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.

Continue reading “Shadowing Saltmarsh Sparrows to Help Save Them”

Eastern spotted skunk (Bob Gress)

A Search – and a Good Word – for Skunks

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)

Continue reading “A Search – and a Good Word – for Skunks”

Bee on the Lookout …

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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)

Alapaha River WMA

Storied Site for Sandhills, Wildlife

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A gopher tortoise burrow at Alapaha River WMA, which has more tortoises than any other state-owned tract in Georgia. (Rick Lavender/DNR)

By Matt Elliott

Alapaha River Wildlife Management Area had achieved near-legendary status in some circles well before the 6,869 acres were opened as a WMA on Sept. 30, 2016. The site has been variously known as the Lentile Tract, the Snake Sanctuary, Dan Speake’s indigo snake study site (by herpetologists familiar with the work of the Auburn University wildlife professor emeritus) and the Pasture (by local hunters).

Providing the border along Irwin and Tift counties between Tifton and Ocilla, the Alapaha River at this point is more a series of lakes connected by vast floodplain forests than a constant flowing stream. During the Wisconsinan glaciation of the Pleistocene epoch, about 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, cold westerly winds blew across what was then a dry riverbed, piling up massive amounts of quartz sand on the lee side. These sandhills dominate the current landscape at Alapaha River WMA, and provided the basis for the state’s interest in seeing this property permanently conserved.

The sand dunes drop directly down to the river floodplain to the west. The highest dune is called Sand Mountain. Previous landowners harvested stands of natural longleaf pine here years ago, but stands of planted pine have replaced them. Farther to the east, the sandy soils gradually thin out to wetter slash-pine flatwoods, with classic Southern rough of palmetto and gallberry. More than 50 isolated natural ponds, some perhaps of karst origin, pockmark the landscape. Recent private landowners kept up with prescribed burning, and the native groundcover at Alapaha River WMA is largely in good to excellent condition.

The list of rare species found here is extensive: eastern indigo snake, Florida pine snake, gopher frog, striped newt, Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, Bachman’s sparrow, pond spice, silky camellia, Say’s spiketail and many others. The population of gopher tortoises is estimated at about 2,000, fairly incredible for a property of this size, and the most in number and density for any state-owned tract in Georgia.

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UGA graduate student Erin Cork with an eastern indigo (John Jensen/DNR)

The rare species lineup at Alapaha, in particular the number and density of gopher tortoises, attracted the interest of Georgia DNR, which sought funding assistance from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Defense and private foundations to acquire the site. In what was truly a team effort, the state was able to buy the property in August 2016.

Management of the WMA will be closely guided by a plan focused on the gopher tortoise, and approved by the Department of Defense and Fish and Wildlife Service. The over-arching goal will be maintenance and restoration of longleaf pine and associated wetland habitats. Prescribed fire and gradual conversion of planted slash pine stands to longleaf will be the primary techniques used.

The new WMA has been a hit with the public. More than 1,250 deer hunters signed in during the inaugural season. Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton have initiated a myriad of projects, from rare plant surveys in wetlands and under power lines to pitfall traps for the American burying beetle. On any given afternoon you can find other folks just out riding the roads, enjoying the longleaf, the wiregrass, the tortoises and one of the finest slices of natural habitat in south Georgia.

Matt Elliott is assistant chief of the Nongame Conservation Section in DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division. This profile originally ran in The Longleaf Leader, quarterly magazine of The Longleaf Alliance.

Right Whales Veering off Track for Recovery?

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Right whale #1012 with her calf on Jan. 12 (Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit 15488)

Already endangered, North Atlantic right whales face an even more uncertain future following the Southeast’s second-worst calving season since surveys began in the 1980s.

Researchers with Georgia DNR, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA and Sea to Shore Alliance saw only seven right whales this winter off Georgia, north Florida and South Carolina, traditionally calving central for this species that literally grows as big as a bus. Only three of those whales were calves (a fourth calf was seen in Cape Cod Bay this month).

Clay George, DNR’s lead right whale scientist, said the average number of calves reported in the region has dropped by half, from 24 calves annually 2001-2011 to 12 a year since 2012. This winter also registered a new low for the total number of whales documented — seven. Season totals topped 100 per year in the mid-2000s.

“Is this just the low point in a natural cycle, or are low calving numbers the new normal?” George said. “We just don’t know. All we can do is wait and see.”

Considering there are as few as 440 North Atlantic right whales left, long-term declines in calving could increase the risk of extinction. The number of calves, George said, “just isn’t keeping up with mortality.”

There is no strong evidence that right whales are simply having calves farther north on the Atlantic Seaboard. Also, female calving intervals have increased in recent years, suggesting the whales aren’t getting enough zooplankton on their feeding grounds off Canada and New England. Healthy moms should be calving every three or four years, George said.

“Now, moms are only calving every six to eight years.”

What is driving these big-picture changes isn’t clear. What is, however, is the importance of reducing the risk of ship strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing gear – both leading threats to right whales.

Long-lived species, like right whales, can tolerate periods of low reproduction, but only if adult survival rates remain high. Unfortunately, four right whale deaths have been confirmed in the past 12 months, three of which were caused by ship strikes or entanglement, according to the Center for Coastal Studies.

Another death was probably narrowly avoided this winter. One of the whales seen in the Southeast was an adult male dragging a 135-pound crab pot and 450 feet of fishing rope. Responders cut away the gear and the whale named Ruffian was later seen feeding in Cape Code Bay.

Ruffian is covered in scars from an entanglement a decade ago that left him badly hurt. Such encounters aren’t rare: More than 80 percent of right whales bear scars from commercial fishing gear entanglements.

The calving downturn could right itself. A three-year decline in the late 1990s ended with only one calf in 2000. Then came 31 calves in 2001, followed by a decade of strong calving and population growth.

This season’s fourth calf, documented in Cape Cod Bay, was a welcomed addition. Researchers are hoping for more – many more – next winter.

Wind Scorpion Discovered in Georgia

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Wind scorpion in Arizona. (Kevin Stohlgren)

By Dirk Stevenson

A search for imperiled snakes led to the discovery of a rare – for Georgia – and remarkable arthropod.

In December, Matt Moore and Ben Stegenga of The Orianne Society were doing a DNR-supported survey for federally threatened eastern indigo snakes at Little Ocmulgee State Park near McRae when they saw a fresh snake track at a large gopher tortoise burrow. Using a burrow camera, they scoped the tunnel to find a good-sized eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake curled about 6 feet from the entrance.

The men watched the rattler, chuckling as it tongue-flicked the cylinder that houses the camera, before getting ready to go. Then they noticed an odd-looking arthropod scurrying between their legs in the burrow’s sugar-sand apron.

It was a wind scorpion, and apparently the first recorded for the state.

Continue reading “Wind Scorpion Discovered in Georgia”

Sinister Seduction: Pitcherplants and Their Prey

Svelte and stately or squat and trollish, pitcherplants beguile not only bugs but humans. Their carnivorous habit fascinates, especially since they have no moving traps. More than 100 species of pitcherplants occur on four continents – Asia, Australia and the Americas. Each species has tubular leaf traps that collect rainwater and Continue reading “Sinister Seduction: Pitcherplants and Their Prey”

Georgia’s Misunderstood Mollusks

Emily Ferrall is a seasonal staff member working with DNR’s Nongame Conservation section.

The Nongame Conservation section sure knows how to keep busy! I have spent many hours over the past few months sampling rare species with DNR biologists. This means I get to help with everything imaginable—from gopher tortoise sampling to monitoring bat populations. Although it is hard to pick a favorite, sampling freshwater mussels is at the top of my list!

Growing up, I couldn’t have told you much about mussels besides the fact that people eat them. Even in college I didn’t learn very much about this group of animals, so my time spent sampling them this summer was eye-opening. Continue reading “Georgia’s Misunderstood Mollusks”

A Thrilling Turtle Season

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Shell on Sapelo. (Sara Weaver/DNR)

As part of #7Days4SeaTurtles, DNR sea turtle technician Sara Weaver has been posting about her work this week on Sapelo Island.

I have had a very busy summer (and I’m sure most of the other turtle technicians and staff in Georgia would say the same). A successful nesting season for the turtles means more work for us, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s been exciting to learn about sea turtles while I’ve been here, and even more thrilling to watch the females nest on the beach in the middle of the night. And being able to see that a nest has hatched successfully gives me a lot of hope for the effectiveness of our sea turtle research and conservation programs. Continue reading “A Thrilling Turtle Season”

Taking Inventory of Nests

Sunrise_SapeloSound_DNR_2016As part of #7Days4SeaTurtles, DNR sea turtle technician Sara Weaver is posting about her work this week on Sapelo Island.

Today was a longer day than usual. I’m generally finished with work before the hottest part of the day arrives, but that wasn’t the case today. I had three new nests, one nest hatch and I conducted my first nest inventory on my own.

I have definitely had much more challenging days, but since nesting season is wrapping up, I’m used to it being a little slower. We have a total of 205 nests now on Sapelo.

The inventory was really fun. I enjoy doing them because it’s neat to see how well a nest hatched. In this nest, 124 eggs hatched, two dead hatchlings remained in the nest and 16 eggs didn’t hatch. This nest is on the higher end for total eggs, so the inventory took a bit longer than it usually would.

One of the nests that I relocated today had 155 eggs in it, which is quite a large nest. The female’s crawl was also wider than normal though, so she was a big turtle. We normally expect about 80-150 eggs per nest. Our largest nest on the beach has 177 eggs!

#7Days4SeaTurtles is a weeklong outreach by the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division to raise awareness of sea turtle conservation.