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

Friday: 30 March 2012

Where are they now?  -  @ 08:52:47
During March, I've hiked 30 miles around the property in 17 walks, as logged by the MyTracks app. This was nominally to search for box turtles, so these are not particularly aerobic treks - I generally average a mile an hour, with an average of just under 2 miles per search.

I've found just one box turtle this year, and that one on the first day of spring, March 20, two days before the previous record in 2009. I assumed I'd start finding them all over the place after that, but no - haven't seen one since, and I've made five hikes since then, totaling 10 miles. I'm not sure what that says about me, but someone else is an early riser.

Over the last six years, since the beginning of 2006, I've been especially alert to watching for box turtles on my walks. Through last year, I've had 47 box turtle encounters that I've logged with dates, locations, and photographs. More than a few have been repeat encounters with old friends.

By month, the encounters distribute themselves as you see to the left. May is clearly the time of highest activity, by far. And no, it isn't because I walk more during May, or am particularly vigilant then.

It was late last summer that I started to think about a serious box turtle census. That decision, resulting in some serious search efforts last autumn, contributes a little to the larger October spike above, but not entirely. Box turtles actually do appear to be more active in mid autumn, here.

I'm really glad I planned to ramp up the observations, since this extraordinary March and soon to be April (see below) promises an experiment that I can contrast with the last six years of observations (more casual, but still thorough). We simply haven't had cold weather since the first week in March, and by the prognostication below, April will continue this warm, dry trend. We're sort of at the limits of drought here, but the warm temperatures will continue.

I've mentioned in the last few days that I've given numbers for the emergence or flowering of a preliminary set of species of plants that I've tracked over the last decade. Those are appearing 2-3 weeks early this year. I'll add here that this year it looks like *every* species I've kept track of falls in this category.

So if that May spike in box turtles, over the last six years, is any indication, I should start seeing them in May numbers beginning, well, just about now. Either that, or box turtles are not influenced so much by high temperatures during the spring. Goodness knows, if this amazing spring doesn't get them out early, then they're just not responsive to sustained early high temperatures.

Man, I love box turtles. They're just the coolest thing in my part of the world.

Thursday: 29 March 2012

News Flash  -  @ 06:26:20
Our average high and low temperatures for March this year are flirting with 10 degF above normal averages. They have now exceeded average high and low temperatures for April over many years.

This March the average high (so far) is 75.0F. April averages 74.1F 1920-2011.

The average daily low this March is 51.1F. April averages 49.6F.

We have broken three record highs, and may break a fourth today.

Friday: 23 March 2012

Ten Degrees Higher  -  @ 06:59:09

So here are the current deviations of our remarkable March 2012. It's just a plot of the difference between the temperatures this year and normal temperatures for high, mean, and low temperatures.

For the last ten days we've been at least 10 degF above the normal in all three categories. High temperatures approached 20 degF above the normal on March 14, 16, and 19, when we broke records.

For about half the month our lows have met or exceeded the mean temperatures. As impressive as that might be, it's worth noting that there are now multiple instances of low temperatures exceeding record highs.

The high pressure blocking pattern that has settled over the eastern US has generated the last two weeks of hot weather, and is more reminiscent of summer dog days (minus, for the most part, the humidity). Temperatures over the eastern US have been pretty uniformly the same from north to south - generally in the mid 80s, degF. That, of course, means that the anomalies are much greater in the north where daily highs can be 30 degF above normal.

With a current high average of 73.9 degF (65 degF normal March high), we're on track to end up the second hottest March on record, Only March 1925 will probably exceed our monthly average high of 9 degF higher than normal. March 2007 is currently in the #3 position.

March 2007 had 9 days exceeding 80 degF. We've had 7 such days already, and the long range forecast suggests that we could have up to 5 more 80+ days before the end of the month.

What does this predict for our summer to come? Nothing. It is true that the summer following the hot month of March 2007 was exceedingly hot, but there's no reason to predict that a hot March predicts a hot summer.

What is of concern is the trend of a summer blocking high pressure area occurring earlier and earlier, ramping up temperatures in the spring months. That's what happened last spring, beginning in May, resulting in the longest string of 90+ high temperatures on record. If I were beginning to anticipate the local effects of climate change, they would include that, along with decreased rainfall for the same reason.

Thursday: 22 March 2012

Also on Tuesday  -  @ 05:45:43

At the west end of the property, along Goulding Creek, I spent a delightful half hour watching a snapping turtle cavorting and hunting for food. It was a beautiful warm (too warm for March!) day, and the turtle must have just been enjoying, as much as reptiles enjoy things, the cooler deeper pools.

The top image is actually the last of the sequence, but serves best as an introduction. Snapping turtles are not uncommon around here, but we usually see them on land, and they are clumsy, apparently ugly things. In fact, this one almost appears as you would see it on land - head drawn in, mostly motionless but watchful. On land, the carapace would be featureless, dark and dirty looking, occluded with matted algae. In the water, the algae lifts and spreads, and you can see how pretty the shell actually is.

I think this one is a female. You sex a snapping turtle rigorously with far more care than I could manage safely, but males would typically have a tail that is much thicker at its base, more abruptly tapering to a slender tip.

At left, one of the first photos after I saw her, she had prepared to move under a fallen tree back toward me. You start to get the impression of just how long her neck is.

Here she's employing that very long neck to trawl through the bottom mud on the other side of the creek.

Below, she emerged from under the log into a deeper, clearer part of the creek, still sifting for food.

Her neck and head are clearly at least as long as her carapace, which itself was probably 18 inches long. This is why you stay at least as far away from her as her body is long, especially if she's on land with her head drawn up into her shell so that you can't tell how long it can get.

She was quite aware of my presence throughout all this, and would occasionally lift her head out of the water to take a good look, then go back to her aerobics.

Quite a different animal when active in the water, than when on land. Even in the water most observers would never see her if the water were too deep, but here it was only a foot or two deep at most, and the shallowness forced her to just under the clear surface.

Wednesday: 21 March 2012

First Out  -  @ 10:17:07
This turtle was a jaunty male, who seemed happy to be out and about. And yes, this time it is a large male box turtle.

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and that was also when the first box turtle appeared, for me. I encountered him one day earlier than the previous earliest. I didn't find any more box turtles on my 2.3 mile search, so we may be looking at the front end of some sort of distribution curve for emergence.

At the time I found him, in the middle of the old property floodplain above Goulding Creek, it was 76 degF and 57% humidity, late morning. That was early in my hike, so it could be that as it got drier (and even I could tell that it was getting drier), I may have missed turtles that had already hunkered down into a form, covered over with leaves, by 2pm when I finished the hike ten degrees higher.

He saw me before I saw him, and as is typical of box turtles, he becomes still, although he didn't withdraw. He really didn't withdraw when I picked him up, but when I turned him upside down to get a plastron photo he did completely withdraw. After setting him down I watched, and within five minutes he was out and moving again.

Very colorful face! He was headed toward Goulding Creek. I haven't found a match on any previous turtles, so this one appears to be a new one.

His plastron, below, had such a striking pattern that I've realized that the plastron can in some ways more easily convey and ID by means of pigment patterns than the carapace can. Carapace patterns are much more complex, so I always look at them, but I was able to quickly eliminate possibilities from the increasingly large numbers of mugshots I have to look through. Since I have to photograph it anyway showing the most frequently successful way of sexing the turtle, it's good to know that. I don't have quite as good an impression of how long term these bottom patterns remain useful for identification purposes.

He was pretty clean - he may have emerged more than just a day or two ago. Still a little dusty on the top side, but the bottom didn't show evidence of being buried in the ground for five months.

The usual thumbnails: L to right; from the back, passenger side, driver's side.

There was more to the walk, but I'll wait until tomorrow for that.

Monday: 19 March 2012

More Phenology  -  @ 09:39:07
Yesterday I mentioned that the extremely warm March (coupled with all three winter months being warmer than average) had galvanized my reexamination of timings of flowerings and emergences of spring plants. Some of these go back to 2004 or 2005. Because this year is so extreme, I've looked at previous years' observations and have determined a midpoint based on blog entries and photographs. I did it this way because as an only gradually trained observer I think a running average would take care of one year or another's sloppy notation.

I presented some recordings and estimates of several species:
The emergence and expansion (not flowering) of mayapples (Podophyllum peltatume, which are 19 days ahead of the midpoint of April 5. N=5 years (not including 2012);

Giant Chickweeds (Stellaria puberula) (flowering), which are also 19 days before an April 5 midpoint. N=5 years Those two tend to appear and develop together.

Dogwood (Cornus florida) data were less extensive (N=4), but yesterday's notes of flowering emergence would put us 16 days earlier than the April 2 midpoint.

A few other observations to add to this:

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, N=8: Midpoint of March 11, first observation this year March 2. 9 days ahead of midpoint.

This species probably represents my most extensive data, noted since 2003, although I can't find any 2009 data. Their flowering range is typically very tight, a range of 14 days.

It took us quite a few years to begin to sort out our several flowering hawthorn trees, but I've located four Rome Hawthorns (Crataegus aemula scattered about the property. They're the earliest flowering hawthorns of all of the ones we have, with a midpoint of March 16 (N=3, with no data for 2009). The flowering period only lasts about 10 days, so they're fairly tight as far as the mistakes I could make.

This year, I noticed first flowering March 2, and so they're 14 days ahead of the midpoint.

We have our Troutlilies (Erythronium umbilicatum), and I'll include them even if they are transplants from 2009. I have a feeling they're still adapting to the new location and disturbance from transplanting over the last four years. They're root growth oriented, and it may take some time before they equilibrate with the new environment.

Nonetheless, the first flowering this year took place February 22. The midpoint is March 16, so they're 23 days ahead of time. I didn't follow the population they were taken from for transplanting (about a mile away) so I can't say how these compare with those. One possible point of interest is that they've been flowering earlier each year since 2009, when they were transplanted.

Finally, we have American Redbud, Cercis canadensis. This small tree has a broad range of flowering, at least two weeks. I have a midpoint of flowering since 2004 of March 21.

This photograph was taken March 2, so 19 days ahead. A small caveat: it was my first observation of early flowering, but in the past I've been fairly careful to note such first observations, and not to simply note peak flowering. In the latter case, peak flowering has been noted much later than the last week that marks peak flowering this year.

Overall, and neglecting the troutlilies for no reason other than that they are transplants, I have seven species emerging from February 22 to March 17. They average 15 days earlier, this year, than the midpoints I've estimated. There are no species that has showed such early emergence in the last 5-10 years, and none that has so far showed anywhere close to the midpoint.

Sunday: 18 March 2012

Phenology  -  @ 07:27:12
The last week has been remarkable in terms of weather. Our high temperatures have been 10-20 degF higher than normal. It's not that strange to get one or a few days of 80+ degF in March, but seldom do we have so many days in a row. We've achieved 85 and 86 degF on Thursday and Friday, and only managed to avoid something similar yesterday because of local rain and cloud cover. We've matched one record high, and broken two others, going back at least 100 years. Looking ahead into the next week shows little change in the high temperatures.

The proximal reasons for this are discussed here. Remnants of La Niña, a very warm North Atlantic, and a few other factors that have locked us in the eastern US into a high pressure blocking pattern more typical of mid summer and later. The 80+ temps I've mentioned haven't graded north and south - it's been 80+ everywhere in the eastern US, and so places in the north are experiencing unprecedented multiday March temperatures up to *30* degF higher.

I've been adding this year's emerging spring markers to my records over the last six or seven years. Perhaps now's the time to report some of them. There's a caveat, though. As we go further back, I can't guarantee that estimates match the *first* flowering, or the *first* emergence. The photos are certainly marked accurately with their dates, but may be of flowerings well advanced. Sometimes the text of a blog entry from, say, 2006, will establish roughly the first time I saw a flower or emergence.

Here, for example, is my favorite field of Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), located in a gully-like beech occupied area between the two decks of the new property. A dry creek winds between the two hills, on the right of this photograph, taken yesterday March 17. This year's emergence of the plant itself was detected on February 28. My previous dates for observation were 4/7/2007, 4/11/2008, 3/30/2009, 4/13/2010, 3/27/2011, but these were likely a week after emergence, when the leaves were expanding. The image you see below was matched by a photograph presented here, taken on March 27, 2011. That would make this year ten days earlier than last, for mayapples. And last year's March 27 would be anywhere from 3 to 17 days earlier than reports of mayapples in previous years.

If we take previous observations as having a midpoint of 4/5, then yesterday's comparison is 19 days ahead of comparable development. (Actually, the plants in the photo below are much more developed than last year's referenced. I'm trying to be conservative here.)

I'm especially drawn to the mayapples, because hiding under those umbrellas are often box turtles. That, in a way, is why I'm so surprised to continue not finding box turtles. I don't think they eat the plants, but they may go after the fruits in a month or two. I think the plants provide them some security and microenvironmental moisture on warm dry days. The soil is usually very rich and moist, and probably harbors a lot of edibles.

And also growing in and amongst the mayapples are Giant Chickweeds, Stellaria puberula. Yesterday, March 17 (but not the day before!), I found many of these in flower. These, I think, are excellent candidates for phenological comparison, since they have a relatively short period of flowering, and seem to do so fairly synchronously. Previous dates of sighting: 4/7/2007, 4/11/2008, 3/30/2009, 4/13/2010, 3/27/2011, so anywhere from 10 to 27 days before previous flowering. If we take the midpoint as 4/5, then we're 19 days early for giant chickweeds.

At any rate, what I did *not* see on the walk yesterday, despite excellent conditions (again), were box turtles.

Oddly, my dogwoods are the least complete of observations for first flowering, but yesterday March 17 was the first day I've noticed emerging and just expanded flowers. That would compare to 4/1/2007, 4/7/2008, 3/29/2009, and 4/1/2011. Again, a midpoint of 4/2 would put us 16 days early this year.

By any criterion, most of our early species are a minimum of 2 weeks earlier than the historical midpoints.

I'll have bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and Rome hawthorn (Crataegus aemula) tomorrow, once I check over previous entries for accuracy. I note that yesterday was my first notice of the leaves emerging from silverbells (Halesia caroliniana). However, I did not previously note with accuracy that phenomenon. Over four previous years, I've observed them in flower April 3-13, and the flowers don't last long. So I'll be interested to see when this year's flowering emerges.

Friday: 16 March 2012

Summer in March  -  @ 07:14:45

We've had two days of record breaking high temperatures (85 degF) and today is likely to be the third consecutive day. This comes as no surprise to anyone in the eastern US. Still looking for a box turtle! They must be resistant to temptation through warmer temperatures, even when it has rained normally (as it has this month).

I did, however, run across this Luna Moth (Actias luna). Usually I find these after they've been for awhile and are tattered and worse for the wear, near the end of their week long adult life. Earliest reports I've found (and not many) have been dated the first week of April and afterward.

I assume this one has just emerged, judging from the pristine condition.

The adults don't eat, but the larvae feed on any number of the very tree species we have in abundance here: sweetgum, walnuts, hickories, and persimmon.

Thursday: 15 March 2012

The Man Who Saved the World  -  @ 07:52:43
Once in awhile, I'm moved to note the death of, or to simply remember, someone I don't even know, but who has had some great importance to me. I did this in 2007, upon Molly Ivins' death. I noted the loss of Kurt Vonnegut, also in 2007. More recently there was Lynn Margulis. I noted the untimely death of Octavia Butler, and wish more times than I can count that she could have had another two or three decades of writing. Though he died years ago, I've mentioned Isaac Asimov a number of times and this is probably my favorite, although Gift to the Galaxy seems to be the most popular search target.

It's not like I scan the obituaries in the newspaper, eyes sharp to see who I've survived. I'd have to be ashamed at how little I've done compared to those who are now gone.

When I heard, last weekend, that F. Sherwood Rowland had died, I was saddened. I figured that few would know or care about the guy who saved the world. Over the next few days, though, touching tributes were made by Joe Romm at Climate Progress, and by RealClimate. Then yesterday came a rememberance at NPR. These will all tell you a great many things about Rowland, including that he was a kind and gentle person, with a great many friends, and much loved.

Here's how Rowland saved the world, beginning in 1972:

The above figure shows one of the mechanisms by which chlorofluorocarbons destroy the stratospheric ozone layer, and that's what Rowland figured out. CFCs? At that time, CFCs were what propelled whatever you sprayed out of your aerosol can, be it deodorant or house fragrance. It was what kept your refrigerator cool, and your heat pump pumped up. CFCs were insidious, utterly nonbiodegradable, and permeated the atmosphere from wherever they were released.

In the above figure, the catalytic culprit has been circled in red. For every CFC two net chlorine radicals are generated, and they themselves generate more, destroying more ozone, in an accelerating propagation chain reaction. As if that weren't enough, the chlorine radicals hang around until a rare side reaction with some other atmospheric component neutralizes them. The net result is that each CFC can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.

Rowland didn't figure all this out by himself, of course. The chemist Mario Malina of Mexico, and Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen ( Welcome to the Anthropocene (I note that I mentioned Rowland and Malina in this 2006 entry)) worked with him to tease out the mechanism, and for this the three received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995.

Rowland wasn't just an armchair chemist - he foresaw the consequences and worked actively to sound the alarm. According to NPR (link above)
"I came home one night and my wife asked me how the work was going. And I said, 'Well, it's going very well — except it looks like it might be the end of the world."

Rowland's realization came in 1972-1973, and it seems that he worked doggedly to push the notion of catastrophic degradation of the ozone layer. The US National Academy of Sciences verified the research and pushed the idea that the results placed the ozone layer in danger in 1976. In 1978, the US government under Jimmy Carter banned the use of CFCs.

The first two years of the Reagan Administration saw the Environmental Protection Agency dragging its feet under Anne Gorsuch(Burford). In this they were certainly aided by Interior Secretaries James Watt and Donald Hodel (hats-lotion-and-glasses). Dogged by scandals, Anne Gorsuch resigned, and the more environmentally friendly first head (under Richard Nixon) of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus took over in 1983. His efforts continued under his successor, Lee Thomas, and the Montreal Protocol (on substances that deplete the ozone layer) was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1987. It has been updated several times since. It's possible that the ozone layer will recover by 2050.

One of the most interesting things about all this is that much of the efforts to ban CFCs was based on "theoretical findings". These efforts were ultimately largely successful. It was only in 1985 that the Antarctic ozone hole was recognized, and by that time the theory was in place, explaining what had happened. It is fortunate for us that measures to reduce the CFCs that caused it were taken in the previous decade. Compare, contrast, and discuss, but start with this comment to Joe Romm's remembrance, by David Lewis.

I didn't ever physically meet Sherwood Rowland. But I did read the New Yorker from 1977 to the present day, and in 1986 I read "In the Face of Doubt", by Paul Brodeur, a followup to his 1975 article about Rowland and Molina's 1973 work. Brodeur's article is where I first met Rowland, in a sense, and I distinctly remember that meeting. At that time, and for years after, Science and Nature arrivals were full of this stuff, both in papers published and on the covers. They still are, really.

I see that I mentioned Rowland in In Praise of Little Science, in 2005. In 2007 I wrote about Heroes, in which I mentioned, among others, Paul Crutzen and F. Sherwood Rowland. I actually hadn't fully recollected that, until I checked. There was also the previously mentioned Welcome to the Anthropocene. I have to smile at the silly cartoon I drew in Nobel Weather, which also featured a mention of Sherwood Rowland.

It strikes me that this could be an important periodic thing to do. In a world in which so many horrible people exist, you could more poorly spend your time than to try to remember those who are trying to do things that are important to you.

Wednesday: 14 March 2012

The Homeliest Turtle  -  @ 06:18:34
UPDATE: Thanks to Bev, Swampy, and Dale, who pointed out the stinkpot, or Eastern Mud Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus. That's a better fit for this turtle in all the ways that deviated from normal box turtles. This turtle was actually *meant* to look that way! Sort of like a cut rate box turtle, and still the homeliest turtle, so everything else applies. Which means I still have to keep looking for my first box turtle.


We had an unexpected thunderstorm sweep through yesterday morning, delivering a half inch of rain in twenty minutes. Temperatures broke 70 degF later in the day. We've been warmer than usual most of the month, but also drier - this combination of circumstances was the ideal I've been hoping for.

And I did run across my first box turtle of the year, toward the end of the two-mile scan. He was on the bank of Goulding Creek on the most upstream part of the property. He turned out to be one of the oddest box turtles I've found yet.

When I saw him, my first thought was that he was dead - usually such a featureless and dull carapace is suggestive of that. He must have felt me walking, and withdrawn as best he could, as I discovered later. My second thought was how I was going to identify him in the future - he's unique in that he has no pigmentation patterns, which is in fact how I'm going to be able to recognize him.

The shape of the carapace is also strange. Instead of the uniformly domed carapace, it's flattened slightly toward the anterior one third of the body, giving it a streamlined appearance. You might also begin to notice how scarred and flaky in some places the texture of the carapace is, although there is no deep scarring. Most box turtles have tangible ridges along their scute boundaries, that to me indicates a history of active growth. His carapace, other than the shallow scarring, is amazingly smooth.

He's also one of the smallest box turtles I've found, excepting babies, of course.

A blowup of that region, below, shows more of the general flakiness and odd shallow scarring. The scute rings are almost not visible. If I had to make an estimate, it would be that he's ten years old, or younger. I haven't found many turtles I'd judge to be this young (and not babies), but I'd say he's on the small end of the scale even for a turtle ten years of age.

His plastron reveals his real problems. There's clearly something wrong here. His body is bulging through what should be a tight fit between plastron and carapace, when a box turtle is withdrawn. He's clearly missing a lot of his plastron, the lower bony portion of the outside shell.

Below is a comparison with a properly constructed box turtle from last summer. I've labeled the plastron scutes according to the names here. The bottom portion of the plastron fits tightly against the marginal scutes and the body inside doesn't show.

Today's little turtle has a much diminished and distorted plastron. The bridge area is oddly bulging, and the four rear plastron scutes are poorly formed and grown. The curvature of the scute boundaries between the femoral and anal scutes is downward, rather than curving back up.

It's a little surprising that this fellow has made it to ten years of age. Still, many turtles do have limited plastrons that leave the inside body exposed, but then they have names like snapping turtle, and are usually aggressive in using defensive responses. Box turtles seldom show any defensive measure other than to withdraw, and this one does so ineptly.

Is he deformed, or malformed? Glenn advises me that there is a difference in the terms, but couldn't recall which was which. I found a useful distinction made here, even though it refers to frogs.

A malformation is an improperly developed body or body part resulting from something that happened in very early development, including from genetics and perhaps teratological origins. A deformation is an oddly shaped body or body part resulting from later damage to the already formed part. Mechanical damage from predators, lawnmowers, or disease due to vitamin or mineral deficiencies could lead to deformed parts.

It's hard to see which this is. There could have been deformations in the plastron, especially the rearward most scutes, which look somewhat ragged where portions are missing. But the carapace, however odd it looks, doesn't reflect mechanical damage of that magnitude (e.g., tooth marks, portions broken off, etc.). Overall it just looks like this turtle doesn't grow bone properly, with the greatest effect seen in the plastron, where growth just hasn't kept up with body growth. This is especially true in the rear portion, but you can see it forward of the hinge, too.

Despite all this, he did exhibit a degree of feistiness. When I put my thumb within his range of vision as I was holding him, he flipped out a front leg and tried to push my thumb away. Keep on plugging, buddy.

Monday: 12 March 2012

Almost as Cute as Box Turtle Babies  -  @ 07:35:36
We've seen these before, but since others see them for the first time and wonder what they are, here you go. These are fruiting bodies of fungi, in this case Devil's Urns, Urnula craterium, or awfully close to that. They're a little atypical, in that most photographs will show the openings fully developed so that they look more like a vase or goblet. These may be partway through their opening phase.

Of course, they might be something entirely different, but there are photographs that show this partially opened characteristic.

We've seen these before, too. They're not native, but at the same time they're responsible immigrants who don't get invasive. They're definitely not as cute as a baby box turtle, but they are rather pretty, popping up occasionally along Goulding Creek, and others might wonder what they are. They're Grape Hyacinths, probably Muscari neglectum, and would be found just about anywhere in the south or east of the Mississippi as far north as the Canada border. In this isolated path of wildland, I wonder how they got there?

Despite the warm 70 degF temps yesterday, and though between us Glenn and I independently scoured nearly 3 miles over 3 hours in the afternoon, no box turtles were found. The humidity was at 50%, which I consider marginal, and soil and litter are both dry, so this might be why. Conditions should be improving today, with possible rain, much higher humidity, and continued warm temperatures night and day.

Sunday: 11 March 2012

First Box Turtle of the Year  -  @ 08:26:46
Congratulations to our neighbors for the first box turtle sighting of the year, eleven days earlier than any previous sighting. And not just any old box turtle, but a little bitty baby box turtle. And what a dirty little baby it is!

They emailed me with the photos they took yesterday. There's the requisite quarter, so cleverly placed, so we can compare this baby with the ones of September 2009.

They look about the same size to me, the quarter seeming to fit snugly between the front and rear legs.

Tom sent a photo of the underside, demonstrating there is no yolk sac remaining. This is most likely not a fresh hatchling from overwintered eggs, as sometimes happens to a clutch laid late.

What a precious dusty little guy!

Saturday: 10 March 2012

The Return of the Orange Blob  -  @ 07:17:18

No box turtles yet, after four systematic search hikes and 7 miles over the last eight days. Two of these hikes were made in conditions I'd describe as inclement - either too cool when moist, or too dry when in the 70s (dry has been rule up until yesterday morning). And two hikes were made under conditions I'd have thought near ideal - warm and humid. Anyway, the searches continue.

And as they continue, I encounter our old nemesis, the orange slime, this time on two trees, ten feet apart, near the ground. I initially identified the trees as black walnut, but now I don't think so. The blocky bark reminds me more of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), and I know there are sourwoods in this stretch since I find their infructescences on the ground.

These were located along Goulding Creek in an undisturbed beechy area.

The first time we saw the orange slime was on a box elder, March 23 2009. It's totally a coincidence that only two days earlier I'd encountered the earliest manifestation of the subject of my current obsession.

The second encounter was a year later, January 25, 2010, with clues as to its origin here. You might recall that it's "deer vomit fungus," but actually most likely to be Fusarium merismoides. I've seen enough now to note that all the manifestations appear to be dripping from one or more single upper points, as if something nutritious were leaking from the trees.

I didn't encounter it last year.

Information on the internet seems yet incomplete on this organism, as you can see in the comments here. It's a soil fungus, possibly pathogenic. It might (in some other form) attack crop vegetables such as tomato. It doesn't necessarily have to be a bright orange (see here, for a beige color). JF Leslie, et al., "The Fusarium Laboratory Manual," suggests that it is more of a saprophyte than a pathogen, but that it has the potential to be the latter under some conditions.

From what I've seen, in the late winter or early spring when I encounter it, it seems to be mostly opportunistic, perhaps feeding off sap that is starting to run and leak out through bark damage. It would depend on whether the fungus has a connection into the phloem/vascular cambium portion of the bark - if it does, then it could be a pathogen that shows up as it enters a reproductive stage on the outside of the tree.

Monday: 5 March 2012

Update on the Holes in the Ground  -  @ 07:35:53
Back just about five years ago, I wrote a silly little compendium of holes in the ground, that I have found. That was a little over a year after the arrival of the armadillos, Nov 23 2005. I had noticed an increase in the number of burrows, but didn't really count them. Since then I've noticed an even larger increase in burrows.

Since there were no box turtles on my 2 mile walk yesterday (and no wonder - windy and cold and very dry), I decided to take photographic evidence and count the holes that I ran across on my route. Most of these holes seem to be recently constructed or refurbished. The lack of debris at the opening, and the fresh (or at least still remaining) scooped dirt scattered on one side of the opening, attest to this.

The first four holes were encountered going the 0.15 miles down the northwest slope from the house to the floodplain. Assuming I observed 10 feet on either side of the path, this would be a hole density of 11 holes per acre on the youngish, terraced hardwood slope.

Along the floodplain, about 0.6 miles, I cataloged the following 13 holes. These work out to a density of just under 9 holes per acre.

That brought me to the climb to Deck 2, which is topographically the same as the descent from the house to the floodplain. Although I know there are a few holes (see here, for instance, which incidentally documents that these holes are dug by armadillos), my route did not take me past any. Nor were there any through the piny uplands, and in fact I don't really recall any holes of the nature of the above in upland pine woods. And there are very few holes even in the mature hardwoods of the SBS valley well above the floodplain.

So it seems that armadillos prefer hardwoods, and they prefer areas reasonably close to a source of water. They don't care for pines, or dry uplands particularly even if there are hardwoods. An alternative explanation is that they just haven't been forced to expand into these areas.

I have no idea why there would be a high density of holes on the northwest slope starting at our house, and very few on the same sort of slope (with the same sort of trees) below Deck 2 a half mile down Goulding Creek. The floodplain seems pretty uniformly colonized, to about the same density as the slope from our house, say an average of 10 holes per acre.

Over the years, it's occurred to me that these burrowings, accompanied by frequent evidence of rooting through the upper layer of detritus, has potentially altered the ecology. It may be for better or worse, or a combination, but in any event the terrain favored by the armadillos is the same as that favored by the box turtles. I don't think my observations over the past six or seven years are sensitive enough to detect changes in box turtle population (unless there were a catastrophic decline).

It does seem like armadillos holes provide extra cover and hibernation habitat for box turtles, but as well for a number of other animals. Snakes, coyotes (of which we have a fair number), foxes (very infrequently seen, and none recently), maybe raccoons and opossums - all might use these burrows.

Sunday: 4 March 2012

No Box Turtles Yet, But I'm Still Looking!  -  @ 08:55:24
We've had a fairly remarkable last 48 hours, weatherwise. Storms began coming through after midnight on Saturday morning, wave after wave, and were intense, delivering 1.22" above our house by noon on Saturday. We were under a tornado watch until 5am. It's this sort of thing that for me heralds the actual advent of Spring here in the northeast Georgia Piedmont, regardless of what may come. Immediately after, the air humidity began dropping until it was 33% in the late afternoon. The mind boggles, but that's Spring here for you.

I mention this because it all has to do with my efforts to catch the first box turtle out. Since that 26 Feb date, I've made four extensive 2-mile hikes and haven't yet found one, although conditions have been suitable.

I did determine that I really needed a way to track my search efforts, and to address that I sampled a number of android GPS apps, finally settling on My Tracks, which is a google app. I'll probably have to write a whole post on this, and on the whole cell phone thing, since it seems so contrary to my usual predilections. But at the moment I'll just say that this particular app seems to provide excellent recording from start to stop with complete transparency. It also allows uploading of the completed hike to, along with all the markers and statistics. Here's what yesterday's 1.9 mile search looked like (I've added the red arrows and labels, and opted for the terrain layer, which unfortunately the app doesn't supply on the phone itself):

The above is a rather typical circuit for me, sampling upland and bottom land, focusing for half the hike along the creeks and the rest scouring certain areas. H is home, D1 is Deck 1, a relatively high elevation which we've talked about before. Between those two is an example of searching the floodplain. W is the west end of the property, a half mile down Goulding Creek. SBS is the feeder creek that runs the blue line all the way to Goulding. D2 is Deck 2, another high elevation, and the other markers are notes that I added with the greatest of ease along the trip.

On Friday, I made a similar trip (you can see how I have essentially the same coverage but may reverse directions and emphasize intensive coverage of different areas). That 2.0 mile hike was made in the mid morning to noon time, with temperatures in the 70s, and humidity in the upper 70% range - I was sweating by the end of it. These were ideal conditions for encountering emerged box turtles, and the lack of a hit is almost certainly evidence that they are not out yet:

So enough of that, since there is nothing much further to say. Except (there's always an except) that the next two or three days will peak in the mid 50s, about 7 degF below the normal high. By that time, noon or so, the humidity will be down to 30% or lower. These are not ideal box turtle conditions, especially after nighttime temperatures in the 30s. I'll have to continue my searches though, since this is excellent negative evidence territory for the 50/50 rule.

This is one of my favorite vantage points along Goulding Creek, with the rocky bottom and the canebrake on the right bank. In the past I've offered these sorts of comparisons when Goulding Creek has been raging after a rain. This is a much more friendly difference, just a matter of a few inches. The view on the left is as I took a break on Feb 9, when the creek was low and there was a gravel bar in the lower center. On the right we have the view yesterday, a few hours after a 1.2" rain. The gravel bar is covered and the creek is swifter.

One of the reasons I love this section of the creek is the presence of these very smooth, igneous rocks. At least I'm pretty sure they're plutonian in nature, and probably eroded to their smooth roundness. Again on the left is how they'll usually emerge above the surface of the creek; on the right was yesterday. All covered except the tip of the largest rock.

And this is right next to me as I sit on another rock in the middle of the creek taking the above photos. The moss and grass couldn't find a purchase on those igneous rocks above. Here they've covered the rock of a considerably different nature. Though you can't see it, it's probably a conglomerate of metamorphic rock, with lots of rough fragmented surface that plants can get a foothold on.

I hardly ever find the smoothed igneous rocks above the level of the creek. The conglomerate rocks, on the other hand, are found everywhere, including the highest elevations.

While I was walking down Goulding Creek, and then returning by way of the higher elevation decks, Glenn was focusing as he does on small things. His companion, Urchin, was taking care of him. I move much too fast for any cat except Gene to try to keep up with me, and I actively discourage Gene from following me on these types of hikes.

I knew where Glenn was because I had the latitude function on my cell phone. Google latitude is the permission one gives for others to see where they are. So when he called me with a report, I was able to say that I was on Deck 1 and could very nearly see him at that point.

In the last stages of my walk I ran across this old friend, which I first found in April, 2006. That was a heady discovery, of Gratiola virginiana, roundfruit hedgehyssop. It's not that there aren't many times that I run across a plant that I've not seen before - on most occasions I at least knew that such a plant species existed. This was memorable because I had absolutely no knowledge of this plant, and here it was growing quite nicely in our little SBS feeder creek.

I have fond memories of it, and imagine it to be an important staple for box turtles, so I present it to you once again.

Saturday: 3 March 2012

The Month of February  -  @ 05:45:21
It's The Month of February, Number 73 in a series. What was true of December and January was also true of February - what happened to winter? At least that was true of us here, right here in Oglethorpe County. What truth did you see where you were?

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.

Not quite so stark overall as last month, but warmer than average temperatures certainly continued east of the Mississippi. There were a few cooler than average regions, but not a great deal cooler. Minimum temperatures were warmer than high temperatures were, regardless of what they were, in most places.

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

The northern midwest continued in what must be its fifth or sixth month of dry weather, although there was some relief in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. The east turned uniformly dry, and drought continued for at least the third month in southeast and the Atlantic coastal states. Florida continues to desiccate.

For the Athens, GA area:

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

We had basically one significant cool period of several days, about 2 weeks into February. Otherwise it was quite a bit warmer and drier. We matched the 1980 record high of 79 degF on Feb 23. Rainfall was sparse with itty bits falling more frequently toward the end of the month.

Temperatures averaged out much warmer in February, continuing December's trend. Our average highs were 60.7 degF, compared to the new 58.4F normal. Our low average was 38.4, compared to the new normal of 36.4. Our daytime anomaly and nighttime anomaly were about equal: 2 degF warmer than average. We had only 5 days greater than one standard deviation above average (4.7 days is normal). We had only 4 nights greater than one standard deviation below the average low, where 5.3 such nights is average. This doesn't mesh with the 2 degF anomaly, and the reason is that we had more warmer days and nights, but few that were really really warmer.

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

Here is a histogram that shows the deviation from a ton of Februarys. We had quite a few more days of temperatures in the 60-69F range. Similarly we had more nights that were average and 10 degF warmer than average. But we had nothing extreme, other than the much greater numbers of days and nights spent at somewhat higher temperatures.

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 what this month looks like a sickly pea green shows that we were more than one standard deviation below the mean rainfall for most of the month, and ending it that way.

Athens (shown below) received a total of 1.50", well below the mean of 4.48" for February. Fourteen miles east in Wolfskin we had 2.05", so quite a bit of difference. Still, when coupled with January we're way below normal in rainfall. There were no storms to speak of, in February. And this winter looks like there will be no snow : - (  .

What is the neat prognosticator telling us? Pretty simple: warmer than usual for the next three months, but it has backtracked a little from January, and declared an equal chance of normal rainfall for the next three months. That is simply because La Niña is coming to an end, and that's what has driven the dry forecast up to this point.

ENSO stuff:

Sorry, but the folks at CPC have completed their redirect blunders to a page that simply asks you to get adobe's security system. I've heard that La Niña is now coming to an end, though, with ENSO neutral climate expected for some time to come. This is good news for rainfall in the southeast, normally. Just remember that last year we were ENSO neutral only for a short period before falling back into a La Niña from which we are just now emerging. In the late 90s this happened several times.

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for January is available, and February should be coming out soon. The summary for 2011 regionally, nationally, and globally is also available.

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