Sonoma County Wildlife website launch!

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I am really excited about the launch of a new website that I co-created!

The idea of the website was to create a central place for the Sonoma County community to share knowledge about our wildlife neighbors. We hope to connect county residents to the landscape around them, educate about the wildlife that coexists with them, offer opportunities to get involved in wildlife projects, and inform about local wildlife conservation issues.

I will be writing and editing for the site and hope that it will be a useful tool for the people of Sonoma County. Please go and check it out at sonomawildlife.org!

Sleep deprivation, hawksbills that like variety, and green sea turtles hanging out together

Three new publications out!

First, Guru Magazine has published my article, “Light Sleepers: Why you need to get your sleep, and your light,” about something on my mind a lot during the first year with my new daughter: sleep deprivation. I go over why it’s so important to get those Zzzs (unless of course you LIKE hallucinating and walking into walls, in which case, don’t bother with this article).

The next two were articles published in scientific journals.  “Habitat selection by green turtles in a spatially heterogeneous benthic landscape in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida” was published in Aquatic Biology. This one is interesting because it mixes two telemetry methods: satellite tracking and acoustic receivers. With these methods, we look at what areas turtles prefer and get clues as to whether turtles spent time with (or avoided) each other. Acoustic data in particular can be tricky to work with, and this paper offers up some ways of working with it.

Hawksbill satellite-tracking case study: implications for remigration interval and population estimates” was published in Marine Turtle Newsletter. I am extra excited about this one because I was first author. In this paper, we talk about Shuli, a hawksbill turtle tagged in the US Virgin Islands . After nesting there, she migrated all the way to the Bahamas before returning to nest again. What was interesting about Shuli was that she nested on a different beach upon her return. In the paper, we talk about how this has implications on counting turtles to get population sizes and also on our understanding of how often individuals nest.

Read one, read all. Learn a little about yourself, learn a little about the natural world.

How the most endangered sea turtle likes to travel

Kemp’s ridleys are the most endangered sea turtle species in the world.

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Before conservation efforts, Kemp’s ridleys nested mainly on one 16-mile stretch of beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. A film taken there in the 1940s showed around 40,000 individuals of the species partaking in group nesting, called an “arribada.” Unfortunately, this important nesting beach became a target for massive over-harvesting of eggs and their numbers plummeted shortly after the 1940s film. While it may have seemed to the harvesters that the population was impossible to harm due to its considerable size, the ocean is a dangerous place for hatchlings and chances of survival are slim. It can take hundreds of eggs to produce only one nesting adult, so every egg counts.

The Mexican government attempted to battle the declines by protecting the nesting beach starting in the mid-1960s but the number of nesters continued to drop. Ground-breaking conservation efforts in the late 1970’s between Mexico and the U.S. were taken to try to prevent total extinction of the species – scientists transported eggs from Rancho Nuevo to a protected beach in Texas. At that point the population was reaching critically low levels and on the brink of extinction. Less than 800 nests a year were estimated in the 1980s, accounting for only about 300 nesting females.

Further conservation laws established in the 1990s required an escape route for turtles caught in trawling nets (named Turtle Exclusion Devices; TEDs) in both U.S. and Mexican waters. These devices prevented accidental deaths during fishery operations, although compliance has not been consistent in either country. All of these conservation efforts eventually paid off, and in recent years numbers of nesters began to recover in Mexico (around 13,000 nests counted in 2010) and increase in Texas (around 150 nests in 2010), resulting in over one million hatchlings in 2010.

However, there are other threats in the Gulf of Mexico and its nesting beaches, from too much beach lighting at night to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Whatever the cause, Kemp’s ridley nest numbers decreased during 2013 and 2014 to a 7–8 year low.

In addition to being the rarest, Kemp’s ridleys are also the smallest sea turtle. While the shell of the largest sea turtle species, the leatherback, can measure up to 8 feet in length (they can weight up to 2,000 pounds!), Kemp’s ridleys only reach a little over 2 feet long (and weigh more like 100 pounds).

In a previous paper we looked at the foraging areas that Kemp’s ridleys use in the Gulf of Mexico. Next, we were interested in the areas they migrate through. Migration corridors are important because turtles need to swim through these waters to get to food (foraging area) or nesting grounds. With so many threats in the Gulf of Mexico, we wanted to define these migration areas to help with conservation efforts for these small sea turtles.

Our paper was published in Biological Conservation and you can read it here.

The most interesting turtle in the world

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I have a special place in my heart for terrapins. There’s just something about their cute small faces and their sweet demeanor – it’s like they have yet to learn that humans are to be feared. True, once in a while they may try to bite a wayward finger if you aren’t paying attention. But you can’t really hold that against them – if you were temporarily snatched from home to be measured and tagged, you might think about doing the same.
 

Besides the occasional attempted bite, when we caught them they usually sought escape by ‘swimming’ through our hands with their cool webbed feet, their sharp nails digging into our skin with tenacity. And once in a great while, with the small prick of a needle in the behind, some males would have the opposite reaction: they would let out their flower-shaped penises from the safe hiding space in their tails to search for what they presumably thought must be some kind of mating attempt.

Terrapins are interesting in an ecological context, being the only turtle species in North America that lives exclusively in mangroves or coastal marshes. They are also interesting in a conservation context: they interact with crab fisheries along their range (they get too comfy in submerged crab traps and can’t find a way out, so they sadly drown) and also live on the coast, which means a lot of competition with us humans for that space – habitat loss or degradation is a principal concern for them.

 

One other interesting thing to me about terrapins is where I had to go to find them. I traveled deep into mangroves in Everglades National Park, where the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and the tip of the U.S. meet, so distant from major human influence that the lights of Miami were just a haze on the horizon amidst a Milky Way-filled sky. It was a place where the sea still shined with bioluminescence when our little skiff floated over its surface. A place where time took on a truly abstract meaning and our days were ruled by the height of the sun and the pull of the moon on the tides.

 

I went there, and I caught terrapins along with researchers who had been studying them for years. I wrote about the thrill of catching these small turtles, and about how terrapin blood holds one key to their conservation. Please read the article, published by Guru Magazine here: Hunting Terrapins.

Seeing over 200 North American bird species

Verdin_(Auriparus_flaviceps)

Verdin

Seeing 200 North American bird species is not much compared to the 749 species Neil Hayward saw to win the American Birding Association Big Year in 2013. (A Big Year is when a birder counts all the birds she sees or hears within a single year and geographical area – check out the 2011 movie with Jack Black and Steve Martin for a hilarious look at what they can be like.)

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Painted redstart

BUT, for me this moment is one I’m pretty proud of. It didn’t all happen in a year. I’ve been casually listing birds for quite a few years actually. As I crept closer to the 200 mark, I started to look for opportunities to break it. And today I did just that. I reached 201 bird species in my Sibley birding app.

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Roseate Spoonbill

It’s not really about the numbers though, even if that can be a fun part of it. Paying attention to the birds around me has given me some great moments to remember.

Like that time I saw a verdin flitting around and flourishing in a desolate, but beautiful desert. Or the roseate spoonbills, anhingas and purple gallinules I saw while kayaking through Florida mangroves. There was the American redstart bouncing quickly from trees to the cliff-faces I climbed in Arizona, all the while flashing its black and white wings and tail to startle insects.

Black Oystercatcher, Esquimalt Lagoon, Colwood, Near Victoria, British Columbia

Black Oystercatcher

There were the Brewer’s sparrow’s long, intricate, trilling songs cutting across the dawn air above sagebrush in Wyoming. Or the time my husband and I spotted brants, pigeon guillemots, harlequin ducks, glacous-winged gulls, bald eagles, black oystercatchers, rhinocerous auklets and surf scoters while floating on a tiny skiff in uncommonly peaceful waters off the northern coast of British Columbia, Canada. I saw a peregrine falcon ripping into a small mammal with its hooked bill and, nearby, critically endangered, dinosaur-sized California condors mating on top of a granite boulder in Pinnacles National Park.

So, thank you birds. You bring so much feathered beauty to this world (even you, condor).

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California Condor

Photos from wikimedia commons, except painted redstart which is from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=575116)