Turtle misidentification

Back in November, right before it got cold for the winter, my sons found a turtle nest filled with new hatchlings near the base of their slide. The boys were playing in the backyard when they noticed the hole with six little turtles peeking out.

turtle nest

We were all surprised to find them, particularly that time of year. And they must have just hatched because they weren’t much bigger than quarters. Who knows what compelled their mother to place the eggs so far into our yard from the water and so late in the year. Knowing they might not survive the cold–their nest, even if they could have overwintered inside, had been thoroughly excavated by my excited children–Matt brought them in and set them up in a tank. He’s an experienced turtle keeper.

fall turtle hatchlings

The turtles have been with us since before Thanksgiving. The picture above was taken on their first day on our kitchen counter. It’s not the best shot of these guys, but I think their charm is still evident. Turtle hatchlings are hard not to adore, and so I willingly gave up my counter space.

The turtles’ most distinct marking was a red patch of color on the sides of their handsome little heads. So we assumed they must be Red-eared sliders, an identification none of us further researched or questioned.

The holidays came and went before I sat down to read about the turtles living in my kitchen. This was when the turtles started to lose their charm. Red-eared sliders are, it turns out, a problematic invasive species that outcompetes native Yellow-bellied sliders. Because they’re popular pets, Red-eared sliders are often released in neighborhood ponds and rivers when pet owners tire of them. Then the hardy Red-eared sliders reach sexual maturity faster, produce more offspring, and outsize the natives, establishing themselves readily outside their natural range. Red-eared sliders belong in Mississippi, not in South Carolina.

This knowledge was hard to take. Our turtles were growing fast, and we’d been planning to set them free once the weather warmed up. What would we do with them now? I didn’t want to set them free and perpetuate the problem. And making soup didn’t feel right; the kids really like these turtles. My best idea was to take a road trip to Mississippi, where we could put the turtles back where they belong. It would be about a nine-hour drive. I could do that.

Then the plot thickened. Our little turtles, which had such distinct red markings as hatchlings, started to look less like Red-eared sliders. As they’ve grown–and they’ve nearly quadrupled in size–the red spots have faded to a barely noticeable orange blush. And when I started comparing photos of Yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) with those of Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), it seemed we could have been wrong. Our turtles look more like Yellow-bellied sliders than their red-eared and bothersome cousins. And so the springtime release, it seemed, was back on.

However, the turtle identification problem doesn’t end there. Last weekend I spent some time with my good friend Kimberly who happens to be a turtle expert. She didn’t see my hatchlings, but I told her about our identification challenge, and she shed a little light on the situation.

She said that, around here, it’s hard to find a pure population of Yellow-bellied sliders, particularly in neighborhood lagoon systems, because Red-eared sliders are such popular pets. The two species are similar enough that they can interbreed and hybridize. So our turtles are likely a little of both.

cramped turtle tank

I’m not sure what this means for our turtles, though probably the release is still on as soon as it warms up. I can’t drop six hybrid turtles in the Mississippi, if that’s what they are. But on the other hand, dropping them in the backyard is kind of wrong too, right? Maybe the problem is much bigger than me and my six turtles. Or maybe every turtle counts. The turtles are too big for the tank now, and they’ve started nipping at each other because they’re cramped and grumpy. We have to do something. Tension is mounting in the turtle tank . . .

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Filed under backyard safari, reptiles, suburban wildlife

Harbingers of spring

I’ve had a draft of this post sitting on my computer for about three weeks. Since noticing the first signs of spring back in February and starting to write about them, a vicious stomach virus attacked everyone in my family. It was terrible, and I lost about a week of personal writing productivity (blogging) to cleaning up the mess. And believe me, it was messy.

The beauty of writing half of this post last month is that between then and now, spring has advanced. The clocks have sprung ahead; the weather has warmed, a little anyways; and you don’t have to be looking hard to see spring.

February 26, then: I’ve lived in the south for almost eleven years and I’m still not used to spring starting in February. Where I grew up in northern Ohio, it’s freezing today and I heard on the weather that another winter storm is heading for the northeastern United States. Now that sounds like February to me. That’s the February that comes to mind when I think of February.

But while dropping my son off at preschool this morning, I saw an azalea covered in lush, pink blooms. Yes, an azalea. On February 26. That’s not all. A dogwood tree around the corner is wearing pink flowers. And the hood of our (new!) minivan is coated in a thin layer of pollen that definitely wasn’t there last week. Other recent signs of spring in the Lowcountry include: green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) sunning on the house siding and patio furniture, the daffodils (which never flower because I planted them under a big live oak) have emerged in green stalks, and the biting gnats (Ceratopogonidae) that find us every time we go outside to play.

And so it seems a new season is upon us. This, of course, doesn’t mean the cold weather is done. Last year was cool into March–I remember because I was dressing my then-newborn in fleece and layers. It came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, as they say. But no matter what next month holds, and whether or not my daffodils actually bloom this year, I can see spring coming.

March 17, now: If I had to liken March to an animal, lion seems to fit. We have both frozen and dug out our flip flops this month. It’s raining today; raining on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in fact. But the landscape seems to be celebrating the holiday: the pollen that was a mere dusting a few weeks ago, is now so thick it’s running into the lagoons and collecting in electric green stripes along the shore.

It feels like spring has come fast, but it’s perhaps just me. I spent three days sick, nearly dead to the world, and in that time the little oak in our front yard went from naked to fully leafed out without me even realizing it was happening. The Carolina jessamine is wearing its bright yellow blooms. I saw an American robin the other day, perhaps on its way north. (They don’t seem to hang around here very much, despite what my field guide says about them being a year-round species). The dogwood trees–all the dogwood trees–are covered in flowers. I suppose, though, it’s fair to say that spring warned me a few weeks ago with those azaleas in February.

And I’m thrilled to report that I did get a daffodil this year. One single daffodil. (Yes, I believe this will be the year I move those bulbs to a sunnier spot.) I have proof.

my daffodil

Happy spring! Please share any signs of spring you’ve seen in the comments.

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Filed under fauna, flora

34 bird feeder projects

I love a good hands-on activity, and today I thought I’d share some fun bird feeder projects I’ve collected. First, I made you a collage.

34 bird feeder projects

And second, some projects to try. They are a great way to keep the kids busy when you’re snowed it, and of course doing these projects will make it easier for your local birds when it’s cold outside and food is scarce. All the links include instructions so you can make a bird feeder too.

1. Garlands strung with fruit and nuts.

2. Cracker houses, perfect for pecking.

3. Up-cycled tea cups, complete with perch. This is a German blog, but the instructions also appear in English.

4. Recyclable hummingbird feeder.

5. Grapevine wreath feeder.

6. Toilet paper roll feeder–a favorite at our house.

7. Pumpkin feeder, which may not be possible now, but would be perfect for fall.

8. This orange feeder, however, is ideal for citrus season.

9. Popcorn and fruit garlands, for Christmas, or anytime!

10. Log-style suet feeder.

11. Popsicle stick feeder.

12. Slinky up-cycle, which may be the best use of a wrecked Slinky I’ve ever seen.

13. Easter egg ornament feeders, because spring is just around the corner.

14. Bird feeder with perch.

15. Gourd feeders, from Martha Stewart.

16. And one more from Martha Stewart (she is the Queen of Projects, after all) . . . the sunflower bird feeder. This is why we plant sunflowers in the garden every year.

17. Milk jug bird feeders.

18. Aluminum can bird feeder up-cycle.

19. Another take on the vintage tea cup bird feeder.

20. Milk carton bird feeder.

21. Wooden birdhouse-style feeder.

22. Picture frame bird feeder.

23. Go all out with this Grand Central bird feeding station. This makes me want to learn how to work the saw.

24. This Cheerio and blueberry pipe cleaner bird feeder is perhaps the perfect project for little hands.

25. Birdseed ornaments.

26. Another adorable recyclable up-cycle bird feeder.

27. No list of bird feeder projects would be complete without a pine cone feeder.

28. Wine bottle hummingbird feeder.

29. Bagel bird feeder–the perfect use for your few-day-old bagels.

30. Easy platform feeder.

31. Homemade suet cakes.

32. Recycled peanut butter jar bird feeder.

33. Another build-your-own option that’s good for kids, and inexperienced woodworkers, is to use a bird feeder kit.

34. And finally, I’ve saved the best for last: the bird seed bundt wreath. This is not only a beautiful way to feed the birdies, but it would make a great gift.

And if you’d like a few more ideas, here are a few other lists I found for inspiration:

Thirty-Plus Eco-Wonderful Bird Feeders

20+ Unique Bird Feeders

I’ve tried a few of these projects, but not all of them, at least not yet. If you’ve made a bird feeder, from this list or another type, I’d love to hear about it!

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Filed under birds, nature for kids, projects

The last panther in South Carolina

When I first moved to Bluffton–an area that was, even then, far less developed by humans than it is now–my neighbor told me she thought she saw a panther once. I can’t remember all the details of her story–I think she said it was passing along the wooded edge of a backyard one morning. I do remember her telling me it was black, shaped like a cat, and bigger than any dog she’d ever seen. As far as I know, this is all that’s left of panthers in South Carolina: stories passed along to neighbors, the details of which get fuzzier with each retelling.

Florida panther vintage

The panther is extinct around here, but it survives endangered in the wildest parts of southern Florida. I’ve been thinking about them because I read recently that panther deaths in south Florida decreased last year. This is fantastic news. Seeing this report made me think of Nancy Cathcart’s The Natural History of Hilton Head Island, S.C., a book I discovered years ago while perusing the local section of the Hilton Head library. Published in 1981, it’s a small field guide that describes the different habitat types on the island and what species of plants and animals you might find there, and it’s one of those books that you’d never know existed unless you happened upon it the way I did in a library or maybe a used bookstore. Anyways, Cathcart describes the panther like this:

“Catamount, cougar, puma, panther, or mountain lion–the status of this will-o’-the-wisp of the swamp has been in dispute for decades. This largest of the New World cats once ranged from Alaska to Cape Horn. The last verified panther killed in South Carolina was in 1916 near Camden. In the 1960s Fred Hack reported a black panther crossing Island Highway 278 near present Hilton Head Plantation. Woodsmen still claim seeing panthers here and County Coroner Roger Pinckney took a plaster cast of a large cat track here in the 60s. According to Albert Sanders at The Charleston Museum, the only proof of the continued existence of the puma in South Carolina is some panther scat found in a Cape Romain lighthouse in the 1960s.”

Although that reference to a paw print cast may represent the last panther on Hilton Head, it certainly doesn’t mean the panther won’t return to South Carolina. This morning The Augusta Chronicle published a story about panthers being reintroduced into wild parts of Georgia and South Carolina that are large enough to support them–it mentions the Okefenokee Swamp and Savannah River Site as two possible locations. The article, which is fascinating if you’re into panthers, also talks about some past reintroduction experiments and the complications such a program faces. (By the way, here are two more stories about the panther’s plight in Florida: Dead cat walking (part one) and The Florida panther’s sordid story (part two).) The most obvious complication being public opinion.

People aren’t usually comfortable with the idea of living near large cats, and large cats tend to roam. In the fall of 1995, during one of the reintroduction experiments, a male panther wearing a tracking collar crossed Georgia, roaming freely throughout the state, without anyone reporting a sighting. Every year, the Augusta Chronicle article explains, Georgia and South Carolina get about seventy-five cougar reports. The only one of those sightings with documented, tangible proof came when a hunter shot and killed the panther he saw in Troup County, Georgia, which, upon examination of the body, appeared to be a captive animal that must have escaped. Escaped captives, the article suggests, might be contributing to the panther’s mythos: it may be these fugitive panthers seen roaming and reported as sightings.

For now, the panther remains a myth, at least in South Carolina. I asked Matt if he’d heard of any recent, reliable panther sightings around here, and he said no. But that, of course, doesn’t mean panthers aren’t out there, stalking around the shadowy woods, watching us, while we never suspect them.

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Filed under fauna, natural history

Three things about birds

retro bird watchers

1. Inspired by this post, I am sharing a few interesting bird-related online pieces to feed your internet tendency. I know mine ate quite a bit last week when it was cold outside. And hours spent reading online led me to discover the Charleston Audubon blog (another Lowcountry nature blog!), where I then discovered an amazing photo essay about the world from the bird’s eye view. You can view the pictures here:  27 incredible views you’d only see if you were a bird.

2. Ohio’s state bird is the Northern cardinal. Growing up, learning this fact as a dutiful elementary student, I believed the cardinal was the perfect representation of my home state. If it had the honor of being our state bird, it was undoubtedly chosen because it was the state’s most fantastic bird, probably not found in other states, and likely possessing some Ohioan qualities that made this bird the perfect choice for state representation. Then I moved to West Virginia and learned that the Northern cardinal is also their state bird. I was baffled by this. How could two different states, each with such its own distinct culture and character, both have the same state bird? Ohio and West Virginia are right next to each other. How could this have been allowed? Needless to say, now knowing that the Northern cardinal is much less Ohioan than I thought, I found this article both enlightening and hilarious: Is your state bird a stupid state bird?

3. I know he’s one of the most famous writers of our time, but I held off reading Franzen until last spring when I read Freedom. I don’t know why I waited so long, except that I don’t read very many novels and just didn’t get around to it until recently. And I suppose Franzen often looks like a jerk. Anyways, it’s an awesome book to read. And the main character, Walter, is my kind of guy. But I agree with this: Jonathan Franzen is the World’s Most Annoying Bird-Watcher

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Filed under birds, reading