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

Wednesday: 19 March 2014

About Those Box Turtles  -  @ 10:02:37
It's been 138 days since I caught 2013's last box turtles, Austin and Torri, on November 1, in a compromising position. No Supreme Court nominations for you!

Those who have followed this story know that 138 days isn't just an idle number - it's a number fraught with significance, because scouring for box turtles is part of what I do on an ongoing basis. For four months and eighteen days box turtles have been slumbering underground, but some kind of alarm is about to wake them up.

Last year I took note of the first emergences of box turtles in the spring. With three years of reliable observations, I noted Mar 19, 20, and 22 21 as the appearance dates in previous years 2013, 2012, and 2009, respectively. I also noted that the wildly varying weather surrounding those dates didn't seem to have much effect, at least in the medium term.

I think it's cool that these first appearances coincide with the astronomical start of spring, pretty much regardless of weather.

We'll see how that holds up this year, but we certainly won't break any records. So far, I haven't seen any box turtles, and we had some really warm and pleasant days in the last couple of weeks, some dry and some wettish, and all seemingly seductive to warmth loving reptiles.

At left is my day to day recording of temperatures and rainfall in Wolfskin.

Red is for last year and blue is for this year. The dots are individual data and the lines are 25 point running averages. The dark green rainfall bars are actually at 1/10 the y-axis numbers, in inches, while the light green cumulative rainfall numbers are as indicated. The purple is the daily mean temperature average over 30 years.

This year our weather has been up and down since February. January was unusually cold, February about average, and we've been on the cold side so far in March. Still, we've had some warm excursions in the last two or three weeks.

Spikes in the weather temperatures at this time of the year aren't all that odd here. What our northern friends see as frequent snowstorms, we typically just see as rainfall followed by a drop in temperature for a few days.

We're just coming out of such a pattern, and will be warming up after a good 1.5" rainfall. I'm totally expecting to see a box turtle today or tomorrow, and will be out looking.

Of course, I said that last week too, and the week before, hoping to break the first emergence record.

Friday: 14 March 2014

About That Tree  -  @ 09:08:30
We have three large pines just south of the house. A couple of years ago, one of them died. It's been peacefully dropping its branches since. Notice that it now lacks a top.

I guess you know what's going to happen next.

On Wednesday afternoon, a cold front came through after rain earlier in the day. We had moderately high, gusty winds. I was in the greenhouse you see below, rescuing a leopard frog, when there was a big crash five feet to my right.

The top of that dead pine had broken off and sailed 50 feet horizontally, right into the deck railing and sliding glass door. It broke the deck railing, and interestingly the outer but not the inner pane of the double pane glass of the door. (More interesting was how the glass was designed to break - into itty bitty rectangular chunks, and not shards and needles so much. A wonderful lesson in materials science, I guess.)

All these trees are leaning away from the house, if they lean at all, and branch growth has been more on that side, too, since it's the south side. Our winds tend to come from the west or northwest, but the key word there is "tend." We've used these facts to rationalize leaving the trees, or at least delaying their removal, up to this point.

We've now lived in this house for 23 years, this April. I had to piece things together a bit: moving day was April 1991. I know this because those great solvers of international problems, whose day job was building our house, spent much time that previous fall and winter discussing GHW Bush's planned invasion of Kuwait.

We've been lucky in that this is the first weather related damage we've had. I guess we should take this first as a strong hint.

Wednesday: 12 March 2014

Some Signs of Spring  -  @ 07:45:29

When it comes to our earliest spring flowering natives, there are some good indicators, and some not so good.

I gave up trying to peg flowering dates on coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, and yellow jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, both weak vines. As you might pick up from the specific epithet, these are "evergreen," and probably fall more in the category of flowering opportunistically anytime in the late winter.

But two species at this point in the spring have shown fairly well defined flowering times, and I've kept track of each for several years. They have a different habit from the above two vines. These plants are more along the lines of spring ephemerals - smallish forbs that emerge for a time, quickly flower, and then fade away before it gets too hot.

Here are our earliest natives. I've written about them too many times to link to, now. You should keep an eye out for these if you're in the northeast Georgia piedmont!

First up, Trout lilies, Erythronium umbilicatum. Just FYI, there are a number of species of Erythronium.

I've been observing these since I planted them in scattered areas within an acre or two, in 2009. Except for that year, I've noted flowering dates since, so n=5. They have an average flowering date of March 3, with a standard deviation of 13 days. This year I noted them first on March 10, certainly within that rather broad window. The earliest I've seen them in flower was February 17, 2013, and the latest was March 19, 2010. Of course these are plantings from a population a couple of miles away, so no telling how long it takes them to fully adapt to the new habitat.

Here's another common denizen on our wooded slopes, Bloodroot, Sanguineum canadense. Except for 2009, I have flowering dates going back to 2003, so n=11. I find an average flowering date of March 9, with a standard deviation of 5 days on either side. The earliest date I've found was March 2, 2012, and the latest was March 18, 2010. This year it was March 11, certainly within the window of normal flowering.

I haven't been good about noting the emergence times for leaves of what we call Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. We have several populations in considerably different habitats, and they show widely different leaf emergence and flowering times (which I have not really kept track of - damn!). I suspect that we have a nearby population of yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) and that there is a gradient of hybridization from the higher, drier populations to the lower, wetter, creekside ones.

Still, it's nice to see the leaves emerge on the smaller plants along with the earliest spring flowers.

A lot of folks will first notice spring flowers in planted daffodils and crocuses.

Daffodils are not native, of course, and have been largely selected for horticultural variants. One of the variations that have been selected for is time of flowering, and I've never tried seriously to take note of that. We have quite a population of locals that show up every year as early as January, and I like them. Glenn and I brought in a number of plantings of old homesite daffodils that show interesting differences in flower shape and color. Last year I planted a new patch from bulbs I dug up near an old homesite just southwest of our property line on that side.

We've already had our first tick of the season - the last few days have been very warm. I'm still looking for the first box turtle, and thought surely I'd find some yesterday, but no, not yet. Pollen counts yesterday were high, apparently resulting from trees: maple, alder, elm, and possibly oak (although it seems a little early for that). So to be fair, those should also be counted among our earliest spring flowers, although of a different and otherwise less noticed sort.

Saturday: 8 March 2014

The Month of February  -  @ 08:12:14
It's The Month of February, Number 97 in a series.

Much was made of continuing unusual cold, and for the northern half of the US it was continuing cold, at least in the eastern half. It's been hard to convince people around here that February for us was just about average.


Here are the usual temperature anomalies products, at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. Displayed are the mean temperature anomalies, not the absolute temperatures.

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

As I mentioned above, much of the eastern part of the country continued unusually cold weather. But the northern cold anomaly moved west in February, and retreated from the southeasternmost states.

Excepting Washington and Oregon, the Southwest continued much warmer than usual February temperatures.

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

The monthly precipitation anomalies across the country look remarkably the same as in January. Some relief from the drought came to much of California in February. Precipitation surpluses also picked up in the northwestern quadrant of the country. But normal to lower than normal precipitation remained the rule almost everywhere else.

For the Athens, GA area:

Below is my usual daily rain/temperature plot visualizing the changes in temperatures and precipitation. The spiky lines are temperatures recorded roughly ten times a day, and the lighter blue columns are Wolfskin rainfall measurements. The black line is the normal average daily temperature, and you can see that we're now starting to creep upward.

As far as cold is concerned, well, not that much. The only plunge below freezing occurred along with most of our precipitation for the month, resulting in sleet and snow for us Feb 11-12. It's that winter storm that people around here are remembering, not the unusually warm seven or so days that we enjoyed toward the end of the month. It did result in three snow days where many stayed home, and south of us the effects of that winter storm were much worse. Here we got dryish ice pellets; there it was damaging frozen rain with extensive power outages.

Our temperatures, unlike a lot of the country's, were just about average in February. The Athens area mean temperature during February was a little less than half a degree below the normal 47.4F. We came nowhere close to breaking any record low temperatures, but on Feb 20 did come within 1 degF of breaking a 78F record high.

We had only 5 days more than 1 standard deviation above normal highs (average is 4.8 days). And we had only 4 nights with temperatures more than 1 standard deviation below normal lows (average is 5.3 nights). By these criteria, temperatures in February averaged out very close to the norm.

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

The high temperature ranges fall on or within the error bars, but there are two low temperature ranges significantly different from the norm. We had fewer lows in the warmer 41-50F range, and these reappear in the average low range of 31-40F. Average days, slightly cooler nights.

Below is the monthly accumulation of rain in Athens, GA. The river of peach is the long term standard deviation of all the daily black dots in the last 15 years, and the red line is the daily cumulative average. We're the green line this year, and for almost half the month it cradled that surplus of blue above the one standard deviation mark.

We had three significant periods of precitation in February, and still came out considerably below the average 4.48" rainfall for the month: 3.96" in Athens and 3.67" out here in Wolfskin.

The main February event was, of course, the snow and ice system that moved through mid month.

During the nearly rainless final week of February, there were numerous brush fires reported in Oglethorpe County. Warm daytime humidity got down to less than 20%, which is very dry for us.

Prognosticator stuff:

What is the prognosticator telling us (as of March 7)?

First, for us here in the southeast, we'll have a higher probability of cooler weather for the next couple of weeks. Temperatures will trend back toward a somewhat higher probability of warmer than usual weather over the three month long term period.

We'll have a below average chance of precipitation over the next couple of weeks. From then on there seems to be an equal chance of normal precipitation in April and May.

There is also the seasonal drought outlook on that page, and it doesn't look good for the southwest and west over the MAM period.

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 3 March, ENSO neutral conditions continue, and are expected to remain neutral, now through the Northern Hemisphere spring. We've remained ENSO neutral now for 22 months. The last time we had such a lengthy period without an El Niño or La Niña must be at this point in the 1990s.

(There has been some discussion of signs that an El Niño may be gearing up for later in the summer.)

NOAA's Monthly State of the Climate product for January is available. Extensive ice cover in the northeast, and snow everywhere in the East. Balancing that out are above normal temperatures in the West, with continuing exceptional drought in the Pacific states, especially California.

You'll find that and more in the preliminary annual report for 2013 regionally, nationally, and globally. NOAA will add to and modify it over the course of the next few months.

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