Restoring Coral Reefs in the Southern Florida Keys: Part 1

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Restoring Coral Reefs in the Southern Florida Keys: Part 1

Montastraea cavernosa (Great Star Coral)

        It's no secret that coral reefs throughout the world are suffering due to a variety of stressors. Coral bleaching, a process by which a corals symbiotic algae known as zooxanthellae is expelled from the corals tissue, leaving it stark white is the primary cause of mass coral mortality. While multiple factors can lead to coral bleaching, the number one stressor is the increase in sea temperatures, which creates an environment too warm for coral to survive in. In early March, scientists in Australia reported a consecutive mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef following a 2016 bleaching event, which killed off large sections of the northern regions of the reef. In the Florida Keys, coral reefs have showed a steady decline over the past few decades, with certain species such as Acropora palmata (Elkhorn Coral) exhibiting a 90% population loss.

Top Left: Healthy Elkhorn Coral at Looe Key Marine Sanctuary  Top Right: Completely dead Elkhorn Coral at Looe Key Marine Sanctuary  Bottom: Coral recruits (baby coral) of Elkhorn spawn collected from the wild and fertilized in lab. Left recruit shows colonization of symbiotic algae, while the recruit on the right still shows its initial clear tissue phase.

        The Mote Marine Laboratory is developing and fine tuning methods to restore coral reefs in the Southern Florida Keys. Part of what makes Mote's works so unique is the variety of species they're working with. Throughout most of the Caribbean, the majority of coral restoration has been practiced with Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn Coral) as this is a relatively fast growing species. Coral restoration with large bouldering corals was presumed nearly impossible due to their incredibly slow growth rates, but through new and refined techniques of microfragmenting corals, Mote is making it a reality. Director of Mote's coral reef restoration project, Dr. David Vaughan, is spearheading this project, with coral biologist Christopher Paige overseeing the day to day operations of growing and out-planting  the corals.  
        The process of microfragmenting corals is accomplished by taking a piece of coral grown at the lab and using a wet band saw to cut the coral into 1cm x 1cm pieces. The cut fragments are then glued onto a plug, and within 4-6 months, this small fragment will have filled out the entire plug and then some. With respect to some of the bouldering coral species Mote is working with, this growth rate is many times faster than what they would accomplish in the wild. While it's not entirely understood why the cutting process leads to a temporary explosion of growth, it is thought to be a wound healing response, where the coral fragment is putting more of its energy than normal into creating new tissue. This process of microfragmenting corals has the potential for exponential growth when thinking about the sheer numbers of fragments it's possible to create.

        One limitation to the micro fragmenting technique is that you don't gain the advantage of adding new genetically distinct individuals to the reef that sexual reproduction provides. For this reason, spawning season is a crucial part of coral restoration. For Caribbean species such as Dendrogyra cylindrus (Pillar Coral), researchers have been able to pinpoint the moment they will spawn to the hour in some cases. After the 2nd full moon in August and a few hours after sunset, divers will wait by wild colonies with giant nets to gather the gametes when the coral begin to spawn. Spawning may occur over multiple consecutive nights. Simultaneously, back at Mote, interns and staff are watching the D. cylindrus fragments closely to see if spawning at the lab will occur. While the fragments at the Mote did spawn, successful fertilization came from the wild colonies gametes. Other species such as Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn Coral), Acropora palmata (Elkhorn Coral), and Orbicella faveolata (Mountainous Star Coral) were also successfully fertilized in lab from gametes collected from wild colonies.

        D. cylindrus is considered reproductively extinct on the Florida Reef Tract, as no successful recruitment has been documented in over 30 years. Colonies are too few and far apart, that the chances of gametes from a male and female colony meeting up and fertilizing in the water column is near impossible. Mote currently has ten surviving single polyp recruits from the August 2016 spawning event. This is the first time anyone has gotten a D. cylindrus recruit to survive for this long. Currently, Mote is creating a gene bank of various D. cylindrus in the case that the remaining surviving colonies die off.

Dendrogyra cylindrus - Pillar Coral
Left and center images show D. cylinders recruits at 3 months post fertilization. Right image is taken at 6 months post fertilization. 

        After the rapid growth phase following microfragmenting comes planting season. This is where all the months of intense caring for these fragile species is put to the test when individuals are cemented to dead coral skeletons to begin restoring the Southern Florida Keys coral reefs. Out planting will be covered in Part 2 of this story coming later in the year. 

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The Blue Hole Project: Green Herons

The Blue Hole Project is an ongoing personal project I began a few months ago to document the various wildlife that inhabits or utilizes one of the only freshwater sources in the Florida Keys.

A female Green Heron stands up in her nest, revealing three blue eggs.

Sunset from The Blue Hole viewing platform

Freshwater in the Florida Keys is scarce, and has been pumped in from the mainland since humans have set up establishment on the chain of islands.  The Biscayne Aquifer is the major source of freshwater, which is pumped through a 130-mile pipeline to Key West, delivering water to homes, and businesses. For wildlife, freshwater sources are nearly nonexistent. There is one source of freshwater on Big Pine Key known as the Blue Hole. This pool of water is the result of rainwater filling an abandoned rock quarry used by Henry Flagler to extract rock to build his famous overseas railroad. Today, a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and even the Florida Alligator us the Blue Hole for nesting, hunting, drinking, and cooling off. 

Green Herons (Butorides virescens) are frequent visitors to the Blue Hole to fish and raise their young. When it comes to fishing, Green Herons are quite unique in that they fish more like humans than other wading birds. They create fishing lures with insects, worms, twigs, and feathers to entice fish into a deadly trap.  Behaviors like these leave the imagination to wonder why the term bird-brain is used as a negative connotation. As the breeding season begins in summer, Green Herons pair up with a single mate, performing courtship displays that include loud calling, snapping their bills, and stretching their necks. Before this courtship display the male will begin building the nest, but then passes the majority of the responsibility to his mate once courtship is completed. 

Courtship

Nesting Green Herons at the Blue Hole is a common occurrence, as many will nest at the same time around this small body of water. Many Green Herons, such as the pair I documented, use overhanging branches over the waters edge to provide a safe location for their nest.  I photographed this pair over the course of a few weeks until the one surviving hatchling fledged the nest.  This is the first of multiple short photographic stories I will be doing on the various wildlife that calls the Blue Hole its home.

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Fire to Restore a Once Dominant Ecosystem

Longleaf Pine Cone - Pinus palustris

Terminal bud from a young Longleaf Pine

        Before European settlers arrived, longleaf pine forests covered 92 million acres of the Southeastern United States from southern Virginia to Florida, and as far west as Texas. Only about 4% of its historic range remains today due to clearing the forest for development and agriculture. This massive clearing of the longleaf pine forests has left the remaining pockets heavily fragmented, which has further caused many species to become federally protected such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Eastern indigo snake, and the gopher tortoise. 
        For thousands of years, the longleaf pine forests have been dependent on natural fire to help revitalize the ecosystem. Pine needles, which cover the forest floor create dense mats that will keep the longleaf pine seeds from germinating since they need bare mineral soil that fire helps create. Fire also keeps a thick understory from forming, and invasive species in check, which can shade out longleaf pine seedlings. When fire isn't a regular occurrence in these habitats, broad-leaved trees such as oaks and hickories will begin to dominant and alter the entire ecosystem. Due to the heavy fragmentation, fire is no longer able to spread through vast portions of the forest.
        Fortunately there are a group of people working hard to restore this once dominant habitat. Georgia Department of Natural Resources has teamed up with The Longleaf Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, and many others to help make longleaf pine forests a healthy environment for wildlife and people alike. They're restoring these forests by the use for prescribed fire. Near Brunswick, Georgia I met with Ian Kottke, who was working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on the fire crew. Kottke explains that "during the cooler winter months and sometimes into spring is when the groups band together to safely and effectively burn  as many acres of Longleaf Pine forest as possible." This is a delicate process due to the fragmentation, which means working in close proximity to peoples homes and businesses. "Much care is needed to reach our goals and meet our objectives while keeping everyone safe and happy," Kottke explains. By the 1990's, only 2.8 million acres remained of once 92 million acres of longleaf pine forests. "Thanks to those involved in restoration efforts, that number has increased to 3.2 million acres." Despite the threats of logging and development, Kottke believes we will continue to see that number to increase over the years.
        
        

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Salamanders in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

            Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for being salamander capital of the world. There are 30 different species comprised into five families which reside within the park. It’s not just their diversity in species that makes the Smokies such a salamander hot spot, but also their sheer combined biomass. If you weighed the combined biomass of all vertebrates within the park, salamanders would be the heaviest by far. Finding these abundant amphibians is as easy as turning over a few logs or stones. During nocturnal hours the forest floor seems to be littered with salamanders. Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains, and over 17,000 species have been documented within the park. Scientists estimate that additional 30,000 – 80,000 species have yet to be documented living in the park boundries. How did this temperate rainforest become such a hotbed for biodiversity? The Appalachian Mountains, glaciers, and weather over deep time have played a vital role.
            About 11,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, much of North America was covered by ice. Species that were able to migrate moved south, and many found refuge within the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This resulted in many of these species to survive the ice age and diversify in the region we now call Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Southern Appalachians were and still are the ideal habitat for salamanders. Cool, wet environments with heavy rainfall made life and reproduction possible for a wide variety of salamanders that migrated south. This environment was also ideal the salamanders food sources, which is mostly consists of small invertebrates.

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea wilderae) inhabit much of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and can be found along the edges of streams and seeps as well as terrestrial habitats further from the water.

            During the summer of 2015, I spent extensive time in the field searching for various species of salamanders throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Outside of my personal work of documenting various species within the park, I spent a few nights working with evolutionary biologist Austin Patton who is working on his PhD dissertation on examining hybridization between Plethodon jordani (Red-cheeked Salamander), Plethodon metcalfi (Grey-cheeked Salamander), and Plethodon teyahalee (Southern Appalachian Salamander). Historically, hybridization tends to be viewed as a negative force in biology. Recent literature has poised that hybridization may actually accelerate the diversification process. This could possibly result in new species better adapted to a rapidly changing environment. Patton is using modern genomic approaches to help describe the contribution of hybridization to the historical diversification of these Plethodontid salamanders and to identify its role in contemporary adaptation.

Salamanders can be difficult to identify due to their similarities as well as various color morphs. We sent images of this individual to two salamander experts and both came back with a different possible ID. One being the Allegheny Mountain Dusky, and the other being an Ocoee Salamander. 

            Working with Patton meant collecting P. jordani, P. metcalfi, and P. teyahalee from 9PM until 4AM in various parts of the National Park. We would take small tail clippings which will be used to examine and compare DNA amongst individuals to see which are hybridizing and where. Since salamanders have the ability to regrow their tails, these small clippings are harmless to the individual. Each salamander was released after this process. I found the geographic distribution of these three species to be quite fascinating. At one location we would only find P. joradni, and another only P. metcalfi, and so on. Where ranges overlapped, we began seeing hybrids with strange coloration and patterns that were strong signals the different species were interbreeding in these regions. Further genetic analysis will reveal the parental species and genetic make-up of the specimens collected at each site.

All salamanders are captured and processed within plastic ziplock bags to reduce handling. This is important because the salamanders at study belong to the family Plethodontidae, meaning they lack lungs and respire through their skin. Touching them with oily hands can be harmful to their well being. 

Patton and Discover Life In America intern Mark Sowers  finish gathering data on the final specimens collected for the night.

I found this Desmognathus ocoee with a stub of a tail. Salamanders have the ability to self amputate their tail, a process known as autotomy. This is used as an escape strategy if a predator attacks and grabs its tail. Their tail will grow back, as this one is beginning to do.

           
            
            Worldwide declines in population numbers are nothing new to amphibians. The need for understanding species behaviors, and habitats will help lead to better protection and conservation efforts. Amphibians are very susceptible to minute changes in their environments. One study looked at historical and current pesticides that have shown up within Great Smoky Mountains National Park and their effects on salamanders. Results revealed measurable levels of many pesticides including DDT, heptachlor, endosulfan, and atrazine, some of which haven’t been used in many years. Some of these pesticides can induce developmental abnormalities, behavior alterations, and damage nervous system functioning amongst larval and adult salamanders. While the levels of these pesticides are likely too low to result in any significant deleterious effects in salamanders within the park, it’s important to know their presence. 
            

 

            To connect Patton’s research with the study on pesticides within the park we can for one at least understand the geographical distribution of these salamanders and where they’re hybridizing, and if these are areas high in pollutants. In addition, is it possible that hybridization could lead to individuals better adapted to cope with increased pesticide exposure in aquatic as well as terrestrial environments? These are the type of questions that can only be answered through further research on salamanders within Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  
            All images with a white background were shot using the Meet Your Neighbours (http://meetyourneighbours.net) technique. All salamanders were shot on location in the field and released immediately after photographing. My reason for photographing using this method is  that these are nocturnal animals, and

 

photographing them at night using flash would make their environment look unnatural. Photographing the salamanders against a white background highlights the beauty of these organisms as well as their unique coloration and detail. Click through the photographs below to see the salamanders of interest to the study as well as hybrids we found. The rest of the collection are other salamanders I found within the park.

References:

 

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Lead Poisoning in Raptors - A Human Induced Cause of Death

        Numerous studies have been finding a positive correlation with big-game hunting season and incidences of raptors (eagles, vultures, condors, hawks) with lead poisoning. The use of lead ammunition, and scavengers feeding on the remains from a hunters kill is the main source of the problem. Lead ammunition tends to fragment into tiny pieces throughout the tissue upon impact. Hunters generally only take home the meat they wish to consume and leave the remains for other animals. Scavengers which consume the carrion will ingest small pieces of lead ammunition, which leads to increased blood lead levels. Some symptoms from increased lead toxicity include  being lethargic, weakness, inability to fly, impaired vision, seizures, and death. A study conducted in Jackson Hole, WY, showed that switching to copper ammunition over the course of two hunting seasons resulted in a reduction of cases of Bald Eagles with lead poisoning. This is likely due to that copper ammunition doesn't fragment the way lead ammunition does, and 80-100% of the bullet can be retrieved compared to 20-30% for lead ammunition. 
        This film is not meant to be an attack on the hunting community. Due to the increased fragmentation of forests and certain animals like white-tailed deer, which have flourished in many regions, hunting plays an important role in biological control. Hunting organizations are also responsible for some of the largest contributions to conservation efforts. The idea with this film is to shed light to the issue, and encourage the use of non-lead ammunition.


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NANPA 2015 Summit Experience

 2015 NANPA College Scholarship Winners                                   Photo: Mark Larson

2015 NANPA College Scholarship Winners                                   Photo: Mark Larson

        Twelve strangers from across North America met for the first time in a room that would soon become a second home. We've been accepted as the 12 scholarship winners for the North American Nature Photography Association 2015 Summit. What I found most impressive, was that nearly all of us were aspiring scientists in various realms of biology. For myself, this was an entirely new experience. I'd never been surrounded by so many peers that had a love for wildlife photography and the education that goes along with it. Throughout the week we formed strong relationships that I envision carrying on for a long time. 

 Myself, Chris Johns, and Mitch Walters                                          Photo: Mark Larson

Myself, Chris Johns, and Mitch Walters                                          Photo: Mark Larson

        Once we all met we were immediately put to work, and given our task for the next few days. We had 5 days to shoot and edit a multimedia project for the US Fish & Wildlife Service about the wildlife refuge systems surrounding San Diego and their importance to the community, biodiversity, and a home for endangered species. During this project we were constantly learning from each other, and it was really great to see the enthusiasm when someone got their favorite shot of the day. As the week went on, less and less sleep was had. We'd wake up before sunrise, drive out to our first shooting location, and work until lunch. A quick lunch was had, and it was back to more shooting until the sun went down. I should now take the opportunity to thank Alice Robertson for keeping us alive and filling the role of the perfect travel mom a group could ask for. Having all of our meals laid out for us each day, we felt a tad spoiled. After dinner it was time to review the large amounts of footage and photos that had been shot that day, and begin the editing process. Many of us were up until 5AM the last nights of editing. A few had no sleep at all. 

 The crew in action                                                                          Photos: Mark Larson                                                                                                Composite: Matt Cicanese

The crew in action                                                                          Photos: Mark Larson
                                                                                               Composite: Matt Cicanese

        When we weren't working on the film, we got to attend some of the best talks I've heard in my life from speakers such as Dewitt Jones, Steve Winter, Nevada Wier, Frans Lanting, and Flip Nicklin. I think I speak for all of us that we were all taken aback by the magnitude of these talks. Each speaker had their own unique touch on photography, life, and the application of the photographic arts in preserving culture, wildlife, and nature. Dewitt Jones talk will stick with me for a very long time. A single line from his talk, "what are you willing to die for. Because you're doing it right now," has stayed with me everyday since that evening. To say that I feel motivated right now would be an understatement. I left San Diego with many new friends, and opportunities for the future. I hope to build these relationships closer and continue to further my photography to new and exciting experiences. Big thanks to everyone who participated and made this possible; Don Carter, Mark Larson, Ted Keller, Kari Post, Alice Robertson, Michele Westmorland, and Richard Day

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Hawaii: The Most Isolated Islands on the Planet?

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Hawaii: The Most Isolated Islands on the Planet?

By geographical terms, Hawaii is home to the most isolated islands on the planet. Smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was sometimes difficult to picture where I was on a global scale. The combined islands have a combination of a wide variety of habitats such as tropical forests, dry forests, subalpine grasslands, mountains, brackish pools, and coral reefs to name a few. Nearly 90% of the native species on Hawaii are endemic and found nowhere else on earth. Hawaii is also known as the extinction capital of the world. Islands are incredibly fragile ecosystems due to their size and how specialized inhabitants have evolved to be. Incidents such as released snakes can have detrimental effects on native species, since there are no natively occurring snakes on Hawaii. With no natural predators on the island, it's not difficult for snakes to wipe out an endemic species of bird. This is a collection of the photos I shot of the flora and fauna of Hawaii (the big island).

References:

  • http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2011/0721/Hawaii-snakes-Smuggled-reptiles-threaten-islands-fragile-ecosystem
  • http://www.hawaiinatureguides.net/ecosystems01.html
  • http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/features/story.aspx?id=129
  • http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/hisc/info/species/ 
  • http://www.kohalazipline.com/index.php/hawaii/kalij-pheasant-lophura-leucomelanos
  • http://www.statesymbolsusa.org/Hawaii/flower_hawaii.html

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Mini Entomology Documentary

I recently shot this short film on insects for my final project in my entomology class. During the shooting process, I learned a lot about the challenges that go into filming small subjects that you can't control. This was filmed over the course of 2 weeks, and all subjects were shot in their natural environments with exception to the aquatic insects that were filmed under controlled conditions.

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Explore Your State

Sunset through the longleaf pine forests at the Sandhills Gamelands.  

        I’ve lived in Asheville for nearly 3 years now, and had barely explored other parts of the state. The Appalachian Mountains give Western North Carolina much recognition, but I recently found there were many more places rich in wildlife and unique landscapes in other parts of the state. We planned a short trip to go scuba diving on the wrecks off the coast, while camping for 4 nights along the way. The route would take us from Asheville to Uwharrie National Forest, Sandhills Gamelands, Green Swamp Preserve, and Morehead City. 

Uwharrie National Forest

        The Uwharrie National Forest is the smallest of the 4 national forests in North Carolina. It was given federal protection in the early 1960’s by President John F. Kennedy. The forest gets it’s name from the Uwharrie Mountains. Legend has it that the word Uwharrie came from the indigenous Native American tribes that once inhabited the area. While the mountains are small today, only peaking at about 1,000 feet, they’re estimated to have been quite large 500 million years ago. We spent our first two nights in The Uwharrie National Forest with one being at Badin Lake.

Sandhills Gamelands

        Our third night brought us to the Sandhills Gamelands which offers one of the most intact longleaf pine habitats in the country. Longleaf pine forests are down to approximately 3% of their historic range in the United States. The majority of the longleaf pines are on average 100 years old. Since camping is ironically only allowed during the same time as hunting season, we found a section where we could drive off road through the trees to sleep for the night. As night approached the calls of a chuck will’s-widow was heard in the treetops, as well as a plethora of katydids. The Sandhills Gamelands is home to 2 undescribed species of katydids that can be differentiated by their calls. If you’re interested in exploring much of the gamelands by car, I’d recommend bringing a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We spent much of our time repeatedly digging my car out of the sand. 

Green Swamp Preserve

        Not far from the Sandhills Gamelands is the Green Swamp Preserve. Sitting passenger side during an attempt to make a U-turn thinking we had missed the exit, my Honda took a brief trip into the swampy shoulder of the road. Luckily for us the very first car that drove by was from the Nature Conservancy and had a steel hook to pull our car out. It was after talking to the folks that pulled us out, we realized we had been going in the right direction and was not even a mile from the entrance to the preserve. The Green Swamp Preserve is known for having many species of orchids and insectivorous plants such at venus flytraps and pitcher plants. To find the flytraps, you almost need to get on your hands and knees and really peel back the understory because they only rise about an inch off the ground. Up until 1977, the land was heavily harvested for timber from the longleaf pines. Today the Nature Conservancy is planting more longleaf pines to help restore the land to it’s natural state. Controlled burns have helped speed up the process due to the burns helping allowing the longleaf pine cones to release their seeds and create new growth. 

Morehead City

        The whole purpose of this trip was to dive off the coast of North Carolina. During World War II there was a period of steady U-boat battle off the North Carolina coast. Residents of the time reported hearing and feeling explosions as they went off. German submarine U-352 was sunk by depth chargers dropped from the US Coast Guard on 5/9/42. Out of the entire crew on U-352, 17 were killed and the rest taken as prisoners of war. Today, U-352 lies in 121 feet of water and has become a popular dive location. This was the wreck we were hoping to dive on, but due to weather conditions we had to dive closer inshore. We dove on the wreck of the USS Indra which was used as a repair ship during WWII. While 
        Since my underwater camera is not working at the moment and I don't own a housing for my DSLR, no pictures were taken on these dives. The second dive on the wreck was by far the best. Rather than moving  around and exploring everything, we moved slowly and patiently and saw far more wildlife than when you frantically move search. While watching an octopus feed within some small corals, a sand tiger shark swam by and caught all of ours attention. We pretty much forgot about the octopus at that point, even though I would say seeing the octopus feeding and changing its color was far more exciting. Octopus are some of the smartest cephalopods and have evolved eyesight that can be compared closely with our own. We also saw two toadfish which are ambush predators, hiding and waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim by. These fish look like something out of a alien movie. Arrow crabs filled gaps within the corals, barracudas hovered making the slightest movements, and a school of amber jacks made a wall so thick it nearly disoriented you. Minus surfacing on the wrong boat on the first dive, Both went very well.
        My reason for writing this story on our trip is not just to document a great time, but to show you don't need to travel far to experience new landscapes, culture, wildlife, and history. Many people are quick to think they need to travel to another country to experience something new. Anyone in Asheville can tell you if you drive just a few miles outside of town, it's a whole different way of living. I've found that the state of North Carolina has many beautiful parts to visit outside of the Appalachian Mountains, and we barely scratched the surface. 

I'm in the process of learning time-lapse photography using my DSLR. Here's a few I shot on the trip. The first being at Green Swamp Preserve, and the last two at Uwharrie National Forest.

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Jays in The Yard

A baby Blue Jay checks it surroundings while waiting to be fed.

        Upon arriving to Nashville to visit some old friends, I was greeted by 3 baby Blue Jays that had recently fledged from their nest but didn't make it very far. There's some debate over the definition of a fledged bird wether its when a baby bird leaves the nest, or when the bird becomes independent of parental care. Since these baby Blue Jays had left the nest but were still dependent on their parents to feed them, the term we call these are fledglings. For 3 days, the baby birds remained in my friends backyard with the mother and father returning frequently to feed them. Getting close to these birds to photograph them was difficult. Once you encroached on the "too close" zone, the parent Blue Jays would become aggressive and emit their warning calls. It took one of the parents swooping down and attacking my head to know where the threshold of too close was.

One of the parent Blue Jays watching over its young.

Natural History

        Blue Jays (Cyanocitta crostata) are a very successful species ranging throughout much of the United States, mostly east of Colorado. One of the reasons to their success is their ability to thrive in fragmented forests which is why we see them so often in urban areas. Blue Jays belong to the family Corvidae, which also consists of crows, ravens, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, nutcrackers, choughs, and treepies. Members of the Corvidae family are known for being the most intelligent birds and one of the most intelligent animal groups on the planet. Blue Jays have been seen problem solving such as using tools to obtain food, mimicking other species bird calls to their advantage, and exhibiting complex social systems. There are four subspecies of Blue Jays that aren't easily distinguishable, depending on what region you're in. Male and female Blue Jays have the same markings and plumage making it difficult to tell them apart without observing their behavior over time.
        A Blue Jays diet consists mostly of nuts, and insects but have been known to include small rodents, baby birds, and eggs from other nests. A recent study has shown out of 530 Blue Jay stomachs examined, only six had bird remains inside of it. This suggests that Blue Jays feed less on baby birds than once thought. Many birds create caches of nuts to come back and gather at a later time. Blue Jays are no stranger to this method but occasionally will forget where they hid the nuts which then further helps to spread a trees distribution and increase a forests range.
        Unlike many other bird species, Blue Jays tend to be a monogamous species. Their mating season begins in mid-March and runs into July. The majority of the mating occurs during April. Their nests are generally 10-25 feet off the ground and typically found in the nook where the base of a branch meets a tree. The nest of the birds photographed in this story was precisely in such a location. While the male and female will both gather materials for the nest, The female does the majority of the building and the male does most of the gathering. 
        The young will fledge after about 17-21 days in the nest. There is much variation amongst the time periods baby Blue Jays will stay with their parents after leaving the nest, but it's generally around 1-2 months. Eventually, once the baby birds can fend for themselves, they will leave their parents to avoid competition for resources. 

Perching on a fallen branch.

In Your Backyard

       Blue Jays are popular amongst backyard birders. They're easy to attract by putting out peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet. Suet should only be offered as feed in the winter due to it going fowl in warm weather. Birdbaths are also known for attracting Blue Jays as a water source. They're easily detected by their call and some have been known to mimic the call of a few different types of hawks to scare off other birds on the feeders. Their most frequent cause of death that's human related comes from domestic and feral cats. While it's a controversial topic, there have been plenty of studies showing the staggering number of bird deaths that occur every year due to cats.
        The morning I left, one of the baby Blue Jays was missing from the group. The first two days, it was considerably weaker than the other two and was likely picked off by a predator or abandoned by the parents. During that evening when I arrived home from Nashville, I received a message from the friends I had been staying with that the other two baby birds were no longer in their yard along with the parents. It's unknown what their future holds with predators such dogs, cats, squirrels, and many others out there. 

 

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Long days with good people

Harvesting green beans 

Last summer I spent some time hanging out at Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester, NC. Owners Anne and Aaron Grier offer grass fed beef, organic vegetables, and flowers all grown with respect towards the land. If you're looking for local food grown with love, this is the place. Some of the locations you can find these guys at is the UNCA, and Charlotte St. farmers markets on Saturdays. The call for locally grown organic food has steadily been on the rise in the past few years as people become more aware of why it's a good choice. Anyone who's grown their own food knows the benefits of the fresh taste you can't otherwise get. Many vegetables lose much of their nutritional content in the hundreds of miles they are shipped to their destination. By supporting your local farmers, you help cut down on endless gallons of fuel used to ship vegetables across the country. There seems to be a detachment between a persons food and knowing what it took to get to their plate. Getting to know your farmer is a rewarding and important experience. The folks at Gaining Ground are a part of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program which helps build that connection. Supporting these small organic farms has other benefits beyond just keeping it local. Every year  massive amounts of runoff from large monocropping farms using pesticides and other chemicals are washed intro streams, and rivers where it can disrupt water quality, plant, and animal life.

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