Native Plants, Habitat Restoration, and Other Science Snippets from Athens, Georgia

Wednesday: 30 July 2014

Now There are Five  -  @ 09:09:25
On Monday afternoon, I came downstairs after a shower, on my way out to work, and it was clear that Violet had lost the use of her back legs. We'd been expecting something like this, for a long time. According to our long time vet's records, we had her for 22 years since Glenn rescued her and her brother as very young kittens from where they had been dumped by some souless person at the fire station. She was with us for more than half my adult life, and she was very, very old for a cat.

That was taken back in July 2011, when we took a very ill Violet in to the vet, thinking that they'd recommend euthanasia. Instead, they diagnosed kidney failure, gave her an IV, recommended a course of hydration therapy, and she was just fine.

Despite the usually terminal kidney failure diagnosis, she was without any further illness for three years, although she grew more and more feeble, and a few months ago her space of activity shrank to the distance between the warm refrigerator outflow and the food and water dishes.

But she seemed happy and free of pain all that time, although she did have night terrors on occasion, which required a little soothing to convince her that she still existed. On warm days late last fall, she'd totter over to the greenhouse door and demand in a strident voice to be let out. She'd go through the cat door and onto the back deck to lie in the sun for a few hours, and then she'd come back in, through the cat door, and demand to be let back into the house. During the winter she made her cat carrier her home, we got her a space heater that we kept trained in that direction, and she was content. This spring she stopped venturing forth. When the days grew hotter than I was comfortable with, she took to the refrigerator outlet for extra warmth.

Right up to the end she ate like a pig and drank copious amounts of water, though you'd never notice it from her very tiny body. She was quite a tyrant about the water - if the bowl was empty, or the water did not meet up to expectations, she'd holler while standing over the dish until the water was replaced. I don't know what the other cats are going to do now, without her to keep us on a close leash.

Even after whatever event Monday robbed her of her hindquarters control, I'd go to the refrigerator where she'd camp out and she'd wake up and try to get up to greet me, something she always did. She craved recognition, and was soothed by a simple stroking. She was never in pain but Monday afternoon I could see it coming, along with the humiliation of soiling herself because she couldn't make it to the litter box.

So yesterday morning Glenn took her in to have her put down, and brought her home that afternoon. I got home from work towards dusk, while there was still some sun left. I'd already dug the grave that morning. Last night we engaged once again, as we've done many times, in our burial ritual down to the Kat Sematary. We carried her out the tenth mile through the fairy ring. We put her box in the grave. We had the recommended two beers and chatter, I shoveled the dirt in and Glenn pushed it down around the little box in the prescribed way, and in the dark we made our way out of the woods and back home.

There's certainly some relief, but it's not quite evident yet. She was without illness and complaint, but she was slowly dying for three years, and it weighed on us in a small but pervasive way all that time. Last night I caught myself rounding the corner into the kitchen several times, absently expecting to see her.

Sunday: 27 July 2014

Finally Some Turtles  -  @ 11:20:44
I haven't run across a box turtle since June 16, despite searches. Yesterday I'd already walked for two hours and expected it would be another zero added to the excel worksheet. Then I encountered Sylvia, and a hundred feet and a few minutes later, Camille.

Sylvia, on the left, is well known on this blog. I discovered her first in 2006, and have reported many of the 20 rediscoveries over the years since. She's a very active turtle who is probably one of the oldest of the many I've documented on our property. Her home range is very restricted, as you can see on the map below (I've described these maps here):

She generally stays within 75 feet of a centroid, but I found her yesterday (for the fourth time this year) under the pawpaw patch, which is the red dot most southeast of the cluster. That's about as far from her floodplain home as I usually find her. In fact, I wondered when I saw her at the foot of the rising hill toward the house, what are *you* doing here?

What is even more interesting is that our neighbors found and photographed her on June 14 as she was attempting to nest in their driveway, 1400 feet away from her usual home. I've reported before that our neighbors find quite a few females nesting around their house - it seems to be a turtle nursery. Many of these are females that I've documented as occupying territories quite some distance away.

So I was curious when weeks passed and I had still hadn't found Sylvia in her usual place. I don't think it actually took her six weeks to return (her spotting at the Gresham's came just eleven days after my previous spotting where she normally lives).

As you know, I weigh and measure the dimensions of box turtles now. Sylvia has an average weight of 446 +/- 11 grams, just under a pound. She weighed 460 grams when I found her June 3, and that was up from her 430 gram weight when I found her first this year, May 12. Yesterday she was back down to 420 grams. In between, of course, she made the Great Trip, presumably lost a half dozen eggs, and so that may explain it.

After saying hello to Sylvia, I walked up the roadcut a hundred feet, and found Camille. I first found her in 2008, and she has a somewhat larger territory. Yesterday's red dot is the northwest-most one.

Despite my fairly intensive search paths through the territories of both turtles, I've only found Camille five times. I found her last year at almost exactly this date, July 23, and she weighed 620 grams. Yesterday she weighed... 620 grams!

So why the difference in numbers of discoveries between the two? Sylvia has emerged as a particularly active turtle. Or at least she's on top of the ground a good bit more than any other, since that's both my search target and my definition of activity. Part of this may be because the floodplain where she stays has a much thinner leaf litter layer, and that's one place box turtles like to hide when they're inactive. She generally seems to hide, if that's what she's doing, under vegetation - Christmas ferns and crownbeard - rather than digging into the ground, when she's inactive. Camille stays on the north slope, which has a deep litter layer, and I'd guess that she's well hidden under that litter when she's inactive.

But there could be other explanations. Maybe the food supply is scarcer on the floodplain, and a turtle living there might need to forage more. Or maybe the turtles just have different activity patterns. I tend to do my hikes in the cooler mornings, but maybe Camille is primarily an evening turtle.

One last thing, and then we're done. It's not quite the end of July, and I'll have more to say about this. Here's the monthly activity bar chart over the last three years. Notice that it isn't just the number of box turtles per month. It's their activity, which I calculate by dividing the number of turtles found by the number of hours I've spent looking for them. That way I can compare from year to year.

That's why I say box turtles have been relatively inactive so far this year. As a hint, the summer weather this year and last have been fairly mild. Rain last year was more than plentiful, with very mild temperatures. It's been a little drier than average this year, and a little warmer, but not much different than average.

Sunday: 6 July 2014

The Month of June  -  @ 09:02:20
It's The Month of June, Number 101 in a series. For us, June was mostly above average in overall temperatures, and drier than usual.


Here are the usual temperature anomalies products, at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. Displayed are the mean temperature anomalies, not the absolute temperatures.

Click on the image for the high and low anomaly graphic on a new page:

Overall anomalies in temperature became became a little more accentuated in June, this time with considerably cooler than average temperatures in the upper tier of western states, centered in Montana and Wyoming. It was still considerably hotter in locations in the southwest, with the anomalies expanding in Arizona and New Mexico, but the most extreme anomalies were still fairly localized.

Most of the eastern states were a bit warmer in June, continuing that trend from April. The central states were a mix, and within a degree of average. Nearly all parts of the country showed larger nighttime low anomalies than daytime high departures.

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's precipitation plots are no longer being updated here. Last month's alternative is also not being updated here. *Now* the closest I can find to the old familiar anomaly map is accessible from here. It's still much less flexible but at least looks a little more like a precipitation map should.

It looks like much drier weather continued in the West, and now creeping up into the coastal northwest. The reduced precipitation (10% of normal) now covers at least six western states, especially California, Arizona, and most of Nevada and Utah.

Most of the eastern US was slightly drier than normal, but areas in the central states had distinctly more precipitation than normal.

For the Athens, GA area:

Below is my usual daily rain/temperature plot visualizing the changes in temperatures and precipitation. The spiky lines are temperatures recorded roughly ten times a day, and the lighter blue columns are Wolfskin rainfall measurements. The black line is the 30-year average daily temperature, which is steadily moving upward as expected.

As was true in June, temperatures were fairly monotonous through most of the month, with two short periods of cooler than average weather. These were associated with our two periods of rainy weather. The heavy rainfall of June 23 began a period of very humid, uncomfortable conditions.

Here in the Athens area, we were somewhat above normal for the average temperature in June. The Athens area mean temperature during June was a little less than 2 degF above the average 76.8F. We didn't break any record highs or lows.

We had 6 days more than 1 standard deviation above normal highs (just a bit above the average of 4.8 such days). We had 0 nights with temperatures more than 1 standard deviation below normal lows, well below the average of 4.8 nights, and a reflection of the greater low temperature anomaly.

The monthly histogram below shows the breakdown of high and low temperature range counts from June 1948 on. The error bars are just plus/minus one standard deviation, which I arbitrarily set as the limits outside of which are "significantly" anomalous.

Unlike in April and May, we had two temperature ranges that showed a significantly larger number of events. We had 19 days 90F or above, compared to the usual 10 such. And we had 28 nights of average 61-70F, which is higher than the usual 22.

Below is the monthly accumulation of rain in Athens, GA. The river of peach is the long term standard deviation of all the daily black dots in the last 15 years, and the red line is the daily cumulative average. We're the green line this year, and for almost half the month it cradled that surplus of blue above the one standard deviation mark.

Athens had one significant period of precitation in June, while out here in Wolfskin the rain of June 23 was much more intense. So we had 3.74" in Athens and 3.88" out here in Wolfskin. Both were slightly below the average June precipitation of 4.18". We're still a bit below average for this time of the year.

Prognosticator stuff:

What is the prognosticator telling us (as of July 5)?

Very roughly, for the next 6-10 days the chances of higher than normal temperatures are going to prevail for the north, and for both the east and west portions of the country. For the following 2-3 months, this pattern of higher than normal temperature chances will continue for the Southeast and the West.

In the east and southeast, we're scheduled for more rain over the next few weeks, while the West has a high likelihood of continuing dry. We'll all trend into a more normal rainfall expectation in August and September, except for some parts of the South and the Gulf Coast.

ENSO stuff:

The folks at CPC have a version of PDF or HTML that is much different from their previous presentations, but at least it's there and the link isn't broken.

As of June 30, ENSO neutral conditions continue, but with above average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. The chances of an El Niño developing continue as in June at 70% by the end of summer, and 80% overall. The planet has remained ENSO neutral now for 25 months. The last time we had such a lengthy period without an El Niño or La Niña must at this point have been in the 1990s.

An El Niño will probably shake things up for the winter here in the US. Overall it will also release a lot of heat stored in the oceans into the atmosphere, so expect to see global average temperature anomalies increase over the next year.

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for May is available.

Summarizing from what I see on the map: The West and Alaska continued with abnormally warm temperatures. Major snowstorm across the Central Rockies.

Here is the final annual State of the Climate report for 2013 regionally, nationally, and globally. It's pretty US-centric, but there are comments for climate globally too.

Tuesday: 17 June 2014

Update on Katherine  -  @ 09:53:50
I appreciate the input on my role as observer versus conservator, as regards the box turtles that have come to occupy my attention for some years now. For those who aren't familiar with this situation, I ran across Katherine, a box turtle I've found many times over the last three years, and she had a substantial neck swelling that I tentatively identified as a tumor or abscess.

I think the comments there, as well as gentle input from Glenn, make it pretty clear that the conservator role is just as important as the observer role. Bev checked with an acquaintance who said that this looked like a treatable aural abscess. Since I had a similar sort of thing last summer (in a different place), I know it's potentially life threatening because of septicemia, but relatively simple to treat.

So yesterday I scoured the area for a couple of hours and was unable to find her. My intention was to take her to the UGA Vet School for emergency treatment, and then rehab at home for as long as necessary. She's probably where all other box turtles stay when they aren't in sight on top of the ground - she's burrowed under a pile of leaves, or under a log, and there are huge piles of leaves and logs in the area.

I'm continuing to look for her - the first time I've actually gone in search of a particular turtle. I haven't heard back from the UGA Vet School on an email I sent them yesterday but they do handle exotic animals.

I really appreciate the comments from Gin and Bev on the realities of the situation. The loss of an adult box turtle, especially a female, is a blow to any population, especially those in jeopardy.

Sunday: 15 June 2014

Unfortunate Encounter  -  @ 07:57:12
Box turtles continue to exhibit low activity compared to 2012 and 2013. Still, yesterday I ran across Katherine, who I first found in 2011. She's the one with the mangled front carapace. She may be quite old - the scute rings are very crowded but there could be as many as 35. (The rings are unreliable for determining age after there are more than 15 or so.)

I've been using Excel to construct simple maps that show some of the particulars of my box turtle encounters. The lines and points are derived from GPS readings. The map below does not contain many geographical features, but does show the boundaries of the property, and particularly Goulding and SBS Creeks, as well as the "dry creek" that runs across the western 20 acres. You can fill in the rise of hills if you imagine a floodplain of variable width on either side of Goulding Creek, and hills rising with variable steepness on either side of all three creeks. The scale is approximate; each gridded box is 3.5 acres, if you prefer.

Here's the map for Katherine. I've indicated in the title the year first observed, the number of observations, and the average distance from the centroid of all the observations. That gives me an idea of the home range. For Katherine, I've never found her far from upper SBS Creek (the creek flows south to north).

Unfortunately, Katherine seems to have a very large swelling on the left side of her neck. I suppose it could be a tumor, an abscess, or a result from constant abrasion against the jagged remains of her carapace margins. Probably in descending order of probability. I checked the photos from last year and there was no sign of it then.

At 460 grams, she weighs the same as she did a year ago when I last saw her. Whatever the problem is, I doubt she's likely to survive much longer. She can't withdraw into her shell now - she had trouble doing it completely even before the swelling. She'll probably run into a predator sooner or later, and then that will be it.

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