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

Sunday: 26 February 2012

Box Turtle Season  -  @ 06:24:37
The earliest I've found a box turtle was March 21 2009. I have a number of reasons for wanting to get an idea of when box turtles are emerging. Last year in October I found a flurry of new turtles that suggested to me there might be a prehibernation (or brumation, more properly) return in progress, of turtles that spend most of the time away from my observation area. I predicted that I would have an opportunity to find them once, early on in the spring, and then not see them again during the summer.

I also wanted to do some serious censusing over a period of several contiguous days, two or three times during the warm season, and I wanted the first one to be early.

So I'm using that Mar 21 2009 date as a tentative standard. What were the conditions that preceded this emergence? Are we experiencing them now at the end of February?

Winter 2008-2009 was just a tad warmer than average. Still, this winter has been much warmer than that one, as the histogram comparison shows. We had many more days this winter in the 60s degF, and many fewer days below 40F. Most nights were just about average this winter, with fewer nights below freezing.

Just going by that alone might tend to predict early emergence of box turtles this year.

Let's look at the few weeks before the 090322m discovery on March 21:

In the week prior to the March 21 turtle sighting, there had been a good rainfall of 2.4 inches (C), followed by five days of temperatures in the upper 60-lower 70s (A). There had been a week of warm temperatures with several days above 80F (B) before that Mar 14-16 rainfall. Night temperatures were generally in the 40s, although the night before the sighting temperatures had dropped to 37F. The day of the sighting was in the mid 60s.

Compare with the rain/temp plot for this month:

We did have a decent rainfall, although much less than 2", two days ago, on Friday. We have had some warm days in the past week, but with the exception of the record on Thursday, mostly in the 60s. The low temperatures in the past week don't seem too much different from those preceding the 2009 appearance. Overall though, our February, as warm as it's been, is not yet promising. However, it's exactly these negative predictions that need to be tested.

So is today a good day to test a negative prediction? I'd say so, and doubly so if you go by the 50/50 rule. I made that up, from my reading over the past few years. Box turtles aren't starting to get happy until temperatures rise above 50 degF, which they won't do until about 11am today. And they're not happy when relative humidity falls below 50%, which will happen today well before 11am. So today is predicted to be a bust.

Tomorrow and Tuesday are different matters. RH won't fall below 50% until mid afternoon, well after temperatures rise above 50, so there is a good window of several hours that turtles might be active if they're yet inclined seasonally. We'll see!

Saturday: 25 February 2012

A Warm Winter  -  @ 06:59:14
On Thursday, we hit 79 degF, and matched the 1980 record. Matching and breaking records hasn't been the way of it this winter, but it has been for us a consistently warm winter. We're just a few days from the end of meteorological winter, and in a moment we'll count those days to see how warm it was. But first, an observation:

A few days ago (Feb 22) I noted the first troutlilies flowering. Those of good memory will remember that these were transplants from the next hollow over to our north and west, about a mile or two away. We had them identified as Erythronium umbilicatum, dimpled troutlily. That's a more localized southeastern species than the more broadly distributed E. americanum, dogtooth violet. The transplants were done, in five locations, in middle spring of 2009.

The 2010 flowering: March 19.

The 2011 flowering: March 6.

And this year, the 2012 flowering, February 22.

Now it's possible that the first year after transplanting the plants had not really recovered and were still adjusting. They are spring ephemerals, although perennial, and they go dormant in May or so, and then don't reappear until late winter. But it could also be that the temperatures this winter have them out unusually early.

So though we still have a few days left until the end of winter, we can also expect that the histogram below won't change noticeably. How much warmer was it?

By simple averages, the mean winter temperature will have been 47.4 degF, compared to a long term average of 45.6F, so about 2 degF higher than average.

The histogram, divided into counts in five temperature ranges for high and low daily temperatures, shows the breakdown. As we've seen in other seasons over the last year, we didn't have any really extreme temperatures. What we did have was just shy of a 2-fold increase in the number of days spent at moderately high temperatures, drawn from what would have been days spent at moderately low temperatures. Nighttime lows showed much the same story, except that more nights were merely average, drawn from what would have been much cooler nights.

Yet a third way to look at it is from the usual mapping anomalies, this time the 3-month winter anomaly. I have winter 2010-2011 on the left, compared with winter 2011-2012 on the right.

This shows a larger difference in the mean anomaly for our area, which is 3-5 degF. I mentioned above about 2 degF anomaly. But the overwhelming effect is that this winter was much warmer than last winter, and that was a near-continent wide phenomenon.

So I think it's a reasonable hypothesis that warmer winter temperatures are driving our troutlilies out early. Valid enough, anyway, so that we can check into it again next winter.

By the way, I notice in the troutlily photograph above there was a little citizen hanging from the anthers of the flower on the left.

I can't be sure, but it looks a little like a marvelous Stylogaster, one of the bizarre thick-headed flies. I last saw them, amazingly photogenic, on American germander August 13 2007, during that week of extreme 105 degF heat. (Clicking through highly recommended - quite a good photo at bottom.) This doesn't seem like the right time for them, so the fly could well be some other species. Syrphids are out in force on warm days now, and it could certainly be one of those.

Monday: 20 February 2012

Flu  -  @ 08:39:49
An unusual flu season we have here, when the influenza is peaking so late. I'm glad I got my vaccination late rather than early, in the beginning of January. I had two devastating infections in the last five years (yes, they were blogged, along with plots of fever, etc.), which is why I keep special track now, and why I decided to be strategic about getting vaccinated.

But wait - one reason the season is peaking so late may be that more people are getting vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The more people who get vaccinated, the fewer who contract the disease, and the less likelihood of those who don't get vaccinations to encounter and transmit it to their negligent fellows.

That's the herd effect - the more immunity, the less likelihood of transmission even among the sluggards and ne'er do wells who refuse vaccinations, and the later (and lower) the numbers increase. Conversely, the less immunity, the earlier the peak rises.

Here's the flu page at the CDC that monitors the weekly reports. Click on the map at the right sidebar, and you'll get the path to the current disposition of flu, state-wise, plus a good bit more.

Georgia, normally a hot spot, shows only "local" incidence, but look at California - it's *widespread*. It's the *only* state currently that's widespread. Now what does that mean? More folks into woo, and therefore rejecting vaccinations? Tell me it's not so.

Saturday: 18 February 2012

Save the Balloons!  -  @ 08:56:09

Yesterday I finally remembered to take a large garbage bag with me on my walk, and spent a few hours picking up trash. There wasn't much - a few ancient beer cans (not my brand!), some gallon plastic oil containers from the west part of the property, a few uninteresting jars of both plastic and glass variety - the small amount of incidental trash was one reason I kept forgetting. The creek has delivered only a small portion of trash - oddly, incandescent light bulbs, of all things. That may change upon our next flood, of course.

What I also collected was four mylar balloons, and failed on one I couldn't reach.

I knew they were there. Like the other trash, the location was clear to me and nothing has accumulated in the last few years, except the balloons.

Where do they come from? Well, from the west, for us, almost certainly (image and some data from Wikipedia). Prevailing winds for us are from the west, with occasional winds from the south-southwest, and more rarely in late summer, from the east. And Atlanta is to the west. The first balloon I found, around fifteen years ago, was actually a message balloon. It was released two years earlier from a DeKalb County school, 70 miles west of us (we're the blue green dot), with the request that it be returned along with the location of discovery. I dutifully did this, and never heard back, which kind of griped me.

I mention this for a reason.

I estimate that I've found six mylar and several latex balloons over the last decade. Say one balloon each year over 58 acres. Since I don't scour every square foot, I might have missed a few. Although there's only one positive identification, I figure most probably come from our west, and probably from the Atlanta Metro area.

The Atlanta Metro area covers 28 counties and has a population of 5.3 million, 25% of which is the age group under 18 years (1.3 million). If released balloons, assumed to be mostly from that area, evenly covered all of the northern half of Georgia, then we're talking a target area of 21 million acres. That's 0.4 million "property equivalents," meaning 0.4 million balloons released each year, as determined by the one a year I see on our property equivalent of 58 acres.

As crude as it is, that's an estimate of 400 thousand balloons released each year, largely from our west by 60-80 miles. It's an average of one balloon released per year by one out of three individuals under 18, if originating in the Atlanta Metro area.

I'll leave it to others to comment on the bad, except to say that a search of concerned websites may prove a nice rainy day diversion. You'll actually find at least one website that states that this benefits the environment and jobs economy by the planting of more rubber trees, which reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I don't know how they square the dissonant cogitation that CO2 is the gas of life, with the notion that its emissions should be reduced.

Saturday: 11 February 2012

How Americans Sound to the British  -  @ 15:19:19
Occasionally I run across something that calms me a bit with its cleverness and wit, after days and weeks in the real world of the absurd. I'm sure you'll agree, and appreciate the temporary relief. And if you're an American, you probably wondered about this too.

It's a youtube, just a few minutes long, but I'm never pleased with the longevity of the embedding, so I'll link to it here.

How long did it take you? : - ) 

More Blasts From the Past  -  @ 05:38:10

I found evidence for another lightning strike, presumably from the same January 21 storm. This strike involved two trees - the one in the foreground is a dead sweetgum, I think, and the one in the back is a large tulip poplar. The trees are about ten feet apart. They're located near, but not on the feeder creek, as we're entering the floodplain. It's just about as low elevation as you can get, unlike the pine near the mailbox at the top of the driveway.

The sweetgum got the worst of it, with large splinters blown out from fairly deep within the tree. The strike begins above the top of the photo. Notice that these are hardwoods, while other struck trees I've seen have all been pines. Hardwoods will not be carrying loads of water in the winter, of course, but it had been raining for some time before the major electrical storm passed over. That may also explain the more superficial etching here.

That etching is more finely done in the living tulip poplar in the background. The strokes look like someone keyed the tree on both sides, but wood splinters are still blown out, however much smaller they are. Interestingly, both strokes end a few inches above the ground. There's no sign of litter burn.

Google "lightning strikes trees" and look at the images. I think you'll agree that what we have here is some pretty mild stuff compared to what lightning can do to a tree. There are some apparently blown completely apart, while others look much like what we see here. Again, it is winter now, so there's probably much less potential for large caliber explosions than there would be in the transpirational summertime.

Sunday: 5 February 2012

Weird Winter Weather  -  @ 08:09:58

The month of January was also a frustrating time, computer-wise. Early in the month my computer was infected by malware, somehow, and a week was lost because of lack of access to files and photos. Fortunately all but the more recent data were backed up, and the person who did a great job when Glenn finally located her was able to reestablish all the rest. Still it took yet another week to reinstall all the executable programs that I use.

I have quite a backlog of stuff, then, and we're going to start with the second frustrating thing of the month that happened on January 21.

Saturday morning of that date greeted us with a day long tornado watch, and an unusual winter thunderstorm that produced quite a lightning strike. There were several strikes close around the area, and our neighbors Tom and Gisela alerted us a day or so later about this one. The strike zapped this pine near the mailbox, shredding it as it made its way down into the ground.

According to the guy who came out on Monday afternoon to repair the phone box, the strike made its way along the pine roots, crossed over to the phone line buried underground, completely burned it out for at least 100 buried feet, and then continued on down 600 feet to the house, where it blew the lid off the phone box.

He was also of the opinion that the two houses he'd done similar repairs on probably resulted from this strike propagating along the line in other directions. One house was nearly a half mile away, and the other a quarter mile up the hill.

At any rate, our land line, and therefore our DSL, was lost for several days (thank goodness for smart phones, but you still can't write a blog in style from a cell phone). DSL still isn't really back up to snuff, ten days later - it goes in and out during the course of late morning to late afternoon, although it's fine at other times. Glenn asked Windstream about it and they said there were still some problems that hadn't been resolved, but they were aware of them.

That particular storm also landed some of the heaviest rain in the last year, and for the first time the creeks actually rose. And so even though they've been far more spectacular in the past, here are the requisite photos, both taken later in the afternoon after the storm. SBS Creek (top), which feeds into Goulding Creek (bottom). Long time readers will know that both of these creeks are relatively shallow and narrow during normal periods.

Saturday: 4 February 2012

The Month of January  -  @ 07:17:35
It's The Month of January, Number 72 in a series, and therefore now beginning the seventh year. If we thought December was a warm one, we had no idea what warm was until January:

Here are the usual temperature anomalies products, at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. The high and low temperature anomalies can be had on a new page by clicking on the image below.

Almost makes you think those global warming nuts might have something.

I don't think I've ever seen anything like that - virtually every part of the country was above normal. Only the southern tip of Florida and the northwest Pacific coast dipped slightly below normal.

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

The northern midwest continued in what must be its fourth or fifth month of dry weather. A swath of wet occupies much of the east, but again the Atlantic coastal states had unusually dry weather. Florida continues to desiccate. The northwestern US finally got some rain after a dry December (I'm sure they were happy about that), but the southwest and midsection were very dry.

The reason for all this is the seemingly permanent La Niña phase we've been in since mid 2010 (minus a few months of ENSO neutral last spring). Last winter, when we got three significant snow periods and a very cold December, was very atypical for a La Niña, but this is textbook, at least for us here in the southeast.

For the Athens, GA area:

Here is a plot of our temperature swings in January, along with precipitation amounts as experienced in Wolfskin:

Temperatures averaged out much warmer in January, continuing December's trend. Our average highs were 58.5 degF, compared to 53.8F normal. Our low average was 35.7, compared to a normal of 33.2. Our daytime anomaly was much warmer (+4.7F) than our nighttime anomaly (+2.5F). We had only 4 nights greater than one standard deviation below the average low, where 4.4 such nights is average. However, we had 9 days warmer by more than one standard deviation than the average, where 5.2 days is normal.

Since we find that temperatures were warmer than normal, we'll look at a plot of the high temperatures, for the month of January in Athens. As usual, the black dots are for the years 1990-2010 (black dots), 2012 (green line), and 2011 (red line).

You can see how much colder last January was than January 2012! Perhaps oddly, we broke no high (or low) temperature records in January. It was just persistently warm except for a couple of normally cold days.

Here is a histogram that shows the deviation from a ton of Januarys. You can see the culprit - way significant more days of temperatures in the 60-69F range, though no higher than that. For the most part there just wasn't anything that could be called significant in any other temperature range.

The figure below shows the Athens precipitation data which are official for our area. As usual the green line shows our actual rainfall, the red shows the average accumulation expected. The black dots are rainfall over the last 20 years, the vast river of peach shows the standard deviation. The bit of yellow shows that we had a dry period mid month where accumulated rain fell significantly below average.

Athens (shown below) received a total of 3.32", well below the mean of 4.05" for January. Fourteen miles east in Wolfskin we had 3.65", so rainfall was fairly homogeneous. We had a tornado watch during the entire day of January 21, with heavy rain and a thunderstorm that blew out our outside phone box (more about that later).

What is the neat prognosticator telling us? Pretty simple: warmer and drier for the next three months. That is simply the usual La Niña prediction, which seems to be panning out fairly accurately.

Any number of times I've mentioned the Arctic Oscillation, which has been acting up during its effective time in the winters of the last two years. This year, not so much, although it did take a dip in late December. However the North Atlantic Oscillation did not, and as a result it's Europe that's freezing rather than us. The dam holding back the cold air broke, but it broke in a different place than it did the last two winters.

As it turns out, yesterday NPR had a fairly good piece yesterday on the Arctic Oscillation.

ENSO stuff:

The ENSO PDF update can be found at this page. We are now officially (remember how long it takes to be certain) in a La Niña, *again*. This is likely to persist into our northern hemisphere spring, and hence the warm dry weather here in the southeast.

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for January should soon be available, and is worth a read for your region. The summary for the year regionally, nationally, and globally is also available.

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