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

 

 

 

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Prescribed Burn, February 2014

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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: American Holly

American Holly (Ilex opaca) is an evergreen shrub and tree that grows 10-20 meters tall from Massachusetts to Florida, west to Texas. Holly leaves are a glossy green and range 5-7.5 cm long and 2-4 cm wide. Leaves form in an alternate pattern, and have several sharp points along the edge. Holly “berries” are called drupes, and ripen from a green to a bright red color in the fall. Drupes are poisonous to humans, and will stay on the plant throughout the winter. Small white flowers bloom from April to June. Holly is commonly found in the understory of a forest due to its shade-tolerance.

Many animals use American Holly as a food source including Wild Turkeys, Northern Bobwhite, songbirds, deer, raccoons, Eastern Box Turtle, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and cottontails. Holly trees also provide nesting habitat and shelter for several animals as well. These animals aid holly by spreading its seeds to create more plants.

Around Christmas and the holidays, holly is a very popular decoration, and can be overharvested in more populated areas. This plant is a common landscape species, and often used for hedges. Its wood is used for piano keys, violin pegs, cabinets and handles. Nectar is collected from holly to make honey as well.

Benny J. Simpson, Texas A & M Dallas

Benny J. Simpson, Texas A & M Dallas

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Naturalist Fact: Lichens

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Crustose lichen commonly found on Southern Magnolia trees on LSSI.

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Foliose lichen on a Southern Red Cedar.

frutioselichen

Fruticose lichen on a downed oak branch.

 

Lichens can be found in several habitats across Little St. Simons Island, and they take a variety of forms and colors. Lichens have the ability to survive long dry periods, but after a good soaking rain, they will catch your eye with their bright colors and interesting textures.

Lichens are actually not a plant, but a composite of fungi and a photobiont that behave together as a single organism. The fungus usually provides the structure and facilitates the uptake of water and minerals, while the photobiont generates sugars through photosynthesis. The photobiont is usually a green algae, but can also be a cyanobacteria.  In most cases, the fungus and its photobiont would not exist outside of the lichen association.

Lichens have the ability to grow on soil-less surfaces, and therefore are one of the first colonizers in many plant communities. They are very slow-growing, but can derive most of their water and nutrients from the air and rainfall. On Little St. Simons Island, you can find lichens growing on the smooth bark of Southern Magnolias or Southern Red Cedars. You will also find it colonizing open sandy areas.

Lichens can be divided into three groups based on their morphology. Crustose lichens grow flat against hard surfaces (like a crust), and are the simplest form of lichen. As they grow, they radiate out from the center, so the newest growth is on the perimeter. Foliose lichens grow in a more “leafy” structure, but stay close to the surface they inhabit. Fruticose lichens are more shrub-like, growing on a stalk or exhibiting a highly branching, more complicated structure. On Little St. Simons, you can find lichens that belong to all three of these groups.

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Naturalist Fact: Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia hemifusa)

Prickly pear fruits are ripening in the fall. Almost ready for sorbet!

The prickly pear cactus (also called devil’s tongue and Indian fig) is a native species of cactus found throughout the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. It prefers the well-drained gravel and sandy soils found on the island. They thrive in the open sunlight of early plant succession communities and disturbed areas. These iconic desert plants line Beach Road, Marsh Road, and can also be found on the south end of Little St. Simons Island.

The prickly pear can grow to be about three feet tall, with succulent, segmented stems forming wide “pads.” Cacti’s leaves are modified into spines, and on the prickly pear these can be two inches long and protrude from the pads and fruits. Also covering these surfaces are “glochids,” or tiny hair-like barbed bristles that can also irritate your skin.

Showy yellow flowers of late spring give way to a cylindrical fruit that ripens to a purple color in the fall. Both the pads and the fruits of the prickly pear are edible. The melony-tasting fruit can be incorporated into jams, jellies, and syrups (and are a good source of Vitamin C!) Our chefs also use prickly pear fruit in a refreshing dessert sorbet.

 

 

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Early Fall on Little St. Simons

September 22nd was the first official day of Fall, and we’re starting to see the effects here on Little St. Simons Island. The Muhlenbergia (also called Muhley grass) is starting to bloom, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are making more appearances along Beach Road, and the shorebirds are starting migrate in large numbers. Just three days ago, we counted 70 American Oystercatchers, 125 Marbled Godwits, and 211 Black Skimmers–all in one group at Sancho Panza!

Another fall staple is the fallow deer rut. The bucks have full antlers now that they use to mark and defend their territory. Just yesterday, we came across a spotted buck who left behind this excellent example of territorial behavior:

Traces of fallow deer rut. Photo from Britt.

You can clearly see where the buck used his antlers to scrape the ground beneath this tree. He then left his urine for scent and marked the tree as well; can you see all the broken branches?

Fall on Little St. Simons Island is a time of stunning floral and faunal changes. We look forward to sharing these with you over the coming weeks, stay tuned!

 

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Naturalist Fact: Redbay Ambrosia Beetle

Redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus)

The redbay ambrosia beetle is an invasive pest first detected in 2002 near Savannah’s Port Wentworth. Originating in Asia, this tiny beetle (2 mm) is thought to have been introduced via infested wooden packing materials at the port. Like several other invasive species, this ambrosia beetle has spread quickly and its effects can now be seen on redbay trees throughout the Georgia Coast and into Florida and South Carolina.

Fungus introduced to redbay trees by the invasive ambrosia beetle causes laurel wilt in the tree.

Unlike native ambrosia beetles, this beetle attacks healthy redbay trees by boring into the wood just under the bark, creating galleries in the sapwood where it will lay its eggs. However, it is not the boring, or even the beetles themselves that will kill the tree. The female carries spores of a fungus (Raffaelea lauricola) in a pouch in her mouth which she inoculates into the sapwood as she bores. The developing and adult beetles feed on the fungus while the fungus grows within the tree. As the fungus grows, it blocks water and nutrient movement within the tree, causing laurel wilt and eventually, the death of the redbay tree.

As you explore the maritime forest here on Little St. Simons Island, you will see sapling redbay trees, with the majority of their leaves brown with wilt. Currently, scientists have not found a method of fighting back against the redbay ambrosia beetle. As the beetle and fungus spread, the redbay could be affected across its entire range. An important host plant to three species of swallowtail butterflies, a decline in the redbay could also mean hardships for palamedes, Schaus, and spicebush swallowtails in the coming years.

For more on the palamedes swallowtail, read our previous Naturalist Fact of the Week.

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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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Naturalist Fact: Sweetgrass

Muhlenbergia filipes, also known as sweetgrass or muhley grass, is a native, perennial grass found growing sparsely in the coastal dunes extending from North Carolina to Texas.  Sweetgrass prefers full sun and sandy soil, usually growing in bands about 50 to 75 m from the mean high tide line in undulating sand dunes behind the first dunes along the ocean.  Also, plants are found growing on well-drained, sandy uplands bordering brackish marshes and in open maritime forests.  African Americans from the Gullah tradition of the Lowcountry have used this plant for centuries to make their renowned sweetgrass baskets.  The baskets are nearly identical to those made hundreds of years ago in the West African rice culture whose traditions have been passed on in families from generation to generation, and is a glimpse into living history.  Muhley grass provides important food and habitat for much of the island’s small mammal populations including mice, rats, and marsh rabbits.  It is also an important area for birds, reptiles, and other plant species.  Due to coastal development, much of this habitat has been lost and has been designated a N2 (or imperiled) status by NatureServe.  This plant which flowers from September through November, but peaks in October, produces a beautiful pinkish-purple haze throughout much of the islands’ open grasslands.  Little St. Simon’s Island has great examples of this plant community along Sancho Panza and to the North and South of Beach Road.

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