Naturalist Fact: White Peacock

White Peacock butterfly

White Peacock butterfly

The White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae) is a tropical butterfly that can be spotted in southern Florida and southern Texas year-round and along the Georgia and South Carolina coast as a stray. However, we have been spotting several on Little St. Simons Island this fall.

This butterfly prefers open habitats like roadsides, gardens and fields. On Little St. Simons, we have been spotting them along Beach Road, near the gazebo, and in the inter-dune meadows. The adults will nectar on many of the flowers in fall bloom, and lay their eggs on Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) and water hyssop (Bacopa monieri).

White Peacock caterpillar

White Peacock caterpillar

When butterflies lay eggs in late summer or fall, sometimes the eggs will overwinter on the plant, and hatch in the spring with the new foliage growth. Since butterfly eggs usually only take 3-10 days to hatch, eggs laid here in October probably have time to hatch and feed before temperatures drop too low. Another adaptation for fall caterpillars is to form a chrysalis, but not emerge until spring.

The White Peacock has a wingspan of about two to three inches, and can be recognized by silvery white wings with an orange-brown border. Each forewing has a single round black spot, in addition to two black round spots on each hind wing.

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Naturalist Fact: Long-billed Curlew

Michael Libbe, www.allaboutbirds.org

Michael Libbe, www.allaboutbirds.org

The Long-billed Curlew is North America’s largest shorebird, and is easily identifiable by its extremely long, down-curved bill. This sandpiper is buffy brown with a cinnamon color under the wings, and has a wingspan of 24-35 inches. Females have a longer bill than males that is flatter on top, with a more noticeable curve at the tip. Their long bill allows them to forage deep into the ground for earthworms in grassland habitats, and shrimp and crabs on mudflats and beaches. These birds are known to peck at the ground surface as well for grasshoppers, beetles, and spiders.

Pesticide spraying may harm birds by reducing grasshopper populations. Also, habitat loss is a continuing threat due to development and effects of climate change. California wetlands have declined by 90%, and are an essential wintering ground for Long-billed Curlews.

Long-billed Curlews spend summers breeding in the Great Plains and Great Basin on grasslands and agricultural fields. Nests are a shallow depression in the ground that can be lined with grass, pebbles, twigs, and bark. Clutch size is four eggs, and their incubation period is 27-31 days. Young are born precocial, and are able to walk and leave the nest 5 hours after hatching. Chicks are able to fly after 45 days.

During the non-breeding season, Long-billed Curlews migrate to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and interior Mexico. In Georgia, they can be found wintering on barrier islands, including Little St. Simons Island. Sandy beaches and tidal mudflats with very little human disturbance are the best locations for spotting these sandpipers.

Luke Seitz, www.allaboutbirds.org

Luke Seitz, www.allaboutbirds.org

 

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Naturalist Fact: Leatherback Sea Turtle

Adult leatherback. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

Adult leatherback. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, and in terms of weight is the largest reptile on the planet as well. This impressive animal can reach 6 feet in length and weigh 900-1,000 pounds, with the largest leatherback ever recorded tipping the scale at over 2,000 pounds.

While the most common nesting sea turtle on the Georgia coast is the loggerhead, leatherbacks have nested on nearby islands a few times over the years. Blackbeard, Cumberland, Jekyll, Ossabaw, Sea Island, St. Catherines, St. Simons, and Sapelo have all had leatherback nests in the past five years.

To add to their list of superlatives, leatherbacks are the most widely ranging sea turtle in the world. Leatherbacks’ major nesting sites are in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, southeastern Asia, and the South Pacific Islands, but their migrations can take them over 3,000 miles from their nesting grounds each year.

Leatherback hatchling. Photo: Laura Early

Leatherback hatchling. Photo: Laura Early

The leatherback’s diet consists mainly of jellyfish and other soft-bodied invertebrates, and because of special adaptations, leatherbacks are able to follow their food sources into much more frigid waters than other turtles are able to tolerate. A countercurrent heat exchange system and layers of fat help leatherbacks retain a warmer body temperature in cold waters. Special adaptations in their lungs also enable leatherbacks to dive deeper than any other turtle and most marine mammals—as deep as 4,000 feet, and these dives can last for up to 85 minutes.

The unique nature of their carapace also helps the leatherback complete these long, deep dives. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback’s ribs and vertebrae are not fused to create a rigid shell, but instead are integrated into a cartilaginous layer. The layer of skin covering the matrix of bones and cartilage gives the turtle flexibility, hydrodynamics and protection in addition to its common name.

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Naturalist Fact: Orchard Spider

orchard spider 2

Orchard spiders are very common on Little St. Simons Island.  You can often see them in the maritime forest, but these successful spiders don’t just thrive in Georgia’s humid heat.  Orchard spiders have an extensive range from southern Canada to central America.  Orchard spiders (genus Leucauge) are in the family Tetragnathidae, which also includes the common long-jawed orb weavers (genus Tetragnatha).  Both the orchard spiders and the common long-jawed orb weavers are considered long-jawed orb weavers and are distinguished from true orb weaver spiders by their long chelicerae (fangs).  Like the true orb weaver spiders, orchard spiders create webs which are in the shape of a circular grid.  All spiders in the Tetragnathidae family have eight eyes, and typically do not exceed one inch across.  Male spiders are usually about half the size of the females.

Although orchard spiders are in the long-jawed orb weaver family, they more closely resemble true orb weaver spiders (family Araneidae) than the species in the common long-jawed orb weaver genus (Tetragnatha).  Orchard spiders usually build webs only a few feet from the ground, and most webs are horizontal in orientation.  The spiders are typically seen hanging upside-down in the middle of their webs while waiting for prey to land in the web.  Webs are built in strategic locations to catch flies, moths, and other insects.  Birds and other small animals may predate on orchard spiders.

Although there is some variation in coloration for each species of orchard spider, most have bright coloration on their abdomen, and many have dark green to black legs.  Leucauge venusta is the most easily identifiable orchard spider in our area.  This species is easily seen on Little St. Simons Island and usually have orange markings on the underside of their abdomen.  A hike on backbone trail on LSSI may produce many opportunities to observe these beautiful little creatures.  Although a small spider, they can usually be photographed with relative ease because they often remain quite still hanging on their web.

Cool Fact:  This species is parasitized by a wasp larva which attaches to the spider at the junction of the cephalothorax and the abdomen!

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Naturalist Fact: Reddish Egret

Photo from Animalspot.net.

Photo from Animalspot.net.


©William Newton

©William Newton


Reddish egrets are large wading birds that can be found on Little St. Simons beaches during the Summer. When identifying a reddish egret, make sure to account for the two different color morphs: one has a slate blue-ish gray body with a rufous ruff around the neck and head, while the other is pure white. Both are pictured above, and you might notice that in both cases, the bill turns from pink to black—a characteristic that sets them apart from other white herons. To that end, here’s a fun fact: all egrets are herons, but not all herons are egrets. The word “egret” refers only to the white herons; it’s derived from the French word “aigrette”, which translates to “silver heron” and “brush”, in reference to their beautiful wispy breeding plumes. Those same lovely feathers were prized for women’s hats at the turn of the 20th Century, leading to their extirpation from the United States. Luckily, with the enactment of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, reddish egrets received Federal protection. Today, their numbers are increasing, yet they still haven’t fully recovered; this time, habitat loss is to blame. As coastal specialists, reddish egrets need protected lands such as Little St. Simons.

To find a reddish egret on Little St. Simons, check Sancho Panza during the early morning and late evening hours. If you do spot a reddish egret, be sure to stop and watch! Reddish egrets are extremely active hunters, and their unique style sets them apart from their heron cousins. When in pursuit of a fish, reddish egrets will flap their wings to reduce glare on the water and give chase, rendering what looks exactly like a “dance”!

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Naturalist Fact: Lemon Shark

Lemon sharks are one of the most common shark species in the waters surrounding LSSI. (photo: Albert Kok)

Lemon sharks are one of the most common shark species in the waters surrounding LSSI. (photo: Albert Kok)

Negaprion brevirostris are known as lemon sharks because of their light brown to yellowish skin, which helps them blend in with the sandy ocean bottoms. Although identifying sharks is often difficult, lemon sharks are fairly easy due to their coloration and the fact that their two dorsal fins (top fins) are about the same size, unlike most sharks. They also have a blunt snout, flattened head and stocky body. These sharks grow to a maximum length of about 11 feet and weight of over 400 pounds.

Lemon sharks live in shallow waters preying upon bony fish, rays, and sometimes crustaceans. Females give birth at about 6-7 years of age from April through September. There are 4-17 pups in each litter, and the pups are 24-26 inches long at birth. The lifespan of lemon sharks is estimated at about 25 years. Lemon sharks do well in captivity and experiments on lemon sharks have shown they learn as quickly as some mammals and remember things for at least 6 months without reinforcement. This is a very social shark species. They are often seen in groups and have a structured hierarchy system based on size and sex. They generally don’t show any aggressive behavior with each other and coordinate in groups for hunting purposes in places that the hierarchy is strictly followed.

Although lemon sharks are among the world’s largest shark species, they are rarely dangerous to humans. The International Shark Attack File has only reported 10 unprovoked bites by lemon sharks, none of which were fatal.

The lemon shark is targeted by commercial and recreational fishermen along the US Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Their fins are highly prized and exported to Asia for shark fin soup. Their skin may be used for leather and their meat can also be consumed, all of which make this shark very marketable. There is some concern that populations in the western north Atlantic and eastern Pacific Ocean are declining due to over-fishing.

This is one of the most common shark species in the waters surrounding LSSI. You can catch them in the surf from March to November with heavy tackle and large cut bait. They should be released as quickly as possible once landing them to reduce stress on the fish.

Lemon-shark-(30)

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Naturalist Fact: Red-winged Blackbird

The red and yellow epaulets on the male Red-winged Blackbird give it its name. Photo: Laura Erickson, allaboutbirds.org

The red and yellow epaulets on the male Red-winged Blackbird give it its name. Photo: Laura Erickson, allaboutbirds.org

Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are one of the most abundant native birds in North America and can be found in most parts of the continent. In the winter, these birds feed in open areas on seeds and insects and roost in flocks with thousands of other blackbirds, grackles, and starlings. In the summer, they prefer to nest amongst the vegetation in marshes, wetlands, and sometimes drier fields.

Red-winged Blackbirds nest throughout Georgia, but it is a sure sign of spring when the brightly-colored males start to show up on Little St. Simons to set up their breeding territories. The males arrive first, staking out their territory and guarding it fiercely. It is estimated the male spends at least 25% of the day defending his territory from other males and nest predators.

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Photo: Judy Howle, allaboutbirds.org

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Photo: Judy Howle, allaboutbirds.org

Several females will nest within a single male’s territory. This is called a polygynous mating system. Each female will construct her own nest out of grasses and reeds, weaving it into the stalks of standing grass near the water’s edge. In Georgia, Red-winged Blackbirds attempt two broods each year, the first in early May and the second near the beginning of July. Once hatched, the young take 11-14 days to fledge, during which time both the male and female help in feeding the hungry chicks.

Both male and female Red-winged Blackbirds are a sure sight as you kayak through the marshes around Little St. Simons in the summer months. They can also be spotted at our birdfeeders and any open habitat around the island.

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Naturalist Fact: Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin centrata)

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The only turtle that lives entirely in brackish water is the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin). This turtle is a habitat specialist, restricted to salt marshes, estuaries, and tidal creeks along the eastern and Gulf coasts of the United States. They are among the most variable of North American turtles, having an array of colors and patterns among the seven subspecies. The species is sexually dimorphic in that the males grow to approximately 13 cm, while the females grow to an average of around 19 cm and have a larger head and jaws than males. They also have a variable diet depending on geographic location, but common foods include periwinkle snails, bivalves, crustaceans, crabs, and scavenged fish. They are primarily diurnal and usually spend the night buried in sediment. Juvenile terrapins are rarely encountered. It is unknown what turtles two years old or younger do, as they are almost never seen.

The diamondback terrapin was once a food staple so cheap that 18th-century tidewater slaves protested the amount of terrapin in their diet. In the 19th-century, though, the diamondback made an unfortunate transition from despised staple to gourmet delicacy. Even though the commercial hunt has largely collapsed, these turtles continue to decline due to coastal development, disturbance on their nesting beaches, road mortality of nesting females, boat injuries, and pollution. They continue to drown in large numbers in pot traps designed for crabs. Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey laws require terrapin excluders on crab traps, and some states are considering requiring them. In Georgia the terrapin is considered a “species of concern”.

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Naturalist Fact: Manatee

Manatee (Trichechus manatus)

http://animalscamp.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Florida-Manatee.jpg

From: http://animalscamp.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Florida-Manatee.jpg

Manatees are large aquatic mammals found in warm coastal waters including tidal rivers and estuaries.  Often called “sea cows”, manatees are in fact more closely related to elephants than they are to cows.  Being entirely herbivorous, manatees will eat large amounts both saltwater and freshwater plants.  Manatees only have molars, which are used to grind up the plant matter they ingest.  In just one day a manatee may eat up to a tenth of its bodyweight, and they can be quite heavy.  Individuals are typically 8 to 13 feet in length and will weigh 440 to 1,300 pounds.  The average lifespan of manatees in the wild is 40 years.

 

Manatees prefer warm water, and tend to be found in regions where the water temperature is above 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  These gentle and slow-moving creatures will migrate north along the Atlantic coast during the warm summer months and can be found in the coastal waterways near Little St Simons Island throughout the summer.  Manatees spend most of their time resting and eating, but they can be playful as well.  Like all marine mammals, manatees must breathe air at the surface through nostrils, but can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time.

 

Historically, manatees were often hunted for their hides, oil, and bones.  Being gentle and slow-moving made the manatee an easy target for hunters.  Today manatees are an endangered species, and they are protected by law.  Even with protection, manatees still face a number of threats including boat strikes and entanglement in fishing equipment.  On many individuals scars are visible where a wound from a boat has healed.

 

While it may be tempting to pet manatees or give them freshwater to bring them closer, these actions may negatively affect manatees.  Manatees may begin to associate humans or boats with these actions which can put them at higher risk for boat strikes.  If you do happen to have the exciting experience of seeing a manatee, the best thing to do is simply enjoy watching it interact with its natural environment.

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Naturalist Fact: Cownose Ray

Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus)

Photo from CheseapeakeBay.net

Photo from CheseapeakeBay.net

First things first: despite their common names of “cownose stingray” and “skate”, cownose rays are technically neither! Cownose rays are unique, so they belong to their very own family of rays. However, these interesting-looking ocean-dwellers can still pack a stinging punch, so avoid the venomous barb at the base of the tail. According to legend, Captain John Smith had an encounter with a cownose ray in Virginia, and the location still bears the name “Stingray Point”.

Despite these cautionary tales, cownose rays are known for their passiveness and will only sting when provoked. They are a common site along their shallow Atlantic coast migration path; found as far north as New England and as far south as Brazil. They often travel in large groups, called “schools”, that are formed based on the sex and age of the rays. Since they use their fins for locomotion, these underwater schools resemble flocks of large birds in underwater flight.

Cownose rays typically reach a wingspan of three feet, which comes in handy when they forage. The rays use their large fins to disturb mollusks in the seafloor sediments, and then they crush their prey using powerful dental plates.

On Little St. Simons, look for cownose rays along the edges of Mosquito Creek during a kayaking adventure—sometimes they even raise a fin to “wave”!

Fun Fact: The stinging barb on a cownose ray grows the same way as your finger nails, so the rays you see in “Touch Tanks” at aquariums are regularly clipped for safety.

 

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