Life Pulses

The quiet of the writer resembles the patience of the budding leaves. Though silent through winter, life pulses within, awaiting the warmth and the rain and the opportunities that come with spring. And so begins another season of blog writing.

This new field season is one of rain boots and binoculars, as I weave through southern Michigan habitats in search of butterflies. Two species in particular, the poweshiek skipperlings and the Karner blue butterflies, are listed federally endangered due to habitat loss and fragmentation. These are our focal species.

See Poweshiek photos here and Karner blue photos here.

Butterflies, skippers, and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, meaning “scale wing”. The bodies and wings of Lepidoptera are covered in minute, hair-like scales that create the variety of colors we see. There are approximately 180,000 members of this order, with moths comprising the greatest portion at 160,000 species. Butterflies often have larger wings and straight antennae that are clubbed at the end. At rest, butterflies hold their wings folded up, perpendicular to their slim bodies.

Comma butterfly with wings upright and straight, clubbed antennae

Skippers have a fast, darting flight, larger compound eyes, stocky bodies, and hooked clubbed antennae. At rest, skippers often angle their forewings up while keeping their hindwings flat.

A skipper with forewings angled up and hooked antennae

Moths, in contrast, have varied antennae that are often feathered and they rest with their wings down. The modified scales of moths lends to a hairy appearance on stocky bodies.

A moth with “hairy” legs and body, and feathered antennae

A moth with wings flat at rest

Butterflies and skippers are diurnal (active during the day) and form chrysalises for metamorphosis. Moths are often nocturnal (active at night), and often form cocoons for metamorphosis. Some species of moths are crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) or diurnal.

A moth cocoon

For this project, visual surveys of butterflies will take place when the weather conditions and hours are suitable for butterfly activity. Teams of two weave across suitable habitats in a calculated manner in an effort to spot, count, and assess the focal species, and to document other butterfly species as well as vegetation. Currently, we are visiting prairie fens in search of the recently-emerged poweshiek skipperlings. These fens support black-eyed Susans, shrubby cinquefoil, and other nectar sources. In a few weeks, we will move to the west side of the state to oak-pine barrens where Karner blue butterflies will be active around their obligate host plant, wild lupine.

Bronze copper

Baltimore checkerspot

Great-spangled fritillary

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Hatching Season

Across the summer months, the mallets and grids of Loggerhead nesting season gradually morph into boxes and brooms. Dozens of tiny disoriented tracks replace adult turtle tracks and camouflages, and tourists flock to join the commotion. This is August on Kyparissia Bay, otherwise known as hatching season.

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The first sign of a hatching nest is a drop in the center after an incubation period of around 45 days. The drop is created by the falling down and compression of sand as the newly hatched turtles begin to climb to the surface.

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Two to three days after the initial drop, the first group of hatchlings emerges at night, when the sand and air is cooler and safer. Since each nest contains around 100 eggs, it takes a few to several days for the nest to finish hatching.

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Ten or more days after the initial hatch of a nest, we excavate to collect additional data. This includes counting hatched egg shells and opening unhatched eggs to determine their fate. Most unhatched eggs were simply unfertilized, while others ceased embryo development at varying stages due to maggots, bacteria, or nature. Live hatchlings found in the nest may venture to sea, or may be reburied until nightfall.

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On the tourist beach of Kalo Nero, the street running parallel to the Loggerhead nesting beach is lined with hotels, restaurants, and street lamps, all creating artificial light which out-competes the reflection of the moon and stars on the sea. This disorients hatchlings, which are phototactic. Disoriented hatchlings may walk very long distances without reaching the sea, instead becoming dehydrated, getting hit by a vehicle, or falling prey to other animals.

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In response to the dangers posed by the human activity in Kalo Nero, Archelon volunteers place boxes over hatching nests during the night. This keeps any emerging hatchlings contained until they may be collected and released in a darker area of the same beach. The boxes are checked every hour until they are removed by the morning survey volunteers. Hatchlings that emerge during daylight are less likely to be disoriented, but other considerations must be addressed. Hot sand is brushed aside to offer a cooler path as the hatchlings are shaded to the sea.

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Regardless of the protection measures used, it is imperative that the hatchlings make the journey from the sand to the sea. This allows for exercise of the flippers and lungs, and for memorization of the beach so that they may return to the same area in 30 years after reaching sexual maturity.

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After reaching the water, hatchlings swim for the next 24 to 48 hours straight to reach their feeding grounds. Little is known about sea turtles during the years that follow, but the need for filling in the missing information drives my interest in the discovery.

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71 Volunteers in My Suitcase

The concept of working for a summer in an international environment brought with it the expectation of being challenged both individually and professionally. Independent and introverted, I was uncertain how I would adjust to living closely with many others or speaking with the public. Yet what I have discovered is an appreciation for teamwork and that I thrive in training, leading, and providing public awareness.

My position in the middle ranks offers the opportunity to not only lead and take on many responsibilities, but also to observe and absorb elements of top management. This summer I have been trained and molded by many others with various experience in conservation and leadership, which has resulted in my becoming a Morning Survey Leader, Night Survey Leader and Tagger, A Sector Beach Leader, A Sector Database Manager, Public Awareness Shift Leader, and Driver.

The project relies on me to be knowledgeable, organized, and detail-oriented, but also to be flexible and understanding. The perfectionist portion of my personality has found the former to be rewarding and the latter to be challenging. Dozens of volunteers have come and gone since my arrival, each of them contributing varying strengths and levels of ability. Everyone has made mistakes on the beach, paperwork, and database, and I am no exception. It has been essential for me to not only find ways to train or correct accordingly, but also to simply be understanding of human error and to recognize my own faults.

I am also learning, if ever so slowly, the importance of building relationships. Most of the summer has been dedicated to a strong work ethic, turning in early to rest for morning surveys or staying back at base camp for database entry rather than fraternizing at the taverna. While my work ethic is getting exercise, all work and no play does little for connecting with the people who make the project possible.

With just three days left here in Kyparissia Bay, I would like to thank every single person who has been a part of the Kyp project this summer, as each of you has influenced me in some way, which will be carried on to other projects and in my daily life. You have taught me to be patient, you have taught me to make a proper frappe, you have instigated laughter and provided support. You are quiet warriors, rump shakers, and/or incredible cooks in a very basic kitchen. You have passed the salt and encouraged ice cream consumption. You have volunteered your time on your day off. Thank you for sharing your lives with me and with the turtles. You each are rock stars in your own right and I wish you all the best in your individual endeavors. Chihuahua and barapbop to all of you!

Natural Resources v. Nature

The choice to pursue a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Science stems from a deep appreciation of nature and passion for the life within it. All species rely on each other in a very complex system, and as such, it is essential that a balance be maintained within that system. Within the biological sciences, I have special interest in threatened species. These species face numerous challenges, and if eradicated, the balance of life becomes disrupted.

All sea turtles are currently threatened to some degree, from vulnerable to critically endangered. The Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). http://www.iucnredlist.org/

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Loggerhead nests contain an average of 100 eggs each with a hatching success rate of 75%, and only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will result in a sexually mature adult turtle able to contribute to future generations. Eggs and hatchlings face predation by mammals, birds, crabs, and fish. Adult sea turtles have few natural predators, but instead clash with the human utilization of a natural resource in the seas where sea turtles feed and reproduce: fishing.

This turtle has a mouth injury from fishing line:

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Fishermen benefit from their catches both as a direct food source and as a commodity to be sold or traded for other goods or services. Fishing is a livelihood, and when a sea turtle becomes entangled in a fishing net, swallows a hook, or gets caught in line, it is a setback for the fishermen who now have to replace these items. It is reasonable, therefore, to understand why the sea turtles’ presence may have a negative connotation in the perspective of local fishermen. Dynamite fishing is also used both for work and for sport, and often results in the death of adult sea turtles that have survived all other odds up to that moment.

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Limited funds in a struggling economy magnify the issue. If fishing nets could be checked every two hours, for example, any captured turtles could be released to surface for air. However, to save on the cost of fuel for the boats, nets are often only checked twice per day. By the time an entangled turtle is discovered, it has already drowned.

Fishermen will continue to rely on their utilization of a natural resource, but it takes the dedication of conservationists and volunteers to combat the negative effects of fishing in sea turtle habitat. In the Archelon project areas, we have teams of leaders and volunteers monitoring the nesting beaches each morning during nesting season to locate and protect nests from terrestrial predation.

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During both day and night surveys, we respond to sea turtles that may wash ashore injured or dead.

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Injured turtles are assessed, and in most cases, are sent to the Archelon Sea Turtle Rescue Center where they receive treatment until they may be released back to sea. Members of Archelon also work to build relationships with fishermen, educating them on sea turtle behavior and status, and encouraging slight modifications to fishing practices and/or gear.

The key to supporting the balance between natural resources and nature is awareness and support. In the nearby town of Kalo Nero, Archelon offers an information kiosk to inform locals and tourists on sea turtle biology and conservation concerns, and to encourage respectful behavior on the Loggerhead nesting beaches. Volunteer-designed postcards and other gifts and souvenirs are available for donations, as well as adoptions of hatchlings, nests, and adult sea turtles.

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Anyone interested in supporting the sea turtle protection project is encouraged to visit the project website at http://www.archelon.gr/index_eng.php.

Thank you for your support!

Save the Morning, Save the World

Beyond the whir of the small outboard motor which hummed the boat’s occupants slowly and rhythmically across the portion of the Ambracian Gulf locally referred to as Pelican’s Bay, were the piercing cries of the flock of gulls whose cradles were being robbed.

Taking our eyes from the water where we scanned in search of Loggerheads, my fellow sea turtle conservationists and I glanced up to see that the morning sky was speckled with a stirring of bird silhouettes, frantically fluttering above a nesting site reachable by a series of connected islands and sandbars.

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Below, four emaciated stray dogs nosed their way from nest to nest, where an open buffet of eggs and hatchlings lay spread out before them. Fighting against current, seaweed, and time, we paddled and trudged our way to the nesting grounds to survey the situation. 

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The substrate was comprised entirely of empty shells of former sea creatures, the shorebirds’ nutrient source. Upon focusing eye sight, the shapes of speckled eggs began appearing among the debris, not in nests, but strewn about in chaotic fashion following the dogs’ interference. 

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After additional careful steps, small tufts of new downy feathers appeared, signifying the survival of a few hatchlings.

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At this point, the dogs were at the farthest end away from us, successfully capturing a second adult bird for their main entree.

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Having discovered the island was imperative to the dogs’ health and survival, and they were rewarded handsomely for their travels. However, the mouths of four hungry dogs mathematically correlates to the total demise of a new generation of a species of birds that had carefully selected a nesting ground virtually free of predators. For any chance of the remaining eggs and hatchlings to survive, the dogs could not be allowed to continue their meal.

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This small island is the last in a line of islands where the vulnerable Dalmatian Pelicans also nest. It is unclear if and how much damage the dogs may have caused in the pelican nesting grounds along the way. And regardless of our presence for the protection of the birds on this morning, knowing that a food source is available will surely have the dogs returning to the islands for subsequent meals.

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Luckily, the presence of the Dalmatian Pelicans, Loggerhead Sea Turtles, and other rare and threatened species has resulted in the foundation of a branch of the environmental management organization for the Ambracian Gulf. The organization was notified immediately of the dogs’ interaction with the nesting grounds so that steps may be taken to both protect the gulls and pelicans and meet the needs of the stray dogs.

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The needs and balances required by nature are keeping us on our toes daily, but it is a rewarding and unparalleled experience. In place of traditional travel, I highly recommend ecotourism! The hatchlings need you.

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For the Love of Dog

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These puppies, like many adult dogs, can often be seen in areas along Kyparissia Bay. Locals are used to stray dogs and do not see value in the animals, so not only are locals least likely to adopt strays, they are also reluctant to donate food or other needed supplies toward the cause. Luckily, the Hellenic Animal Welfare Association of Zacharos is working to address the dogs’ needs. Campgrounds become prime venues for seeking adopters and supporters, as foreigners are more likely to help.

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The Animal Welfare Association is also a valuable asset in the conservation of the local endangered Loggerhead sea turtle population. This year, an unprecedented number of dog attacks on adult nesting turtles has resulted in numerous admissions into the Sea Turtle Rescue Center, and in some cases, death.

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Dogs are also responsible for nest predations. When one of the first protected nests of the season began hatching, dogs dug under the grid and bamboo and destroyed the entire nest.

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With support, the Animal Welfare Association may be able to build a shelter – the first in the area – as early as August, providing a solution for collecting and caring for the puppies and stray dogs on the beach until homes can be found.

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If you are interested in learning more or supporting the Hellenic Animal Welfare Association in any way, they may be reached at hellenicanimalwelfareassociationzacharos@hotmail.com or by phone at (30) 690 737 00 34.

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