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

Sunday: 27 October 2013

The Last Two Years  -  @ 09:05:33
It has been nine days since I saw Reuben, the last box turtle I've seen so far. I'm guessing, after four nights in the 30s, and a day or two not reaching 60F, that he's the last I will see for the next five months.

In recognition of Halloween this week, the final summary of box turtle activity by the month is in black and orange, black for last year and orange for this year. These were the first years I undertook an extensive and consistent observation program for the turtles in the 20-25 acre study area. This entry of last year gave a large scale perspective map of our general area.

A few days ago I posted the general results of the season, comparing them to last year. This year saw 174 trips covering 421 miles, with 87 box turtle encounters. Yet box turtle activity, in box turtle/hour, was considerably lower than last year, nearly half that. See what I mean?

Seems to me that this is mainly due to last year's very high activities (or this year's low ones) in April, May, and July. It's true that last year's were not so much higher in August-October.

I have several ideas about why this might be the case, but I'm starting by comparing this year's weather to last year's. Not shown below are the rainfall averages, but it's easy enough to summarize: last year was normal to slightly dry, and this year was way above normal for the summer.

And here is the current average temperatures comparison, given by 100-point running averages (what you might get if you averaged 100 temperature readings taken over a 7-10 day period). The blue is this year, and the red last year, and the purple are the mean temperatures over the last 30 years.

Last year's pre-August temperatures were remarkably high, and that oscillation started in mid February 2012. That red March was very warm, as was April and May, and this might serve to explain the high activities during those months - box turtles were just getting out much earlier and doing the things they do in the spring.

Summer month box turtle activities are said to be lower, usually, than those of earlier spring months, as temperatures become uncomfortably warm during most of the day. That's why the July activity results are so odd. July temperatures were so much lower than last year's rather high averages that you might have expected the reverse of what you see in the activity bars for July in the first plot above.

After next year, I'll have my first such bar graph where I can add error bars and get an idea of the variation in activity. I'd predict that the spring months are going to be pretty variable, as will be mid-summer. The late summer and autumn months are going to settle down to an average that doesn't vary much.

As I said, I have several ideas I'd like to test, but unfortunately two of them are probably going to require some form of radio transmitter so I can locate several box turtles on demand. We'll see how that works out - it traverses a line from passive observation to an intrusive one that I'm not sure I want to undertake (not to mention the cost!).

Sunday: 20 October 2013

The Orange Crud  -  @ 06:00:23
After our heavy rains in June, we had a significant flood surge down the creeks, especially our little feeder creek that runs into Goulding Creek. I noted here how the flood had scoured clean the creek bottom. Several years of accumulated mud and debris were washed away, leaving a clean gravel and sand bottom in most places.

Within a week or two, the upstream portions of the feeder creek began to turn orange. This progressed at least halfway down the length of The feeder creek toward Goulding Creek.

Now, 3-4 months later, the upper one-third or so of the feeder creek continues to look like this:

If you look closely, you'll see that the orange is due to a fluffy orange material that accumulates on the bottom. The water above the fluff is clear.

As you progress down the feeder creek, things begin to look more normal, with less and less of the orange fluff. By the time you get to Goulding Creek, there's no evidence of the orange, and hasn't been at least on our stretch of the creek. At right we're about 700 feet downstream from where the first two photos were taken.

I should also say that the portion of the creek that has the most orange is also fairly flat and slow moving. Farther downstream the dropoff is a bit greater and the creek flows a bit more enthusiastically. That coincides with the beginning of the reduction of the orange fluff.

And here we are at the merry babbling brook of Goulding Creek, which shows no sign of orange fluff.

There are a number of possible explanations, including pollution into the feeder creek from farther upstream (fertilizer runoff from a pasture, for instance). But because of the orange flocculent material I think this is not a pollution problem, at least not one caused by humans.

It's iron, and the bacteria that love it.

In northeast Georgia, we live on soils that are high in clay and the clay is high in oxidized iron. This would be the famous red clay feature of Georgia that can be very surprising to visitors. For those who have wells, that high iron content can result as a rust stain in toilets, especially, but also sinks and bathtubs.

Oxidized iron (e.g., rust) is almost always insoluble, and therefore cannot be washed from one place to another. But the higher energy form of reduced iron is more often soluble, and is more mobile. Some bacteria can change one form to the other.

Normally oxidized iron would be fixed into the clay, insoluble and unable to get out. However there are bacteria that can reduce that oxidized iron, in order to release oxygen for their own purposes. These iron reducing bacteria live in the clay in an oxygen poor environment, and in order to use organic matter must generate oxygen for themselves somehow.

Here's how the Wikipedia entry describes it:
"Iron bacteria colonize the transition zone where de-oxygenated water from an anaerobic environment flows into an aerobic environment."

The reducing bacteria in the clay soil turn insoluble oxidized iron into higher energy soluble reduced iron. There's no problem, until you get a lot of rain.

That rain soaked into the ground and saturated it, causing a runoff into the feeder creeks. The reduced iron went with it, and now that becomes an energy source for a complete different group of bacteria, iron oxidizing bacteria. These take the reduced iron and oxidize it to extract energy. The oxidized iron, essentially an insoluble orange rust, begins to accumulate on the creek bottom, and that's what we see. For the last few months reduced iron has been trickling into the feeder creek as underground runoff, and the iron oxidizing bacteria have been going to town on it.

Here's another interesting thing: the orange fluff begins to disappear by the time we get most of the way down the feeder creek, before the confluence with Goulding Creek. The feeder creek has acted as a cleaning mechanism to remove the surge of reduced iron in the runoff. As a result, iron-free water enters Goulding Creek. Of course, we're still stuck with the orange fluff upstream, but that will gradually become a part of the substrate, or will be washed downstream in the next flood.

And that's yet another thing. As slow as it might be, the is a way of mobilizing iron out of the soil in north Georgia, and washing it down to south Georgia.

The iron oxidizing bacteria are not pathogenic, or otherwise dangerous, although they can clog up plumbing. Iron metabolism is often associated with sulfur metabolism, and can result in generation of hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell) or sulfuric acid (acid water in the creek). The water is not particularly acidic, but since I can't smell I'm not sure about the hydrogen sulfide. I should send Glenn down there to check.

Saturday: 19 October 2013

Beginnings and Endings  -  @ 10:08:34
Today is the start of deer hunting, regular firearms. It lasts through Jan 1, of course, so break out your fluorescent orange vests.

And this date, coincidentally, seems to work out consistently to be the end of box turtle season. We had a small amount of rain early Thursday morning, with a warm day yesterday, and I was sure that would bring out the turtles out if they were still active. I didn't see any. The weather is going to turn colder tonight, down into the 40s, and while we're certainly going to have warm days, I doubt I'll see more than a straggler turtle or two.

Here are this year's trips (you can click on the image to get last year's version on a new page). Green bars indicate the number of turtles found on that day's trip; red dots indicate a trip without a turtle observation.

The actual numbers confirm what the somewhat asymmetric distribution above seems to say: the occasional observation beginning along about the first day of spring, and rapidly increasing during April to peak activity in May and June. Activity vacillates through the remainder of the summer. I saw a burst of increased September and October activity in 2011, but not particularly last year or this year.

And here is a summary of the results from this year, along with last year's results.

I evaluate box turtle activity as the number of turtles seen per hour spent observing. I didn't include all the total time throughout the year as indicated (408 hours this year), I just included the time from the first box turtle March 20 to the last one on October 17.

So while it's true I saw more box turtles this year (87 vs 66 last year), I also spent a disproportionately greater amount of time doing it (340 hours vs 180 hours last year).

In the end, this year's activity of 0.26 turtles per hour was just 70% of last year's 0.37 turtle per hour. Or maybe 2012 was an unusually active year - it will take at least another year of observation to begin to know what average activity is.

I'll have more to say from time to time as I sift through the data. Continued discovery of new turtles suggests that we get a lot of transients. These are distinctly different from the ones that I continue to see frequently - I saw Sylvia a total of 11 times this year, never more than a couple hundred feet from a rough center that hasn't changed since I first saw her seven years ago.

Friday: 18 October 2013

Into the Cold  -  @ 08:48:23
But not just yet!

After five turtleless hikes in the last ten days, I was just about to decide that box turtles had gone into hibernation. Then yesterday I spotted Reuben, just a few hundred feet west of the house on the north slope. I have to laugh, since Reuben reminds me of why I love keeping track of these guys.

I was pretty sure it was Reuben, especially when I turned him over and saw the plastron markings. I had to get back to the house and take a look at previous photos, but yes, that's him.

What a good boy! I've seen him five times this year (six times last year, and never before that (!) - you can tell I'm starting to compile statistics). This year I found him twice in a blissful state that we need not go further into, other than to note that one time it was with Sylvia (scandalous), and another it was with Ernest (actually a young female).

As I was going to training last night, I passed a box turtle on Wolfskin Road, and so had to stop and move him off the road. I used to assume that any driver would avoid squashing a possibly 50-year-old box turtle crossing a road, until last year's Clemson demonstration.

You never know when it will do any good, but the prevailing notion is that if you move a turtle off the road, put it on the side that it was headed toward. I wouldn't even mention this, since I would have thought it was obvious, but I actually encountered someone who did the opposite, for convoluted reasons that I wasn't able to wrap my brain around.

Box turtles are stubborn. In the short to medium term, they will keep going in the direction they are going.

Yesterday we had a small amount (0.08") of rain, the first in 10 days. I can tell that the dearth of turtles has been mainly due to how dry things have been - we've certainly been warm enough. But I think we are nonetheless treading the threshhold of hibernation. We'll be down into the 40s in the next few nights, and while I've seen a turtle or two the next day after mid 30s at night, that's been in the spring.

Pleasant dreams, if the limbic wetware supports them.

Tuesday: 15 October 2013

What Happened on Saturday  -  @ 09:38:13
Last Saturday, Oct 12, we had our very first Oglethorpe County Firefighting Festival. Lasting all day, it came complete with competitions and sunburn. Our new county firefighters association president worked hard to put this on, and in general it was a success. It had to compete with a UGA home game and the first day of primitive weapons deer hunting, so the attendance was not as good as we would have hoped. Out of 14 fire departments, I think there were six represented. We had four people there and our pumper, which we actually used, so that was good. Law enforcement and med were there, as well as a few civilians, but mostly this was a day for firefighters to have some fun together.

The event was held in the Oglethorpe County High School football stadium parking lot. Early on we had a few fire engines, including Lexington's ladder truck. Throughout though, sheriff's office and EMS carried the day for attendance, and many thanks to them for that support.

It was a very bright and sunny day, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who went home with a pretty bad sunburn. I think the UV was being reflected off the parking lot.

One of the first events, below, was rapid dress. Training requires that you be able to don all protective gear, and your BA in place and in use, in under 2 minutes. I think the winner here did it in 55 seconds, which is pretty amazing.

Many of the contenders were from the current training class at Arnoldsville, and Glenn has put up a photo spread of a night of training.

SwiftFire Protection provided a demo for use of a CO2 fire extinguisher. We've done this in our own training, but like most used a kerosene/diesel fuel mix in a 55 gal drum cut in half lengthwise. As the rep said, messy doesn't begin to describe it. They had the clever idea of a deep broad pan of water with propane gas bubbling through it via a tank set way back. It makes for exactly the right bed of fire effect, and all you have to do after is pour out the water.

Lexington's ladder truck provided one of the competitions, timed climb to the top and then back down. I don't imagine anyone got a chance to practice this one beforehand.

This little kid wanted to try. I don't see much fear of heights there.

Favorite event: barrel blast. One team of two on either side of a barrel tries to blast the barrel across the others' position with a 1.5" hose. Each team's hose is supplied by the same truck.

I'm not sure why they chose to situate the barrel with one team slightly but significantly downhill from the other team. We did have a couple of effective low comedy moments, one where one team couldn't get their hose to work (they lost) and another when the team kind of fell flat on their faces (they lost).

There were a couple of other events, such as the Kid's Bucket Brigade, followed by the adult firefighter brucket brigade, that I haven't immortalized here. Interesting observation here: kids do it completely different from adults. Kids refuse to give up their bucket, and insist on carrying it directly to the fire, thereby taking the brigade part out of it.

By then it was 3pm, our afternoon relief from Wolfskin wasn't going to be able to make it, and everyone had other things planned beginning a couple of hours earlier. So we missed the last few events - CPR on a dummy missing a few limbs, and the toughest firefighter final event. I have no idea how that one turned out!

Sunday: 13 October 2013

Indian Pipes  -  @ 08:21:33

My encounters with Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are infrequent things, here. I only have two blog entries on them, Oct 24 2009, and Sep 19 2004, and I think that fairly represents my encounters since 2004.

I refer to those posts for a description of the plant, other than to say that this species does not, and cannot, do photosynthesis. It diverts food from nearby trees via a fungus that serves as a transport route between the source and the Indian Pipe. The plant is only visible when the flowers, which you see here, emerge for a few days to a week or two.

This year I've run across two emergences, one observation in September, and then not too far away, the photographed observation on Oct 3. This year, the first emergence was close to a variety of tree species, but the second was close only to sweetgums.

I took a look at the annual and summertime rainfall during those years. Here we've had a somewhat cooler summer with quite a bit of rainfall, twice that usually seen in summer. However 2004 and 2009 were under average quite significantly, for the summer, at least. Average summer temperatures for those years were not particularly low or high. So I don't have a ready explanation for this year's possibly high emergence rate.

Friday: 11 October 2013

No They're Not Out To Get You  -  @ 10:05:41
Yesterday I was heading down Goulding Creek for my last turtling tour of the year on the new property. Primitive weapons for deer starts Saturday, and that will confine me to the older 40 acres until January 2. I was about to drop down to a sandy beach area when I looked down and to my right ten feet.

Now around here everyone is enjoying the cooler, sunny, and dry days of October. This is the time of year when it's great to be in northeast Georgia. Everyone is happy, including this guy, whose larger image can be invoked with the usual click on the pic:

This is a nice big timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, whose type we saw last almost exactly two years to the day. His (because I think the more gently tapering tail suggests that) midsection was just almost as big around as the calf of the leg that last year accidently kicked his predecessor. As has been the case with all the venomous reptiles I've run across, he was watchful, but calm, almost arrogant, which of course he can afford. I took an alternate route after a few minutes of photo op.

I continued westward down Goulding Creek to the West End, and then wound back up hill and down until I got to Deck 1. The terrain map on the right is the highest mag Google will give, so the featureless map below details this hour of hiking. The red arrow is the encounter with the rattlesnake, and the bluegreen arrows show my subsequent (and much more watchful) route to the west and back.

It was just east of Deck 1, at the balloon marker on the map above, that an equally large rattler moved across my path, coming obliquely toward me atop the senescing Microstegium. He was quite clear to me but he's a little hard to see in the photo except for the patterns at the mid left. His head is raised and partially obscured at lower right. He had detected me at this point, and stopped to check me out. I took an alternate route, after a few minutes of photography.

The second sighting was 200 feet from the first, and 50 feet uphill to the Deck 1 location. Now that's not a huge distance, and I suppose it's possible that this is the same snake, but what a coincidence if so! And if not, then the woods are just full of them!

Tuesday: 8 October 2013

The Cooler Days of Autumn  -  @ 06:25:07
The trouble with photographing stretched out snakes is that the photos get wide and short. Maybe I should just rotate them 90 degrees and enlarge. Click on the photo for a larger version on a new page.

Stretched out, directly in my usual daily path above the creek, here is the most common snake in the world, to hear everyone around here tell it. Yet after years of walking through the woods, 400 miles just this year alone, I've never seen until yesterday a copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix.

I think what happens is that what people most often actually see is the really most common larger snake around here, a black rat snake, which can be solidly black, and can have a considerable amount of blotching. Depending on the degree of patterning, the story is much more interesting if it becomes a cottonmouth or a copperhead, the killing so much more justified. But copperhead patterning is very distinctive - hourglass with the narrow constriction on top of the body. No other snake that is blotched exhibits this pattern. And I've never had anyone produce photographic proof of their triumph.

As for their much more venomous and aggressive taxonomic cousins, cottonmouths or water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) well, we're still not supposed to have them around here in Oglethorpe County. In Georgia they're coastal plains critters mostly, and the idea is that they haven't made it above the fall line. In Alabama though, they have migrated above that point, and it's likely they will here too, eventually. Last I talked to a wildlife biologist, he said there *might* have been believable reports in east Oglethorpe County. A newspaper photograph at that time purporting to be a killed cottonmouth close by here was clearly a rat snake.

This one was a relatively small snake, just a couple of feet long. I photographed it for at least ten minutes and it never moved. Later I ran across behavioral accounts that claim that, rattlesnakes which rattle, or even cottonmouths with their famous white gape, a copperhead doesn't give much warning before striking. The strike *is* the warning.

Apparently the venom is not as potent as that of our other pit vipers, but it's still dangerous and is going to make you pretty sick. And in the US, copperhead snake bites are the most common. I gave this one a wide berth.

Incidentally, it was almost exactly two years ago, Oct 14, 2011 that I gave a timber rattlesnake a little kick. We're now in the time of year when snakes that were nocturnalish now venture forth in the cooler days to bask in the sun.

Sunday: 6 October 2013

The Month of September  -  @ 07:01:08
It's The Month of September, Number 92 in a series. Both temperatures (warmer) and precipitation (much drier) took a big turn for us here in northeast Georgia in September.

Here are the usual temperature anomalies products, at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. Displayed is the high and low temperature anomalies.

Click on the image for the high and low anomaly graphic on a new page:

Most of the US was warmer, like us, to much warmer, in the central states. Southern CA and western AZ were much cooler than normal (again), while the northwest continued much warmer. The northeast continued cooler than normal, but warmer than normal temperatures invaded most of the eastern US for the first time in a couple of months.

Again, the high and low anomalies graphic (click on above figure) shows that nights were warmer than days were cool. And again this effect was particularly pronounced for the West, by whatever means.

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

For most of the western US, September brought copious amounts of rain, while central CA remained dry for at least the second month. Other than east TX, LA, and MS, the rest of the country east of center remained normal, or drier than normal, especially the midwest.

For the Athens, GA area:

Below is what I've finally come up with as a daily rain/temperature plot. The spiky lines are temperatures recorded during the days, and the lighter blue bars are Wolfskin rainfall measurements.

The black line is the normal average daily temperature, and you can see that we're distinctly on our downward fall toward autumn.

As in August, the daily highs seldom went above 90, though this is not unusual in September. The rainfall that began in June and continued through August finally came to an end for us. We only had two precipitation events resulting in a total of 2.17", while 3.94" is normal. Athens claimed 2.42".

We did not break any records in September. The average monthly temperature for September was 73.2 degF, just 1.7 deg lower than the 30-year average of 74.9. Cooler, yes, but not nearly as cool as August's 5 degF departure.

We ended up with 0 days more than 1 standard deviation above normal highs, and 1 night with temperatures more than 1 standard deviation below normal lows.

The monthly histogram below shows the breakdown of high and low temperature range counts from September 1948 on. The error bars are just plus/minus one standard deviation, which I arbitrarily set as the limits outside of which are "significantly" anomalous.

This time the histogram reflects fairly well the average temperatures for September. There was virtually no difference between last month and the average September in the number of days experiencing any particular range.

Last but not least, 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 22 years, and the river of peach shows the standard deviation.

We finally have a plot that shows a rainfall deficit. Official Athens rainfall was at 2.42", just 60% of normal. It never really seemed dry, though, with so much rain the previous three months. I think it took that 4 weeks with no rain (Aug 22-Sep 20) just to dry out completely.

At nearly 51" right now, we're 3" above normal rainfall for the year, with three months remaining.

Prognosticator stuff:

What is the neat prognosticator telling us? For us here in the southeast, it has been accurate over the last three months for temperature and precipitation. As of 5 October, it tells us in the Southeast that we can expect several weeks of much warmer temperatures. As I look at the forecast for the next ten days it looks like tomorrow will drop 10 degF for the foreseeable future, so I'm not so sure about the prognosticator there. Thereafter we'll have an equal chance of normal temperatures through December. The picture is quite different elsewhere, so be sure to take a look if you're not close by us.

Precipitation will be highly variable across the US, but at least in Athens the three month outlook will be for equal chances of rainfall after we get through this dry spell in the nest week or so.

ENSO stuff:

The folks at CPC have a version of PDF or HTML that is much different from their previous presentations, but at least it's there and the link isn't broken.

As of Sep 30, ENSO neutral conditions continue, and are expected to remain neutral throughout the Northern Hemisphere winter. We've remained ENSO neutral now for 16 months. The last time we had such a lengthy period without an El Niño or La Niña was 2005-2006.

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for August is available, or will be when the government shutdown is over. And last year's annual report for 2012 regionally, nationally, and globally is also available.

Saturday: 5 October 2013

Hunting Dates  -  @ 12:38:25
Always something important to us, and in retrospect to others who had no clue beforehand.

Those who have followed the blog know that we allow hunters on our 20 acres west. They'd been hunting on it since before our time, and we had no trouble allowing them to continue doing so after we bought the property. The hunting club invites Glenn and me to join them for their venison chili fest every year, and this year it will be Saturday October 19.

We've had deer season bow and arrow since September 14, Saturday. Not many join in archery, but the hunting club manager did find that a couple of hunting club members do. Glenn asked if they would steer clear of our donated area until mid October, and so far that seems to have worked out ok. I went out three times this past week, and encountered no one.

Primitive weapons start next Saturday, the 12th. I won't be going onto the donated section of our property after Friday of next week. I think that will cover my turtling in that new property.

Regular deer season begins Saturday Sep 19, and lasts through Jan 1. I'll have fluorescent orange on during that time, and so should everyone else.

It's an interesting time of the year.

Tuesday: 1 October 2013

The Other Project  -  @ 09:18:32
Besides the microstegium eradication, there has been one other project that I've persisted in over a number of years. Long time readers will know that I'm talking about box turtles. In our part of the country, that's just one species, Terrapene carolina carolina, the Eastern Box Turtle. Here is just a little bit of an overview of the last few years, without getting into details.

We're just days or a few weeks away from the last box turtle of the season. I haven't been writing much about them, but I've certainly been thinking about them during this intense but puzzling season. I'll gradually make all that clear, but here's some background first.

I started keeping track of box turtles with my first photograph in 2005. I blogged that, and someone (Bev? Robin? Mark? Pablo?) suggested in comments that this would be an interesting long term project. For all sorts of reasons, it has become exactly that.

The chart below is about as crude as you can get, but it does one thing very well - it gives you an idea of how my interest evolved over the years. This year I've increased, over last year, the total time, mileage covered, and turtles observed.

Until close to the end of 2011, my observations of box turtles were casual. I made no special effort to be a close observer, nor to sample the woods on hikes conducted in a meaningful way. I did blog each box turtle in rather derivative posts, I kept track of where I'd found them, and at least I did keep photographic records.

I really started ratcheting up the rigor of my sampling in 2012 and have continued that in 2013. That's pretty obvious from the graph. The individual blogging on each turtle discovery largely ceased - there were just too many new turtles. I laid out patterns of hikes through different parts of the property that overall sampled it as best one person can.

In 2012 I added on an east section, and in 2013 I added on the newly purchased property. The study area is now around 40-50 acres - one of my many related winter tasks this year will be to figure that out more accurately.

Again, this is a crude plot, because box turtle activity is probably more informative but only reliably covers 2012-2013. This is good enough for the moment.

Box turtles start tentatively emerging from hibernation in March, here, and happy we are to see the first ones. I've consistently found the most turtles during the month of May. This is probably due to post hibernation foraging and mating urges. In May and June the males' head, feet, and neck patterns seem to take on the most flagrant color intensities. Box turtles are tetrachromats, with four optical receptors for color. They can possibly perceive a finer distinction in coloration than we mere trichromats can, and are extremely visual animals.

The graph above tells me that I can probably expect to find a few more turtles in October. There seems to be an uptick in activity, probably due to a scrambling for hibernacula, but the end is in sight.

I've only found one box turtle still active in November, and that, to bring the circle closed, was the first one I photographed. I've never found any box turtles during Dec-Feb, even though I've read that box turtles can emerge for limited activity during warm winter days. We certainly have those warm winter days, but I can see no support for that assertion.

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