Georgia Wild E-Newsletter: January-February 2008

 

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WILD facts
Brown anoles?
If you move a log or stone this winter, you might find a small brown lizard, the green anole, hibernating underneath. Why is this reptile brown and not green at this time of year? Green anoles change colors depending on their activity level (not to match surroundings, as true chameleons do). When cold and sluggish, these lizards are usually brown. But on warm winter days, green anoles may move around and bask in the sun. In that case, they'll probably be green. (E-mail wildlife interpretive specialist Linda May at linda.may@gadnr.org for more on WILD facts.)

In education
These classes are wild
Learning about the outdoors in Georgia is almost as easy as A, B, C. Youth can take part in wildlife education contests this spring such as the Give Wildlife a Chance poster competition and the Youth Birding Competition art contest. Wildlife Resources' regional education centers also offer classes to fit almost any bent, be it identifying birds or learning how plants and animals weather winter. Teachers become students at specialized programs such as the forestry workshop this June at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center and the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia's annual conference March 14-16 at Unicoi State Park. Learn more.

Legislative updates
Climate-sized funding
Wildlife managers nationwide are tracking climate change legislation that could increase state wildlife funding. The current leader is the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191). Bound for the Senate floor after clearing a committee in December, the bill marks 18 percent of revenues from a proposed carbon permit auction -- as much as $9 billion a year -- for natural resources adaptation. Thirty-five percent will go to state agencies for wildlife and habitat work related to climate change. Meanwhile, Congress passed a fiscal 2008 appropriations bill packing $73.8 million for the State Wildlife Grants Program, a $6.3 million increase. President Bush's approval is expected.

Photograph of smooth purple coneflowers.

Up close
Smooth purple coneflower
Echinacea laevigata
Family: Aster or sunflower family.
Status: Federally and state listed as endangered; globally imperiled.
Found in: Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia. (Considered extirpated in Pennsylvania.) Georgia has about 25 known sites, most on the Chattahoochee National Forest in Stephens County.
Habitat: Semi-dry meadows and oak/pine, rocky woodland on basic or near-neutral soils. Amphibolite rock outcrops are common to most Georgia sites.
Description: 2- to 4-foot-tall perennial with flowering heads composed of numerous disk flowers at center encircled by 13-21 ray flowers, each with a single, pale purple petal.
Flowers: Late May to early July. Fruits mature July-October.
Comeback: Nongame Conservation staff and other members of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance are restoring habitat through prescribed burning and removing woody competitors. In November, more than 300 1-year-old coneflowers were planted at three Stephens County sites. The lack of natural fires has degraded coneflower habitat at many sites.
Quotable: "This is one of those no-brainer projects. It's very unlikely we will not succeed." Nongame Conservation botanist Mincy Moffett

By the numbers
North Atlantic right whales
  • 400: estimated population
  • 22: calves born in 2007, six so far this season
  • 8: whales spotted entangled in fishing gear
  • 4: whale deaths documented during the past year
  • 3314: The number given a juvenile female. Dubbed "Yellowfin," she was freed from 300 feet of lobster gear in 2004 and spotted off the Georgia/Florida coast in December 2007.
Source: WRD

Noteworthy
  • Weekend for Wildlife's platinum anniversary is proving golden. Registration for the Feb. 8-9 nongame fund-raiser filled by December, a first in the event's 20 years.
  • Nest counts of federally endangered wood storks dropped from a record high of 1,918 in 2006 to an estimated 1,054 last year. Biologists blame drought that sapped freshwater wetlands the storks need for feeding and nesting.
  • Have wings, will travel: A dunlin banded in Alaska last summer by Nongame Conservation program manager Brad Winn and others was photographed in November in Taiwan, 4,000-plus miles away.

Nongame in the news
* Savannah Morning News, WXIA-TV: "Whales off to a Good Start," about migrating right whales off Georgia, Florida, S.C. (Dec. 21)
* Macon Telegraph: "Group Counts Middle Georgia's Feathered Friends," about Christmas bird count at Rum Creek WMA/Piedmont NWR
(Dec. 18)
* Chattanooga Times Free Press, "Cold-water streams are a refuge for fish during drought, scientists say," about survey in Whitfield County spring for rare fish and other sensitive aquatics (Nov. 8)

Calendar
* Jan. 17: Sportsman's Day at the State Capitol. Georgia Wildlife Federation, www.gwf.org
* Feb. 3-9: Prescribed Fire Awareness Week. Georgia Prescribed Fire Council, (850) 893-4153, ext. 239; lane@ttrs.org
* Feb. 8-9: Weekend for Wildlife, The Cloister, Sea Island, Georgia DNR, (770) 918-6789; www.georgiawildlife.com
* Feb. 8-10: Georgia Wildlife Federation Great Outdoors Show, Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter, Perry. www.gwf.org
* Feb. 21-24: Southeastern Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation meeting at UGA, Athens. www.parcplace.org/
* Feb. 29: Georgia Conservancy 2008 Youth Environmental Symposium. Ten finalists present projects at Zoo Atlanta. (404) 876-2900 or (912) 447-5910, mail@gaconservancy.org
* March 8: Fire on the Mountain, Sprewell Bluff State Park, Thomaston. Noon start. Rain date: March 15. http://gastateparks.org; Thomaston Chamber of Commerce, (706) 647-9686
* March 14-16: Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia annual conference, Unicoi State Park, Helen. www.eealliance.org/
* March 15: Fitzgerald Wild Chicken Festival, Fitzgerald. (800) 386-4642; www.fitzgeraldga.org/
fitzgeraldchickens.htm

Send items to rick.lavender@gadnr.

Photo credits (from top):
* Right whale fluke: WRD
* American kestrel: Dan Vickers
* Smooth purple coneflower: WRD
* Rafinesque's big-eared bat: (C) Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International, www.batcon.org
* Searching for bats: Matt Clement
* Right whales: UNC Wilmington, permitted by NOAA Fisheries

"Georgia Wild" is a bi-monthly electronic newsletter produced by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and focused on conserving nongame species. The newsletter is delivered free to subscribers. Subscribe at www.georgiawildlife.com.

The WRD Nongame Conservation Section conserves and protects Georgia's diversity of native animals and plants and their habitats through research, management and education. Staff conduct research and surveys, identify critical habitats, implement species and habitat restoration programs, promote awareness of wildlife conservation needs, provide guidance for managing private lands for the benefit of nongame wildlife, and develop management plans for state-owned natural areas.
Welcome ...
to "Georgia Wild," a Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
e-newsletter devoted to nongame wildlife. Every other month, "Georgia Wild" will offer the latest on the division's work with the state's diverse natural habitats and nongame species. Let me know what you think at mike.harris@gadnr.org. And please forward this to a friend. They can sign up here. It's fast and free.
Mike Harris, chief of WRD Nongame Conservation Section
 

Power towers key for kestrels
    Nesting pairs of American kestrels have become quite uncommon in Georgia. The landscape has changed from American kestrel on a limb.the open forests and even rolling prairies of 200 years ago that favored grassland specialists like this smallest falcon. The availability of natural nest
sites such as abandoned woodpecker cavities has also dwindled.
    Yet, some kestrels have adapted to nesting in hollow, high-voltage transmission towers and foraging along power-line rights of way in southern Georgia. Recent research by Georgia Southern University professor John Parrish and his students has revealed how important these rights of way are and how they can be managed for kestrels. These populations -- likely the southeastern American kestrel subspecies -- are the largest in the state and possibly even the Southeast.
     The study funded by Nongame Conservation, with help from Georgia Power Co. and The Environmental Resources Network (T.E.R.N.), showed that adding nest boxes at the sites helps, a critical point as older hollow towers are replaced with versions that do not provide nesting sites.
     By partnering with Georgia Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG) and other power-line rights of way owners and managers, the aim is to implement a conservation strategy to ensure kestrel nest sites along these lines and possibly others. For more.
Phil Spivey and Jim Ozier
 
Nongame work aids other wildlife
    Jason Wisniewski hopes to spend 40 days hunting deer and small game this season. But in November, the freshwater mussel specialist with Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section was hunting for endangered mussels on the Apalachicola River in Florida.
    Wisniewski sees no disconnect between his recreation and occupation. Mussels are part of a living foundation encompassing all creatures and habitats. "They're all really linked together," he said.
     The connections are clear in Georgia, where nongame projects also benefit game animals, their habitats and sportsmen. The crossover includes public land (nongame donations and grants helped the state Department of Natural Resources acquire more than 34,000 acres since 2002), habitat management such as prescribed burning, outreach and research, and more bang for Wildlife Resources' buck. Nongame Conservation chief Mike Harris said that over the last five years, every $1 of nongame money spent on conservation has been matched with $1.90 from federal grants and other sources.
     Underlying all is a wide-angle view of wildlife. "The presence of nongame wildlife enriches the experience for everyone," Harris said. For more.

Did you know?
  • The Nongame Conservation Section is charged with conserving endangered and other nongame species, work guided by the State Wildlife Action Plan.
  • The section receives no state money, depending instead on donations, fund raising and grants.
  • Wildlife license plates made up two-thirds or more than $10.5 million of the section's fund-raisers from 2004-2007.
  • The "Give Wildlife a Chance" state income tax checkoff accounted for 8%; the annual Weekend for Wildlife, 16%.
  • The nongame license plates program turns 10 this year. The first plate went on sale in February 1997. The program has raised more than $23 million.
  • To help: Buy a wildlife plate, donate via the income tax checkoff or directly to Nongame Conservation, (770) 761-3035. You can also join The Environmental Resources Network (T.E.R.N.), the section's friends group. Details: (478) 994-1438.

Matt Clement searching a hollow tree for Rafinesque's big-eared bats.
Clement's search expanded the bats' known range in Georgia.

Big find for state's big-eared bats
    A summer spent slogging through Georgia swamps with a flashlight in hand has shed light on the range and favored shelter of secretive Rafinesque's big-eared bats.
    In research funded by Nongame Conservation and the University of Georgia, Matt Clement, a graduate student in UGA's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, hoped to find 30 of the rare mammals, a total roughly equal to previous records of the species in the state. He also wanted to identify the bat's roosting habitat.Close-up of a Rafinesque's big-eared bat.
     But Clement's systematic probing along river bottoms in three management areas turned up about 565 Rafinesque's big-eared bats. The fieldwork also pinpointed water tupelo trees as key roost sites. Why water tupelos? Likely because they grow big, hollow and in flood-prone areas less accessible to logging, Clement said.
     The findings expand the bat's known distribution in Georgia and "deeply refine" understanding of its habitat preferences, Clement said. According to nongame program manager Jim Ozier, the data can help conserve the forest-dwelling bats, a high-priority species in the state's Wildlife Action Plan, and protect older trees with cavities.
     "Nothing but time can produce these mature trees," Ozier said. For more.

Winter's chill brings birding thrills
    Amateur and expert birders are polishing their binoculars and putting on warm jackets for the winter birding survey season. And why not? Participation is fun, simple and free.
    First up, what will winter bring to your bird feeder? Project FeederWatch participants survey birds at feeders from the second Saturday in November to early April. Results help scientists monitor changes in bird populations.
    Got a busy schedule? Try the Great Backyard Bird Count! Bird watchers of all ages will count birds for as little or as long as they wish Feb. 15-18. Then they'll fill out an online checklist.
     Young birders are gearing up for the annual Youth Birding Competition, a 24-hour bird-a-thon May 2-3 at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center near Mansfield. Participation is free and open to teams ages K-12th grade. To help learn Georgia's birds, pre-registered teams are paired with birding mentors for workshops and other events before the contest. Register by March 31.
     Watchers can help in the bald eagle's comeback by reporting possible eagle nesting activity this winter to Nongame Conservation biologists. This majestic bird's population has soared from one nesting pair in Georgia to more than 100. On Jan. 28, some nongame biologists will also join volunteer birding experts as they scan Georgia's barrier island beaches in an annual mid-winter waterbird survey. Survey overviews.

$1.6B spent watching Georgia wildlife
    Pat yourself on the backpack: People who photograph, feed or simply watch wildlife in Georgia spent an eye-popping $1.6 billion in 2006, according to a trends-tracking U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey.
    The estimate tops the state's previous high in that category among comparable surveys: $994 million spent in 1996 on what is commonly called wildlife watching.
     A state overview of the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation suggests that a rebound in participation helped. More than 1.8 million people, or 28 percent of Georgia residents 16 and older, took part in wildlife watching activities. That's up from 1.3 million in 2001 and the most since 1991, when survey methods changed.

Ranger reports
    This turtle probe won't let go: An 18-month undercover probe into illegal trade in protected turtles still has bite. "Operation Snapper," which included Georgia, four other states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, closed in 2005 with more than 1,000 state and federal felony and misdemeanor counts against 50 people. Six charged by Georgia and federal officers with shipping alligator snapping turtles across state lines pleaded guilty and paid fines totaling $4,215.
    Other prosecutions continue. In a case set for trial early this year, a Lawrenceville man faces 21 state charges involving more than 400 protected turtles found at his home. Four others indicted in the case on felony violations pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in federal court.
Sgt. Steve Seitz, Region II
 
     One whale of a job: Rangers on Georgia's coast are helping safeguard an oceanic version of the needle in a haystack: North Atlantic right whales, one of the world's most endangered marine mammals.
     For the past three winters, when pregnant right whales migrate to calving grounds off Georgia, South Carolina and northeastern Florida, rangers have run patrols to educate boaters about the whales and enforce a federal rule barring boats from coming within 500 yards of one. Strikes by ships and large boats are one of the leading causes of death for the slow-swimming whales, which often rest just below the surface.
     Officers also hand out literature on the whales, answer reports of violations, report sightings to state biologists and spotter planes, notify container ships about whales in shipping channels, and help in efforts to disentangle whales caught in fishing gear.
Capt. Stephen Adams, Region VII

Photo of two adult female right whales swimming south off North Carolina in November.
Adult female right whales swimming south off the North Carolina coast in November.

 

Power in towers for nesting kestrels

Submitted by Nongame Conservation Section wildlife biologist Phil Spivey and program manager Jim Ozier

SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. (Jan. 3, 2008) Try to imagine the landscape of much of Georgia 200 years ago - it was vastly different from today.

Early travelers and naturalists described scenes of extensive open forests, savannas and even rolling prairies maintained by frequent fires either ignited by lightning strikes or set by American Indians over much of the coastal plain and into parts of the piedmont. This open, grassy countryside with a low density of longleaf pines or other fire-adapted trees supported a very different range of birds than the species typically seen in most of the region today. Most likely grassland specialists including Bachmans sparrow, northern bobwhite, horned lark, bobolink, loggerhead shrike, eastern meadowlark and a handsome little falcon, the southeastern American kestrel, were all common. 

Historically, the southeastern kestrel probably was evenly distributed throughout Georgia's coastal plain.  It roosted and nested in hollow trees and abandoned woodpecker cavities, and preyed on lizards, mice, large insects and occasionally small birds.

In more recent times, as our native open habitat types have been lost because of conversion to agriculture, intensive silviculture, development and a lack of fire, kestrels and other grassland birds have disappeared from most of their suspected former ranges.  In some instances, however, small populations have been able to persist in altered habitats, such as pastures. 

Through the years, a few scattered pairs of nesting kestrels hung on in Georgia, mostly in urban areas where they made their homes in the eaves and gutters of buildings.  These included migratory kestrels in the northern half of the state as well as the nonmigratory southeastern subspecies in the coastal plain.  During fall and winter, influxes of migratory kestrels also have been often seen on utility lines in open agricultural areas throughout most of the state.

Recent discoveries of southeastern kestrel "concentrations" at a few locations have been encouraging to biologists interested in restoring populations of this subspecies.  At Fort Gordon, near Augusta, a kestrel population has persisted by nesting in the nooks of buildings and foraging on the parade grounds and training areas.  A nest box program and open-pine habitat restoration efforts are helping to increase this small population.

More recently, a couple of significant kestrel populations were discovered using hollow metal poles on wide, high-voltage transmission rights of way in southern Georgia.

With primary funding through the Nongame Conservation Section, and assistance from Georgia Power Co. and The Environmental Resources Network, recent work by Dr. John Parrish and his students at Georgia Southern University has revealed just how important these power-line rights of way are, and how they can be managed to ensure they remain suitable as kestrel nesting habitat.

Kestrel populations persisting in these artificial habitats are the largest in Georgia, and possibly even the southeast.  This research has proven that adding nest boxes at these sites can be a successful management tool for maintaining nesting options as many of the original hollow transmission towers become structurally unsound and are replaced with designs that do not inherently provide such sites.

By continuing the partnership with Georgia Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG) and other owners and managers of wide power-line rights of way, Nongame Conservation hopes to develop and implement a conservation strategy that will ensure the presence of suitable nest sites along these lines and possibly others. 

Eventually, as longleaf savannas are restored to the landscape, the hope is that kestrels and many other species of native Georgia wildlife will return to their natural habitats.

Nongame work also aids other wildlife

SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. (Jan. 3, 2008) -- Jason Wisniewski hopes to spend 40 days hunting deer and other game this season. In late November, however, the wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section was hunting for endangered mussels on Florida's Apalachicola River, part of a federal survey spurred by drought and dropping lake levels upstream in Georgia.

Wisniewski, a specialist in freshwater mussels, sees no disconnect between his favored recreation and his beloved occupation. Mussels, which filter water and provide food for other species, are part of a foundation of life encompassing all creatures and habitats. "They're all really linked together," he said.

The linkage is evident in Georgia, where projects led by the Nongame Conservation Section, which is charged with conserving nongame species as diverse as bald eagles and pitcherplants, also benefit game animals, their habitats and the sportsmen who pursue them. The section receives no general revenues from the state, depending instead on donations, grants and fund-raisers such as wildlife license plate sales. But ripples from the work spread wide.

Consider that:

  • Money from the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund and grants obtained by nongame staff have helped the Georgia Department of Natural Resources acquire more than 34,000 acres since 2002, all open to hunting and, where applicable, fishing. Another $2 million-plus is earmarked as partial payment for 3,900 acres of the Silver Lake Tract at Lake Seminole Wildlife Management Area and the 4,162-acre Fort Barrington Tract at Townsend WMA in McIntosh County. A 20,000-acre, $35 million Georgia Land Conservation Program package announced by Gov. Sonny Perdue in December bundled those tracts with a 6,900-acre addition to Paulding Forest WMA.
  • Habitat management such as prescribed burning directly benefits game species like northern bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer and wild turkey. Also, conservation research spearheaded by Wildlife Resources' diadromous fish coordinator bolsters management of striped bass.
  • Six regional education centers teach some 50,000 Georgia children a year about wildlife, natural habitats and stewardship, topics that cross game-nongame boundaries.
  • Cash raised for the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund is only part of the picture. Nongame Conservation Chief Mike Harris said employees also pull down an impressive amount of competitive grants and other funds. The long list of projects funded includes land acquisition, longleaf pine restoration on state property and work involving Alabama shad, an important forage for some gamefish.

"Over the last five years, every $1 of Nongame Conservation money spent for conservation was matched with $1.90 from federal grants and other sources," Harris said.

Benefits flow both ways, with Game Management and Fisheries sections' projects also boosting some nongame species.

And underlying all is an understanding that sizing up wildlife management and conservation is best done with a wide-angle lens.

Many sportsmen appreciate the contribution of nongame wildlife to their enjoyment of the outdoors, Harris said. For example, coastal anglers seeking king mackerel, redfish and tarpon rely on feeding brown pelicans and royal terns to find schools of pogies, or Atlantic menhaden, a popular baitfish.

"The presence of nongame wildlife enriches the experience for everyone," Harris said.

Wisniewski would agree. His deer-stand highlights this season include seeing the biggest buck of his life and spotting his first fisher, a rare member of the weasel family making a comeback in Pennsylvania, where Wisniewski was hunting.

The fisher, he said, "was by far the highlight of my whole trip."

Study documents secretive bats, favored habitats

SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. (Jan. 3, 2008) -- A student's summer spent slogging through Georgia swamps with a flashlight in hand has shed light on the range and favored shelter of a most secretive bat.

Matt Clement, a graduate student in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, wanted to find at least 30 Rafinesque's big-eared bats, a number approximately equal to the previously documented records of the species in Georgia. He also hoped to characterize the bats' roosting habitat.

But Clement's systematic probing along river bottoms in three management areas turned up about 565 of these rare mammals with rabbit-like ears.  The research initiated by Warnell faculty member Dr. Steven Castleberry and funded by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and UGA also identified large, hollow water tupelo trees as key roost sites. Such trees have become relatively scarce yet can still be found in some bottomlands inaccessible to logging.

Clement said the findings "greatly expand the known distribution of Rafinesque's big-eared bats in Georgia and deeply refine our understanding of their habitat preferences."

The insight can help manage an under-studied species rated as a high priority in the state's conservation roadmap, the Wildlife Action Plan, according to Jim Ozier of the WRD Nongame Conservation Section.

"Too often, the value of big, old trees that develop large cavities is overlooked," said Ozier, a Nongame Conservation program manager. "Many habitat types and components can be managed relatively easily. However, nothing but time  can produce these mature forests."

Rafinesque's big-eared bats range throughout the Southeast but are considered abundant nowhere. Weighing no more than a half-ounce and measuring 3-4 inches long, they favor forests, flying insects and darkness, not emerging from roosts until evening has faded to night. Ears more than an inch long help pinpoint insects through echolocation.  The bats emit high-frequency sounds that bounce off prey and other objects, then interpret the returning sounds to produce a picture of the surroundings.

Ozier said Clement's bat discoveries "confirm what we hoped and thought might be there."

From May through August, Clement and a helper followed randomly picked, 500-meter transects through bottomlands marked as frequently or rarely flooded on Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area near Sylvania, Moody Forest Natural Area near Baxley and Ocmulgee WMA near Cochran. Each Coastal Plain site is along a major river. Tuckahoe is on the Savannah River; Moody, the Altamaha; and Ocmulgee, the same-named river.

Clement checked hollow trees near the transect lines, shining a million-candle power light into the trees -- usually through ground-level openings -- and counting roosting bats. He used a hand mirror for hollows to small for his head.

He found 97 roosts with Rafinesque's big-eared bats. Two trees in Tuckahoe had more than 120 bats each. None of the roosts were in rarely flooded areas, although some radio-tagged bats flew into those areas, he said.

While still analyzing data, Clement theorizes that water tupelos dominated as roosts because they tend to grow big, hollow and in frequently flooded cypress-gum swamps, which provide the protection from logging needed to reach old age. It's the inaccessible sites that support the large hollow trees, he said.

Clement is planning more research this summer. But he is already close to the projects ultimate goal: Being able to predict where these uncommon bats with the big ears can be found.

Buying a wildlife license plate or making a donating through the Give Wildlife a Chance state income tax checkoff supports conservation of big-eared bats and other nongame species. The tax checkoff and sales of bald eagle and hummingbird tags provide vital funding for the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state appropriations.

Wildlife tags are available for $25 at county tag offices, online at http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags or via mail-in registration forms. The Give Wildlife a Chance tax checkoff is line 26 of the long tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500EZ).