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

Sunday: 31 August 2008

Meet Ivan, and Turtle Faces  -  @ 05:01:49
Yesterday, during a fun-filled three hours of eradication along the upper SBS Creek, I rediscovered a box turtle that was previously found on April 22 2006. He's an unusual turtle in several ways, not the least of which is the very high density of spotting on his carapace. He also has unusually bright pigmentation on his legs and face.

As you may know, I have instituted the presumptuous tradition that upon rediscovery, a turtle receives an actual name.

So 042206m joins the venerable Sylvia, first observed May 12 2006 and then again Oct 3 2006; as well as the rambunctious Ernest, first observed this year May 9 and then again May 17. Glenn and I both independently came up with the name "Gustav," but in the end decided maybe that wasn't such a great idea at present. However the notion of taking the name of significant tropical storms of the point in the season seems like a neat one.

So this is Ivan. He's the third rediscovery among a total of 15 box turtles documented. There have been six males and nine females.

Above, Ivan yesterday, at a location about 200 feet from his location two and a half years ago, left. Box turtles don't like to travel either!

To get to his current position he had to traverse a fairly significant gully that runs between the two points of discovery. Who knows how long that took! Or, maybe he's done it many times.

And a couple of requisite thumbnails for documentation purposes:

One of the peculiarities of Ivan, besides his magnificent skin pigmentation, is his very prominent beak. I can't tell if that's just the way it is or if it's been broken in some way.

That did get me to thinking - it's been my gradually increasing awareness that the box turtles I've run across have different faces. So I thought it would be fun to do a comparison.

Now not all 15 turtles have been cooperative in this regard - some are very shy and so we don't see them here. But four males and five females allowed varying degrees of opportunity for recording their facial features.
Ladies first.

Here is Sylvia, first discovered May 12 2006 and then rediscovered Oct 3 2006, about 300 feet away. She's a gray old thing with faded yellow pigmentation spots. Notice the nose and beak aren't nearly as prominent as Ivan's above.

Four other females. These first two are much more colorful than poor Sylvia.

These two females were in the process of eating slimy nasty things.

Ernest was discovered first on May 9 2008, and then again May 17. Both of these images are of Ernest at these two times.

A coupla more males, although I'm not exactly sure of the sex of the second one - apparently I didn't check the plastron. The first one doesn't have much spotting at all on his neck and legs. The second one does.

I doubt I'm going to get to the point of recognizing turtle faces as I do human faces, or even cat faces. There are the analytical features that are easy to note in an objective way - spotting and coloration, shape and size of eye and nose or mouth appearance, and so forth. But we don't use a checklist when recognizing a human face; it's a much more subjective thing that happens automatically below the level of consciousness. I suppose that if I kept a bunch of box turtles in a pen and got to know them I'd achieve that level of recognition, but I'd probably discover that they were pretty unhappy about the arrangement.

Saturday: 30 August 2008

Robber Flies We have Seen and Loved  -  @ 07:38:41
A few days ago a fine fellow, Ted MacRae of Beetles in the Bush, left some comments on some old insect posts offering some identifications and elaborations. One particular one was the identity of the victim in this post, fifth photo below.

The monster robber fly had in its clutches a Cremastocheilus, Ted said. What was interesting was that this is not a scarab often seen, since it is a myrmecophile, an ant lover. It makes its living in ant nests, and its love for ants may not be pure and pristine as we know it. The larvae probably predate on ant larvae and consume the harvests brought into the nests by the ants themselves.

I know I've snagged a few robber fly photos over the last few years and so rather than dwell on the specific one, thought I'd present a full page of the seven that seem to have accumulated on the blog. After all, robber flies are fairly fascinating predators and there is a wide variety. My collection is a little pitiful but it does give you an idea of not just the diversity, but also the commonalities.

The photos link to the Niches post; the names link to browse pages on the ever-helpful Bugguide, for that particular taxon.

Family Asilidae, Robber Flies

Subfamily Asilinae

Promachus rufipes 080810

Machimus notatus 060512

Subfamily Laphriinae

Laphria spp. 070429

Laphria virginica 070618

Laphria saffrana 070516

Subfamily Dasypogoninae

Diogmites spp. 050726

Diogmites misellus 070727

Wednesday: 27 August 2008

Farewell to Fay  -  @ 09:32:30
Fay has moved on, in the Stephen King parlance of the phrase, which means she won't be back. Others northeast of us can pick up the story.

But while she was here she dropped what I esimate to be 2.19 inches of rain, and grateful are we for that. There were places around here, even very close, that got 5 and more inches, but we were not among them.

On Monday I did a creek survey before the rains started and found this, for our little SBS Creek. It's essentially the situation you saw last year - dry dry dry, and up until last year, unprecedented:

We'll see how that looks today later on, but with only 2.2 inches of rain it probably won't be much improved.

By the way, compare that to Goulding Creek, also relatively dry though with some flowing water. But note the greenery:

This kicks into the Microstegium thing - the vast majority of that greenery is due to that damnable grass. In the first photo you'll see what things would look like a couple of years after that grass had been removed.

Unfortunately Goulding Creek is just too much - because of what you see in the above photo, way upstream from me, any rains that swell the creek wash seeds downstream, where they take root. And it's impossible to keep up with that - I discovered it last summer after the March 2007 rain when upstream seeds were washed downstream undoing all my work along the banks.

Well, that's the way it is. The rules vary but there's only so much you can legally do within 25 feet (rules vary) of a creek. Seems to me like burning might be a possibility, and a relatively safe one, but it certainly isn't a possiblity right now - things are way wet.

The last two days have been very entertaining as Fay has moved around and past us. As I mentioned we got 2.2 inches of rain, but locally close areas got much more than that. Unfortunately they're not connected to our watershed and we don't benefit from that, although the Broad River to our northeast and the Savannah River will.

What we have had are two days of tornado watch. And in this small area we've had three tornado warnings: 11pm on Monday night and then on Tuesday 2pm and 5pm. At 5pm yesterday I was driving to work, got a coupla miles up Wolfskin Road, and there was a radio alert: tornado warning for northwest Greene County, and southwest Oglethorpe County, and I thought - DAMN, that's exactly where I am right now. I kept an eye out, and it was grim, rain falling at a near horizontal angle, but fortunately I was driving away from that alert area. I was just glad to find the house intact later in the evening, with all catties accounted for.

It did raise a question in Glenn's and my minds: what are the SOGs for our fire department with regard to natural disasters, like tornados. Well, after surveying them, it turns out that it doesn't really mention those kinds of situations at all.

(SOG = standard operating guidelines. It's a necessary change from SOP, standard operating procedures. Unfortunately the latter guarantees that you will, for a specific cited instance, only spray a certain amount of water to put out a fire in the living room, and no more. Calling them "guidelines" means you do what needs to be done. It's the difference between being sued and not being sued. That's one thing Glenn and I got out of our Incident Safety Officer training course a year ago. And so, if you want to see them, here's a link to our own Oglethorpe County Standard Operating Guidelines (word doc). They're really quite interesting ; - )  . Notice, no jewelry or piercings - sorry, TF, can't have low heat capacity metal burning up your ears, nose, lips, or ... well, whatever. We do have someone who rants about this being antifeminist, oddly from the point of view that it discriminates against men, but that is a dog I will stay a long way from fighting.)

So what do you do in the case of a short term emergency like a tornado if you're a fire department? I did some searching and found Laurel Hill (Florida), which may well become a cliche around here, their SOPs being so interestingly good.

Basically you stay put. Family and personal safety are paramount. After the fact, you may be called but during the situation - the last thing you want is a half dozen POVs and a firetruck traveling around when a tornado is in the area. After the fact you may have to do rescue after evaluation of a scene, or it just may be keeping folks from driving across live wires (which you have hopefully not driven over yourself).

And by the way our own Oglethorpe County 911 dispatch did an *extremely* fine job with notifying all fire departments by handheld radio and pager that there was a tornado warning. They were ahead of the National Weather Service in one case. Firefighters were notified to be alert, and that was it. I was very pleased with them.

And now that Fay has moved on, there's Gustav. It's still early but notice with trepidation: 3 years almost to the day, and ironically scheduled to arrive just before the Republican National Convention, where four of six models show this potentially dangerous storm to be moving:

Monday: 25 August 2008

Fay and DEET (an intro)  -  @ 07:25:58
First, the remnants of Fay. One reason I've been dwelling on this has been my previous analyses of tropical storm contributions to rainfall. I usually have to infer these from tropical storm tracks as documented by Unisys. Fortunately Unisys contains to update on the position of Fay, and its track, long after the conventional weather sites have stopped reporting such. In other words Unisys continues to be reliable in its documentation.

And that's important, as things look like they're going to start hopping here, days after everyone in the path of the real Fay see it as a bad memory. The remnants of Fay are affecting huge areas of the southeast US, and far north of us into Tennessee, Kentucky, and even north of North Carolina. In the last 24 hours we've had 0.22 inches of rain in five different rainfalls, and the intensity is increasing. Just a little west of us areas around Atlanta were receiving more than 2 inches of rainfall yesterday. Fay seems to be beginning to make its turn to the northeast, and toward our area.

From the National Weather Service for our area:
Short term /today through Wednesday/...
T.D. Fay remains the main concern for the short term...and there are
some big concerns from the standpoint of flash flooding/flooding and
tornadoes. Sunday afternoon was just a prelude of things to Monday evening/night has the potential to be much worse with
thunderstorms...very heavy rain...and possible tornadoes.

I found this figure from the National Weather Service for total rainfall prediction through Friday to be interesting. It's not the 12 or 15 or 20 inches of rain seen in Florida and south Georgia in the last few days, but they're going to get the drainage from it even days after we get the rainfall!

Now for an introduction to the DEET story. I had thought this would be a simple story to tell - a single paper detailing a mode of mechanism for how DEET works, with a few surprises. Well, there turn out to be at least a couple of papers published this year, and a second one contradicts the results of the first on grounds of experimental artifact. I'll go into some of the details later but first, an introduction.

DEET is N,N-diethyl-metatoluamide, first synthesized in the mid 1940's and quickly discovered to be a very effective insect repellent:

Notice the lack of chlorines that characterize insecticides. DEET is not an insecticide, and can't be placed in that category of toxins. It is not, however, wholly innocuous to humans. Some people react to it, some misuse it, and very young children may be harmed by it. See this MedLibrary Wicki summary, which is also sufficiently up to date as to address the controversary between these two papers.

For some time it's been thought that DEET may interfere with insects' (and particularly blood-seeking arthropods') ability to smell certain animal products exuded in sweat and exhaled breath. Carbon dioxide plumes, lactic acid, and 1-octen-3-ol are among those components that seem to attract blood-seeking mosquitos, at least. It has been generally rejected that DEET may just smell bad to insects. So a dominating view was that DEET is not really a *repellent* but had more of a confusing effect on the olfactory apparatus of arthropods.

However, the mode of action of such a thing was not known.

In March 2008, Scienceexpress published findings by Ditzen, et al. that showed that DEET directly interferes with the ability of mosquitos (and other insects) to detect the odors associated with food. For mosquitos these odors would be chemical compounds that animal hosts (us, for instance) exude in our sweat and breath. Mosquitos, then, aren't *repelled* by DEET, their sensors are turned off by it. We become invisible to them. While the Science paper is behind a subscription wall (I do have a subscription), here is a palatable summary.

In August 2008, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a paper by Syed and Leal that disputes these findings. They find that DEET does directly cause certain olfactory sensory neurons to fire, resulting in a repulsion behavior. They do cite the above Science paper, and directly address the experimental setup: the crucial experiments, they say, are artifacts produced by the method of wafting a combination of DEET and the major human sweat and breath component (1-octen-3-ol, but don't worry about that). That PNAS paper is full source, but if you don't want to read a dense scientific paper, the following link gives a nice summary of its findings:

Indeed, a colleague, Jim Miller of Michigan State University, made remarks that are unusually pointed
Leal said previous findings of other scientists showed a "false positive" resulting from the experimental design.

Entomologist Jim Miller of Michigan State University praised the UC Davis researchers' work as correcting "long-standing erroneous dogma."

"For decades we were told that DEET warded off mosquito bites because it blocked insect response to lactic acid from the host -- the key stimulus for blood-feeding," Miller said. "Dr. Leal and co-workers escaped the key stimulus over-simplification to show that mosquito responses -- like our own -- result from a balancing of various positive and negative factors, all impinging on a tiny brain more capable than most people think of sophisticated decision-making."

Miller added that the UC Davis research shows that recent work on DEET mode-of-action, published in the journal Science, apparently was "flat-out wrong."

"One of the great attributes of science is that, over time, it is self-correcting," he said.

That is true - backed, reviewed challenges to one published finding move understanding in a productive direction. The drama is increased a little because in this case the challenge by the second paper is due to a skepticism of the experimental design of the first paper, and not just a dispute in the interpretation of results. So I need to go back through Science and see if there is correspondence between these two groups that reveals interesting details.

Regardless, the controvery, which may seem like a tempest in a teapot to outsiders, is very serious business to the research groups involved. But that's how things work, and this is an interesting case study of how these things work.

Sunday: 24 August 2008

The Little Storm That Could  -  @ 05:39:45
The weather, since mid-day Thursday, has been absolutely wonderful here. The winds have been from the east, unusual for us since the prevailing weather normally comes from the west and northwest. August is a little different anyway, since that prevailing direction does usually change for during August, but in this case the wind and clouds from the east were probably strongly motivated by Fay's presence 300 miles south of us. And so the wind and clouds have been continuous since Thursday, scooting across the sky and keeping our temperatures down in the mid-70s or lower, occasionally managing an 80 degF high for a couple of hours. Awfully nice during dog days!

Fay has been fey, unpredictable, vicarious, and more than a little vicious. It's been very interesting to watch. It was named on August 15, or therabouts. After crossing the Florida Keys it zigged northeast across south and central Florida, sat off the Atlantic coast a bit, then zagged back northwest across north central Florida. Despite 600 miles of land travel and having never quite achieved hurricane status it approached the Florida panhandle on Friday, still as a tropical storm, without having lost its somewhat organized structure. The overall complexity of this travel plan was never predictable in its detail - ten days ago we were *sure* it was going to barrel up the Florida west coast and make a beeline for Athens, and then all that went to hell.

On Friday it was approaching Tallahassee, where my sister lives, and the progress of the storm was so slow that it took nearly two days to move past that area. During the time it seems to have dumped probably 10-15 inches of rain in Leon County and was probably equally generous within 200 miles north of its path. South Georgia also got continuous rain, but we were too far north (300 miles) to get anything other than the occasional rainshower, which to this point has amounted to about 0.32 inches of rain.

UPDATE: Enough CoCoRHas reports have come in for yesterday to show that Tallahassee got 8-12 inches of rain yesterday. On top of the 4-6 inches Friday, that puts them at 12-18 inches of rain over 36-48 hours. My mind boggles.

Now Fay, downgraded finally to a tropical depression, is moving west along the Florida Panhandle and approaching my parents' place in Fairhope, Alabama, on the east side of Mobile Bay. I guess they're going to be getting a lot of rain in the next day.

Looks like Fay will pause along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, and then zig one more time, to the northeast again. That will bring its remnants through Mississippi and into northern Alabama. We might get rain from this - such is in the prediction on Tue and Wed, but regardless it will continue to suck air from the east and influence our temperatures into the late part of the week. Appropriately enough, the models for its behavior after Monday or Tuesday are all over the map, with only half predicting the above path.

Fay certainly brought plenty of misery but at the same time its path very nearly filled Lake Okeechobee and undoubtedly did a lot to replenish the Florida aquifer. At the same time the soil saturation and winds have brought down a lot of trees, as my brother-in-law can attest, since he has to clean them off the railroads. But that's the role of tropical storms, as well as fire, in Florida, which is in its own way a prairie kind of biome. Different sorts of plants than in the US Great Plains but the same result in inhibiting the growth and establishment of large trees.

As an introductory piece to something else, here's a perfectly anonymous moth that settled on my finger a couple of mornings ago. It has crossed my personal limit for identification. I might say it's a geometrid, but I really don't know. I'd probably have to use chemical treatments to clear its wings to discover the venation patterns.

You might think the antennae, which are telling it right now that my finger has delicious sweat on it, would be diagnostic in some way, but they're really not very helpful. Looking through the geometrid moth family, for instance, shows quite a variety of antennae, and so they're clearly not determining characters at the family level. No, it looks like wing venation at that level.

Nonetheless the comblike antennae are elegant, although they certainly aren't as extreme in presentation as a lot of other, gaudier moths. They inform the next post in which I discover the nature of DEET.

Wednesday: 20 August 2008

Too Bad About Fay  -  @ 07:24:06
Maybe it's premature but Fay has been a disappointment to us here in north Georgia. Still, she's been a fascinating watch that could get more fascinating yet.

Fay anomalously strengthened over land yesterday, and it's possible that she will gain hurricane status over the Atlantic coastline of Florida, before she reverses course and moves west. A pressure ridge that has been pressing down into Georgia from the north is going to keep Fay steered through south Georgia and north Florida, and it's unlikely we'll get significant rain. Mark and I had talked about this in comments a couple of days ago and even as we made notes the hook in Fay's track became more and more pronounced until our area was pretty much declared out of the game.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, which lasted an amazing three weeks, hit the Mobile-Fairhope area of south Alabama, the stomping grounds of my mother's side of the family. He then moved northeast through the continental US, back southwest down the Atlantic states, back into the Gulf, and was reborn as Ivan 2, hitting Texas as a tropical storm. Ivan's path can be found in Unisys's list of 2004 hurricanes. I wonder if it's possible that Fay will do the same thing?

For the last few days Year 6: Microstegium has been the mornings' obsession. Constant companion Gene has been a huge help, of course, there's no keeping him out of the business. The good news is that removal has resulted not only in fewer plants discovered, but also in a time reduction from a week required last year over the area in question, to two days this year. Over a five acre area centered within the fence around the house and then east of the house, I've found and pulled 700 plants so far. Last year there would have been likely 3000 plants. There are few areas of actual infestation - it's mostly the odd singleton here and there.

And of those 700 plants the presence of at least a coupla hundred were because my final dumps of pulled plants from last year seem to have carried seed. The final dumps last year were made during the first week of October 2007. Since they resulted in plants this year, I'm informed that I need to finish the job by the end of September, at the latest, before seed begin to mature.

Monday: 18 August 2008

Memory Lane  -  @ 06:41:10
Lots of folks in Florida are watching Tropical Storm Fay, of course, and for obvious reasons - the potential for damage is great especially if Fay delivers a blow to the Tampa Bay area from the southwest. But as hydrologists in Florida have pointed out, also it's been two or three years since the peninsula has received a good tropical storm dump, and that's one of the main ways the Florida aquifer gets recharged.

I'm watching for similar reasons - well mostly for reasons of potential rainfall. But it's developing that a strange combination of pressure systems developing in the west and east could cause Fay to stall over east Georgia for a period of several days, and so there's a considerable flooding hazard should that happen. We'll know more by Wednesday or Thursday.

Over an 85-year period the rainfall in our area due to tropical storms averages 2.6 inches per year (with a very large range, of course).

Here's the rainfall I've estimated due to tropical storm remnants for the last few years. Since 2004, a banner year with 13.2 inches of rain due to tropical storms, we've had only one tropical storm with reasonably certainty of having had direct impact on rainfall. Parentheses mean it's not clear to me that we could really attribute the rainfall to anything other than coincidence. And so it's a double whammy that since 2006, at least, we've had a combination of both a decrease in normal rainfall and in contributions from tropical storms.

Data on tropical storm tracks and timing comes from Unisys.

TS (Year)Rainfall
Charlie (2004)0
Frances (2004)3.86
Ivan (2004)3.52
Jeanne (2004)3.74
Arlene (2005)(0.95)
Alberto (2006)(0.11)
Ernesto (2006)(0.75)
Barry (2007)(0.49)

Sunday: 17 August 2008

The Rainmakers  -  @ 08:33:45
Need rain?

A little fluff for today, to balance out the admitted lack of fluff which constitutes the small price, and yet imparts the surprisingly consequential reward for saving the planet ; - )  . Anyone who does this knows what I'm talking about and if you don't know what I'm talking about then you probably don't do it.

Another plug for hanging your clothes out on the line, instead of stuffing them into a power-hungry dryer. Besides the 10 or 20 or 30% reduction in power usage (depending on how careless you are otherwise) you get a free therapy session, least that's how I see it.

Everything looks great on the weather maps until you've finished, and then little storms start popping up all over the place. Never fails.

Hint - don't take them in until the rain actually starts falling. You will be teased if you are premature, and the desperately needed rain will not fall. This is a serious power play between you and the weather. Your many power-hungry dryer-using neighbors will not benefit from your efforts.

Once you're satisfied that you've fooled the elements, then have an inside line with a ceiling fan to complete the chore. You are of course not using air conditioning, right?

Saturday: 16 August 2008

How Cool is Georgia!  -  @ 06:29:14
You knew, of course, how cool Georgia is, but even I did not know that I was near the neck of the woods where freezers with gorilla suits inside prowl about, awaiting discovery by wily disabled police officers and their clever friends. You can discover by googling their names just how cleverly they can outfox those naysay reporters who might try to convince us that this is Bigfoot in north Georgia, rather than simply a gorilla suit in a freezer. Perhaps *this* is the source of the mystery sounds!

Another cool thing is Tropical Storm Faye, now over Haiti, projected for the time being to interact considerably with Cuba, and to perhaps upgrade to Hurricane One status as it zooms up the west coast of Florida and smack into Tallahassee on Wednesday. The good news is that however disorganized it is it may be bring tropical storm rain into Athens on Thursday, and wouldn't that be special? It would - it's been several years now since we've had any significant amount of rain dumped on us by a tropical storm.

This tiny butterfly was fearless, and intent on sipping on a couple of drops of moisture on my CELL PHONE. It perplexed me (and maybe I'm being optimistic by thinking that I've solved it). Its insistence on keeping its wings together fooled me into looking at Hairstreaks (despite the lack of "hairs"), and even Blues (though we don't have many of those). Its antennae, though hooked and clubbed, aren't particularly so, and so Grass Skippers was the last thing I thought about, despite the chunky body and big round eyes.

Once I thought "skippers" and heaved a sigh of impending premonition (if that's not redundant) at the vast numbers of Bugguide photos to go through, it turned out to be much easier than I deserved to find a match. At first I thought it might be Cobweb Skipper, Hesperia metea, one of the Branded Skippers. But now it looks much more like a Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper, Amblyscirtes aesculapius.

The species detail from Butterflies and Moths of North America shows a range in the south and east quadrant of the US, so that works well with the wing patterns. Not a lot known about this species, apparently, although the larvae apparently feed on Cane, Arundinaria, and we do have Arundinaria gigantea, Giant Cane, around here. The adults may favor Elephant's Foot, now just in flower, and that's one of those secret Asteraceae that is peculiar in so many ways, not the least of which is that it really really likes our area. This skipper may be in decline as habitat is destroyed, according to the B&M of NA link, so maybe we're doing the right things here.

Thursday: 14 August 2008

Statistics Galore  -  @ 10:08:53
Wow. This has gotten long, and I'm hesitant to do this for two unrelated reasons, but I'm going to go ahead and post it anyway.

A few days ago I mentioned that I had, with Glenn's help for previous years, completed the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) reports for our fire department, 2003-2008(current). I threatened to report on the statistics that I derived from an examination of an excel listing that I made with my own two hands and I always make good on my threats. There are, actually, some insights to be realized from this kind of thing.

To review - ours is a small department that covers an area of about 36 square miles. From the late 90s to the early 00s it was down to two or three dedicated individuals and virtually no one else. Phyllis Jackson, the fire chief through 2006, determined to pull the fire department back together and in 2003 called a meeting of everyone who had ever been a part of it. This turned out to be a very successful strategy, and everything that follows is a result of that. In 2005 she was instrumental in obtaining two major grants that paid for new turnout gear, and for a new engine, a tanker that carries 2500 gallons of water.

Our particular area is populated by an interesting mix of folks - a portion consists of professionals who commute into Athens for their jobs, and the other portion consists of residents whose families might have been here for generations. We have members from both these groups and yet we always have this feeling that both groups have a great deal more potential in actively participating. That's an issue these statistics don't speak to.

Now we generally expect that there will be somewhere around 4-6 individuals who can be relied upon to do all the things that are necessary to answer a fire call: communicate with 911, be capable of driving an engine, be able to accomplish the necessary things at the scene, and so forth. I think the statistics below generally reflect this previously gut feeling.

The analysis below is only of fire calls - a similar one could be done of training and I intend to do that. And then with those two analyses there's a third set of statistics that can be generated when training and fire calls are linked together.

The data for 2003-2005 are not so reliable as to particulars - there were few names of firefighters attending calls, who came in what vehicle - and so I've excluded them from the figures below. Actually 2005 was getting there in terms of accuracy but there are enough holes to where I shouldn't include them.

Here's a plot of 16 firefighters and their attendance at fire calls from 2006, 2007, and what we've so far experienced in 2008. I'm not going to name these individuals, except to point out a few things about those I've indicated by numbers.

Individual 1 sets the standard for everyone, and that actually precedes these data back to 2003.

Individuals 2 and 3 have improved significantly in this current year, but there's a difference that we should be worried about. #3 attends our weekly training meetings, and #2 does not. This has a number of repercussions that have to do with risk and effectiveness.

#3 generally knows what to do and how to keep from getting in the way of others. He knows how to keep from getting hurt, and is able to predict what is needed from beginning to end. From the point of view of a safety officer, #3 is generally capable in low frequency moderate risk operations - things that may come up that we don't have a lot of practice with, that may be additionally dangerous. He knows how to communicate with his fellow firefighters, which is pretty damned important.

#2, on the other hand, is likely to be safe only in the realm of high frequency low risk operations, that is things we do all the time and aren't very dangerous. He hasn't trained and is vague on communicating with his fellows. He's enthusiastic, but doesn't always know just what to do or what needs to be done, and that's simply because he hasn't been attending training.

(One of the things Glenn and I learned as a result of safety officer training was this concept of risk versus frequency. I won't say much about it here except to note that volunteer fire departments are much more of a safety risk because of the low frequency events - those seldom-encountered instances that can snatch you baldheaded in an instant. Volunteers simply don't encounter them as often as professional fire departments do, whether in practice or in training, and are less familiar with handling them. We try to address this in training, but really, the best we can do is train once a week. And not even that - folks who don't attend training don't even get that familiarity, which is why I mention it. Professional fire departments train every day and have many, many more fire calls than we do.)

#4, with a moderately good attendence record, "took a sabbatical" in 2008. #5 moved away in Jan 2008, but both are interesting for their 50% attendence record prior to that. They both had full time jobs and so it's difficult to get that percentage up because a fire call can come anytime. And yet despite full time jobs they still managed to attend half our fire calls up through 2007. That's in contrast to Individuals 1 through 3 above who are generally available most times.

The individuals occupying the low portion of the graph are a mixed bag. Some are simply unreliable - not many, but some. Some also have full time jobs, and additionally may live much farther away - we have several very competent, very hardworking folks who live up to 15 miles away. Sometimes their pagers don't go off because of distance. In 2008 at least two had jobs outside the state this summer, and have not been around, though they would have attended fire calls had they been here.

This second plot concerns the number of privately owned vehicles (POV) that are used to get to a fire, compared to the number of firefighters who arrive at a scene. As you might expect for a volunteer fire department the ratio of POV to firefighters is extremely high. This graph seems busy, because I've included all our calls, with numbers of firefighters and numbers of POVs.

You need only concentrate on the red linear trend.

I find this important for two reasons. First, having had safety officer training I know that for volunteer fire departments the most accidents are encountered while getting to the fire in privately owned vehicles. Second, there's the ecological aspect - Glenn and I live only two miles from the station but with one exception everyone else lives farther away. It means that four miles is absolutely the shortest distance one drives, and it's probably more like ten or more miles for any given fire call, since most of our volunteers will go straight to the fire rather than bother dropping by the fire station to see if the three of us who drive need any help.

And so that red line shows that the ratio of POVs to firefighters has gone up at considerably in the last four years. We really need to think about that. It's a safety issue primarily, and it could be tweaked by encouraging members to go to the fire station first and then carpooling to a scene.

(I've made some inroads here that may cut down on POV driving as well as ensuring that more firefighters stop by the station first. It's really hard to get firefighters who don't drive an engine to stop by the station first - they're excited and want to get to the fire, despite the fact that most are useless without an engine to be attached to. That those of us who really could use some help in closing up and locking up, thereby saving significant time, doesn't make much impression. I've begun sending out a calendar with the times that the three closest drivers canNOT be available to drive. This notifies others that they MUST come by the fire station first, in order to drive an engine, for those who can drive. It actually seems to be working.)

Here are three tables that offer us a little more information that may help us, or at least give us some insights as to what's been going on since 2003.

The first tabulates absolute numbers, and mostly just shows the number of calls and amount of time per year that we spend doing this stuff.

I suspect our nominal calls per year would be somewhere around 20. 2003 was exceptional, for reasons I'll get into later. 2008 has also been exceptional - we really have had fewer calls this year, and not for the reasons that marked 2003-2005. 2007, and to a lesser extent 2006, were very busy years with a lot of hours spent.
YearTotal CallsCancelledTotal FFTotal HoursFF x Hours
(so far)
7 1359.2323

This second table deals with averages per year. The first column, firefighters per call, documents the increase in the average number of firefighters responding. The second column shows an increase in the number of hours spent on fire calls, and it's a little more mysterious but I think has to do with the fact that we were increasingly being called outside of our Wolfskin District, and I'll have more to say about that. The third column is one with numbers that we like to keep low. It shows the wear and tear on firefighters. The more firefighters attend a call, the lower the numbers and the less individuals are working and stressing themselves out, since work is apportioned better. The good news is that those numbers remain relatively stable, but they are only averages over a year. The bad news is that when you look at certain individual firecalls those numbers can go from 0.3 to 2 or 3, when you have only a couple of three firefighters at a scene lasting six or eight hours, and for the firefighters involved the exhaustion is very evident.
YearFFs per callHours per callhours per FF per call
(so far)

This final table kind of pulls everything together and places our own selfish interests as a department in a new light. It's the number of calls, absolutely and in percentage, that we were called to within our Wolfskin District. The good news is that in the last three years those percentages have gone down. Since we're *always* called out for Wolfskin, a decreasing percentage means, in conjunction with the increased numbers of total calls, that we are being called out more and more to help in fires beyond our district.

YearTotal CallsWolfskin CallsWolfskin Portion
(so far)

Here's why that matters. The high percentages up through 2005 indicate that we were basically only called when there was a fire in our own district. There's a reason for that - the years including and prior to 2003 indicated to 911 and surrounding districts that we were not reliable (no shame to our eggs - there were perfectly good reasons for this). Starting in 2006 we began getting more calls actively made to us that referred to fires outside the district. That's a clear indication that 911 and surrounding fire districts began actively asking for our help in fires to which we have automatic aid and mutual aid, and that's very very good.

And that requires a little more explanation. Wolfskin has automatic aid understanding with three adjoining districts. That means that if there is a structure fire in any of those areas we are automatically called by 911. Structure fires are priority one.

We have mutual aid with five other fire districts, including a part of Clarke County and a part of Oconee County. That means that we may be called at those districts' discretion. (Actually we may be called even outside of those five districts, if it's a biggun.) And so what we see in the above table is that there are more and more such automatic aid and mutual aid calls to us, from 2006 onward. And that's a fine thing to recognize - a numerical indicator that we are recognized as valuable.

So what have I gained from this, and has anyone else gained anything? To take the latter point first, I think our department understands that things are looking up.

I'm hoping that we'll consolidate POVs to some extent, by encouraging more firefighters to converge on the station than going directly to the fire. It's probably a lost cause but I'm still hopeful.

Mostly though - and I go back to the very first figure above - I think I see some pattern in those individual attendance rates.

The folks who attend the most are the ones who have a specific job to do. There are exceptions - the young and boistrous, full of enthusiasm and willing to tackle everything.

But for those who are not, I think it's intimidating in an operation like this to simply expect everyone to do everything. Challenge each firefighter with one or a few things specific and constrained that they know they can do and get good at. And then they're much more likely to go to a fire, and to participate in training, perhaps. As they gain confidence then they go to a fire with an increasing number of skills that they're able to do.

Wednesday: 13 August 2008

Woodvamp  -  @ 07:08:05
A slow-moving wet airmass from the southwest, triggered by a cold front from the northwest, produced gently falling rain after midnight. It amounted here to 0.43 inches at 7AM CoCoRaHS time. It's our first August rain this year, and should lower us out of the Level 5 fire danger we've been living with for the last week.

I don't think it's any secret that I'm particularly taken with vines, nor that one of my favorites is Climbing Hydrangea, Decumaria barbara. This led to the naming of the floodplain area Woodvamp Alley.

But I've only gotten fleeting glimpses of the reproductive structures, here, for instance, when I spied some of the birdcage-like fruits only 15 feet off the ground. The problem is that the vine seems to produce flowers only after it has climbed to unreachable heights.

An event last March, the falling of a loblolly pine down at the creek, brought Decumaria close to us, although I didn't realize it at the time. The vine had established itself in the tops of the pine, and when it fell the pine fell across the creek in such a way that the vine remained undamaged, attached, and still in the air, five feet off the ground.

Early last June it flowered, the first I've been able to see:

The flowers are not particularly eyecatching or attractive, but they are good enough to have resulted in a nice cluster of developing fruits by early August:

The longitudinal sutures you can just make out along the length of the fruit will split upon drying to produce the japanese lantern effect later on. The seeds are rather amorphously shaped, longer than wide, and about 1-2 mm long, so they slip out easily in between the bars of the cage:

This species, native to the southeast, is remarkably free of "pests". The lepidopteran host plants database contains no entries of larvae feeding on Decumaria in the US. The only mention of pests I could find was feral pigs uprooting vines. That's not a particular problem around here but I wouldn't be too surprised to find that armadillos, which appeared here a couple of years ago and are now quite abundant, would fulfill this role.

It's probably worth noting that it is possible to find websites the deplore this plant as invasive.

Monday: 11 August 2008

This Time of Year  -  @ 05:03:59
(BTW - today marks the beginning of the downswing in summer temperatures for Athens. From here on out average daily highs (90 degF) and average nightly lows (69 degF) decrease. That's average, of course. This morning it was 60 degF, unofficially matching a record set in 1989.)

This is the time of year, well into the last half of summer, when you encounter this little orb weaver. The webs are invariably constructed, at eye level, directly across whatever path you care to take, and you don't see the tiny things until you've blundered into them. Arachniphobes are a joy to behold as they deal with this sort of thing.

That's Micrathena sagittata, or Arrow-shaped Micrathena, and besides the inevitability of the encounter, it's the weird body shape that's most obvious about it. It has greatly enlarged tubercles that have given its abdomen this shape.

It's also capable of giving a tiny but noticeable nip, or so say I. But then I also say that if you let a lady bug prowl about on your arm long enough, it will give you a little bite too.

These spiders are also damn difficult to photograph. They're generally deep in the shade, which almost demands the use of flash. But their abdomens are also highly reflective on the back, resulting in a photo that looks like this:

And speaking of time of year, it's also about time for Year Six festivities to commence:

Sunday: 10 August 2008

Lord of the Flies  -  @ 06:19:26
Yesterday morning, soon enough after dawn that the sky was light and the woods were defined, I heard a screech far off in the woods to the south. Three cats with tails bottled up headed with me to the back deck, where two others were anxiously peering into the woods. The screech came twice more, and then nothing except a possum high-tailing it in the opposite direction. I don't think the possum was the source of the sound, looked like it was getting as far away as possible from the source. All cats were quickly accounted for so *they* weren't the source or object.

Mark mentioned in comments that it feels a lot like autumn here, and he's right. It was a year ago today that the high temperatures last August peaked at 107 degF. Not so this August. Right now at 6AM the temperature is 61 degF, one degree above a record low, and for the rest of the week it looks like the temperatures won't break 90, as they haven't for the last couple of days. In fact, tomorrow looks like the high is 81 degF. Not a lot of rain in the forecast, at best a 20% chance for the remainder of the week beginning Tuesday, so the air is dry and the feeling is very comfortable.

Yesterday there were dozens of these guys lighting and zooming off low plants, all along the length of the small, now completely dry, SBS Creek.

They're robber flies, of course, the pit bulls of the fly world. I discarded Laphria, Asilus, and finally settled on Red-footed Cannibal Fly, Promachus rufipes. They seem to be involved in mating, or maybe eating each other (hence the name), or more likely both. Probably at the same time.

Here's a different individual of the same species, and both of these appear to be males.

Along the creek I found this more or less recent victim. I compared it to my gallery of discovered box turtles and was not able to match it up with any one of the 14 or 15 individuals I've cataloged. That was something of a consolation.

Friday: 8 August 2008

NFIRS Done!  -  @ 06:22:06
After a week without rain, and with temperatures approaching 100 degF each day, we had an opportunity for some precipitation resulting from a front moving in from the northwest. And storms did pass to the north and they did pass to the south but they did not pass over us. Lots of wind though, and that cooled things off prematurely. Should be cooler, low 90s, for a few days now.

One of the things I've been engaged in on my "summer vacation" is to finish up on entering all the National Fire Incident Reports ( NFIRS ) that accumulated during the Great Lapse of 2007-2008.

And I finally finished yesterday morning. Our Wolfskin reports are now complete from 2003 onward.

The NFIRS website does allow statistical analysis, but the choices are not so useful for a small volunteer fire department where the things you want to know are not really the interests of a large professional fire department. So I'll do my own analysis now by going through the individual reports by hand. I'm certainly no stranger to creating an excel file accumulating data by hand, and it should result in a useful record for the department.

I can at least report the total numbers of incidents we were called to in 2003-2008, by year:

(so far)

Tuesday: 5 August 2008

There Goes the Neighborhood  -  @ 06:24:12
Yesterday around dusk I was startled by what initially looked like a very large, long arthropod moving at a fair clip along the stoop. It turned out to be two arthropods:

The wasp is a spider wasp (Family Pompilidae, in which there are many genera) and most likely Tachypompilus, possibly T. ferrugineus.

She is dragging a paralyzed spider, or at least that's what it looks like, and apparently this particular wasp species specializes in wolf spiders. She's dragging it off to a nesting site and will build the nest later. I guess you know what will happen to the spider.

It's hard to make out much of the spider's details, but could be a Rabidosa. I don't think it's a Pisaurina, nursery web spider, but that's an alternative possibility. Looks like the wasp was dragging the spider by its mouthparts. Doesn't seem wise, somehow!

I see there's at least one suggestion that the paralyzing effect of the wasp venom on the spider is temporary.

Now that I know where the wasp's nest is, approximately, I expect to see more her.

Monday: 4 August 2008

A Singular Event  -  @ 10:53:22
Someone may know what this is all about - I haven't done any creative googling but can't figure it out.

Yesterday, mid-morning, I heard a mild commotion to the south and observed probably 30 gray squirrels moving up and down a half-dozen trees. Occasionally they'd leap to the next tree and then continue the pattern of scampering up and down, up and down. It was like little furry rivers.

There was no fussing as you hear when there's a predator around - they were actually fairly quiet about all this. They weren't chasing each other. There didn't seem to be any particularly young squirrels, so it didn't seem like a family event.

The trees were a mix - sweetgum, water oak, elm, pine. I didn't see them eating anything.

The gray squirrels have multiplied considerably in the last ten years here - for the first seven years we never saw a squirrel. I mentioned this increase last year, mainly because a neighbor had independently noted it.

Even so I've never seen more than two or three in one place at one time, and that usually been because they've been squabbling or mating or something. This was unprecedented to me.

Saturday: 2 August 2008

The Month of July  -  @ 08:22:51
Today's high is predicted to be 99 degF, with no rain in the forecast through the end of the week. Well, it's summer, of course, but some things are ridiculous.

So with that in mind, here is the summary of the month of July, for the United States and Athens, Georgia. The weather will have been more interesting in its extremes elsewhere, especially in the west. Here, it was remarkably average.

From the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this is a plot of mean temperature anomalies for the US. That's the difference in the average temperature for this July above or below the average for July over many years, plotted in colors. The anomalies are in Fahrenheit.

The cooler than normal temperatures throughout the north central US continues from May. For much of the rest of the country there was a switch in cooler and warmer temperatures, compared to June. Really warm temperatures continued to spread throughout much of the western US, except in the extreme southwest where sharply contrasting cooler temperatures were experienced.

From the (click through to the monitoring maps from the left sidebar) National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, this is a plot of mean precipitation anomalies for the US over the month of July:

The US midsection continued its fifth month of normal to above average rainfall in July. There was some improvement in drought conditions in the southwest, including southern California, but much lower than normal rainfall otherwise persisted in central and northern California and worsened in Oregon and Washington. Much of the southeast finally received average and even slightly above average rainfall in July.

For Athens:

The above figures show that we had remarkably average temperatures rainfall during July. We had two fire calls, one 10-22'd just after I pulled out with the pumper, and the other in the wee hours of the morning of the 30th, a trailer fire.

Here is my plot of high temperatures for the month of July in Athens. As usual, the black dots are for the 17 years 1990-2006 (black dots), 2008 (green line), and 2007 (red line).

We certainly had some warm weather in July, especially during the end of the month. The high was 1.4 degF above normal, however the "average average" for the month was pretty much on target. (This means, of course, that our nights were cooler, by 2.6 degF, than normal. Now that's interesting!) To underscore the extremes of June, July's average high temps were cooler than June's by 1.5 degF. However July 2008 was warmer than July of last year by 4 degF.

The average July high this year was 92.1 degF, compared to an average over 89 years since 1920 of 90.2 degF. We were more than one standard deviation above the mean high temperature on 5 days in July, compared to an average 5.4 days per July, and that's insignificant.

I went into the rainfall situation here for the first half of the year last month and there won't be too many dramatic changes from our experiences in July. And that's because we actually got rain in July! The Athens report was for 3.95 inches compared to 4.41 inches, slightly below normal but an embarrassment of riches in comparison. Out here at Wolfskin we actually got 4.66 inches, considerably more than the Athens report would indicate.

Again, the green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 19 years, the river of peach shows the standard deviation. We stayed right around the normal throughout the month, ending just slightly below it.

Interestingly, this year's pattern of rain and heat is following nearly the same trend as last year. Then too we had a hot and dry June, followed by a cooler and wetter July. It was August 2007 that was the kicker, with its 105-107 degF highs for many days during the month. We'll be sitting on pins and needles wondering if the repeat continues.

I'll continue to link to this neat prognosticator in which you can get variously timed precipitation and temperature outlooks. Last month it promised us that we will have above average precipitation and below average temperatures for at least the first two weeks in July and in retrospect that was a pretty good prediction.

NOAA's weekly ENSO update tells us that sea surface temperatures in the central and east equatorial Pacific have returned to ENSO-neutral regions, suggesting that we have now left La Niña, with enough time for the atmospheric conditions to have responded. NOAA expects that ENSO-neutral conditions will continue through fall 2008.

Finally, and to reiterate the link way above, NOAA has a neat State of the Climate product. By clicking on the year, such as 2007, you can get to monthly and even weekly reports and zero in on regional descriptions that are much nicer than my own.

Friday: 1 August 2008

Downtime  -  @ 09:18:10
I'm taking a few days off from the blogging habit (well, obviously I already have ; - )  ) so posting will be erratic for some undetermined period. Of course there will be posts, for there are things to see and photograph. It will just not be on the usual schedule.

I'm only placing five posts on the front page.
Go to the archives on the right sidebar for past posts, or use the search routine at the top of the page.

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