Archaeology in the face of erosion at Mission Santa Catalina de Guale

When American Museum of Natural History archaeologists closed down the dig at Mission Santa Catalina de Guale in the late 1990s, they knew it was one of the most important Spanish colonial sites in America. But because the mission is located on the western scarp—thought to be one of the most geologically stable spots on the island, they believed the unexcavated archaeological deposits should survive, safe and intact for decades. It turns out we were all wrong. In recent years, Wamassee Creek has been meandering closer and closer to the island, literally carving away parts of the unexcavated mission deposits. In fact, the mission site has become one of the fastest eroding places on St. Catherines Island. Whatever the cause of the accelerated erosion, we’re losing five to ten feet of the mission site each year. We can’t stop the erosion, but we can rescue the information and artifacts that are disappearing at a record clip.

26th Christmas Bird Count, December 15th, 2012

Friday, December 14th, on a cold afternoon, 38 birders hopped on boats eager to get to St. Catherines and check out their assigned areas in preparation for Saturday’s 26th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on SCI. This is part of The National Audubon Society’s 113th CBC, with the count taking place in over 2,000 locations from December 14th—January 5th. This year we recorded 131 species and 28,835 individuals on count day. While this is not our highest count, not in species or individuals, it was certainly an exciting year. We had the first-ever sighting of a Razorbill on SCI (photos left), and the first Clay-colored Sparrow spotted on the CBC (that species has been seen once before on the Fall Migration Count 2006—- No Wake Zone Vol. 1, Issue 9 ). We were also lucky that a highly elusive Yellow Rail appeared for the second time (CBC 2010 was the first sighting). Finally, there was an unusually high count of 124 Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Bonnethead Sharks

When spending time on the Georgia coast, particularly in late summer, you will likely see shark fins in the waters. This usually inspires a little apprehension and awe in us all. Thankfully there is a good chance that what you are seeing in the shallow waters are Bonnethead (also known as shovelhead) sharks, the smallest in the family of 9 species of Hammerheads. They are known for nibbling on small fish, bivalves, blue crabs, shrimp, octopuses, crustaceans, and even sea grasses, not large mammals such as ourselves. Bonnetheads have noticeably rounder heads; protruding forward like a shovel; than the other 8 species of Hammerheads.

A Wrack-y Summer

During 2012, three or four storms occurred producing higher than normal tidal events that floated massive quantities of dead plant debris, mostly Salt Cord Grass (Spartina ), out of the Marshes on the Georgia Coast. These extensive masses of marsh plant debris floated out of the marshes, were carried through tidal creeks and rivers through the sounds into the Atlantic Ocean; and then washed ashore with on-shore winds. The Spartina  detritus accumulated as massive accumulations along the shores of the barrier islands in aggregates called wrack mats.

Seasonality and Human Mobility along the Georgia Bight

The American Museum of Natural History published the newest Anthropological Paper, Seasonality and Human Mobility along the Georgia Bight , on March 6, 2012. The volume, which was edited by Elizabeth J. Reitz, Irvy R. Quitmyer, and David Hurst Thomas, presents new research on methods for reading the seasonality record found in common biological proxies and applying these various methods grounded in the natural sciences to estimate seasonality with particular reference to the archaeology conducted on St. Catherines Island and along the Georgia Bight.

Teaching With Big Burrows on St. Catherines Island

If you say the words “spring break” and “college students” in the same sentence, it may invoke lurid images of wild and crazy times on the beaches of Florida. For my students and me, spring break 2013 was certainly wild and crazy, but in a different sort of way. Yes, we spent some of that break on beaches of the Georgia barrier islands. But for much of that time, we looked at the many animals in those beaches and their traces: tracks, trails, burrows, and more. It was not a vacation, but a class field trip for a course I teach in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, simply called Barrier Islands.

Spring Migration Count

This year 10 of Georgia’s finest birders arrived on SCI Friday April 27th to join in the 6th annual Spring migration count. Fully equipped with all the finest optics and honed skills that are essential for counting as many of the birds that can be counted over a 24 hour period they were eager and ready to go. The weariless weekend watchers counted 6725 individuals of 140 species.

While no individual was extraordinarily rare, we did see large numbers of Cedar Waxwings. Cedar Waxwings are considered common but erratic winter residents over most the state (Giff Beaton), and we rarely see more than a couple of them in the Spring Migration Count. This year we counted 157 of these beautiful birds dispersed throughout the island.

St. Catherines Island 6th Annual Spring Migration Count

Spring comes and the birders arrive prepared to find itty-bitty little migrating warblers and other passerines for the St. Catherines Island Spring Migration Count. Arriving on Friday night, checking the beaches in the evening (for shorebirds), getting a little bit of sleep, and then Saturday morning the count starts. Counters get up before dawn (generally around 4am), to go count owls in their assigned sections, and if they are close to the houses they can return for a little breakfast before a very long day of scouring the island for migrating feathered friends (although all birds are counted). A total of 148 species were recorded, and 8,153 individuals.

Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoises are large tortoises native to the Southeastern United States. They feed on low-growing vegetation including many grasses and legumes. These are a long-lived species, thought to live over 60 years. Tortoises live in burrows that have been excavated using their shovel-like front feet. The tunnels of these burrows can be up to 40 feet in length and 10 feet in depth. Gopher tortoises have often been considered a keystone species in their habitat because their burrows offer refuge to over 360 different animal species and because of their natural role as a seed disperser.

Fish Sampling

There are a myriad of ways to sample fish populations. To date the Augusta State University fish crew has used three types of sampling gear as primary research tools to sample fishes on and around St Catherines Island. Seines are used to sample the beaches, a trawl to sample the estuaries and minnow traps to sample the fresh and brackish waters of the island’s interior. This is about to change as the researchers are getting ready to add a fourth – gill nets. These differ from seines and trawls in that they are passive capture devices. The 150 foot long nets are deployed and left to hang in the water column for a period of time, from a couple to several hours, allowing fish to swim into the net and get caught.

1 2