My June assignment was to trap the tortoises at Yuchi (pronounced you-chee) Wildlife Management Area. As you may know, in autumn of 2011 we translocated a total of 36 adult Gopher Tortoises from a development site in Telfair County, Georgia, to two protected sites that offer suitable habitat. Eighteen tortoises each were translocated to the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve and to Yuchi Wildlife Management Area, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources property located south of Augusta.
The translocated tortoises were penned over their first winter at both sites—that is, confined within a large island of sandhill habitat encircled by silt fence—a practice which has been found to enhance site fidelity. From May, 2012 – May, 2013, we radio-tracked nine translocated and nine resident tortoises (approximately equal numbers of each sex) at both sites to determine activity patterns, habitat use and home range size.
Back to the present. Our study has reached its conclusion. My job is to track (thus find), then trap and capture, weigh and measure, and finally release, each tortoise (following removal of its radiotransmitter and temperature sensitive I-button).
Yuchi WMA is a diverse site with frontage property on the Savannah River. It is situated across the river from the Savannah River Site (location of the Savannah River Ecology Lab, a site of herpetological renown where drift fences at some Carolina bays have been monitored continuously for ca. 30 years). My travel to Yuchi from my home near Fort Stewart follows state highway 301 north over gentle hills through a rural and often swampy landscape.
Prior to Interstate 95, hwy. 301 was a major artery for those vacationing in Florida, and fossils of former Mom-and-Pop motels and filling stations, some still in gaudy colors, pepper this route. Back in the day, giant billboards lined the road; most have long-since fallen and decomposed, making excellent habitat for flipping snakes. My snake-hunting buddies tipped me, soon after I arrived in south Georgia in 1990, that “the 301 billboards won’t disappoint”. They were right, and to this day Yuchi and the surrounding region support robust populations of Corn Snakes, Rat Snakes, Eastern Kingsnakes, Eastern Coachwhips, Copperheads and Canebrake Rattlesnakes.
I initiate trapping on June 10th. I successfully radio-track and locate all 18 tortoises, and finish setting my traps by late afternoon. The Havahart traps are shaded with burlap and will be checked 3-4 times per day, as I don’t want any of my charges overheating. The air is moving with an approaching storm, and a Common Nighthawk pierces the sky above me.
On Day 2 the tortoises start hitting the traps; my haul, an impressive five captures. Many of our tortoises have nicknames akin to Star Trek characters. Today, I captured “Scotty”, a handsome male who still has crisp annuli (growth rings) on his carapace, and “Nurse Chapel”, at 7 kilos one very impressive tortoise. As I leave the Nurse’s compound, I am thrilled to find a four-foot long Florida Pine Snake coursing through wiregrass.
Like the Gopher Tortoise, this species has declined along with the loss of the Longleaf Pine sandhill ecosystem. Additionally, the southeastern Pocket Gopher, a favorite prey, has all but disappeared from the Atlantic Coastal Plain of southeastern Georgia (Why? Biologists are unsure, but possibly due to widespread application of fire ant biocides ca. the 1970s-1980s). Although there is a small population of Pocket Gophers, or “sandy-mounders” as some southerners still call them at Yuchi, I haven’t noticed any of Geomys’ telltale pushups close to this ridge. Hmm, just what would a Pine Snake eat here?, I wonder… Then, in rapid succession I encounter a mole run, spot the mini-tortoise burrow-like excavations of several Oldfield Mice, and nearly trip over the ground nest of a Chuck-will’s-widow— Mama chuck doing her frog-mouth face and broken wing feign in between rasping scolds in my direction.
On Day 3, the funk of heat in earnest, the air itself so warm it seems to burn my lungs. I catch and process three more Gophers (and consume many hundreds of fat blackberries). Some of the tortoises are also purple-lipped. I am starting to crack and now speak often, and out loud, to the turtles. Only 10 to go, I reassure myself, between wheezy breaths and toweling off. Mid-afternoon finds me lying on my belly for an hour in a cute sand-bottomed rill through a Savannah River swamp—photographing whoever elects to swim by, first a Cottonmouth and then a Striped Mud Turtle. The Swainson’s Warbler lives here, a rare species of canebrakes in river swamp floodplains that feeds by methodically turning damp leaves in search of invertebrates. I know that for sure because one landed eight feet from me.
And the following afternoon, I seek comfort in the walk-in cooler of a nearby store where I grab another case of water and a handful of ice cream sandwiches. The clerk remembers me. “You do sure look hot, baby doll, be careful, it’s a beast out there today”. Of course, I like being called baby doll as much as the next guy, although with respect to longevity I am not too far from the maximum age (60 years) that the Gopher Tortoise is known to attain in the wild.
During the course of the tortoise field work I lodge in rural Burke County. A rustic cabin in a bucolic, and as it turns out, amphibian-heavy setting. I learn from the caretaker of repeated, and recent, heavy rains: “11 inches over the last 4 days, that ain’t counting what we got with Tropical Storm Andrea… we’ve been tempted to photo the rain gauge, a lot of folks don’t believe us…”. From the looks of the swamp, where water has nearly risen over the bridge to swallow the road, I believe.
After dark the fun begins, insects by the thousands ricochet off or land on every lamp-lit window. Sitting on the porch, powerful, and I do mean rocking, frog choruses surround me on all sides, their constituents including Bullfrogs, Bronze Frogs, Oak Toads and six species of Hyla. The fluttery whistles of Bird-voiced Treefrogs always make me smile. I’ve got these off to the north in a blackwater swamp, and what must be many hundreds of Barking Treefrogs baying from a wet-weather depression to the west. The yard is alive with foraging Spadefoot toadlets—that recently metamorphosed.
I persevere and capture all the tortoises. They are all in excellent condition, with heavy and healthy body weights. Importantly, the translocated turtles have “stayed put”, dug their own burrows, and adopted dedicated home ranges. On my last day at Yuchi, I enjoy a long hike in the sandhill as I carry out my final releases. I feel like a fullback as I tote tortoises like footballs, sometimes one under each arm, dodging cacti and grunting with effort. Captain Kirk looks me in the eye, with a gaze that does seem to go back millions of years. He extends his beautiful head, resting his chin on his gular scute. I place Kirk on the sand apron of his burrow and watch as he ambles into the twilight zone of his tunnel. As he enters, his shell briefly hangs up on the mouth of the burrow. He extends his right foreleg, then the other, tossing a few generous paws-full of sand behind him with each, before disappearing.