Spring comes and the birders arrive prepared to find itty-bitty little migrating warblers and other passerines for the St. Catherines Island Spring Migration Count. Arriving on Friday night, checking the beaches in the evening (for shorebirds), getting a little bit of sleep, and then Saturday morning the count starts. Counters get up before dawn (generally around 4am), to go count owls in their assigned sections, and if they are close to the houses they can return for a little breakfast before a very long day of scouring the island for migrating feathered friends (although all birds are counted). A total of 148 species were recorded, and 8,153 individuals.
Most of the Gopher Tortoises on St. Catherines Island live in North Pasture. Some have formed colonies on other parts of SCI only to return to North Pasture after a few years. Some people call North Pasture (NP) the “North Savanna”. Some have described it as a Long-leaf Pine Flat-wood and another as a managed Long-leaf Pine forest. It was Georgia’s largest stand of mature LL pine on a barrier island when the logging began (1938). Mr. Noble purchased the island in 1943. At that time loggers held timber contracts for most of the remaining timber on SCI.
If you say the words “spring break” and “college students” in the same sentence, it may invoke lurid images of wild and crazy times on the beaches of Florida. For my students and me, spring break 2013 was certainly wild and crazy, but in a different sort of way. Yes, we spent some of that break on beaches of the Georgia barrier islands. But for much of that time, we looked at the many animals in those beaches and their traces: tracks, trails, burrows, and more. It was not a vacation, but a class field trip for a course I teach in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, simply called Barrier Islands.
When American Museum of Natural History archaeologists closed down the dig at Mission Santa Catalina de Guale in the late 1990s, they knew it was one of the most important Spanish colonial sites in America. But because the mission is located on the western scarp—thought to be one of the most geologically stable spots on the island, they believed the unexcavated archaeological deposits should survive, safe and intact for decades. It turns out we were all wrong. In recent years, Wamassee Creek has been meandering closer and closer to the island, literally carving away parts of the unexcavated mission deposits. In fact, the mission site has become one of the fastest eroding places on St. Catherines Island. Whatever the cause of the accelerated erosion, we’re losing five to ten feet of the mission site each year. We can’t stop the erosion, but we can rescue the information and artifacts that are disappearing at a record clip.
Friday, December 14th, on a cold afternoon, 38 birders hopped on boats eager to get to St. Catherines and check out their assigned areas in preparation for Saturday’s 26th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on SCI. This is part of The National Audubon Society’s 113th CBC, with the count taking place in over 2,000 locations from December 14th—January 5th. This year we recorded 131 species and 28,835 individuals on count day. While this is not our highest count, not in species or individuals, it was certainly an exciting year. We had the first-ever sighting of a Razorbill on SCI (photos left), and the first Clay-colored Sparrow spotted on the CBC (that species has been seen once before on the Fall Migration Count 2006—- No Wake Zone Vol. 1, Issue 9 ). We were also lucky that a highly elusive Yellow Rail appeared for the second time (CBC 2010 was the first sighting). Finally, there was an unusually high count of 124 Red-breasted Nuthatches.
Students of the department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Georgia College reveled in the opportunity to explore St. Catherines Island and its aquatic fauna with me. These students (from five countries) are currently participating in classes, including Entomology, Aquatic Entomology, and Invertebrate Zoology as well as independent research. Most of the students come fully trained with collecting and curating techniques of invertebrates and particularly beetles, and are already quite adept for our task of collecting and analyzing beetles of SCI.
Gopher tortoises are large tortoises native to the Southeastern United States. They feed on low-growing vegetation including many grasses and legumes. These are a long-lived species, thought to live over 60 years. Tortoises live in burrows that have been excavated using their shovel-like front feet. The tunnels of these burrows can be up to 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. Gopher tortoises have often been considered a keystone species in their habitat because their burrows offer refuge to over 360 different animal species and because of their natural role as a seed disperser.
There are a myriad of ways to sample fish populations. To date the Augusta State University fish crew has used three types of sampling gear as primary research tools to sample fishes on and around St Catherines Island. Seines are used to sample the beaches, a trawl to sample the estuaries and minnow traps to sample the fresh and brackish waters of the island’s interior. This is about to change as the researchers are getting ready to add a fourth – gill nets. These differ from seines and trawls in that they are passive capture devices. The 150 foot long nets are deployed and left to hang in the water column for a period of time, from a couple to several hours, allowing fish to swim into the net and get caught.
Forests provide many known ecosystem services— they clean our air, sequester our carbon emissions, protect our soils from erosion, provide habitat for species on which we rely for sport and ecotourism, and much more. While the list goes on, there are likely even more ecosystem services which have yet to be discovered. What other amazing services do forests provide to our ecosystem? That’s the question at the heart of Dr. John Van Stan’s (Fig. 1) research on St. Catherines Island. To begin answering this question, Dr. Van Stan is currently installing monitoring equipment that will allow him and his colleagues at Georgia Southern University, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (in Leipzig, Germany) to track water and nutrients as they move from the canopy into the soils and freshwater lens and, ultimately, out to the ocean. They expect to find new forest influences over each of these ecosystem components critical to barrier islands as a whole.
When spending time on the Georgia coast, particularly in late summer, you will likely see shark fins in the waters. This usually inspires a little apprehension and awe in us all. Thankfully there is a good chance that what you are seeing in the shallow waters are Bonnethead (also known as shovelhead) sharks, the smallest in the family of 9 species of Hammerheads. They are known for nibbling on small fish, bivalves, blue crabs, shrimp, octopuses, crustaceans, and even sea grasses, not large mammals such as ourselves. Bonnetheads have noticeably rounder heads; protruding forward like a shovel; than the other 8 species of Hammerheads.