Black Skimmers nest on North Main Beach

Black Skimmers ward off possible threats to their colony.

We are nearing the end of the summer and the end of nesting season for our shorebirds. However, the Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) have set up a pretty sizable colony on the northern tip of our beach, near Sancho Panza Creek. We estimate over 75 nests in the colony so far!

There are several beach-nesting birds that congregate in colonies including some gulls, terns, and the Black Skimmers. By laying nests at the same time in the same area, each nesting pair is reducing its chances of having their nest lost in the event that a predator comes in. Also, the Black Skimmers can become aggressive when defending their colony against outside threats.

However, if a predator like a raccoon (which frequent our beaches) were to discover the colony, they could wipe out the entire colony in just a few nights. This year, we are employing a new management strategy–electric fencing.

On June 21, we set up the first stretches of electric fencing around ten nests. With two separate areas fenced in, one was electrified and one was not. A few weeks later, the colony had expanded with nest “scrapes” spread over a much larger area.

Skimmer chick runs to its parent.

In mid July, we encompassed all of the scrapes and nests we had found with the electrified fence and haven’t seen any signs of predation by raccoons or other mammalian predators since.

 

The chicks and eggs are very well camouflaged!

 

 

Some of the earliest laid nests have begun to hatch, and there are several chicks running around within the colony. The chicks are still susceptible to predators, and as they start to move around we are worried they might venture outside the protection of the fence. After talking with members of our Ecological Advisory Board who suggested the chicks might move around in search of shade, we erected some temporary shade shelters within the colony.

Shade structures within the colony should prevent discourage chicks from leaving the fence.

We will continue to monitor the colony, and hopefully the Black Skimmers will continue their success!

 

 

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Naturalist Fact: Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Herons can be found year-round at Little St. Simons Island. These mid-sized wading birds received their name because they are most active during the evening hours, but they can be seen during the day as well. Black-crowned Night Herons are most easily recognized by their piercing red eyes, yellow legs, and black crown. To distinguish them from a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, note that Yellow-crowned Night Herons have a white or yellow crown, not black.

It is suspected that Black-crowned Night Herons forage at night because they are outcompeted in the daytime hours by larger wading birds. While they eat mostly fish, they have developed another interesting hunting strategy: they have been known to nest in the same sites as other herons and egrets, using their protection during the day, and preying upon the other nests at night. This picture was taken early one morning in the rookery at Norm’s Pond—it seems as though this Black-crowned Night Heron is demonstrating this fascinating behavior!

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Bat sampling on Little St. Simons Island

Little St. Simons Island, along with being a secluded retreat and fantastic place to experience nature on the Georgia coast, is also a living laboratory. Throughout the year, we host several wildlife biologists working on a variety of projects.

DNR bat biologist, Trina Morris, shares ANABAT technology with our guests. This handheld device brings the bats' echolocation sounds to a frequency that we can hear.

This spring and summer, University of Georgia graduate student Craig Bland is studying roosting habitat preference of the northern yellow bat (Lasiurus intermedius). The northern yellow bat is a foliage-roosting bat, often concealing itself in Spanish moss during the daylight hours. However, this bat is fairly uncommon and little is known about its natural history.

Craig and his team are fixing miniature radio transmitters to Northern yellow bats caught here on Little St. Simons Island and Sapelo Island just to the north. Then, during the day they locate the bats’ roosting location using radio telemetry. By analyzing the characteristics of the roosting sites, the team hopes to get a better understanding of their habitat needs.

Bronson retrieves a bat from the net stretched across the pool.

Last week Craig, one of his technicians Bronson Curry, and Georgia DNR biologist Trina Morris set up mist nests across the swimming pool. Bats frequent this area in the evenings, chasing insects and swooping down for a drink of water. Just after the sun went down, we began to see bats flitting and darting overhead, most cleverly avoiding the nets. However, the bats began to get tangled in the nets, and by the end of the night, a total of 72 bats had been caught!

 

The northern yellow bat with its band and transmitter, ready to be released.

Out of these 72 bats, only one was a northern yellow bat! The large (second largest bat in Georgia to the Seminole) blonde-haired beauty flew into the net at 11:45 pm. He was successfully equipped with a transmitter and located again this morning just outside of the main compound. All the other bats caught were Seminole bats (Lasiurus seminolus) and evening bats (Nycticeius humeralis).

Before Craig started mist netting for this study, there were only two other documentations of the northern yellow bat on LSSI—one in May 2010 and the second in August 2011. To read more about those sightings and mist netting, check out this previous blog post.

A bat's wing is similar to the human hand with a membrane streched between the fingers and forearm.

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Nature, art, and conservation

Seaside Goldenrod hangs in our small dining room.

This spring, we have had the incredible opportunity to have Philip Juras and his wife Beth Gavrilles here at Little St. Simons Island. Philip is a landscape painter whose work has largely been inspired by the journals kept by William Bartram as he traveled through the Southeast in the 1770’s. Bartram, one of the first American-born naturalists, kept detailed notes and drawings, painting a picture in words of a very different landscape than what we see today across the Southeast.

With Philip’s understanding of botany and ecology and his artist’s eye, he went in search of the landscapes Bartram had so eloquently described. Much has changed across the Southeast since the late eighteenth century, so it wasn’t necessarily the case that Bartram’s guidance led Philip directly to his points of interest. In some cases, Bartram’s landscapes had been lost entirely, and Philip had to recreate them from the descriptions in the journals and his own research. In doing so, Philip has reinvented a panorama of the South, before it was divided, cultivated, manipulated by European settlement.

In 2011, a collection of 68 paintings was displayed in The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by Bartram’s Travels exhibition at the Telfair Museums in Savannah.

Over the past year, Philip has continued his work in oil, painting the vistas of Little St. Simons Island, vistas that Philip claims are “some of the most amazing natural landscapes to be found on any barrier island along the Atlantic seaboard.” Field research has occupied much of the time he has spent on the island, but this spring, we have turned the barn into a gallery, decorating the walls with the familiar, yet brilliant scenes that Philip has captured with his brush, and we have had the opportunity to hear Philip speak more about his work and his passion.

While the paintings in themselves are remarkable, the message behind them is not to be overlooked. “It is my intent in these compositions to give a sense of stepping into the scene, thereby sharing with the viewer my passion for these natural environments and my desire to see more places like Little St. Simons Island preserved for the future.”

Philip’s style resembles that of Hudson River School painters Albert Bierdstat and Thomas Moran, who depicted glorious scenes from the Western Fronteir, work that in Philip’s mind helped to create a sense of wonder and awe regarding these landscapes that led to protection through national parks. If the early colonizers had seen the South through Bartram’s eyes, would we be experiencing a different landscape than those that blanket the South today?

For many, nature inspires art, and for some art inspires conservation. Either way (or both), we are truly glad to have Philip share his work with us!

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Meet our new naturalist!

Laura Early grew up in the upstate of South Carolina, exploring and discovering all that was around her. Her family frequently visited the Carolinas’ beautiful coastline, which inevitably lead to her falling in love with the ocean. With a very curious mind, science has always been “way cool!” to her.

While completing her B.S. in Biology at Clemson University, she fed her love of travel by studying in the Rocky Mountains, the Caribbean island of Dominica, and India. She also spent a summer working with the sea turtle program at Cumberland Island National Seashore. Experiencing a female loggerhead sea turtle lay a nest of over 100 eggs was one of those moments where you realize that some pretty amazing things are happening in the ocean. She realized that in order to conserve such wonderful and important things as natural spaces, people need to feel that same awe and inspiration that she felt while watching that sea turtle.

Laura is always looking for an adventure, and since graduating has worked with University of Florida’s Wildlife Ecology team, as an outdoor education instructor for Clemson’s Youth Learning Institute, and most recently with the nonprofit Sanibel Sea School. At Sanibel Sea School, she led children in exploring and learning about all that was around them by snorkeling, seining, canoeing, bird-watching, and beachcombing. She also worked to spread Sanibel Sea School’s reach to a wider audience through social media outlets.

Here at Little St. Simons Island, she is excited to embark on many more adventures of discovery, and share that excitement with everyone she can!

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Butterflies growing in the garden

Here at Little St. Simons Island, we take pride in all the organics that our on-site garden produces. Sometimes, we even get excited about the pests!

This Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) hatched out of a chrysalis found in our garden. The pale green chrysalis hung by a thread on a stem. We relocated it to a mesh enclosure in the lodge to wait for the adult to emerge. Sure enough, a few days later, the black butterfly clung to the mesh with wet folded wings. Within a few hours, the wings had dried out and were fully extended to about 3 inches across, and he flew freely back out into the wild.

The Black Swallowtail has black wings parallel bands of yellow spots along the margins on its wings. In between the bands of yellow are shorter bands of blue that end at a red eyespot on each wing.

The females will lay their eggs on members of the parsley family (carrots, fennel, dill) and the caterpillars will hatch out, munch on their host plant while they grow and molt. When they are ready to form their chrysalis, they usually wander a bit from their feeding grounds.

We have an abundance of Black Swallowtail larvae, sometimes called parsley worms, on the parsley in our garden right now. As you might imagine, Black Swallowtails are fairly easy to attract by planting some parsley in your garden. And of course, it is always a beautiful surprise to see the adult butterfly emerge from the lifeless-looking chrysalis!

Some other butterflies that have been spotted this spring include the Cabbage Whites, Red Admirals, Monarchs, and many more that are soon to follow!

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It’s nesting time… with a special guest appearance!

Male (dark neck) and female (tan neck) Anhingas at Norm's Pond.

For the past couple of years, wading birds have set up a rookery at Norm’s Pond. This year the usual suspects in their stunning breeding plumage have already shown up.  There are at least four pairs of  Great Egrets who have already nested and are incubating their sky-blue eggs. The Snowy Egrets are in putting on a great show of courtship as they pick their mates. There are also some Tricolored Heron’s hopping about the branches.

The ones that have really gotten everyone talking are the Anhingas! Similar in appearance and ecology to the Double-crested Cormorant that is common here, the Anhinga is a rare visitor to our island. The Anhinga’s range extends from the coast of North Carolina through Texas. They prefer slow-moving freshwater habitats, presumably why we don’t see too many on Little St. Simons Island.

Like the Cormorant, the Anhinga is a dark water bird with a long slender neck. However, the Anhinga has a sharply pointed bill, and whitish/silver feathers on the top of its wings. When in their breeding plumage (like the ones at Norm’s Pond shown in the pictures) they have a brilliant blueish green ring around their eye.

Anhingas nest in small trees or shrubs near the water, and the male begins gathering nesting material before it has a mate. The pair at Norm’s Pond has a nest built, and we eagerly await the eggs, and about a month later, the chicks!

For more information on Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Fall Birding Days

Fall migration has begun!  We’ve started to see many shorebirds returning to the beaches.  Some, like the American Oystercatchers, may spend the whole winter with us.  Other species may only spend a short period of time before continuing to move south.  The earliest of our migrating warblers have started to appear as well.  Yesterday several of us were treated to a flashy presentation by a male Redstart.  To celebrate the migration season, we are excited to announce our Fall Birding Days.  Every fall and spring, we invite all birding enthusiasts to join us on the island for several days focused primarily on migration and birding. 

This season we are hosting several great guest ornithologists, including Giff Beaton and Dr. Bob Cooper.  Giff is an avid birder from the Atlanta area, and has a gift for making confusing fall warblers much less confusing.  Going out  in the field with Giff will be an educational and fun opportunity.  Dr. Cooper will be on the island at the beginning of the week and we are looking forward to his interesting talks after dinner.  The dates for our Fall Birding Days are September 26th – October 6th and we encourage any interested birders to call our reservationists soon at (888) 733 – 5774.

If you are more interested in the Spring migrants we have set aside April 11th-19th to celebrate the northern migration.  We will have a variety of exciting guest ornithologists in the spring, including Scott Weidensaul.  Scott is a fantastic speaker and author.  He’s written quite a few compelling books including Living on the Wind and The Ghost with Trembling Wings.  We will keep you updated as we line up more of our guest speakers for the spring!

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Northern Yellow Bat on Little St. Simons Island

Last month while hosting cocktail hour some of our guests reported an injured bat at the pool.  We went to the pool to look for the bat and found it hanging on the pools’ gate. We watched it fly up into a clump of Spanish moss and at a quick glance- considering its size and coloration, my immediate reaction was “Yellow Bat!”After quickly explaining the significance of potentially finding a Northern Yellow Bat, my very enthusiastic guest companions helped me photograph it. I sent the pictures to Georgia’s Non-Game DNR Bat Biologist, Trina Morris and she confirmed that it was indeed a Yellow Bat! This is a significant find considering that it is only our second documentation of a Yellow Bat on Little St. Simons Island.  The first documentation was in May 2010 when GA Non-Game DNR captured one in a mist net.

Northern Yellow Bat (Lasiurus intermedius) in the Spanish moss. August 2011.

Northern Yellow Bat May 2010

Little is known about Yellow Bats in Georgia and biologists are working to obtain more information. The Yellow Bat is known to use Spanish moss as a roosting location. Biologists believe that their preferred habitat is old growth maritime forest, which has the highest density of Spanish moss, and hope that more data about the species may be gathered by mist netting on LSSI and Georgia’s other barrier islands.  Mist netting is a way to capture bats in an effort to determine local species diversity, population size and health. A large nylon net is raised, usually over a small area of fresh water, using a pulley system on two metal poles. When the bats fly over the water to drink the idea is for them to get entangled in the net. Nets are periodically checked by biologists for bats, when a bat is caught, the net is lowered and the bat is carefully removed. Species, weight, sex, gestational stage (if pregnant or lactating), and an age estimate are some information gathered when bats are in hand. We are looking forward to working more Nongame DNR on surveys and research on the island and hope that through this we are able to learn more about the Northern Yellow Bat in coastal Georgia.

Bats are fascinating and especially valuable in helping to control insect populations. Bats should be given the same respect as other wild animals and should only be handled by professionals. If you find a bat that you believe is injured in your home or yard, please contact a wildlife professional for help. If a seemingly healthy bat finds itself trapped in your home try opening your doors and windows to provide an escape route. Like other wild mammals never pick up a bat. Thank you to the Odea Family who were so helpful in reporting and photographing the Yellow Bat!

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A rare visitor…

Several days ago I set out with a small group of guests for what I expected would be a routine day of seining and surf fishing. While I pulled the seine net along the shoreline, I expected to bring in an assortment of small fish, crabs, and marine invertebrates.  I was hoping for something special like a bonnethead shark or a large redfish. The last thing I expected to hear when I finally dragged the net ashore were shouts of  “A turtle! A turtle!”

Sure enough, a small juvenile sea turtle was kicking and straining against the net. He was only slightly larger than a dinner plate, making him just a few years old (Loggerhead Sea Turtles can take up to 35 years to reach maturity). Everyone enjoyed an up close look at the very surprised turtle, and I quickly returned it to the water, where it rapidly swam back to deeper water.

Juvenile sea turtles of several species routinely visit Georgia’s inshore waters during the warmer months, foraging in our nutrient rich creeks, rivers, and shoals. It therefore wasn’t a complete shock to find one so close to the beach, but it was still unusual – turtles typically would be expected to shy away from such a slow moving net, and in fact, this was the first time one had been captured in years of seining on Little St Simons Island.

So imagine my surprise when, just a few days later, on another seining excursion, the net was hauled in to reveal another juvenile sea turtle! On closer inspection, it turned out to be the same individual. By now ‘puzzled’ and ‘concerned’ joined ‘surprised’ on the list of emotions running through my head.  Catching the same turtle twice in a short period of time didn’t strike me as a promising sign. A closer look at the turtle revealed several scrapes and cuts on the shell, some of which were still lightly bleeding. I also made a discovery that had escaped my notice the first time around. In my haste to return the turtle to the water, I’d completely overlooked that the little guy was no loggerhead at all, but a rare Kemp’s Ridley.

The Kemp’s Ridley may be the rarest sea turtle in the world. It certainly has the most restricted nesting range – until recently, just a single beach on the Gulf coast of Mexico. As recently as the mid-20th century, they nested in spectacular events called arribadas (Spanish for “arrival”), where thousands of turtles would simultaneously nest in broad daylight. However, as word of the location of the nesting sites spread, poaching of eggs and adults took a toll, leaving as few as 200 adults nesting a year – down from as many as 42,000 in a single day in 1947! Now, the population is slowly recovering, with around 8,000 nests per year.

Unlike our more familiar loggerheads, the Kemp’s Ridley is not know to nest in Georgia, though a handful of nests have been recorded in the Carolinas and Atlantic coast of Florida. The vast majority of the population may never leave the Gulf of Mexico. However, juveniles will often get carried by offshore currents out of the Gulf and into the Gulf Stream, where they arrive in Georgia’s nearshore waters. These young individuals will stay in our area for some time, feeding on crabs and other marine life before returning to Mexico to breed.

Given the condition of the individual in our hands and the overall rarity of the species, we decided to take no chances with its health. Fortunately, nearby Jekyll Island is home to a state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital and research institute. After a couple phone calls, the staff of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center arranged to meet us on St. Simons to take the turtle to their facility. After quick truck and boat rides, the turtle was soon in the capable hands of the Turtle Center.

At last report, the turtle was doing well and seemed to be in good health. He was eating readily and soon should be ready to be returned to the ocean. We’ll keep everybody updated on his status as we hear more from Jekyll!

Photos courtesy of Robin Lacey

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