Shorebird Nesting Has Begun

After weeks of nest searching with little luck, the birds have finally decided that it’s warm enough and they are ready to start laying eggs. In previous years, we documented a record-breaking early nesting attempt by an American oystercatcher pair on March 10, but nesting typically start around mid to late March.   So, needless to say, as March ended and April began, with no discovered Wilson’s plover or American oystercatcher nests, we were ready.

Freshly laid Wilson's plover nest

Freshly laid Wilson’s plover nest

This will be the last of three field seasons for an ongoing research project with the objective of determining how habitat variables can be used to predict nesting location and nest success for American oystercatchers and Wilson’s plovers.  We are also investigating how different nest predators (avian, raccoon, coyote) might influence nest location and nest success, and will incorporate effects of sea level rise, and geological processes, such as inlet dynamics and shoreline change, as well.

During the first week of April, we’d found only one Wilson’s plover nest and several Killdeer nests.  But, as temperatures have risen and spring has finally settled in, nesting has started with vigor!  In the past two weeks, we’ve found 38 Wilson’s plover nest and 7 American oystercatcher nests!  Birds have set up territories and within those territories created scrapes- shallow depressions made by smoothing and kicking out the sand.  They can make several scrapes in a territory, and then the female chooses one and lays her eggs.  The eggs blend in so well with the surrounding beach that they are very difficult for predators (and researchers) to find.

American oystercatcher nest

American oystercatcher nest

Last week, we found one of the coolest nests I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been out on the beaches. This Wilson’s plover pair nested right inside an old horseshoe crab shell!  They will likely lay one more egg and then in about 25 days, hopefully the nest will hatch.

The best nest: A Wilson’s plover nest inside a horseshoe crab shell!

Norm’s Pond Rookery Update

Nesting great egrets at Norm's Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Nesting great egrets at Norm’s Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Spring has arrived on Little St. Simons Island, and with the warmer weather comes wading bird activity at Norm’s Pond. Great egrets, snowy egrets, and anhingas are strutting their breeding plumage, building nests, and laying eggs on islands in the pond. Nests will begin to hatch in the next couple of weeks.

Norm’s Pond is an active sediment borrow pit, with the sand collected from the area used for island road construction and maintenance. The pit was connected to a nearby artesian well and flooded. An upland peninsula that stretched into the center of the pond was ditched and made into an island to create rookery nesting habitat. Predators, like raccoons, are unwilling to jump or swim to the island to eat eggs and chicks due to alligators that patrol the pond. As a result, the birds that nest on the island have a much higher success rate than those that nest on the edge of the pond.

Recently, we created a new island at Norm’s Pond. Another peninsula, that usually had high predation rates, was trenched and cut off from the mainland. Great egrets and anhingas are currently nesting on the new island. Ecological staff conducts weekly rookery surveys to monitor nests and chicks. From these surveys, we have documented more fledged chicks (chicks that can fly) on the islands than the pond edge. We predict that trend will continue for the new island as well.

Guests have an excellent opportunity to experience the rookery from the Norm’s Pond tower. The tower provides close views of courtship, nest building, and chick rearing without causing stress to the birds. Many guests have also observed the large alligator, famously known as “Norm”, sunbathing along the pond’s edge. Several other bird species roost, or rest, at Norm’s Pond including tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, cattle egret, white ibis, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills.

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Management Technician

Building Beds With Wood Waste

Dug a trench down the row and filled it with wood.


Hugelkultur, roughly translated from German to mean “hill-culture,” is a soil-building method that raises the growing space by burying wood-waste beneath the soil.   We are rich in rotting wood here on LSSI, including live oaks, pines and some pecans, so we’re employing the method to areas in the garden prone to flooding— the “fields” between the orchard rows. 

After our summer harvest, we plowed the fields for one last time, as it will take years for the wood to rot and we can’t very well push a plow on top of it! Then we dug a trench down one of the rows and began to fill it with wood, mostly downed oak limbs that had fallen in the lodge areas.  (Some kinds of wood you don’t want to use include cedar and black walnut. A Google search yields lively discussions on the matter.)
Next we added, food scraps and other nitrogen sources like bloodmeal and feathermeal to speed-up the break-down of all that carbon in the form of wood-waste. Then we watered the pile before we covered it back with soil.
Added  N: food scraps, blood and feather meal.
Adding nitrogen via food scraps and meals is not necessary, however.  You can just bury the wood and the nitrogen in the soil will work to slowly break it down. But we wanted to hasten the process a little.  The idea is: the rotting wood will be a slow-releasing fertilizer over the years. Initially a lot of nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down the carbon.  But after a few years, it should have broken down substantially to begin releasing nitrogen, which will make your veggies grow.  While you’re waiting for that process to occur, best to plant crops like onions and potatoes which don’t require a lot of nitrogen.  Or legumes that actually fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere.
I first learned about this old soil-building method in a permaculturecourse a couple years back where its benefits for building fungal-rich berms around fruit trees were highlighted. I am sure the roots of the citrus and fruit trees on either side of our vegetable rows will meander to the beds and benefit immensely as well!
Check out this resource to learn more:  http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

Prescribed Burn: February 2015

Muhly Grass on fire. Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

Muhly Grass on fire. Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

Along the Georgia coast, muhly maritime grasslands (Muhlenbergia filipes) are a rare, but vital ecosystem for a variety of wildlife. With rising sea levels and coastal development, this habitat is diminishing along with some of the animals that call it home. Island glass lizards and Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, both species of conservation concern in Georgia, Eastern kingsnakes, marsh rabbits, and cotton rats are a handful of species that utilize these grasslands for protection and reproduction.

A section of Muhly grassland near Mosquito Creek burns. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

A section of Muhly grassland near Mosquito Creek burns. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

 

Muhly grass is an early successional plant species, one of the first species to populate secondary dunes. By burning these grasslands, wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) and groundsel (Baccharis sp.) thickets are reduced, and the area covered by grass is increased. Little St. Simons Island uses fire as a management technique, or tool, in an attempt to balance out the loss of these grasslands at other coastal locations.

 

Lauren Gingerella (L), LSSI's Ecological Technician, and a member of The Orianne Society's fire crew (R), ignite a patch of Muhly grass using a drip torch. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

Lauren Gingerella (L), LSSI’s Ecological Technician, and a member of The Orianne Society’s fire crew (R), ignite a patch of Muhly grass using a drip torch. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

On February 10 and 11, we partnered with a fire crew from The Orianne Society to burn four grassland locations for Joseph Colbert’s graduate project. Joseph, a Master’s student at the University of Georgia in Dr. Kimberly Andrews’ Applied Wildlife Research Lab, is leading a two-year study on the ecological response to fire in muhly dominant grasslands. He plans on conducting small mammal trail camera surveys, painted bunting point counts, and reptile surveys.

Joseph’s research will aid LSSI and regional conservationists in developing the best management practices for these grasslands.

 

University of Georgia Master's student, Joseph Colbert (L), and his adviser, Dr. Kimberly Andrews (R) Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

University of Georgia Master’s student, Joseph Colbert (L), and his adviser, Dr. Kimberly Andrews (R) Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

 

 

 

A Story of Squash: Seed to Table

Tahitian Melon winter squash in the field.
I am happy to report our guests are dining on winter squash from the garden this fall.  But my what it took to get these enormous beauties to the table this year!
It was a long labor of love that began with the patty pan summer squash I planted in the raised beds.  I trimmed the winter rye and cut holes into them where I direct seeded the squash. These dwarf plants came up lovely, green and gorgeous, but just as they began to fruit, the pickleworms bore holes in their vines and their fruit, so there was none left for the kitchen!  The pickleworm is the larval form of a night moth which lays eggs on the leaves of cucurbits and once their eggs hatch, the young bore into the flowers of the squash, into the vines and into the fruit.  We were quick to pull those summer squash plants in an effort to get rid of the worms, but in hindsight leaving them in as a trap crop may have been a better option. Just as soon as they had no more patty pan to feed on they descended upon the cucumbers on the backfield trellis!
“Frass” from hole where a pickleworm bore into cucumber.
I left those cucs in place because right next to them were the winter squash.  Now, pickleworms, according to research, typically aren’t keen on winter squash like they are on cucs and summer squash, but just in case, I covered the backfield with row cover, which also would protect it from the dreaded squash vine borer should it have decided to make an appearance this year.
A pickleworm inching its way through the vine of a cucumber.
Row cover on the winter squash.
When the squash started blossoming, I was faced with some choices: hand pollinate and keep them covered; uncover them by day and let the bees do the job and cover them again by night (when the night moth emerges again); or uncover them and see what happens.  Well, I tried all three options but soon found the last was the most practical, and least laborious!  However, within weeks of uncovering them, I noticed some holes in the vines and some fruit shriveling up with a worm in it eating its way through the flesh. 
After more research, I decided to try a biological pesticide called Dipel. It’s a bacteria that attacks the worms.  The trouble with spraying this stuff on the squash plants is that it has to make direct contact with the skin of the worm.  Now, these guys are borers and are usually protected not only from the cover of the huge squash leaves, but also from their comfy abode hidden in the hollow of a vine and fruit!  So in order for this to work, I had to thoroughly spray at the base of every flower, around every fruit, along as many vines as I could, lifting the protective leaves as I went.  Well, I was determined! And…
Naturalist Rachael harvesting some long-in-coming squash this summer!
To the kitchen!
The chefs have been serving up winter squash off the grill, mashed up as a side dish, and in savory soups for months!


Sheet-mulching: composting in place

Cardboard, an excellent source of carbon, placed around our winter squash mounds.

We all know the wonders of good compost in the garden, but turning piles can be laborious. And spreading it wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow to the beds is lot of work.  Well worth the effort, don’t get me wrong.  We have an extensive operation here on LSSI, but we also use another method to build soil. It’s called sheet-mulching, a.k.a. composting-in-place or lasagna-gardening.
If you have a manure source or a load of coffee grinds and leaves, you’re in good shape.  We need nitrogen (think: manure, coffee grinds, vegetable scraps) and carbon (leaves, paper, cardboard). Whatever sources of wastes you have you just layer them right on top of the ground you intend to grow in and let it break down in place.  A great time to do this is in the fall, so it can degrade over the winter. Come spring, you’ve got soil ready for your seeds and transplants.
Here’s the method:
  1. Soak the planting area. Water heavily. Let sit overnight.
  2. Slash vegetation, weeds, veg. residue, roots and all, and leave as “green manure.” Do remove stumps or woody vegetation, however.
  3. Amend your soil with lime, sulfur, gypsum, any raw mineral, etc. as needed.
  4. Take a spade fork or pitch fork and crack the earth open a little. Don’t turn the earth, “just poke some holes to create better moisture retention, root penetration, and soil-critter movement” as Permaculturist Toby Hemenway says.
  5. Put down a thin layer of nitrogen material: manure, cottonseed meal, fresh grass clippings, or other lush greens or veggie scraps.
  6. Spread cardboard or newspaper to smother weeds.  Cardboard is a better suppressant because it’s thicker and takes longer to break down. (Be sure to remove tape, etc. and DON’T use the produce boxes covered in wax or lots of colorful dye.) Overlap sheets and SOAK them.
  7. Add another thin layer of nitrogen-rich material.
  8. Pour on the bulk-mulch: 8-12 inches of straw, hay, yard waste, leaves, seaweed, saw dust, etc.
  9. Add an inch or two of finished compost if you have it. 
  10. Then another final layer of carbon.
    A word on C(carbon):N(nitrogen): As you layer, pay attention to the C:N ratio. It will ideally be at 30:1.  Get an idea of what the content of your materials are.  For instance, if you’re working with sawdust which has a very high carbon content of  500:1, you’ll want to be sure to add a lot more nitrogen, than if you’re layering with tree leaves. 
     
    from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts
    Now, sheet-mulching is not an exact science and the method is pretty forgiving, especially if you’re giving it six months to break down.  Just sure to add both the elements as you have them and you’ll be doing wonders for your soil. 

 

Naturalist Fact : Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)  

virginia-opossum

 

A common mammal species throughout the Eastern and Midwestern US, the Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial to live North of Mexico.  They range from southern Canada to northern Costa Rica with some populations found in California presumably brought there by travelers as a food source during the depression.  Although they are also commonly referred to as just possums in Georgia, the term possum is technically used to refer to a specific suborder of arboreal marsupials found only in Australia, and Opossum refers to new world marsupials found in North and South America. The term opossum was actually borrowed from the Algonquian name for them, aposoum, meaning “white dog”. The average Virginia Opossum is about 2 feet in length weighing around 8 pounds; female opossums are smaller than males, with male opossums ranging 12 to 15 pounds. They have a very short lifespan, typically only surviving a year in the wild. Like most marsupials the female Virginia Opossum has a pouch which is lined with fur where the young develop. A female Opossum can give birth to as many as 20 young, which at birth are not much larger than a honeybee, about a half an inch in length. Upon their birth they must crawl to the pouch of the female and attach themselves to one of the 13 teats within the mother’s pouch. After about 60 days the young will leave the pouch and travel on their mothers back until about 100 days of age where they are then independent and can forage on their own. Virginia Opossums are generally nocturnal, being most active at night, and spend much of their time in the trees, utilizing their furless prehensile tail as a fifth limb to help them navigate their arboreal habitat. They are an opportunistic omnivore, eating anything they can find including fruits, nuts, and carrion, as well as predating on small mammals and reptiles.

Recent studies have found that Opossums play an important role in regulating disease transmission in the habitats where they exist. Researchers experimentally found that half of all ticks introduced to mice were able to attach and feed, while only 3.5% of ticks introduced to opossums would attach. The study found that those ticks that failed to attach where eaten by the opossums during grooming. In field surveys they found that the average opossum carries about 200 ticks, and if that is 3.5% of the ticks that try to feed on an opossum, then the average opossum eats up to or more than 5,500 ticks. These same researchers hypothesize that the removal of opossums can have a profound effect on tick populations and increase transmission of ailments such as Lyme disease to other creatures, including people.

Sweet Potatoes=Greens All Summer Long! (and yams come Fall)

Spring was a whirlwind of activity in the garden. Summer arrives oh-so-quickly in the south, and we need to plant everything in the ground as early as possible before the heat and the bugs set in! Right now we’re seeing the fruits of our hurried labor in the forms of cherry tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and sweet potato greens. The latter is what I’d like to celebrate in this post.

Sweet potatoes are near sure-fire successes in the summer garden.  They’re a southern staple. After the kale and collards have long bolted and gone to seed, they keep providing the table with greens.  Their roots store excellently too, providing nourishment year round.
On a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia a couple summers ago, I came to know their virtues well.  They were my “power bars” throughout the day.  We baked dozens of the last year’s crop at a time, put them in the fridge to easily grab and get reenergized. At dinner, we stir-fried their bountiful leaves with onions and garlic for a tasty side dish.

This Spring, we planted several rows and a couple beds of sweet potatoes on Little St. Simons Island. All of the “seed” came from the potatoes we grew TWO YEARS AGO in the backfield. An attempt was made to grow watermelons in that field last year, but the sweet potatoes left in the ground from the summer before took hold and won out.  When I first arrived in the garden this winter, the first task at hand was to pull all those potatoes out of the ground. And can you believe after carting several crates of them out of the garden last winter, still this spring dozens and dozens of seedlings, called “slips” in the world of tater-growin,’ came peaking up out of the rye cover in that back field!

    These are the sweet potato slips my husband grew for our home garden.
 If you’re going to grow your own slips, just cut the spuds in half and
put them in a tray of water and they’ll start spouting.

All this to demonstrate what a hardy vegetable the sweet potato is and how easy it is to grow.  A city-dwelling friend of mine grew them in her kitchen windowsill solely for their greens. If you’re growing for their spuds, sweet potatoes like well-drained, loose soil and sunshine. You can mound them up in a raised row to give their roots plenty of room to swell.  You can also plant them in raised beds. We did both late last Spring.  I plucked those slips out of the backfield as they were coming up, put them in trays for later-transplanting, and now, they’re sprawling beyond their beds and rows… clipped every week to supply Charles with a substitute for one of his lunch staples, navy bean and kale soup.  Come fall, we’ll dig them out of the ground, to be cured and ready for the baking come Thanksgiving. 

Sea turtle season is underway!

Turtle Tech, Elise Diehl

Georgia Nongame DNR Sea Turtle Technician: Elise Diehl

We are happy to announce the beginning of sea turtle nesting season here on the Georgia coast. Each year from May to August, female sea turtles laboriously crawl out of the ocean under the cover of darkness to deposit their eggs in dry sand. There, the eggs will incubate for about 60 days then hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings will make their way out to sea.

Most of the nesting sea turtles on Georgia’s coast are loggerhead sea turtles, but so far this year Cumberland and Sapelo have each had a green sea turtle nest, and Blackbeard has had a leatherback nest.

On Little St. Simons Island, we found our first loggerhead nest on May 18th, with a total of 167 eggs! We are now up to seven nests, and are hoping to see nesting activity pick up in the next couple of weeks. Last year, we documented 119 nests!

Each year, LSSI works with the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative to monitor and protect turtle nests, and we are happy to have Elise Diehl as our sea turtle technician. Elise rides the entire length of the beach at dawn each day looking for the tracks of nesting females. She documents each crawl and nest she finds, and if necessary will relocate the nests that are in danger of being washed over by the tides too often during their incubation. Each nest is marked and screened with plastic mesh to deter predators, as well. As part of a coast-wide long term genetics project, Elise also takes a sample from each nest.

Elise is originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan but has been in Georgia since she was 16. Once she moved to Georgia, she was introduced to sea turtles and wanted nothing more than to work with them one day. While earning her B.S in Wildlife Sciences at the University of Georgia, she worked in the lab analyzing the genetic information being collected from each nest on the Georgia coast. Last summer, Elise monitored nesting turtles on Ossabaw Island. After spending a few months at the Georgia Aquarium, she is excited to be back on the coast for another season!

Naturalist Fact: The Moon

Image Credit: GSFC / Arizona State Univ. / Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter NASA

Image Credit: GSFC / Arizona State Univ. / Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter NASA

With little light pollution on Little St. Simons Island, it is a great place to explore the night sky. Although it travels through several phases each month, Earth’s moon is usually the most conspicuous sight in the night sky. The moon’s illumination is the result of the sun’s light reflecting off the moon’s surface, and as the moon rotates around the Earth, we are able to see differing proportions of the moon.

The moon is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old, about the same age as the earth. The most accepted theory for the formation of the moon, is that while the earth was still very young, a rock comparable to the size of Mars collided with Earth. The impact of this collision sent large pieces of rock into Earth’s orbit, which aggregated into one body to form our moon.

It takes the moon about one month (28 days) to orbit the earth, and it takes about the same amount of time (27.53 days) for the moon to complete a rotation around its own axis. Consequently, the same side of the moon is always facing Earth. Depending on the phase of the moon, we can see a certain portion of that side each night.  At its fullest, we can see a little more than half of the moon (59%). The other 41% is the side that never faces Earth, also known as “the far side.”

The moon’s surface exhibits an interesting array of geographical features. The large dark areas are called seas or maria, and were once huge lava plains. Craters appear much lighter than the maria, and appear like starbursts with lines radiating out from the center. All the craters were formed by meteor collisions. The moon also has mountain ranges, valleys, cliffs, and other changes in topography. The best time to observe these features through binoculars or a scope, is several days before and after the full moon when the angle of the sunlight gives the most definition to its features.