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.

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Herbs Galore

If you’re going to grow anything, grow herbs. They virtually grow themselves! They attract few, if any, pests and most herbs grow back year after year. The Little St. Simon’s Island garden has been host to an array of herbs for years, but this winter we’ve taken it to another level by installing four huge raised beds right in the middle of the garden designated just for them.  What an orchestration it was getting them in!
Naturalists Mike and Laura build bed #3.
The gardener (that’s me!) filling the beds.

 
The whole team of naturalists took part, sawing lumber, nailing boards, raking dirt, and now, we have 368 square feet more growing space to supply Chef Charles with all the herbs he needs to dream up savory delectables for your palate.

Clearly, it takes a lot of growing space to supply a commercial kitchen, but not so for your home kitchen.  You can put a lot of different herbs in a small space in a beautiful display called an herb spiral. Along with the four large traditional raised beds, we built an herb spiral as the centerpiece to our garden.  You can put one by your door so all your herb needs are within reach.

Herb spirals are a permaculture garden design you can adapt to your needs. They’re especially great if you’re short on garden space because you build up rather than out.  By creating height with a wall of brick or stone, you’re also helping to create microclimates in your bed. The stone traps heat. And it creates sunny and shadier places in the space as the sun moves across the bed. The top-level, which you fill with sandy soil, is well suited to herbs that like it warm, relatively dry and super-sunny, like rosemary and oregano and thyme.  Then as you move down the spiral, you add a little more compost and plant herbs that prefer loamier soil like cilantro and basil and parsley until you get to the very bottom where herbs, like mint, need a moister cooler place to thrive. Some herb spiral designs even incorporate a pond at the bottom. 
If you’re inspired to build one yourself, follow some of these links to get started. Spirals can be as little as three feet wide or as big as eight! We watched this herb spiral tutorial on-line, perused a bunch of designs and scouted around the island dump for recyclable materials. For our spiral wall, we had a bunch of old bricks from buildings we’ve been refurbishing on the island.  We also have lots of oyster shells piling up from the evening oyster roasts each week. We used them to build height in the center of the spiral. Many designs call for gravel, but with the mountains miles away that’s not an easy find.  The gravel/shell layer not only builds height but it also helps with drainage.
Part of the beauty of the design is that your garden herb spiral will suit your needs, your own aesthetic and help you make use of whatever you have lying around to repurpose for a wall.  It’s about a day’s work for one person to put together the infrastructure. Wait about a week to let the soil settle. Then beautify it by planting your favorite herbs.  Keeping consistent with permaculture principles, the spiral is low maintenance, requiring little energy and water. You just water the top once a week.  Research says after a year when everything is established, you can just rely on the rain.

Happy planting!

Useful Links:

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Naturalist Fact: Scarlet Snake

Scarlet-Snake-3

The Scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea) is an elusive snake, rarely found by humans.  This species is quite slender and reaches a maximum length of about thirty inches.  These snakes always have wide red bands separated by yellow or white bands which are bordered with black.   The bands do not encircle the entire body, leaving the belly of these snakes white or cream-colored.  Often mistaken for a venomous look-alike, the coral snake, there are some morphological differences that can help to distinguish between the two.  Firstly, the red bands do not touch the white or yellow bands, as they do in the coral snake.  Scarlet snakes also have a pointed snout that is red, while coral snakes have a black-tipped snout.

Scarlet Snakes are the only snake species on Little St. Simons Island that is considered nocturnal, which is usually the only time they are observed moving on the surface of the soil or substrate.  These snakes are semi-fossorial, spending most of their time underground.  Occasionally Scarlet Snakes are found in or under logs, boards, tin, rocks, or leaf litter.  The pointed snout and slender body allows them to burrow through dry, loamy, and sandy soils.  These snakes are most commonly found in habitats where this sandy and well-drained soil is predominant, such as pine flatlands, dry prairies, maritime hardwood forests, and sweetgrass prairies.  Scarlet Snakes are found from Southern New Jersey, south to Southern Florida, and West to East Texas.

Reptile eggs make up the majority of the Scarlet Snakes’ diet, but they may also prey on lizards, small snakes, or frogs.  If an egg is too large for a Scarlet Snake to swallow whole, they may break it open with specialized enlarged teeth before swallowing it.  Very little is known about Scarlet Snake reproduction due to the secretive nature and burrowing habits.  In early summer (typically June), female snakes will generally lay 3-9 elongated and leathery eggs underground (1-13/8” long).  The young are about 6 inches long when they hatch in late summer, and closely resemble adult snakes in coloration.

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Prescribed Burn, February 2014

IMG_9957

Prescribed burn in wax myrtle/sweet grass habitat. (Photo: Laura Early)

Fire is an important ecological management tool for a variety of habitats, returning nutrients to the soil and reducing woody vegetation and shrubs. Last week, we conducted a prescribed burn in the maritime shrub and grassland habitat between the beach, Bass Creek Road and Beach Road. With the help of local biologists from the local non-game division of Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Jekyll Island Authority, and the St. Simons Land Trust, the island maintenance staff and ecological management team ignited and controlled a low-burning fire on Tuesday, February 18th to prevent woody vegetation from encroaching on open grassy areas.

Scott Coleman, Ecological Manager igniting broomsedge. (Photo: Laura Early)

Scott Coleman, Ecological Manager igniting broomsedge. (Photo: Laura Early)

This ecosystem adjacent to the beach dunes is dominated by wax myrtles (Myrica cerifera) and Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), and left to its own devices, the wax myrtles would continue to recruit eventually closing out the open habitat where the grasses thrive. This burn did not reach an intensity that would take back large established wax myrtle shrubs, but it will reduce wax myrtle cover by preventing young seedlings and saplings from taking hold. The balance of open grassy areas and cover provided by the wax myrtles provide excellent habitat for a variety of species, including the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coachwhips, kingsnakes, small rodents, painted buntings, chuck-wills widows, island glass lizards and marsh rabbits.

Other plants that make up this community include: broomsedge (Andropogon spp.), dog-fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), flat-topped goldenrod (Euthammia tenuifolia), groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia), and pepper-vine (Ampelopsis arborea).

The day after the fire, herbaceous vegetation had been cleared out. (Photo: Laura Early)

The day after the fire, herbaceous vegetation had been cleared out. (Photo: Laura Early)

Over the next couple of weeks and months, we will start to see new growth in the burned areas, and will continue to monitor the burned plot. Another plant community that benefits from fire is the slash pine forest on the southern part of the island, and if conditions are suitable, we hope to burn there this season as well.

Ten days after the burn, the grasses are already showing new growth! (Photo: Willy Hazlehurst)

Ten days after the burn, the grasses are already showing new growth! (Photo: Willy Hazlehurst)

 

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Naturalist Fact: Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Photo Credit: Birds & Blooms

Photo Credit: Birds & Blooms

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird or bee based on the moth’s appearance and behavior. Adult coloration is variable, but a “furry” olive green and burgundy back is common. Its underside is light yellow or white on the thorax, and burgundy on abdomen. The wingspan is 1.6 to 2.2 inches, and the wings always have a dark reddish border with a transparent center. These moths have fast wingbeats, and hovers while collecting nectar with a long feeding tube from flowers.

During its four weeks as a caterpillar, it feeds mostly on honeysuckle, cherry trees, and hawthorns. As a moth, it feeds on a variety of flowers. These moths feed during the day, which is another factor to their mistaken identity. In the southeast, there are two broods with most activity during the summer months.  The largest population of Hummingbird Clearwing Moths is along the east coast ranging from Florida to Maine. A west coast population ranges from Alaska to Oregon.

 

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Naturalist Fact: Alligator Gar

 

http://www.thealexandriazoo.com/mAllAnimals.html

http://www.thealexandriazoo.com/mAllAnimals.html

 

Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) are a true prehistoric creature that have remained a hearty predator for millions of years. They have been compared with the earliest terrestrial tetrapods which evolved from the ocean during the late Devonian period. Alligator gar are the largest species in the Gar family (Lepisosteidae), reaching up to 400 pounds and 12 feet in length! The rostrum, or mouth of an alligator gar is short and broad with two rows of extremely sharp alligator-like teeth on the upper jaw, unlike other species of gar which contain one row of teeth. These fish have an elongated body with a single dorsal and anal fin posterior near the heterocercal (rounded) caudal fin. A thick row of nonoverlapping and diamond shaped ganoid scales cover the body, acting as an armor layer to protect from predation. Alligator gar are generally dark olive-brown in color, with dark brown fins and a yellow belly. It is easy to spot gar in a body of water because they contain a lung-like gas bladder which they inflate by taking in gulps of atmospheric oxygen from the water surface! This allows them to reach various levels of the water column by inflating and burping out gas from their gas bladder.

It is common to find alligator gar in slow-moving pools and creeks extended from larger rivers, bayous, lakes, and swamps—mainly in the Mississippi Delta. Alligator gar are mainly piscivores, or consumers of fish, but also eat snakes, small mammals, turtles, and birds. Females generally lay 138,000 eggs which cling to vegetation or rocky substrate in which two or three males will fertilize simultaneously. Females can also live up to 50 years, while males only live up to 25 years old!

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Naturalist Fact: Northern Gannet

Naturalist Fact

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

northern gannet

The Northern Gannet is a large seabird, and the largest member of the gannet family.  These birds have long, slender, black-tipped wings with wingspans reaching about 70 inches from tip to tip.  Adult birds have yellowish heads and all white bodies (pictured above) while immature gannets are very dark with white spots.  It can take three or more years to attain full adult plumage.

Gannets are well known for their spectacular feeding behavior, which includes aerial plunges from heights up to 130 feet above the water.  Just before entering the water, the wings are pulled behind the back to help to bird penetrate deeper into the water. Once underwater, the gannets will then use their feet and wings to propel themselves further in pursuit of prey.   Most dives are relatively shallow but dives to depths of 72 feet have been observed.  Small, schooling fishes are the most common prey, but gannets will also opportunistically take squid as well.

These impressive predators are colonial breeders, nesting only on the rocky cliffs of offshore islands during the summer.  There are just six colonies of breeding gannets in North America; three colonies exist in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Quebec), and three off the coast of Newfoundland.  Large nests are constructed of compacted mud, seaweed, grass, and feathers, with excrement being used as cement.  One pale bluish-green egg is laid each nesting season, and chicks are nearly bare when newly hatched.

Winters are spent entirely at sea, and these birds can be seen diving off the beach at Little St. Simons Island in search of prey.  A spotting scope or binoculars may be necessary to observe them as they typically stay far offshore, but on occasion they can be seen within 100 yards of the beach.

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Here comes the sun… and the cold

The budding green in the ground is perking up to the sun as it slowly returns to our hemisphere, but the cold of winter is surely upon us. The Polar Vortex and “Snowpocalypse” that gripped the southeast stretched its icy fingers to the coast and brought frigid temperatures to the Little St. Simon’s garden. Our aloe plants, some lemongrass and a favorite pineapple sage have all gone indoors for the season, and we’ve been tucking in our garden beds nights it dips below freezing.

Here are some tips to protect your plants from cold weather:
  1. Harvest.  Before a light frost, take tender herbs, vegetables and fruits to the kitchen. Spinach gets picked when we know the temperatures will dip below 32.  The peppers go, too. We harvested all the lemons left on the Meyers in early January when temperatures dipped into the 20’s.
  1. Cover-up.  Many tender veggies can be left in place if you put a blanket over them.  Our lettuce and chard beds stay tucked in tight with frost cloth. It’s light and water permeable, so it can be left in place for days.  Old sheets work well, too. Just be sure to take them off so your plants can see the light of day.
  1. Insulate.  Mulch your beds or rows with compost, straw or other organic matter.  Do it after the frost to prevent heaving—the contraction of soil as it freezes and thaws which can move your plants up and out of their soil beds to expose their roots. You can also insulate the trunk of vulnerable trees. Polyurethane wrapped around the graft of some of our citrus trees keeps their most vulnerable part protected.  You can also do this with soil, too; it’s called soil banking (and more on citrus protection). Mound the soil up the trunk above the graft union. Do this before the freeze, and remove the soil when temps begin to warm again to prevent disease and pest problems. 
  1. Water. A generous watering before a light frost can help retain some of the day’s heat. But don’t do this before a hard freeze—four consecutive hours of temps below 25.
  1. Plan and plant what’s hardy in your region. Consult a planting calendar for your hardiness zone. In coastal Georgia, Brassicas produce all winter. And generally, carrots, garlic, leeks, parsnips, radishes and turnips can all survive a hard freeze. 
 
Helpful links:
 

Predicting Frost: http://www.almanac.com/blog/editors-musings/blog-how-predict-frost

Citrus Protection: http://www.seminolecountyfl.gov/extensionservices/adults/horticulture/english/article480.aspx;
http://farmerfredrant.blogspot.com/2010/11/citrus-protection-in-frost-or-freeze.html

 

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Greetings from the garden!

A new year is a new beginning. The stuff of last year gets turned into the ground to become fodder for this year’s pursuits, to become the nutriment for new ideas and dreams to take seed and fruit. I’ve recently come “ashore” here on Little St. Simons Island to tend the gardens. I bring with me the experience of growing food in a community more inland in Jesup, Georgia. I also carry the knowledge of my teachers who have guided my hands in their gardens and farmsteads, and in my own soil by their spoken wisdom.  However, nature is the greatest teacher when you’re working with the land, and that knowledge is so particular to place. I’ve much to learn from this island as I work with it to create nourishment for you all when you come to visit.
My! Has the year gotten off to a chilly start.  The sun is returning, providing much appreciated light to the new greens in the ground, but winter is truly upon us.  The island was no refuge from the Polar Vortex that swept in bringing frigid temperatures that dipped to 27!   We had to tuck in our lettuce beds and harvest the remaining citrus fruit. The blustery winds blew the covers off of the trees, but luckily the most vulnerable among them was insulated at the trunk. The freeze zapped the pomegranate leaves to brown and shriveled, but new green growth emerged from the branches just a week later when temps rose into the 70’s again. 
So it goes with maritime winters; the temperatures flail wildly. But as the sun continues to fill the day-sky, the land will warm again and we’ll be planting for Spring.  Look for an array of salad and cooked greens to accompany our new menu selections.  We’ll be growing plenty of fresh herbs for Chef Charles to simmer into delectable sauces— beurre-blanc with a spurt of lemons from our recent harvest for his infamous crab cakes and a delicious mint sauce on seasoned rack of lamb. That’s a just a little taste to stir your senses for what’s to come.
Here’s to a good year and a bountiful harvest,
Melissa Stiers
Gardener, LSSI

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