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

Monday: 25 August 2014

The Little Ones  -  @ 10:32:36
Almost all the box turtles I see are adults nearing or at the maximum adult size. Immature box turtles, say under five years old, are very secretive and difficult to find - you can imagine why this is: everything will eat a baby box turtle. But once a year or so I will find a very young adult that has become a little more confident of exposure.

Yesterday I found this little female just outside of the house area, burrowing into the litter next to a log. She was very active and not at all inclined to retreat into her shell.

It was quite a trial to get her measurements. She kept trying to climb out of the sock that I use to hold the turtles to get their weight on the hanging scale. She weighed 245 grams, just a little more than half the adult size. Looks to me like she has nine or ten well defined annular scute rings. This gets pretty close to the practical limit for estimating age by that simple method.

Perhaps one of the most interesting finds so far this season has been the much smaller male below. He weighs just 170 grams, but he's also the first immature that I've found twice. Last year, just two days shy of exactly one year ago, I found him industriously digging his way under litter in the fairy ring. He weighed 140 grams then, so he's gained about 20% body weight since. This year I found him 140 feet farther south, across a small gully and making his way atop the pine litter.

As is the tradition on the first rediscovery, I've named him.

Meet Biltmore. On the left is last year August 8; August 6 this year is on the right. He was disinclined to make merry.

I'll have more to say about Biltmore in a day or so.

(Long time readers will remember the very youngest turtles I found, in mid September 2009, after spending the summer guarding their nesting site. Here they are a day or so after hatching, and upon release, a few days later. And one more, exploring possibilities for identification. They averaged about 6.5 grams in weight.)

Saturday: 16 August 2014

Good News on Katherine  -  @ 08:14:49
Last Friday, August 8, I found Katherine the box turtle again, very close to her mapped centroid. This was the first time I'd seen her since June 14, when I noted what was thought in comments to be a large aural abscess on the left side of her head. It was large enough that she couldn't close up in her shell.

Below, the photo on left shows that her head looks fairly normal now - if there's still some swelling, it's barely apparent. She's now able to completely close up in her shell, right. Or at least as much as she can with the heavily damaged carapace.

Here is the turtle observation property map* with previous observations of Katherine. The lower arrow shows my June 14 discovery.

The upper arrow shows the northernmost corner of our property on Goulding Creek. It memorializes a July 6 discovery by next door neighbor Tom. The actual red dot should be about 300 feet farther up Goulding Creek, off the map here. Tom said her abscess was still obvious at that time.

So it's good to see that she seems to have recovered. Moreover, sometime in the three weeks since my original observation, she made a journey of at least 1100 feet from usual haunts down to Goulding Creek and upstream from our property. And then, of course, another 1100 feet back home sometime in the last 4-5 weeks. I didn't run across her in transit during those eight weeks, though I traversed the area in between many times.

I don't have many weight measurements on Katherine, but she weighed 460 grams last year, and the same when I found her with the abscess. Last Friday she weighed 420g, so she had lost about 10% of her weight in the last eight weeks. Those measurements are probably reliable, but the significance isn't clear. I noted July 27 that Sylvia had also lost the same amount of weight after I found her returned from her long journey, and she was apparently healthy. So Katherine's weight loss can't necessarily be attributed to her abscess.

*Here is the property map description originally posted at the first link, if things aren't clear:
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 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 roughly 6 acres, if you prefer.

Tuesday: 5 August 2014

The Month of July  -  @ 16:00:25
It's The Month of July, Number 102 in a series. For us, July was mostly even in overall temperatures, although somewhat below normal, and for us very locally, much drier than usual.

And along about July 16 we began to slide back into winter, on average. That sounds great right now!


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:

Warm anomalies expanded substantially in the West in July, while the eastern 2/3 of the US was quite a bit cooler than average, especially in the Central US. If you didn't hear about the summer polar vortex, then you almost certainly missed the better meteorologists deploring the use of the term.

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.

While dry weather continued in the West, there was some relief in the Pacific Northwest and along the Nevada California border. Rainfall remained below normal levels along much of the California coast and inland for half the state, though. It's always good to keep in mind that when we talk about normal rainfall here in Georgia, it's in the range of 4" per month - when in the western states, 0.4" per month might be bountiful.

Not only was a good bit of the eastern 2/3 of the US cooler than normal, it was also drier. The Great Plains, Great Lakes, and northern tier of states were quite dry in most places. The southeast was spotty, but a good bit got less than half the usual rainfall. (Contrast that with last July, when we got over 9", and NOT due to tropical storms, either.)

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 halfway through is beginning to move back downwards as expected.

As was true in June, temperatures were fairly monotonous through most of the month. We did have a few warm periods, but nothing particularly hot, and around the 19th a very significant cooler period of five days with over an inch of rain. Toward the end of the month, just a few days ago, we had another cool period of three or four days.

Here in the Athens area, we were somewhat below normal for the average temperature in July. The Athens area mean temperature during July was 1.3 degF below the average 80.7F. Athens matched a record low from 1925 on July 30, 60F, while out here we actually went below that by one degree.

We had 2 days more than 1 standard deviation above normal highs (considerably below the average of 5.2 such days). We had 9 nights with temperatures more than 1 standard deviation below normal lows, well above the average of 4.5 nights.

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

Except for one slot in the ranges, none of our individual brackets were significantly different from the average. That one was 2 nights at 60F or below, but this is hardly compelling. While I like the histograms, they have their place in adding to rather than replacing simple averages.

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 a significant period of precipitation in July, while out here in we didn't have half that. So Athens had 4.22" of rain, and we had 1.93", less than half the monthly average of 4.47". We're still a bit below average for the year, about like 2009, 2010, and 2011 at this point.

Here's the monthly totals for our CoCoRaHS stations in Oglethorpe County. I'm presenting this just because the nearly two-fold variation is so great (mine is the lowest one). Usually over the course of the month the expected variable thundershowers will even out over a region as large as our county. Not this time!

Prognosticator stuff:

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

Unfortunately temperatures are going to remain hot in the West, although less extreme western points may cool off during the next three months. Amazingly precipitation seems to have about a 50% chance of normal levels over the region, for that time period.

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 couple of weeks, along with cooler temperatures. But the pattern excludes the southern portions of the Gulf states and Florida. By one month, we're back to normal, and then warmer than usual temperatures in October.

One caveat I've noted with this prognostication - it seems to use historical trends, as well as an ENSO expectation, to predict. That may well be the reason for normal rainfall in California, as well as in our area, so if an El Niño doesn't develop, or isn't as strong, those predictions may fail.

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 August 4, 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 July at 70% by the end of summer, and 80% by the fall and winter. The planet has remained ENSO neutral now for 26 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.

Earlier there were thoughts that this might have been an unusual strong El Niño, but developments have been sluggish. One thought is that the very warm sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic may have kept the trade winds going, rather than slowing or reversing as they do during a strong El Niño. At any rate, the warming central Pacific has not apparently communicated itself to the atmosphere yet, and that's a big part of the global weather changes.

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

Summarizing from what I see on the map: California's year up through June is almost 5 degF above normal, and more than 1 degree above the previous record. More than a third of the state is in exceptional drought. Temperatures have been cool in the southeast. Minnesota and surroundings had large amounts of rain in June.

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.

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.

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