25 February 2009

Irie... The Blue Mountains, Mon!

In June 2008, Lindsay and I vacationed for a week in Jamaica. We stayed in the resort town of Ocho Rios, but one day embarked on an approximately two hour bus trip to the east side of the island. The purpose of our journey was to see the largest mountain range in Jamaica, the Blue Mountains, made famous in the minds of many by the coffee that is grown there, Blue Mountain Coffee.

While some people on our tour might have been there to sample the coffee, we were there to ride cruiser bikes down the mountain, view the breathtaking scenery, and observe the flora and fauna of the area.

Consisting mostly of shale, mudstone, sandstone, and limestone bedrock, the Blue Mountains are mostly at an elevation of greater than 3500 feet, and peak at 7402 feet. They consist of several vegetation communities that vary in levels of anthropogenic disturbance. The southern slopes below 5250 feet have mostly been cleared of forest and now are either fallow fields or are used to grow coffee, vegetables, or ornamental plants.

Coffee plantation

Coffee plant

Above 5250 feet, the forest is more intact, though scattered clearings are present.

The Blue Mountain forests are diverse and vary depending on elevation. On the northern slopes below 2950 to 3300 feet, trees grow to a height of 100 to 120 feet, and woody vines are abundant. This area is known as the lower montane rainforest. At elevations above the lower montain rainforest is what is known as the upper montain rainforest, an area characterized by heavy fog. Within the upper montain rainforest, elfin woodlands are located between 6500 and 7400 feet, and are characterized by shorter trees and many lichens and mosses. Below these areas are forests made up of taller trees.

Many of the openings created for agriculture and tourism have been colonized by weeds from Europe and North America; there are also abundant native weeds in these disturbed areas. Spanish needles (Bidens alba) is one such native weed.

Another, and one of my favorite weeds of the trip, is Cupid's paintbrush (Emilia fosbergii).

Most of the plants found in the undisturbed areas of the Blue Mountains, however, are native to Jamaica. In fact, 50% of the flowering plants within Blue Mountain forests are endemic to Jamaica, meaning that they are found growing naturally only in Jamaica. Of these endemics, 30 to 40% are only found in the Blue Mountains! One of those endemics is begonia (Begonia minor), a shrubby plant that grows on exposed rock cliffs.

Because we were bicycling down the mountain, we didn't have as much time as I would have liked to observe and study the flora and fauna of this beautiful area. If we ever make it back to Jamaica, we have agreed that we would like to spend much more time exploring the Blue Mountains.

Most of my information comes from A Guide to Plants in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica by Susan Iremonger.

21 February 2009

Can't Wait for the Chorus

More snow! We woke up this morning in northern Indiana with a fresh coating of the white stuff; we're up to about 5 inches right now. This weather certainly doesn't make it seem like we'll be enjoying the euphonious verses of frogs and toads anytime soon. But as sure as the Red-winged Blackbirds have returned, the ice will melt and our amphibian acquaintances will soon be singing. To get in the mood, here is a preview of what is to come.

The three frogs to begin calling as early as late February in Indiana are the Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata), and Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica). It is usually March before we begin to hear them in the northern part of the state, however.
The Latin name for Spring Peeper gives a good hint for how to identify this approximately 1 inch long frog. Crucifer means "cross-bearing," a reference to the characteristic dark "X" on the back of the tan body. If you live in eastern North America, there is a good chance that you've heard these guys, even if you didn't know it; males try to attract females with a repeated, high pitched "peep... peep" call that in full chorus sounds like jingling sleigh bells. When in large groups, their collective calls can be deafening. The best places to find Spring Peepers are swamps and vernal pools in moist forests. Like many other amphibians, while they require wet areas to breed, they spend most of their time in upland forests. This is one reason why it is important to preserve and restore not just wetlands, but complexes of wetland and upland.
Western Chorus Frogs are about the same size as the previous species, but can easily be distinguished by the gray-brown base body color with three dark stripes on the back (hence the specific epithet triseriata, meaning "three stripes"). They are common from Ontario to Tennessee and from lllinois to New York, but are less common in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Western Chorus Frogs prefer open wetlands, especially marshes, damp fields, and temporary ponds, but can also be found in more wooded habitats including swamps and bottomland forests. Their characteristic breeding call is similar to the sound made if you ran your finger across the teeth of a comb... pprrreeeep... with the pitch rising at the end. Western Chorus Frogs start calling at about the same time as Spring Peepers, sometimes just a bit earlier.
One of my favorite northern Indiana frogs has to be the Wood Frog... just look at that cute little thing! Wood Frogs can reach a size of about twice that of the previous two species. They are easily recognizable by sight, with the key identification character being the chocolate-brown mask through the eye. The furthest north ranging of North American amphibians, Wood Frogs are found in a general band stretching from Alaska to Georgia. In northern Indiana, they aren't nearly as common as the other early calling frog species. They can be found in swamps, forested bottomlands, on edges of lakes, and in moist woods. However, they are typically found in the water only during breeding season. Wood Frogs sometimes begin breeding earlier than Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs, an activity made evident the male's call that is a series of two to six duck-like quacks or clucks.

The next species to begin calling in northern Indiana is the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which is about 2-3 inches long. The spotted pattern on a green or brownish body narrows the identification down to four potential species in Indiana (Northern Leopard Frog, Southern Leopard Frog, Plains Leopard Frog, and Pickerel Frog), but of these, only Northern Leopard Frog and Pickerel Frog are known from the northern part of the state (although Plains Leopard Frog may also have been found in the northwestern part of the state historically). Northern Leopard Frogs have round to oval spots with distinct light borders on their backs, and the two ridges that run down the frog's back usually are uninterupted all the way to the groin. Northern Leopard Frogs also often have a spot on their snout. They are found in bogs, marshes, and wet meadows, around ponds, and along streams throughout southern Canada and most of the United States, but are absent from the southeast. The wonderful breeding call of Northern Leopard Frogs has been described as sounding like a heavy, creeking door; Lindsay says they sound like a drumming woodpecker. They also make a grunting sound that is similar to the sound made by rubbing your fingers on a balloon.

In mid- to late-March, we begin to hear the long, flute-like, tranquill trill of the American Toad (Bufo americanus). This species can be up to three-and-a-half inches long and is easily recognizable by having small dark spots enclosing one or two warts each on their backs. The underside of the American Toad is also usually heavily dark splotchy. American Toads are common throughout most of eastern North America, most commonly found in grasslands and open woods. They are also commonly found in suburban and agricultural areas. Be careful if you handle an American Toad, because if they pee on you, you will get warts. JUST KIDDING!! That's just a myth. But they do have a large gland behind each eye, called the parotoid gland, that contains a bitter chemical that is toxic to predators, so you probably shouldn't eat one.

Photo from www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3333.htm

As stated earlier, the Pickerel Frog (Rana palustris) can look a bit like a Northern Leopard Frog, but you will notice that the spots on the back are large and rectangular. Also, the area on the underside near the groin of Pickerel Frogs is bright yellow to orange. Pickerel Frogs begin calling in mid- to late-March. Their unique call sounds like a low-pitched, steady, mechanical, gutteral snore... yyyyeeeeeeooww. Distributed throughout most of eastern North America, they are most often found near spring-fed streams and lakes, but are also found in wet meadows and in swamps.

The Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) is very similar to the Cope's Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis), and can really only be distinguished by call and genetic analysis. However, Cope's Gray Treefrogs are not known from the northern part of Indiana. Eastern Gray Treefrogs are up to about 2 inches long as adults. Their appearance changes from the time they are young until they are adults, and as adults, their color can also change depending on temperature and the color of their surroundings (hence the specific epithet versicolor, meaning "of various colors"). As young frogs, Eastern Gray Treefrogs are green and very smooth. They begin to develop a warty texture as they mature.

By the time they are adults, their color can range from putty white to pale green to almost black, with a somewhat warty skin and black and dark gray patterns.

Eastern Gray Treefrogs are found in the eastern United States, with the exception of the southeast, and range north into southern Canada. Most commonly, they are found in moist forests surrounding swamps or ponds, but you can hear them calling from almost any forested habitat from late April or early March into the middle of summer. Eastern Gray Treefrogs produce a musical, bubbly trill that ususally lasts just a few seconds; their calls are often confused for Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans) begin calling at about the same time as Eastern Gray Treefrogs. They are small (approximately an inch long) and have dark, somewhat warty skin, and are often easily identifiable by the wide green or reddish stripe down their back. Northern Cricket Frogs can be found throughout most of the eastern United States (absent from New England) west to Colorado and New Mexico. They are fairly uncommon in the northern part of Indiana. Habitat preferences include ponds, marshes, ditches, and along edges of lakes and streams. These small frogs are often easier to locate by breeding call than by actually seeing them. Their rattling calls sound like steel balls clicking together, getting quicker and quicker as the call progresses. This is where the specific epithet originates; crepitans means "hand rattle".
Fowler's Toads (Bufo fowleri) also begin calling at about the same time as Eastern Gray Treefrogs and Northern Cricket Frogs. They appear similar to American Toads, but the dark spots on their backs are larger and usually contain three or more warts. Also, their undersides are white with a dark spot only on the chest. Fowler's Toads are found throughout most of eastern North America, usually in open or sparsely forested areas that have sandy or loose soil. They are more common in southern Indiana, where they are often found in gardens, than in the northern part of the state. Males give a loud, low-pitched, nasal bleat (similar to a bleating sheep) that lasts four to seven seconds.
In May, we begin to hear the banjo-like twangy calls of Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Clamitans means "noisy" - a reference to the breeding calls and the distress call, a high pitched squeak, given by this species as individuals jump into water to escape predators or a botanist trampling through their habitat. One of our largest and most common species, Green Frogs can reach a size of three-and-a-half inches long. They are generally brown in color with green on the head, and they have a pair of ridges on their backs which distinguish them from the following species. Green Frogs are found throughout eastern North America, barely reaching into southern Canada; they have also been introduced in several states and provinces in western North America. They are found in permanent water, typically in swamps, ponds, streams, and on edges of lakes. They sometimes overwinter as tadpoles. Like the following species, Green Frogs are hunted and eaten by humans.
At about the same time that we begin hearing Green Frogs, we also start to hear the monster of our frog and toad world, the Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). Bullfrogs have been measured at up to 8 inches long, weighing up to 2 pounds! Almost no small animal is safe in the presence of Bullfrogs... they've been known to eat fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, other frogs, and even birds! They can look similar to Green Frogs, but do not have the ridges on the back seen in Green Frogs. Bullfrogs overwinter in the tadpole stage, sometimes for 2 years. The native range of the Bullfrog includes the eastern United States north barely into Canada and west to Wyoming and Texas; however, they have been introduced in the western United States, southwestern British Columbia, the West Indies, Hawaii, Italy, Taiwan, and other places. Bullfrogs are common in Indiana, where they are found in ponds, lakes, and streams; they require permanent water. The breeding call of the Bullfrog is a deep bass "rrrummm... rrrummm... rrrummm" that can be heard for up to a quarter of a mile. Bullfrogs also let out a yelp when disturbed. While hunted and eaten by humans, the introduction of Bullfrogs into the western United States has been detrimental to populations of other frog species.
I have heard that Spring Peepers are already calling in Missouri, so it won't be long before we begin to hear this night music here in snowy northern Indiana as well.

18 February 2009

The Timberdoodles are Coming!

With the increasing daylight hours comes the northward migration of our winged neighbors. One of the more charismatic, and one of my personal favorites, has to be the Timberdoodle. This woodland shorebird is more commonly known as the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). I'm not sure what it is that makes the American Woodcock so intriguing... the long beak, the beautifully camouflaged pattern, the ability to remain completly still and quiet until you are just a half step from stepping on them, the adept aerial displays, or the tranquil and recognizable "peent" call that they make as part of their courship ritual.

If you've never seen the male American Woodcock trying to attract a mate in the spring, you are missing out on one of the true wonders of nature. It starts around sunset, when the woodcock moves to an open or brushy, moist field and begins giving nasal "peent" calls while hidden among grasses. He then takes to the wing and flies up and in a wide spiral fashion to heights of over 300 feet. As he is gaining altitude, his wings make a characteristic twittering sound. Then, all of a sudden, like a balloon being shot with a dart, he zigzags to the ground at a great rate of speed, letting out a few chirps as the ground gets closer and closer. When he lands, he begins the peenting and the ritual all over, until he is rewarded with an enamored female. This display makes it very easy to see a woodcock up close, as they often land near the same place from which they took off.

How long did it take you to find the "bog sucker," as woodcocks are also sometimes called, in the photo above? She's right in the middle of the photo, if you still can't find her. Justin Thomas and I found this little lady as we were preparing to burn his property in Salem, Missouri last March. After finding her, we noticed the four brown speckled eggs within three feet of her.

Find mom and her eggs yet? If not, check the top left and the bottom right in the photo above. There they are, wonderfully camouflaged. Who needs a fancy nest in a tree when you blend in with leaf litter so well on the ground?

Yep... that's an American Woodcock nest. After a few stressful minutes of having Justin and me around the nest, the female woodcock took off. How do I know it was a female? Because the males don't play any part in parenting after copulation. Justin and I knew that the fire would probably toast these eggs, so we created a wetline in a ring around the nest and kept the fire out of this area. It's possible that the nest was predated after the fire, but for that brief time we felt good about saving these future woodcocks.
There have already been reports of "peent" calls in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan this year, so keep your ears open, and watch where you step!

14 February 2009

Not Your Everyday Raptor

It's really too bad that I don't truly know how to use a camera, because I had a great opportunity today to photograph an uncommon raptor.

The South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society had a field trip this morning at Notre Dame to hike around the two lakes, primarily looking for ducks. After first driving up to Riverview Cemetery in South Bend and watching 6 White-winged Crossbills feed on spruce, I met up with Brian Miller and group of field trippers. I turned onto Dorr Drive at Notre Dame and had to stop before turning into the parking lot because a minivan in front of me was stopped in the road. I waited for a bit, beginning to get impatient. Finally, the van pulled into the parking lot. It was only then that I realized that the van was carrying birders, and that there was a raptor perched on the top of a small tree along the edge of the parking lot. I quickly pulled into the parking lot and jumped out of the car, binoculars in hand. I first noticed that this was a smaller raptor, then noticed the brown streaking on the breast, then noticed the banded tail, and then noticed a weak mustache. I quickly blurted out, "is that a Merlin?!?," and sure enough, it was!

I have only seen a Merlin (Falco columbarius) once before today, and that was several years ago at Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area. As the latin name suggests, a Merlin is a type of falcon. At 10 inches long, they are larger than the related American Kestrel (9 inches), but smaller than the Peregrine Falcon (16 inches). Their breeding range is throughout Alaska and Canada, barely dipping into very northern parts of the lower 48, where they inhabit open woods and prairies. They are apparently beginning to move into more urban areas, and there is some evidence that their numbers are increasing. Merlins typically winter further south in the United States, and are only mapped in this area during migration (although they are known to winter here). Like other falcons, Merlins catch their prey (typically small birds, small mammals, reptiles, or insects like dragoflies and moths) on the wing. This agile predator had just finished eating, and really didn't care at all that we were standing underneath it, within 50 feet.

I really do apologize for the poor photos, but I couldn't resist posting about this stealthy falcon.

11 February 2009

White-nose Syndrome, or Just White Fungus?


After personally observing the Big Brown Bat discussed in this post, Dr. John Whitaker has told me... "The material on the nose appeared to be from the hibernaculum and was a mixture of dirt and hair stuck to the nose area and peeled right off with a needle. It was not white nose." Good news.

White-nose syndrome has received a lot of press lately. This disorder, which is characterized by a white fungus forming on the muzzle of hibernating bats, is currently known to exist in the northeastern United States and west to Pennsylvania. In just the past two years, it has led to the death of over 100,000 hibernating bats (primarily Little Brown Bat, but also Indiana Bat, Eastern Pipistrelle, Northern Long-eared Bat, and Small-footed Bat). This is bad news if you don't like mosquitos; one bat can eat up to 75 percent of its own weight in flying insects during a single summer.

Photo from New York Department of Environmental Conservation, www.dec.ny.gov

On January 31, before our recent spring weather (which is about to revert back to winter, by the way), I found a dead Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) just outside our back door. The bat was identified as a first year juvenile by Dr. John Whitaker based on my photos. While this little guy seemed pretty small when all folded up, when my coworker Rob Wolfe stretched it out to measure it, the wingspan measured a stunning 310mm! Other dimensions included: total length, 109mm; forearm, 43mm; tail, 41mm; hind foot, 10mm; and ear, 13mm, though this last measurement could have been conducted incorrectly.

Big Brown Bats can be found from southern Canada to northern South America, and into the West Indies. They can live up to 19 years, but many don't make it past their first winter because they don't store enough fat to last through hibernation. While all of our other species of bats migrate south and hibernate in warmer climates, the Big Brown Bat will spend the winter hibernating in cooler areas. They even will become active during this period of hibernation if they become too cold or if their hibernaculum is disturbed.

A variety of insects are eaten by Big Brown Bats during the spring-early fall, including dragonflies, moths, flying ants, flies, lacewing flies, and wasps. Most commonly, however, they feed on beetles.

It is possible that this bat died as a result of the cold temperature that it encountered when it left its hibernaculum. However, the white fungus on its muzzle makes me wonder if this bat could possibly have died as a result of white-nose syndrome, even though this disorder has not been observed as far west as Indiana (yet). The fungus on the bat I found looks a little different than the photos I've seen of bats that have white-nose syndrome. If anyone familiar with this disorder has thoughts on whether this is or is not white-nose syndrome, I would like to hear them.

08 February 2009

Wild Things 2009

Lindsay and I attended the 2009 Wild Things conference yesterday in Chicago, along with over 1000 other nature lovers from in and around one of our largest metropolitan areas. This conference is held every other year and is hosted by Chicago Wilderness. We had a great time, and saw some wonderful presentations. Below are a few of the highlights. I've added a few relevant photos that I've taken in the past to keep you from getting too bored.

Doug Ladd started off the conference with an inspiring keynote address about sustaining our natural heritage. Doug emphasized 10 points that are imperative if we want to keep our natural areas as part of our environment.
  1. Understand our ignorance - we know relatively very little about our surroundings.
  2. Don't get caught up with the big picture problems; protect the organisms (and to do this, we need to really know the organisms).
  3. People are part of our biological systems.
  4. Know our past (including biological, geological, and human).
  5. Know the enemy (the threats to our biological resources), including historical, ongoing, and future threats. Also, we need to determine the source of the threat and treat that, not just the threat itself.
  6. Know the value of nature (ecosystem services) - $$ can convince even those who don't necessarily care about the environment.
  7. Be vigilent about protecting what we have. These places are irreplaceable and essential.
  8. Avoid soundbytes of universal greenery. Examples include wind turbines (1/4 mile radius around turbines have been shown to be dead zones for grassland nesting birds due to noise), and that planting trees will solve climate change problems.
  9. Invest in permanent stewardship networks. Know that there is no endpoint for restoration and vegetation community maintenance.
  10. Grow beyond our borders - share successes and failures with the rest of the world.

We also saw a talk by Robert Brodman and Allison Sacerdote about restoring habitat for amphibians. Results of the presenters' research showed that wetland/upland complexes that include clusters of wetlands separated by less than 400 meters are the most productive in terms of total amphibian species and abundance. Also important for number and abundance of amphibian species is having a number of different hydroperiods (including ephemeral wetlands, semi-permanently inundated wetlands, and permanently inundated wetlands). Building a complex of systems incorporating all of these aspects leads to an exponential increase in amphibians. This presentation also showed that spring burns that take place after the temperature is above 50 degrees Farenheit can be detrimental to amphibian populations, and that herbicides (even those approved for use in wetlands) can affect amphibian hormones or cause amphibian mortality. A research project was also shared in which several amphibian species (including wood frogs, pictured to the right) were successfully reintroduced to a site where they were historically present but had since become extirpated.

Finally, we went to a presentation by Carl Strang about singing insects. It was amazing how many of the insect songs we recognized from mild August nights by the bonfire, even though we admittedly had no idea what they were at the time. If you actually listen, really listen, on a summer night, there is a great diversity insect song in the air. The presentation dealt with a variety of species, including Protean Shieldback, Linne's Cicada, Broad-winged Tree Cricket, Black-legged Meadow Katydid, Texas Bush Katydid, Allard's Ground Cricket, and periodical cicadas. We are looking forward to trying to identify a variety of these singing insects this summer at our property to add them to our always increasing yard list.

We were very impressed with the conference and are looking forward to attending again in 2011.

04 February 2009

I need a little spring!

I'm not one to complain about the snow. I love the snow. I love the winter. But even I have to say that spring can't come quickly enough this year. Parts of LaPorte County were blanketed with almost 2 feet of snow... last night! It's only early February, but it's hard to believe that spring will be roaring in less than two months. Since I don't think I'll be seeing any live flowering plants anytime soon, I figured I would post some old early spring photos to hopefully brighten our spirits.

Behold, the harbinger of spring - Erigenia bulbosa! This photo was taken on March 19, 2005 at Fall Creek Gorge in Attica, Indiana.

Trillium nivale, aptly named snow trillium, as it can sometimes be seen flowering while snow is still on the ground. This photo was taken on March 19, 2005 at Fall Creek Gorge.

The ubiquitous spring beauty, Claytonia virginica. In the depths of winter, even the most common of plants can bring us joy. This photos was taken on April 1, 2006 at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

When there isn't much florally happening on the forest floor in early spring, Hepatica acutiloba is at its best. This photo of sharp-lobed hepatica was taken at Dowagiac Woods in southwest Michigan on April 15, 2006.

Upside-down, they do look like a Dutchman's breeches, don't they? I took this photo of Dicentra cucullaria at Bendix Woods in South Bend, Indiana on April 10, 2005.

If you've seen the roots of Dicentra canadensis, you understand why it's commonly referred to as squirrel corn. This photo was taken on April 17, 2005 at Bendix Woods.
In mid-April, marsh marigold lights up forested wetlands and seeps. This photo of Caltha palustris was taken in LaPorte County, Indiana on April 19, 2006.
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, is beautiful even prior to anthesis. This photo was taken at Waldhaus in Buchanan, Michigan on March 25, 2007.

This perennial favorite, yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), is about as photogenic as they come. I snapped this shot on April 10, 2005 at Bendix Woods.
And a final sign of spring, the leaves of Asarum canadense, wild ginger, just beginning to unfurl. I took this photo at the Heron Rookery in Porter County, Indiana on April 1, 2007.

I can't wait for spring!

Til Death Do Us Part

In honor of the upcoming Valentine's Day holiday I wanted to share with you a true love story. This story begins high in the canopy of a Costa Rican Rainforest. Here is where a female first saw from across the tree-tops the most wonderful shades of scarlet with accents of blue and yellow. She immediately fell in love when she looked into his light yellow eyes and he felt the same way. The two then began their lifelong journey together. Who are they? They are the Scarlet Macaw family.

Scarlet Macaw's are very unique in the fact that they are among the few bird species that mate for life. This may not seem very impressive, however, their life span is approximately 70 years. Macaw's form monogamous relationships and tend to breed young about every 2-3 years. They are also unique in the fact that both the males and the females take active parts in raising the young. Male birds can often be seen hunting for and feeding the young. The young birds and their parents then live together as a family until the young have reached sexual maturity and go to find a mate of their own.

The even more impressive part is that if one of the partners dies, the other will never seek another mate. It has also been said that often times if one bird dies the other bird will die soon after even if the bird was in perfect health. Brings controversy to the question of can one die of a broken heart!

The above picture (not the best quality) is a pair of mating Scarlet Macaw's that we saw in Carara National Park when we were on our anniversary trip to Costa Rica.

Happy Valentine's Day to all and may you find a lifetime of happiness with your Macaw!

02 February 2009

Tourists Save the Lives of 37

This extended cold weather has me thinking about warmer places.

In November 2007, Lindsay and I took a two week vacation to Costa Rica. Although birds and plants were our primary targets, a group of 3 inch long shelled reptiles in Tortuguero ("the region of turtles") stole the show.
We woke around 4 AM the morning of November 3 for a chance to see Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) hatchlings emerging from eggs and making their way to the Caribbean Sea. You're probably thinking, "Why would these lunatics wake up so early on vacation to see some silly turtles?" These aren't your ordinary turtles. Green Sea Turtles have a long history... in fact, there is evidence that they were around at the same time as the dinosaurs... and they have an even more interesting life history. More on that in a bit.

Green Sea Turtles can move fast - 35 mph, in fact, when swimming. That's not too bad for a reptile that can weigh up to 500 pounds when full grown. Another impressive fact is that they can go up to 2 hours without breathing when sleeping! Although juvenile Green Sea Turtles are carnivorous, adults feed only on plants. They spend most of their long lives (they have been known to live up to 80 years) in the water, covering nearly one thousand miles to get to feeding territories, but females have to be on land to lay eggs. Here's the amazing part... a Green Sea Turtle will go back to the same beach on which she was born at least 25 years previously to lay eggs! After building the nest and laying eggs, the adult female moves back to sea, leaving the eggs and hatchlings to fend for themselves. This is not at all an easy task for the young ones, considering the numerous predators (wild dogs, birds, crabs, etc.) that stalk the beaches looking for lunch. The eggs incubate for 2 months before the hatchlings emerge. When they emerge, they immediately head towards the sea, a trip that seems like a marathon and an obstacle course all in one.

That unforgettable November morning, we walked along the beach donning headlamps and wielding cameras with the sun still breaching the horizon. Our guide Rebecca examined numerous empty nests. Portions of egg shells were scattered in several places where either a wild dog had dug up eggs or turtles had already emerged.

Finally, Rebecca found a nest where she was able to feel turtle heads. She wiped the sand off of the top few turtles and they began the long journey of approximately 200 feet from nest to the Caribbean.

Due to the stresses mentioned earlier, only ~1% of the hatchlings actually survive. Individuals from our group walked with the newly emerged turtles as they made their way to the water. Then more turtles began to emerge. And more.

In the hour or so that we watched, 37 babies emerged from the nest and fought their way through footprints in the sand, over debris, and into the sea. This was a small nest; sometimes, up to 100 hatchlings will emerge.

It felt good to be the guardian for a few of these turtles for the first 20 minutes or so of their lives, but it was exhausting watching them make this arduous journey.