Naturalist Fact: Scarlet Snake

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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

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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: Wood Stork

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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

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Sea Turtle Update: Hatching begins!

Hatchling crawls across the wet sand in the early morning. (Photo: Laura Early)

Hatchling crawls across the wet sand in the early morning. (Photo: Laura Early)

Remember from our previous Sea Turtle Update, that Carol Anne Nichols, a sea turtle technician with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has been hard at work all summer monitoring and protecting the sea turtle nests on Little St. Simons Island.

So far 2013 has been another great summer for sea turtle nesting on the Georgia Coast. Last year, previous nesting records were blown out of the water with a total of 2,244 nests. There was no lull this year–we have already surpassed that with 2,286 nests! Although nesting is slowing down, before it’s all over with we could add even more to that number.

Little St. Simons Island broke our own record last year with 116 nests, and we are dangerously close to breaking that record again this year. Our most recent nest was laid on July 30th, but since then we have found two undetected nests (nests that we missed when they were laid.)

Plastic screens protect these side-by-side nests from predators like racoons. (Photo: Laura Early)

Plastic screens protect these side-by-side nests from predators like racoons. (Photo: Laura Early)

As nesting winds down, hatching is taking off! We are having a couple nests hatch each evening. The hatchlings prefer to emerge from the sand under the cover of darkness to begin their treacherous journey out to the open ocean. When the tiny turtles crawl to the surface of the sand, they look for the light of the moon reflecting off the ocean to guide them in the right direction. Acting solely on instinct, they set out on a journey–a journey, for the females that will eventually lead back to this same spot.

Male Loggerhead sea turtles will never come up on a beach again in their lifetime, but females will go through the same process their mothers have, crawling out of the ocean and into the dunes to lay her own eggs. Because of a genetics project that has been going on in Georgia and neighboring states for the past several years, we are able to get a better picture of each individual’s nesting habits and the relatedness of the nesting females. We’ve had four females that have used our beach in 2009, 2011, and have come back again this year (2013). To learn more about the genetics research, click here.

As nests hatch, we dig each one up to take an inventory of hatched versus unhatched eggs. Some guests have been lucky enough to participate in these excavations, and even lucky enough to find a few live hatchlings. This morning, we watched five healthy hatchlings crawl to the ocean! Of the nests that have been excavated thus far we have had a hatching success rate of 72.5%.

Loggerhead wiggles out of its leathery shell. (Photo: Laura Early)

Loggerhead wiggles out of its leathery shell. (Photo: Laura Early)

In the coming weeks, we will have many more nests hatching and inventoried. Stay tuned for the final tally of this year’s sea turtle season.

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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.

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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: 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.

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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: Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier (also called the Marsh Hawk) is seen throughout the winter months on Little St. Simons Island. The only harrier found in North America, it spends its summers as far north as Canada, and returns to the southern US in the winter.

With a wingspan of 3.5 feet, the Northern Harrier is a long-winged and long-tailed hawk. They can be spotted flying low over the marshes searching for

prey such as small mammals, birds, lizards, or snakes. It’s thought that they use their sense of hearing just as much as sight in hunting.

The Northern Harrier can be picked out by its distinctive flight pattern. Its wings are usually held in a V-shape as it dips and dives just above the tops of the grass in open areas. While the Northern Harrier varies in coloration between juveniles, adult females, and adult males, it always has a characteristic white patch just above its tail.

This species is not on the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species List, but has been on the National Audubon Society’s early-warning Blue List of declining species since 1972.

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