RCW, working as a wildlife tech for the u.s. forest service. the birds nest in colonies called clans, and they are the only woodpecker species which drills its nesting cavities in live trees. many of the cavity trees had been snapped over like broken matchsticks, and two emergency teams fanned out into the forest to create artificial cavities for the surviving birds in nearby viable trees left standing. the work was arduous. most known colonies were located some distance from forest access roads, meaning the crews had to slog through a landscape that resembled the aftermath of a nuclear bomb blast, with trees lying every which way on ground that was often boggy or thick with surviving undergrowth -- all while carrying 50-100 lb. of tools, safety gear, artificial cavity materials, and (depending if you were on the drill team or the chainsaw team -- i was the latter) gas-powered tools. the cavities had to be installed 20-50 feet off the ground, in a manner imitating an RCWs preferences for light and ease of approach in flight. did i mention the stifling, humid heat in summer, the miserable cold in winter, the mosquitos, the rattlesnakes and water mocassins, the rain, the ticks (lime disease)? oh yeah, and the alarm clock went off at 3:30 a.m., so that i could drive to our headquarters and thence to an assigned clan site in order to be silently in place to count how many birds emerged at the moment of sunrise, thus checking on the survival of the overall population. a similar clan check was done at sundown. very, very long days.

and also one of the most fulfilling and enthralling jobs i've ever had. i added a number of impressive bird species to my life list, including (besides the RCWs) swallow-tailed kites, anhingas, red-shouldered hawks and painted buntings, to name but a few. so many scenes are etched in my memory -- a great blue heron gliding in silouette, soundlessly, through the crepuscular predawn, resembling some prehistoric reptilian flier on its way home. a black bear, scurrying away at our approach. wild boars, hog-nosed snakes, the list goes on. never did see any alligators, though they inhabited the area.
several of my most treasured sightings, however, were not avian or mammal or reptilian. they were plants -- it turns out that all three species of carnivorous plants which are native to north america, occur in the forest where i worked. i was delighted to encounter (in the order you see them below) pitcher plants, sundews, and venus flytraps in their natural environment.
p.s. -- check out this recently-discovered giant pitcher plant, the link courtesy of my pal bill in chicago.

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