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

Friday: 18 April 2014

Morte d'Mort  -  @ 09:23:02
The box turtle season so far has been disappointing. I've seen two box turtles on my many trips, but these haven't been normal encounters.

The first was a small one on Apr 11 (3 weeks after the usual opening gun), wading in Goulding Creek and ten feet below me as I stood on Goulding Cliffs. It spotted me immediately and took to the deeper water before I could make my way down. I waited a few minutes, but it didn't reappear from its hiding place beneath a root mass. So I wasn't able to do my usual photo IDs, or measurements.

Then yesterday, Apr 17, I found this dead male, upside down. I'd walked this path just a few days before and he hadn't been there then.

I'd found him before, last May 29, for the first time, less than 50 feet away apparently cavorting with a female. Now he was freshly dead, just a day or two probably as the insects were just making headway. There were no signs of predation or other marks, and he was tightly enclosed. Maybe it was disease, or cold, or both. Temperatures had plummeted from 65F during the rains the previous day to 31F by the morning of Apr 16. So he may have gotten caught in the cold.

Glenn asked if I had named him, which I traditionally do once I rediscover a box turtle. I hadn't thought of it, but I suppose I could call him Mort.

Wednesday: 16 April 2014

The Baby Tanks of April  -  @ 11:19:19
I know you're wondering about the box turtles. I know I am!

I've seen one box turtle, last Friday April 11th, and that was from a distance as it was doing a little wade in Goulding Creek. It was a small one, and it spotted me immediately as I appeared ten feet above on Goulding Cliffs overlooking its idyllic soak. Before I could get the camera positioned, it had scurried into deeper water and under a root mass. I made my way down to the bank, and waited for it to reappear for awhile, but no luck, and obviously no photos or identification.

So this was three weeks after the earliest date I've previously seen a box turtle. I'll have more to say about this.

Yesterday we'd just finished a 1.42" rain and the temperatures were cool - just 61 degF. I took a walk along Sparkleberrysprings Creek, and at the upper end, I found this little grouping of nine-banded armadillos rooting around in the litter.

It was eight years ago when I saw my first armadillo, just outside the front door late at night. Even then I noted the path of destruction it had laid in rooting up the ground.

From yesterday, in the photo below, you can sort of see that groundwork. They're looking for grubs and annelids, earthworms and insect larvae. Whatever they can find.

Notice that every nose is embedded into the dirt. They were extremely busy, digging up the detritus. They're about the size of my boot, maybe even smaller. As I've noted before, they group as fours, because that's how they're born - identical quadruplets. They seem to remain together in close proximity as kids. They never get farther away from each other than a few feet, and then they get all anxious.

As I also mentioned before, I seem to have little impression on them. I don't know whether they're fearless or oblivious, not that I am a target of either concern. One snuffled right up to my boot, which for all I know may have resembled another armadillo. Only fast movements caused them all synchronously to scurry under some leaf piles, where they all completely disappeared, together.

Here's how close I was able to get, slowly. I'm standing right above them, as much above as I can get and still take a photo.

Our neighbors asked about the long tracks and areas of upheaval that they had noticed, a couple of years ago. I was pretty sure it was armadillos. From the above photo you can see the long track of exposed dirt at the upper right that makes it pretty clear.

I still have to admit, they're cute as all hell, but they still don't belong here. Yet we'll have to deal with them.

Friday: 4 April 2014

The Month of March  -  @ 07:14:25
It's The Month of March, Number 98 in a series. No box turtles here yet.

When people talk of an unusually cold winter in the eastern half of the US, it's true, at least in the north. And in March it continued to be true. When the western half talks of unusually warm and dry, that too is true. And when we talk about March, we might as well be talking about February.


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:

I could as easily reproduce the same summary as in February, the anomalous temperatures are so similar:

As I mentioned above, much of the eastern part of the country continued unusually cold weather. But the northern cold anomaly moved west in February, and retreated from the southeasternmost states.

With only the smallest differences, the southeastern states were a bit cooler in March, and the cold anomalies not quite so severe except around the Great Lakes, the northern Plains States, and New England.

We find the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center's precipitation plots here.

As with temperatures, the precipitation anomalies in March, look pretty much like they did in February. There was some relief from the drought in California in March, but apparently the snow pack even so is only about 1/3 normal. From February:

The monthly precipitation anomalies across the country look remarkably the same as in January. Some relief from the drought came to much of California in February. Precipitation surpluses also picked up in the northwestern quadrant of the country. But normal to lower than normal precipitation remained the rule almost everywhere else.

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 normal average daily temperature, and you can see that we're now starting to creep upward.

In March, we had quite a fluctuation in temperatures - five instances of several days of warm, pleasant days. Those were punctuated with periods of colder than normal temperatures. This is a reflection of several cold fronts moving through our area. While this is certainly not unusual in spring, the usually attendant stormy weather didn't really emerge, except one anemic effort mid-month. Of course, that's the one that took out a sliding glass door!

Here in the Athens area, we were somewhat below normal in temperatures in March. The Athens area mean temperature during March was a little less than two degrees below the normal 53.2F. We didn't break any record highs or lows.

We had only 3 days more than 1 standard deviation above normal highs (average is 4.8 days). But we had 9 nights with temperatures more than 1 standard deviation below normal lows (average is 5.0 nights). By these criteria, temperatures in March tended low mainly because of lower than normal nighttime temperatures. High temperatures were 2 degF below normal; low temperates were 4 degF below normal.

The monthly histogram below shows the breakdown of high and low temperature range counts from March 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.

With one exception, the high temperature ranges fall on or within the error bars. Right in the middle of the scale, there were significantly fewer days with temperatures 60-69F, dividing the population of highs into two groups. There was one low temperature range significantly different from the norm: we had more cooler nights, with the 31-40F nights numbering higher than usual. (Actually, we did have fewer warm nights, with lows >50. Actually we didn't have any such nights!)

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.

We had three significant periods of precitation in March, and still came out considerably below the average 4.43" rainfall for the month: 3.37" in Athens and 3.29" out here in Wolfskin. That's our second month in a row with a substantial rain deficit.

By the end of March, I hadn't encountered any box turtles (actually even now, Apr 3, I haven't seen any), so they're nearly two weeks overdue. I'm attributing that mainly due to our dry weather in the latter half of the month.

Prognosticator stuff:

What is the prognosticator telling us (as of April 3)?

First, nationwide, the current situation of warmer in the West, cool in the East, will prevail for the next week. Temperatures will trend back toward a somewhat higher probability of warmer than usual weather over the three month long term period for the West and South. The North will continue normal to cooler.

The southeast US will continue dry weather for the next week, then much of the country east of the Rockies will trend wetter than normal for week 2. West of the Rockies remains dry. Months 2 and 3 look fairly normal for much of the country, although spots of dry will continue along the West coast.

There is also the seasonal drought outlook on that page, and it doesn't look good for the southwest and west over the MAM period.

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 3 March, ENSO neutral conditions continue, and are expected to remain neutral, now through the Northern Hemisphere spring. We've remained ENSO neutral now for 22 months. The last time we had such a lengthy period without an El Niño or La Niña must be at this point in the 1990s.

(There continue to be signs that an El Niño may be gearing up for later in the summer. 50% chance is the likelihood, with a 10-20% chance that we'll have another La Niña.)

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for February is available. Extensive ice cover in the northeast, and snow everywhere in the East. Balancing that out are above normal temperatures in the West, with continuing exceptional drought in California. Didn't look good for Texas, either, in February.

You'll find that and more in the preliminary annual report for 2013 regionally, nationally, and globally. NOAA will add to and modify it over the course of the next few months.

Wednesday: 19 March 2014

About Those Box Turtles  -  @ 10:02:37
It's been 138 days since I caught 2013's last box turtles, Austin and Torri, on November 1, in a compromising position. No Supreme Court nominations for you!

Those who have followed this story know that 138 days isn't just an idle number - it's a number fraught with significance, because scouring for box turtles is part of what I do on an ongoing basis. For four months and eighteen days box turtles have been slumbering underground, but some kind of alarm is about to wake them up.

Last year I took note of the first emergences of box turtles in the spring. With three years of reliable observations, I noted Mar 19, 20, and 22 21 as the appearance dates in previous years 2013, 2012, and 2009, respectively. I also noted that the wildly varying weather surrounding those dates didn't seem to have much effect, at least in the medium term.

I think it's cool that these first appearances coincide with the astronomical start of spring, pretty much regardless of weather.

We'll see how that holds up this year, but we certainly won't break any records. So far, I haven't seen any box turtles, and we had some really warm and pleasant days in the last couple of weeks, some dry and some wettish, and all seemingly seductive to warmth loving reptiles.

At left is my day to day recording of temperatures and rainfall in Wolfskin.

Red is for last year and blue is for this year. The dots are individual data and the lines are 25 point running averages. The dark green rainfall bars are actually at 1/10 the y-axis numbers, in inches, while the light green cumulative rainfall numbers are as indicated. The purple is the daily mean temperature average over 30 years.

This year our weather has been up and down since February. January was unusually cold, February about average, and we've been on the cold side so far in March. Still, we've had some warm excursions in the last two or three weeks.

Spikes in the weather temperatures at this time of the year aren't all that odd here. What our northern friends see as frequent snowstorms, we typically just see as rainfall followed by a drop in temperature for a few days.

We're just coming out of such a pattern, and will be warming up after a good 1.5" rainfall. I'm totally expecting to see a box turtle today or tomorrow, and will be out looking.

Of course, I said that last week too, and the week before, hoping to break the first emergence record.

Friday: 14 March 2014

About That Tree  -  @ 09:08:30
We have three large pines just south of the house. A couple of years ago, one of them died. It's been peacefully dropping its branches since. Notice that it now lacks a top.

I guess you know what's going to happen next.

On Wednesday afternoon, a cold front came through after rain earlier in the day. We had moderately high, gusty winds. I was in the greenhouse you see below, rescuing a leopard frog, when there was a big crash five feet to my right.

The top of that dead pine had broken off and sailed 50 feet horizontally, right into the deck railing and sliding glass door. It broke the deck railing, and interestingly the outer but not the inner pane of the double pane glass of the door. (More interesting was how the glass was designed to break - into itty bitty rectangular chunks, and not shards and needles so much. A wonderful lesson in materials science, I guess.)

All these trees are leaning away from the house, if they lean at all, and branch growth has been more on that side, too, since it's the south side. Our winds tend to come from the west or northwest, but the key word there is "tend." We've used these facts to rationalize leaving the trees, or at least delaying their removal, up to this point.

We've now lived in this house for 23 years, this April. I had to piece things together a bit: moving day was April 1991. I know this because those great solvers of international problems, whose day job was building our house, spent much time that previous fall and winter discussing GHW Bush's planned invasion of Kuwait.

We've been lucky in that this is the first weather related damage we've had. I guess we should take this first as a strong hint.

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