An “ABL” turtle update!

Good news! For those of you who are just joining us, back in September Jan & Rick Dappen rescued an injured and very ill turtle.  This guy had had a string of bad days over the summer. He was nicknamed “ABL” after the three-letter code that was assigned to him in our monitoring program.

Photos courtesy of K. Dudeck, Chattahoochee Nature Center.

All of this earned ABL a trip to the Chattahoochee Nature Center Wildlife Department, where Kathryn Dudeck and the staff have given him top notch rehabilitative care. One of ABL’s hind legs had to be amputated but he has mended vigorously. According to Kathryn:

He has put on 96 g (grams – ed.) since intake (which of course, included the leg that was amputated), so he now weighs 531 g. He is eating us out of house and home, and I have removed his sutures. He is starting to build strength in that right front leg that was limp, and he is beginning to put it in proper position when he walks. He isn’t bearing full weight on it yet, but most likely, it’s just a matter of time.

Good news, indeed! Here’s hoping that ABL is well enough to make that “release party” that Jan has talked about for this spring! A 531 gram (1 pound, 2 ounce) male box turtle is LARGE for this neighborhood but his mass reflects the fact that he was probably a big boy before he was hurt. Note that, in the “after” photo, both of his eyes are open and clear, his colors are much brighter, and his skin is dark. Back in September one eye was completely closed, his colors were very dull, and his skin was gray from dehydration.

Want to keep ABL in lots of yummy mealworms and other food in his convalescence? Would you like to help other injured and ill reptiles and raptors at the same time? Consider either joining Chattahoochee Nature Center or making a donation to CNC! A membership helps support CNC’s good works in nature interpretation and wildlife rehabilitation. A donation helps to fund the wildlife department and the operation of the Center in general.  A membership can benefit you and your family, too. It includes free admission to the Interpretive Center. CNC is an excellent place to “un-plug” your children and grandchildren for an afternoon while they learn about the wildlife and greater ecosystem surrounding the Chattahoochee River in north Atlanta. 

**Editor’s note: Should you find an injured or ill turtle in the Mountaintown Creek watershed, then please let me know and I will try to arrange to check it out. Every turtle counts in this monitoring project. And I encourage folks to move turtles out of the road whenever they find them. Unfortunately, my monitoring permit doesn’t include an authorization for others to remove turtles from the wild. Thanks!

It came upon a midnight rainy….

And indeed it was much like “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day”: a blustery day turned into a blustery night. Wow! What a lot of rain! But how do you see a real measurement of what’s going on in the creeks?  Ever been away but you wanted to know what’s happening back in Mountaintown Creek? For that let’s go first to the US Geological Survey. In crossing some of our local river bridges you may have seen something like this:

An automated river gauge. Photo courtesy US Geologic Survey

Ever heard a newscaster say, “the so-and-so river is at X number of feet at the Highway 1 bridge?” No one stands out there with a yardstick – thank goodness! – to measure that. Instead, USGS uses an automated station that includes a sophisticated “yardstick” and rain gauge to monitor river height, discharge rate (how many cubic feet of water pass per second), and local rainfall amounts. Older gauges look more like metal barrels. You can see one easily on the west side of the Ellijay River bridge on Old Highway 5 north of town. These stations capture the data and transmit it in real-time to the USGS. The USGS then makes the data available to the public and the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service’s River Forecast Centers monitors the USGS data so the Weather Service can issue watches or warnings of “flash floods” or “areal floods“. These forecasts are monitored by local media and public safety officials, which then relay those alerts to the public.

The Southeast RFC covers our area. Its website includes a map of all of the automated river gauge stations in the RFC’s forecast area. Sure enough, we have one for our little corner of the world. It’s MNCG1 -Mountaintown Creek. It’s a gauge on Highway 282, known locally as Tails Creek Road.

The map view of the Southeast River Forecast Center’s river gauges. MNCG1 is on Mountaintown Creek – south of Mountaintown itself – on Tails Creek Road. Courtesy National Weather Service. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this station is maintained with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division.

Why is MNCG1 a good indicator of what’s happening upstream in Mountaintown? MNCG1 is the closest gauge as well as the first gauge downstream of us. As a downstream gauge it will usually be a lagging indicator of what’s happening upstream. Unfortunately we have no gauges that are closer in this watershed. The ideal situation would be if we had a gauge upstream of us.  Nevertheless, let’s see what’s going on locally:

By 9 a.m. Christmas Eve the Mountaintown Creek station indicates that the creek level was falling from a 10-foot crest between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. The fall continued through “press time”.

As of 10 a.m., Mountaintown Creek had crested – at least momentarily – and was receding. The gauge had monitored fairly steady river levels since 3 a.m. on December 23. After 9 p.m. on December 23, Mountaintown’s level rocketed up from roughly four feet to ten. By 9 a.m. it appeared to be dropping. As a “lagging indicator,” MNCG1 would indicate that the creek has already fallen upstream in Mountaintown.  Now, will it continue to drop for us? We’ll see. It it raining again after a break this morning. Mountaintown and MNCG1 are close enough that they ought to get the same amounts of rain. Any extra rain that falls in the upper reaches of the watershed, though, may create a “pulse” of higher flow & stream height that won’t reach MNCG1 for a period of time. Until any pulse from the latest rain gets there, MNCG1 may reflect a further drop in stream height.

Merry Christmas!

At least one flood survivor

We had little hope for the Wood Duck box. It had been occupied by the Eastern Screech-Owl prior to the deluge. The box was completely submerged at the worst of it. Did the owl drown? Did some other animal float out to it in the current to take shelter, only to be trapped?

Today was the time to face the music. The box – if it was still there – needed to be repaired and its pine shavings replaced in the hope that a Screech-Owl or  a Wood Duck would nest in it this winter or spring. This was going to be a solo task since I didn’t want Dawn to have to see a drowned critter in the box.

The box looked really rough.

Indeed, the box had survived. A good sign – a Wood Duck box isn’t especially cheap to rebuild and remount. A tap on the door opened it just a crack – argh. Just what I feared. A Screech-Owl lying in the bottom. I steeled myself for the sad task of emptying the remains.

But then, a bill click and an eye blink….


Looking none the worse for wear, after all!

A pleasant surprise, indeed! A quite healthy rufous phase Eastern Screech Owl was hunkered down on sodden pine shavings. Screech-Owls have a reputation for tolerating minor human disturbances for box maintenance. Baylor University researcher Fredrick Gehlbach, who maintained a decades-long Screech-Owl nest box monitoring program, noted that they were amenable to having a box cleaned.* Ok, so we’re giving this a shot. I carefully reached in to rake out the nasty flood-soaked shavings. No problem. A little more raking elicits an eye-squint and a bill click. Keep moving. Rake more shavings and toss them into the creek. Rake and toss. A slow and steady stream of bill clicks.

We’re at the crux. I have to get underneath it. Wearing leather work gloves, I gently lift the owl with my left hand – this owl is SOOOOO warm! The body heat is conducted even through the glove. The owl weighs nothing. Bill clicks as I pull the last of the shavings out. I put it down in the now-bare box. “Harrumph,” the owl appears to think. “Time to go.” And with that, it hops to the door, gives me an over-the-shoulder “eat poop and die” facial expression, and floats to the Holly tree to wait for me to finish.

I move fast now. Rip open the plastic bag of fresh shavings. Cram cram cram them into the box. Uh oh. Too many. Rake some out. Pat down the thick layer of fluffy and dry shavings. Admire my masterpiece of owl interior decoration. Close the box. Look around. Owl is gone. Our work is done here. Time to clean up at the house.

*Note: While officials usually tolerate minor disturbances of birds in the course of nest box maintenance, Federal and state laws generally forbid handling of wild native birds unless the handler has the appropriate permits. 

Let’s talk nest boxes

It’s late fall, when a young naturalist’s thoughts ought to turn (at least momentarily) to nest box building. Boxes for Wood Ducks and the cavity-nesting owls should be up by early January. We bought our materials about this time last year for a box building bonanza on Christmas Eve.

A Wood Duck box and a Downy/Hairy Woodpecker box that we built.

Our neighbors were intrigued enough about our Wood Duck box (now an Eastern Screech-Owl box!) that I thought I’d share the Ducks Unlimited nest box plan that we used. It worked really well.

A Wood Duck nest box that uses a section of stove pipe as a predator baffle. It seems to have worked. Of all of our trail cam video of raccoons near it, none of the videos captured the raccoons or any other predator entering the box.

For my neighbors, I’m extending the offer to help you build or put up a box if I can get the free time. Some things, such as the drill bit for the entry hole, are better borrowed as they’re a little expensive to purchase for a one-time use. The obvious solution is to BUILD MORE BOXES (of course!). I also have a small supply of bailing wire if you need that 18-20″ of it to put up the predator baffle.

Are you going to save the world with a nest box? No. Neither Wood Ducks nor Eastern Screech-Owls are in any serious danger as species. A nest box, though, is  a great way to bring some very interesting animals within a convenient observation range. It just takes some precautions to avoid exposing them to predators, too. Kids can also find these very intriguing, and they’re great helpers for the annual box-cleaning that’s required. What a great way to spend an hour with the grandkids while separating them from all their electronic distractions!