The Start of Sea Turtle Nesting

The 2015 sea turtle nesting season is off to a busy start on Little St. Simons Island and along the coast of Georgia. As of June 4 we have already found 35 sea turtle nests on LSSI and 545 nests have been recorded statewide this season.

A loggerhead sea turtle nest

A freshly laid loggerhead sea turtle nest on LSSI. Photo Credit: Elise Diehl

 

Female sea turtles emerge from the ocean to lay nests above the high tide line from May until July. Eggs hatch two months later, and turtle hatchlings crawl from the nest to the ocean under the cover of night. On the Georgia coast, most of the nesting that occurs is from loggerhead sea turtles, but green and leatherback sea turtle nests have also been documented.

On Little St. Simons Island, 123 loggerhead nests were recorded in 2013 and 53 in 2014. These high and low emergence years are normal since loggerhead sea turtles mate every 2-3 years. This year is predicted to be a very active and successful season due to the population rebounding after being protected by the Endangered Species Act and fewer turtles breeding last year (with the mating cycle this should be a higher year).

Elise Diehl is returning for a second season as LSSI’s sea turtle technician. . Elise’s position is part of a long standing, close partnership with Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Sea turtle nesting and hatching has been monitored on LSSI since 1987. Elise bikes the seven miles of beach each morning at sunrise searching for turtle crawls. When a crawl is located she determines if the female turtle laid a nest, or decided to return to the ocean without nesting, known as a false crawl. A turtle false crawls when she feels threatened or does not find the site suitable for nesting. She will often return to the same area within the next few nights to attempt nesting again if this is the case.

Elise marks each nest with a numbered stake, and protective screens to keep predators, like raccoons and ghost crabs, from digging into the nest. If a nest is laid too close to the tide line, Elise relocates it to a higher site to prevent overwashing from tides. Tidal overwash can drown eggs and hatchlings waiting to emerge from the nest.

LSSI's Sea Turtle Technician, Elise Diehl, next to a staked and protected nest.

LSSI’s Sea Turtle Technician, Elise Diehl, next to a staked and screen protected nest.

If you would like to keep track of this season’s sea turtle nesting on LSSI or in Georgia, please visit seaturtle.org. We are hoping for a record year!

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Technician

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Summer Cover Cropping in the Garden

Take care of the sIMAG0322oil and it will take care of you. Cover cropping is an easy way to condition the soil whenever a part of your garden is lying fallow. Cover crops protect the soil, build structure to maintain the microbial life within, suppress weeds, add organic matter and keep nutrients from leaching away each time it rains. Some popular summer covers include: buckwheat, sudan grass, sunn hemp, cowpeas, and velvet beans.  Each one has its particular benefits, so choose according to your needs.  (Here is a comprehensive guide to cover crops of the southeast.)

Buckwheat

Buckwheat (photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Some summer covers we’ll be using on LSSI are buckwheat and velvet bean. Buckwheat is a quick-growing cover crop for short sowing windows.  I recently spread some buckwheat seed where I intend to plant sweet potatoes next month.  I cleared the field of winter arugula, but my potato starts were not ready yet. Come June, the buckwheat will have grown shin-high and will be easy to hoe in to make way for my sweet potato seedlings.  You can put buckwheat in for longer, just keep trimming the heads back with some hedge shears or a weed whacker each time it flowers so it won’t reseed itself.  I’ll be seeding buckwheat all season as my earlier spring crops of lettuce and beans quit producing and it’s too hot to plant a second round of snap beans or summer squash.

mucuna_pruriens_flowers

Velvet bean. (photo courtesy of feedipedia.org)

We’ll grow velvet beans in the raised beds that need a break this summer.  Giving the soil regular rest is a sound practice in sustainable soil management.  On LSSI, we rotate our production beds, trying to give each bed or row a rest once a year. Think of cover crops as a living mulch, and velvet beans lay it on heavy. It grows a lot of organic matter, and because it is a legume, it will fix nitrogen into the soil for the next crop. Just chop it in with a hoe and let it sit and break down before sowing the next thing.  Velvet bean is an especially beneficial cover for us because it is known for deterring the detrimental soil pest, the root-knot nematode.  We haven’t grown regular tomatoes in our garden for years because this critter binds to the roots and takes soil nutrients from our plants. Look out for an update next summer, as I plant tomatoes in the beds I treated with velvet beans to see its effectiveness in managing that pest.

eggplant in rye cover 2015

Baby eggplants transplanted into a bed of winter rye

And since, we’re talking ‘maters, I want to share this great cover cropping tip for you to experiment with next spring, but in order to do it, you’ll get started late this fall by scattering rye seed. Our cherry tomato and eggplant beds will be nearly weed-free this summer because I sowed this rye last November and let it grow winter-long in order to plant my nightshades into this spring.  I simply cut the rye at soil level and turned the soil where I wanted to transplant my seedlings.  I turned it a few weeks in advance. That’s important or else they’ll compete with the rye and won’t get a good growing start.  The summer heat will kill the rye and I’ll essentially have grown my mulch in place.

As soil biologist Elaine Ingham reminds, “Nature abhors bare soil.” If you’re going to leave it bare, she’ll put something in there that you will probably call a weed.  Spread cover seed.

Another reminder for the more northerly growers in clay-rich soil: Use daikon radish, AKA nature’s plow, to break up that clay. Sow this fall and let it over-winter and rot in the ground.

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Shorebird Nesting Has Begun

After weeks of nest searching with little luck, the birds have finally decided that it’s warm enough and they are ready to start laying eggs. In previous years, we documented a record-breaking early nesting attempt by an American oystercatcher pair on March 10, but nesting typically start around mid to late March.   So, needless to say, as March ended and April began, with no discovered Wilson’s plover or American oystercatcher nests, we were ready.

Freshly laid Wilson's plover nest

Freshly laid Wilson’s plover nest

This will be the last of three field seasons for an ongoing research project with the objective of determining how habitat variables can be used to predict nesting location and nest success for American oystercatchers and Wilson’s plovers.  We are also investigating how different nest predators (avian, raccoon, coyote) might influence nest location and nest success, and will incorporate effects of sea level rise, and geological processes, such as inlet dynamics and shoreline change, as well.

During the first week of April, we’d found only one Wilson’s plover nest and several Killdeer nests.  But, as temperatures have risen and spring has finally settled in, nesting has started with vigor!  In the past two weeks, we’ve found 38 Wilson’s plover nest and 7 American oystercatcher nests!  Birds have set up territories and within those territories created scrapes- shallow depressions made by smoothing and kicking out the sand.  They can make several scrapes in a territory, and then the female chooses one and lays her eggs.  The eggs blend in so well with the surrounding beach that they are very difficult for predators (and researchers) to find.

American oystercatcher nest

American oystercatcher nest

Last week, we found one of the coolest nests I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been out on the beaches. This Wilson’s plover pair nested right inside an old horseshoe crab shell!  They will likely lay one more egg and then in about 25 days, hopefully the nest will hatch.

The best nest: A Wilson’s plover nest inside a horseshoe crab shell!

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Norm’s Pond Rookery Update

Nesting great egrets at Norm's Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Nesting great egrets at Norm’s Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Spring has arrived on Little St. Simons Island, and with the warmer weather comes wading bird activity at Norm’s Pond. Great egrets, snowy egrets, and anhingas are strutting their breeding plumage, building nests, and laying eggs on islands in the pond. Nests will begin to hatch in the next couple of weeks.

Norm’s Pond is an active sediment borrow pit, with the sand collected from the area used for island road construction and maintenance. The pit was connected to a nearby artesian well and flooded. An upland peninsula that stretched into the center of the pond was ditched and made into an island to create rookery nesting habitat. Predators, like raccoons, are unwilling to jump or swim to the island to eat eggs and chicks due to alligators that patrol the pond. As a result, the birds that nest on the island have a much higher success rate than those that nest on the edge of the pond.

Recently, we created a new island at Norm’s Pond. Another peninsula, that usually had high predation rates, was trenched and cut off from the mainland. Great egrets and anhingas are currently nesting on the new island. Ecological staff conducts weekly rookery surveys to monitor nests and chicks. From these surveys, we have documented more fledged chicks (chicks that can fly) on the islands than the pond edge. We predict that trend will continue for the new island as well.

Guests have an excellent opportunity to experience the rookery from the Norm’s Pond tower. The tower provides close views of courtship, nest building, and chick rearing without causing stress to the birds. Many guests have also observed the large alligator, famously known as “Norm”, sunbathing along the pond’s edge. Several other bird species roost, or rest, at Norm’s Pond including tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, cattle egret, white ibis, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills.

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Management Technician

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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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Sea turtle season is underway!

Turtle Tech, Elise Diehl

Georgia Nongame DNR Sea Turtle Technician: Elise Diehl

We are happy to announce the beginning of sea turtle nesting season here on the Georgia coast. Each year from May to August, female sea turtles laboriously crawl out of the ocean under the cover of darkness to deposit their eggs in dry sand. There, the eggs will incubate for about 60 days then hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings will make their way out to sea.

Most of the nesting sea turtles on Georgia’s coast are loggerhead sea turtles, but so far this year Cumberland and Sapelo have each had a green sea turtle nest, and Blackbeard has had a leatherback nest.

On Little St. Simons Island, we found our first loggerhead nest on May 18th, with a total of 167 eggs! We are now up to seven nests, and are hoping to see nesting activity pick up in the next couple of weeks. Last year, we documented 119 nests!

Each year, LSSI works with the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative to monitor and protect turtle nests, and we are happy to have Elise Diehl as our sea turtle technician. Elise rides the entire length of the beach at dawn each day looking for the tracks of nesting females. She documents each crawl and nest she finds, and if necessary will relocate the nests that are in danger of being washed over by the tides too often during their incubation. Each nest is marked and screened with plastic mesh to deter predators, as well. As part of a coast-wide long term genetics project, Elise also takes a sample from each nest.

Elise is originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan but has been in Georgia since she was 16. Once she moved to Georgia, she was introduced to sea turtles and wanted nothing more than to work with them one day. While earning her B.S in Wildlife Sciences at the University of Georgia, she worked in the lab analyzing the genetic information being collected from each nest on the Georgia coast. Last summer, Elise monitored nesting turtles on Ossabaw Island. After spending a few months at the Georgia Aquarium, she is excited to be back on the coast for another season!

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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!

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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.

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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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