Gopher Tortoise - Kathleen Allen

A Day in the Life of a Gopher Tortoise Technician

Kathleen Allen is a seasonal staff member working with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation section.

When I tell people I work as a gopher tortoise technician, they either nod their heads knowingly or stare at me with a look that says, “I think I may have misheard you.” I have to explain a gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the state reptile of Georgia, and my team, the Tortoise Crew—as we are affectionately known around the office—surveys lands suspected to have viable gopher tortoise populations. A viable population means there are enough individuals in the area to guarantee the survival of the population. An area needs, at minimum, 250 adult tortoises to be viable.

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Amazing Work, Amazing Animals

As part of #7Days4SeaTurtles, we’ve followed DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they worked the beach – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. As we close out the week, here are their thoughts today. We’ll start with Sarah.

I cannot believe how fast this turtle season has passed by! It feels like just yesterday I was desperately trying to find the first nest among the ghost crab sand piles. Now, we are finding nest emergences left and right!

It has been a busy season so far on Little St. Simons, granted not as crazy as last year (223 nests) but it is looking to be a record compared to previous years. I am thrilled our shore is witnessing such a jump in numbers since years before. On Little St. Simons, there were years in the 50-nest mark and it was looking bleak.

Now, I’m trying to beat our pre-2016 record of 124 nests in 2015. And at 103 today, I’m hopeful!

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Donkeys, Hogs, Rain … and Hatchlings

As part of the #7Days4SeaTurtles focus this week, we’re following DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they work the beach – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. Here are Jack’s thoughts after this morning. Little St. Simons’ Kate Tweedy and Andrew Lyons ran the beaches for Sarah, who was off today.

Each morning I am excited to go through the engaging processes of identifying crawls, locating egg chambers and investigating for signs of hatchling emergence. Arriving at Ossabaw’s beaches before sunrise, I am always hopeful that I may be lucky enough to see a nesting female. And now, with nests reaching their full incubation periods, I’m also hopeful that I will get to see hatchlings heading to the ocean.

However, even though I start each day excited by the prospect of turtles, if and when I see them, they are usually the last animal I encounter. In fact, on a typical work day, I find myself going around, over and sometimes almost through (accidently, of course) a host of other animals just to get to the beach.

For instance, take this morning.

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Nighttime Crawls and Daily Nest Work

As part of #7Days4SeaTurtles this week, we’re following DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they work the beach – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. Sarah starts today’s post, then Kyle picks up following his and Jack’s day off on Wednesday.

I thought yesterday, when I had the chance to see and hold some hatchlings, couldn’t get any better. But I was proven wrong last night!

Since the hatchlings at nest no. 1 (see Wednesday’s post) were so close to the surface, we determined they would probably hatch last night. I and some of Little St. Simons’ staff decided to go out at sunset and see if we could spot the hatchlings emerge.

Leaving behind all the extra poundage from my patrol equipment took such a load off biking on the beach! It was a beautiful evening at low tide and I felt like I was in one of those advertisements for luxury resorts.

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A Great Day for Turtles

As part of the #7Days4SeaTurtles focus this week, we’re following DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they work the beach – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. Here’s what Sarah encountered this morning. (Jack and Kyle were off.)

Today was an amazing day! What started off as a typical morning on the beach with a gorgeous sunrise turned into a day I’ll never forget.

Since Little Saint Simons Island had such a record-breaking nesting year last year, the island hired a shorebird and sea turtle intern, Kate Tweedy, to help out the researchers. Today was one of the days she helps and we decided to complete some nest maintenance (removing sand, vegetation, re-staking, etc.) so we started out pretty early.

Kate took the island’s northern beach and I took the south. The north beach takes longer and has more nests to deal with, both in processing new nests and maintaining the others. Since I had less to do, we agreed I would bike up after I was done and help her. Little did I know what I was in for.

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A Morning to Forget, and Remember

As part of the #7Days4SeaTurtles focus this week, we’re following DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they work their turtle beaches – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. Here’s what Kyle and Sarah found today.

Kyle, here. By 7 a.m., I was positive that today was going to be one of those days you just have to grit your teeth and get through.

Initially, when I saw the turtle tracks in the early morning twilight, I was excited. It’s always great to have the potential to find a new nest, and this morning was especially exciting because I was on the southern-most beach, where the frequency of new nests has dropped off a little recently.

I pulled up to the tracks and was able to identify the distinct alternating flipper marks left by a nesting loggerhead sea turtle – the most common nesting turtle we have here in Georgia. I followed the track to the body pit, which is the place in the sand where the turtle has chosen to lay her eggs. The body pit is typically obvious because it’s where she sort of does a “sand-angel” and clears an area suitable for her nesting needs.

This particular turtle left a textbook example of a body pit, and I began searching the sand with my probe stick, which I use to find the egg chamber so I don’t have to dig up the entire pit to find the eggs.

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Life on the Turtle Beach

What’s it like to monitor sea turtle nesting on Georgia’s coast? Find out as DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza blog from the beach this week. Sarah works on Little St. Simons Island; Kyle and Jack patrol Ossabaw Island beaches. Their posts are part of #7Days4SeaTurtles, a week-long, social media-based effort to raise awareness of sea turtle conservation in Georgia.

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The daily commute.

Biking for Turtles

Hello, my name is Sarah Martin and I am the Georgia DNR sea turtle tech (or “Turtle Girl”) on Little St. Simons Island. I am originally from Pittsburgh and in 2016 I received a B.S. in wildlife and fisheries biology and a minor in biology from California University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been working seasonally for DNR for two years and have fallen in love with the state, culture and the heat.

I have been interested in herpetology and sea turtles ever since I was a child. When I would go to Hilton Head, S.C., with my family each summer, I loved to see the sea turtle nests. The whole process and biology fascinated me and it became my dream to one day see the work up close. I never knew I would be doing the work someday!

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Saltmarsh sparrow (Tim Keyes/DNR)

Shadowing Saltmarsh Sparrows to Help Save Them

DNR-led Study Tracks Rare Species from Georgia

By June, saltmarsh sparrows are gone from Georgia’s coast, flying from the southern rivers of grass where they winter to marshes from Virginia to Maine where they nest.

Although gone, however, they are not forgotten: They are followed.

Thanks to a tracking project by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this spring’s migration could help pinpoint where saltmarsh sparrows from Georgia breed. Such connections are considered vital to conserving a species that otherwise could go extinct in 50 years.

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Eastern spotted skunk (Bob Gress)

A Search – and a Good Word – for Skunks

By Emily Ferrall

You can imagine the looks I received when I told people I worked with skunks for the past few months. Most reacted with dislike, but I’m hoping to change that opinion by providing information on these misunderstood creatures.

First, did you know that we have two species of skunks in Georgia? The more common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is the one many Georgians have seen. The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius) is unknown to most, but it is also a Georgia native!

As are all skunks, eastern spotteds are sometimes called polecats. But unlike other skunks, spotted skunks often display a unique behavior as a defensive measure when threatened: They do a handstand and spray their scent directly over their head!

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Trail cam photo of eastern spotted skunk in Rabun County (DNR)

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Bee on the Lookout …

Rusty-patched bumble-bee_Culver's root_Susan Day_UW-Madison Arboretum
A rusty patched bumblebee on Culver’s root at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum (Susan Day/UW-Madison Arboretum)

By Anna Yellin

On March 21, the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) became the first bumblebee listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Before the 1990s, rusty patched bumblebees were abundant and seen throughout the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec as well as in 28 states from the eastern U.S. to the Midwest. Mountainous North Georgia marked the southern extent of the species’ range.

In the last few decades, however, the population of rusty patched bumblebees has crashed. It is believed the species now persists in only a few scattered locations in approximately 0.1 percent of its known range. None of these locations are in Georgia.

But given that most people do not pay much attention to the type of bumblebees they see, and very few would previously have been on the lookout for this species, it’s possible there are some rusty patched bumblebees still in Georgia. That means we should be watching for them!

The loss of this pollinator has likely led to significant agricultural and economic losses. For growers of cranberries, apples, plums, alfalfa and onion seed, crop yields may already be lower. The rusty patched is known as a generalist forager, tirelessly pollinating hundreds of plant species. It also flies for an exceptionally long season. In fact, specimens held in the Smithsonian Institution insect collection from Georgia were collected in Neels Gap near Suches at the end of November!

In addition to the bee’s prolonged season, this species is a specialist in “buzz pollination.” In this especially efficient and effective method, rusty patched bumblebees assist plants in producing fruit. Some plants, like blueberries, tomatoes and eggplants, buzz pollination is required to shed the pollen from the anther (the part of the stamen where pollen is produced) and enter the pistil for the production of fruit. (The rapid movement of flight muscles by buzz pollinators is transmitted to the anther through their legs and mouth, vibrating loose more pollen grains. Watch this video.)

We are fortunate that the rusty patched bumblebee is not our only native buzz pollinator! Despite efforts by some commercial growers to ensure pollination, such as renting honeybee hives, many crops will not be pollinated if we lose buzz pollinators.

Primary threats to the rusty patched bumblebee are hypothesized to include habitat loss, pesticides (including systemic neonicotinoids), climate change and disease. Many also think that the population crash of this and other Bombus species is due to disease spreading from honeybees, a non-native species imported by European settlers. At least two significant diseases found in honeybees – deformed wing virus (DWV) and the fungus Nosema ceranae – have been found to also kill bumblebees.

The hope in this case is that the genetic diversity the rusty patched bumblebee has evolved to include, over time and geographic variability, may prevent the species from being driven to extinction by disease. Field surveys seem to support the idea that some of the bees have persisted through a resistance to the illnesses, because in the isolated areas the species is still found their numbers are good.

Others point to changes in the types of pesticides used in the 1990s and suggest that chemicals are to blame for the species’ decline. In truth, why this bumblebee is disappearing is unknown.

Considering the wide extent of its historic range, discovery of the rusty patched bumblebee in areas where it’s not known or hasn’t been documented in years will likely be done by the public. The protection of those areas that results from such finds and research to understand why the bees persist there would help scientists protect the species.

So, grab a pair of binoculars and a camera and be on the lookout for rusty patched bumblebees, especially if you live in the Georgia mountains or are hiking on or around the Appalachian Trail. The males and worker bees of this colonial species have a distinctive rusty patch on the back, giving the species its name. If you do spot what you
think is a rusty patched, send a GPS coordinate (or map of the site), the date and a photo – all are essential! — to Bumble Bee Watch (www.bumblebeewatch.org) and to Georgia DNR at anna.yellin@dnr.ga.gov.

Here’s The Xerces Society’s pocket guide to identifying rusty patched bumblebees.

Anna Yellin is environmental review coordinator for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.

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Bombus affinis (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)