Your highly un-scientific November box turtle forecast

Folks, I suspect that we’re winding down for 2015. We’ve gotten in several hundred miles of local “road surveys” that were incidental to other travel in the last few weeks. Nada. Zip. Zero. That being said, it’s not out of the question that folks doing yard work might find turtles in the next month.

The last turtle of 2014 for us was “Salvador”.

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Salvador was the first and last box turtle on the property in 2014.

Salvador turned up on October 18, 2014 in the creek bottom. We saw nothing else – road or yard – after that. Alas, Salvador did not turn up in 2015. That’s not a huge worry. Other researchers or monitors have noted that a given turtle might not appear in a study area for a year. Nevertheless, Salvador was the first that we found on our own property after our first spring and summer here. We’d hoped to see him again.

The adults may still be out and about south of here, particularly on warmer days. Several adult box turtles have been found in the piedmont around Atlanta, according to the Chattahoochee Nature Center Wildlife Department’s Facebook page.

What folks are more likely to find for the next month are turtles – particularly hatchlings – in leaf litter or leaf piles in yards.

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Some hatchlings will emerge from their nests on warmer days in autumn. This one was found in November south of Atlanta last year. This means that they often are found as homeowners are raking leaves or cleaning up flower beds. Most, though, will overwinter in the nests until spring.

The little ones may turn up through November. Even adults could have burrowed down into leaf- or brush piles as the turtles prepare for brumation. It may well be that they would be found in torpor into December if it weren’t for the fact that most homeowners quit the yard maintenance after the leaves have finally fallen.

Does that mean that we’re hanging up our box turtle duties for football and holiday food? Not a chance! We have notes to review, photos to organize, and reports to complete. We’ll be looking at all that we’ve seen and done in terms of figuring out what are some turtle “questions” that we can begin to probe locally. For example, what do they eat? How large are their local home ranges? How do their travel patterns change from month to month. And how do these things differ from box turtles that are observed elsewhere in Georgia? Yup, a box turtle monitor’s job is never done!

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Our small project contributes to box turtle science….

Got an email from a geneticist last week about a big box turtle project with local connections. My own project actually spun off of my volunteer work to collect tissue samples from box turtles for a university geneticist. That geneticist is mentoring a doctoral candidate who is solving problems about how North American box turtles break out into distinct species. That student is reviewing tissue samples that I’ve collected over northern Georgia, indeed in our own watershed, among many others as he completes his PhD work. Genetics is fascinating, particularly as it has revealed that two organisms that appear very similar can actually represent two separate species. Box turtle speciation has been a big challenge for herpetologists, so it’s really neat to think that Gilmer County is contributing to the process of answering those questions.

We have…OWLS!

Here’s Dawn peering out through binoculars at our duck box. WHY am I showing  you the back of Dawn’s head (as attractive as her head is)?

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Well, if you look verrrry carefully at that duck box…

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Still can’t see it?

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Well, I guess you’ll have to take our word for it since we don’t have a real camera. What we found sunning itself in the entrance of our duck box was an Eastern Screech-Owl!

Eastern Screech-Owls – rufous (red) and gray phases. @Sarah Wolfe, 2011 via Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This was REALLY exciting for us. I’ve built nest boxes for screech owls for a number of years. Many of these boxes had nesting screech-owls in that time. Alas, none of those in my own yard have had them for awhile. And Dawn had never seen a live owl in the wild at all. We enjoy listening to them very much so we’ve anxiously listened at dusk and dawn for their territorial calls. And indeed, we recently heard screech-owls a couple of weeks ago. There was always a possibility that screech-owls might nest in a Wood Duck box that we’ve placed across the creek with the permission of a friendly neighbor. We’d never seen a Screech-Owl in the box. Nevertheless, we had found “sign,” such as woodpecker feathers and suspected “owl pellets” that indicated that a Screech-owl had been there before.

Today, though, was the conclusive “payoff” – one of our nest boxes is harboring owls during the “off-season” for Wood Ducks, and Dawn finally got her first owl in the field. Eastern Screech-Owls will begin selecting nest boxes for breeding in December, and will begin breeding in January. Let’s hope this Wood Duck box can do “double-duty” this winter as a nursery for new owls.

Thanks to all my readers! Want to see more?

Welcome to everyone who has stopped in recently! And a special thanks to my “first readers,” including Jan Dappen, Marti Burgess, and Patti Odell! If you’d like a notification of new Mountaintown Naturalist posts, then please “follow” us through WordPress. In the lower right column you’ll see a “follow” button like this:

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Click “follow,” type in your email address, and then click the button. Shazam! You’ll get notifications of future posts. I’m posting about once weekly so it shouldn’t be a nuisance. Thanks!

Fall blooms

Thought that I’d share some recent native wildflowers. It’s easy to overlook these late summer and early autumn bloomers. Natural selection apparently hasn’t often favored big, showy blooms in the dappled sunlight of the southern Appalachian cove. The ericaceous plants – azaleas, rhododendrons, laurels, etc. – really put on a spring and summer show. By August, though, the asters and the like have taken over. Only the nearly full-sun plants will have large blooms.

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It’s hard to miss the Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) . Small blooms but tolerant of sun.
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The Cardinal Flower ( Lobelia cardinalis) has about played out by now.
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Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonium pensylvanicum) is another of the “weedy” native plants. Easily overlooked in ditches and on roadbanks.
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Getting ready to pop is the Red Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii), which will look like a thoroughly “tropical” flower very soon. We only have one but we wish we had more!
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Stepping up to replace its Cardinal Flower cousin is another purple Lobelia species. Here’s one on a backdrop of ferns.
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One of the purple asters (Aster sp.). Leaning toward Late Purple Aster (Aster patens) or Smooth (Aster laevis).
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Pretty certain this is White Snakeroot (Ageratum altissima). I tried really hard to talk myself into thinking it was Boneset but Dawn talked me out of it. Phew….
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One of my fall favorites – Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia). The petals look as if they’re made from seersucker fabric.
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Parnassia asarifolia is referred to as “Kidney-Leaf Grass-of-Parnassus” because of its kidney-shaped leaf.

“There’s turtles in them thar leaves….”

Carolina Box Turtles reminds us that there are a lot of box turtles still around in autumn.

Box turtles are still crossing roads. They’re at even greater risk now since drivers may be unable to see them among all the fallen leaves. Courtesy Carolina Box Turtles.

The autumn leaves are a blessing and a curse for box turtles. The box turtles’ natural forest-floor camouflage makes them very difficult for drivers to see among all of the fallen leaves in the road. We found a road-killed one this week.

A lot of hatchling- and adult box turtles are found in leaf litter and leaf piles. Courtesy Carolina Box Turtles

Thick mats or piles of fallen leaves are also natural cover and a “grocery store” for box turtles. This year’s hatchlings will use the leaf litter to conceal themselves from predators. Leaf litter encourages growth of the invertebrates and flora that box turtles eat to prepare for brumation, or reptilian hibernation. Box turtles will pursue these small animals and plants with gusto so that the turtles will have the fat to sustain themselves over the winter. Within the next 30-45 days, they will start hunkering down for the winter in shallow depressions that have a 1-3″ deep blanket of leaves over them for insulation.

So, what to do?

Well, in terms of turtles on the road, the only advice that I can offer is to SLOW DOWN. You just have to be careful. And those leaves in your yard? My suggestion would be rake or blow them into “turtle friendly” piles or mats away from the places that you want to be leaf-free. Leaves are a cheap and effective natural mulch into which turtles will burrow down for the winter.  If you must burn leaves or brush, then do so immediately after you’ve raked them up. That will minimize the opportunity for a turtle to find the pile, burrow into it, and then die in the subsequent fire. A brumating turtle may not be harmed by the fire itself. It could die  later from the cold, though, if its leafy blanket were burned away.

This leafy “problem” can also be an opportunity for you to encourage turtles and other wildlife. Please consider making leaf- or brush piles in quiet areas of your yard. Turtles and other animals will burrow down in them for winter. Any brush or limbs stacked loosely atop the leaves will further shelter them from predators, the cold wind, and larger animals or vehicles that might crush them.  Birds and mammals will also use the brush for shelter. Raptors may check them for a quick meal.

The Box Turtle Connection offers some construction plans in their September 2015 newsletter. Try to make the piles six- to ten feet in diameter. A good pile doesn’t have to be elaborate. The simplest method may be to rake or blow leaves into piles up to a foot thick. Try placing brush or limbs atop it to make a tall pile without compressing the leaves. Piles in wooded areas, particularly around large trees, will be more likely to attract turtles. Even a pile in a pasture can still draw in the box turtles, as neighbor Rick Dappen can attest. Rick found one while he was tidying up a brush pile.

“Turtle season” is winding down for 2015 so let’s remember to make the roads and yards a little more turtle-friendly.

Be kind to the turtles – and other wildlife! – during the Apple Festival

Just a reminder….

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The annual Apple Festival is almost upon us and, with it, a lot of half-eaten apples, apple pies, apple fritters, and fast-food leftovers that sometimes become “food litter” on our roads. Food litter is a major attractive danger for all sorts of Gilmer wildlife, and not just box turtles. The scent of food draws in the mice, rabbits, box turtles, and other small animals. These animals are often crushed in the road by automobiles. Those animal remains then attract raccoons, opossums, and other scavengers which consume the remains and the food litter. Vultures and crows even get in on the act. All of these guys are likely to be hit by cars, too. Automobiles aren’t the only threat to the small animals. Hawks and owls are also drawn to hunt the smaller critters in the road. Both hawks and owls are so single-minded about hunting that they will often accidentally either fly into a car or roadside fences. All of this turns into a lot of suffering for Gilmer wildlife. Let’s protect our flora and fauna by encouraging visitors to properly dispose of food litter.