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!

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.

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

 

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

Naturalist Fact: Wood Stork

wood stork 1

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Wood Stork is a large, white wading bird with black flight feathers. This bird has a long, decurved bill on its bald head. Its wingspan averages 5.5 feet, making it unmistakable in flight.

Wood Storks are the only species of stork breeding in North America. In the United States, they breed from Florida to southern North Carolina. Other breeding sites are in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. They are social animals, so they nest in colonies and can have up to 25 nests in one tree. Cypress and mangrove are their preferred nesting trees. On average, a pair of nesting Wood Storks and their young consumes 443 pounds of fish during the breeding season.

Due to a decline in population, Wood Storks have been on the Endangered Species List since 1984. The loss of wetland habitat by development, agricultural practices, and water management practices are reasons for their endangerment. Wood Storks are an indicator species for a healthy, wetland ecosystem.

Wood Storks feed mainly on freshwater fish, and use tactilocation to obtain their meals. Tactilocation is feeding by groping with a bill, and not using eyesight. Wood Storks submerge their bill under water, walk slowly, and sweep their bill side to side. When their bill snaps shut on a fish, their 25-millisecond reflex action is the fastest among vertebrates.

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

William Newton/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Naturalist Fact: American Mink

American Mink  (Neovison vison)

American Mink

The American mink is a fascinating voracious predator in the Mustelidae family, which includes otters, weasels, badgers, wolverines, and minks.  The Mustelidae family is actually the most diverse family within the order Carnivora.

American mink are an extremely widespread mammal found across North America, ranging from Alaska and Canada through the lower 48 states, with the exception of extremely dry areas of the Southwest.  The American mink has also been introduced to large portions of Europe where it is classified as an invasive species, linked with the decline of several native species including the European mink.   Although often difficult to view due to a secretive nature, the mink is quite common throughout much of its range.  In suitable habitat, populations may reach densities of 9-22 individuals per square mile.  Mink are considered semi-aquatic, and are rarely seen far from a water source such as streams, lakes, swamps, and marshes.  Occasionally mink can persist in dry environments if there is a steady food supply.  The majority of mink populations occur around fresh water, but coastal salt marsh also produces fine habitat for mink, with abundant prey.

Mink are strictly carnivorous, like all members of the Mustelidae family, and have a varied diet.  Typically the diet depends on the type of prey available, and small mammals such as muskrats and rats may be eaten more during the winter months.  Other prey choices can include ducks, seagulls, crustaceans, amphibians, and other waterfowl.  Being excellent swimmers, mink can swim up to 30 meters underwater and dive up to a depth of 5 meters in search of prey.  Mink are mostly active during the night.  An elusive nature combined with cryptic coloration help mink avoid predation, but occasionally they will fall prey to coyotes, bobcat, birds of prey, and snakes.

Male individuals are very territorial with each other, and have home ranges that may overlap with several female home ranges.  Breeding occurs during the winter months, and both females and males may mate with multiple individuals.  Gestation typically last from 45 to 75 days, and average litter size ranges from 1 to 8 kits are usually born in April or May.  Most kits become independent and find new territory from 6 to 10 months of age, and both male and females become sexually mature around 10 months of age.

The dense and fine pelage (fur) of mink makes it among the most important furs on the fur market.  Historically all pelts came from trapping wild populations which led to declines in populations, but most pelts in the fur trade are now produced on farms.  Wild populations have since recovered from the extensive wild trapping and are considered of least concern by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

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

Marine Debris Cleanup Package: February 2nd – 4th, 2014

marine debris collageOnly $649* for two nights: almost half price! *All-inclusive, double-occupancy. Tax and service charge will be applied at checkout.

One of Little St. Simons Island’s many treasures is our seven-mile stretch of undeveloped beach—seven miles that many of you have spent countless hours enjoying. More than just a beautiful landscape, these beaches also serve as prime habitat for a variety of species of wildlife. Although our beaches are otherwise pristine, it is not uncommon to find manmade debris amongst the shells and driftwood in the wrack line.

Because of the connectedness of the seas, marine debris is a widespread issue facing the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems.  Since initiating a regular cleanup and survey on our shores, we have removed over a thousand pounds of debris from our beaches and marshes. In cooperation with the Ocean Conservancy and Rivers Alive of Georgia, we have not only been cleaning up our beach, but documenting every piece of marine debris that we remove. This information is submitted to a database of debris collected from beaches around the world. By documenting the debris we collect, we are contributing to a debris profile of our oceans.  In addition to removing potential hazards to wildlife, this data helps us create more effective solutions.

Continuing with this effort, we would like to invite you to participate in a comprehensive sweep of our beaches. With your help, we can cover a greater distance making a more significant impact on the beach.  To show our gratitude for your participation, we’re offering you this deeply-discounted package deal for the nights of February 2nd and 3rd.

Mahi, a patient at the GSTC, had an emergency flipper amputation after being tangled in monofilament. Photo: GSTC

Mahi, a patient at the GSTC, had an emergency flipper amputation after being tangled in monofilament. Photo: GSTC

Marine debris has been documented affecting at least 267 species worldwide. This includes 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.

Entanglement and ingestion of plastic are two of the main dangers that debris poses to wildlife, and unfortunately we have seen examples of both pretty close to home. In October, a pygmy sperm whale stranded on Jekyll Island, and the necropsy revealed two large pieces of black plastic sheeting in its gut. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC) has also admitted several patients suffering wounds from entanglement, and found small pieces of plastic and strands of monofilament in the digestive tracts of their patients. To learn more about individual cases, read these patient descriptions from the GSTC

Now is a critical time for debris removal. Beginning in the spring, our beach becomes feeding and nesting grounds for several species of birds including red knots, Wilson’s plovers, and American oystercatchers. We’ll also see female sea turtles feeding in the coastal waters and nesting on our beaches. In order to minimize disturbance of wildlife, marine debris cleanup is best preformed during the winter.

We would like anyone interested in learning more about marine debris issues and solutions to take advantage of this special event.  In addition to everything you expect from a stay on Little St. Simons Island, there will be an evening “Trash Talk” presentation, discussions, and a chance to make a difference for wildlife. On Monday, February 3rd, we will spend a few hours on the beach surveying and removing debris.  While the workload will be light, it will have a great impact.

As always, LSSI is limited to 32 overnight guests, so call today to reserve your room: 912.638.7472.

Nasturtium inspires “driest-ever” material

Water beads on nasturtium leaf. Photo: Aaron Bell

Biomimicry, using nature’s unique designs as models, has proven very successful in many fields. Advancements in water-proof materials are currently being forwarded thanks to a common, unassuming garden plant, the nasturtium. 

Due to the shape of the leaf surface (and particularly the vascular system of the leaf), the nasturtium ranks among the most water repellant materials found in nature. If you’re familiar with the plant, you may have seen how dew or rain readily beads on the large, round leaves as well as on the blossoms.  A neat characteristic, to be sure, and one that’s gaining attention industrially around the globe. Read more in this BBC article.