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Give to wildlife? Check
The Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund tax checkoff is vital to nongame wildlife projects in this state. The checkoff accounted for about 10 percent of the DNR Nongame Conservation Section's funding in 2010. Yet while averaging more than $300,000 since 1989, checkoff contributions barely cleared $200,000 last year and have declined annually since 2005. Help stem that trend, and help Georgia wildlife. Fill in an amount more than $1 on line 26 of the long state income tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500-EZ). Forms online. And remember that the Nongame Conservation Section receives no state funding to conserve nongame wildlife, native plants and natural habitats. We depend on contributions, grants and fundraisers, like the income tax checkoff.
    Here are other ways to help:
* Buy a conservation license plate.
* Donate directly to the Nongame Conservation Section.
* Use GoodSearch for your Internet searches (enter "Georgia Nongame Conservation Fund" under "Who do you GoodSearch for" and click "Verify").
* Join TERN, the Nongame Conservation Section's friends group.

Photo: spring peeper
WILD Facts
Listen for the high-pitched mating calls of the spring peeper this time of year. A distant chorus of these tiny frogs sounds like bells jingling. In the South, this amphibian “peeps” from November through late winter. However, in northern states the calling and breeding starts when the first warm rain arrives, signaling that spring is near. Although spring peepers may be piercingly loud, finding them in clumps of aquatic vegetation is difficult. Their color varies and may be a shade of yellow, orange, brown, gray or olive. This species is best identified by its 1½-inch-long size and a characteristic dark “X” on its back.

In education
Two "year of" themes offer teachers rich resources for wildlife lessons. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests to raise awareness of forests -- their conservation and sustainable management. 2011 is also the Year of the Turtle, an effort by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation to highlight the precarious state of turtles -- nearly 50 percent of which are identified as threatened with extinction. Sign up for a free e-newsletter, learn more about the global status of turtles, even submit a turtle photograph for a contest at (FYI: The focus on turtles intensified with the Turtle Survival Alliance's release of its 2011 "Turtles in Trouble" report.)

D.C. talk
The struggle for State Wildlife Grants Program funding continues. In a bid to lop millions from the federal budget, the U.S. House passed House Resolution 1 on Feb. 19. This continuing resolution, which would extend the budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, eliminates 2011 funding for State Wildlife Grants. The proposal also nixes funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and significantly cuts the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund.
   Since 2000, the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program has served as states' main funding source to help keep common species common and protect others before they become imperiled and more costly to recover. The grants power State Wildlife Action Plans, strategies for conserving biodiversity.
   Work in Georgia varies from documenting key coastal shorebird nesting sites to restoring mountain bogs and protecting natural habitats such as at Townsend and Chickasawhatchee wildlife management areas. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act supports wetlands conservation projects. The Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund provides grants to states for work involving candidate, proposed and listed species.
   State Wildlife Grants supporters say they are not opposed to cuts, but "zeroing out" a program is disproportionate. With the majority Democratic Senate opposed to HR 1, leaders in both houses are working on a shorter-term continuing resolution. The current spending plan runs out March 5, raising the specter of a government shutdown.

Read the opinion
of Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall.

Image: Least bittern
Up close
Least bittern
Ixobrychus exilis
Key characteristics: Small wading bird – about 11 inches long – with long neck and bill. Adults are black or dark brown on the crown and back, buff on the neck and sides, and striped orange and white on the chest and front of the neck.
Way under the radar: Least bitterns are secretive and well camouflaged for their wetlands home. If alarmed, they may freeze with bill pointed up, blending with surrounding marsh vegetation and sometimes even swaying in synch with nearby plants if there’s a breeze.
Range: Migratory in Georgia, with most leaving in August or September. Some over-winter here. Lives year-round in south Florida, the Caribbean and parts of Texas, California, Arizona, Mexico and Central America. Breeds across the eastern half of the U.S. and portions of the West.
Habitat: Favors freshwater or brackish marshes with tall vegetation.
Nesting: Nests in spring in Georgia, mostly along the coast yet as far north as the Ridge and Valley ecoregion. Males do most of the nest-making, usually in dense vegetation or small trees or shrubs. Most nests are platforms of woven grass, reeds and sticks over water. Tall marsh plants are pulled over and crimped into place. Clutches range  
from two to seven pale blue or green eggs. Young fledge two to three weeks after hatching.
Eats: Small fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, snakes, insects, other animals and even plants. Least bitterns often straddle vegetation over water and nab prey below, accessing water too deep for wading herons. Sometimes they hunt from platforms built over productive sites.
Sounding off: Song described as a soft coo-coo-coo.
Houdini: Least bitterns can squeeze through thin places. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology account, John James Audubon wrote that a young captive bird walked easily between two books standing 1.5 inches apart. The bird’s body measured 2.25 inches wide.
Conservation status: Not well documented, considering furtive nature. One assessment considered least bitterns uncommon along Georgia’s coast and local in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont. The least bittern is a Georgia  Wildlife Action Plan priority species. Globally, the species’  IUCN conservation status is one of “least concern.”
Outlook: Threats include wetland draining and filling. Siltation that alters wetlands is an issue, as is residential stormwater and agricultural runoff, which can carry pesticides and herbicides affecting the birds, their habitat and insect food sources.
How you can help: Support conservation efforts that reduce wetland loss and control runoff and siltation near wetlands.

Largely from an account by Georgann Schmalz in “The Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia” (University of Georgia Press).

Ranger reports
Free bird: Following up on a report about an Echols County man keeping migratory songbirds as pets, Sgt. Patrick Dupree and Cpl. Damon Winters found a make-shift cage containing several species of wild birds at the Statenville home. The cage included about eight cardinals, four mourning doves and more than a dozen warblers and sparrows. The officers also found a trap used to catch the birds. The man was informed about wildlife laws regarding birds and issued a warning for unlawful possession. The birds were released unharmed into the wild.
Image: cardinal

Unicoi State Park & Lodge is calling all birders to the Georgia Mountain BirdFest April 28-May 1 at the park near Helen. The event – north Georgia’s only major birding festival – is full of field trips, stocked with speakers (including many from DNR) and packed with programs, from high-elevation birds to binoculars 101. Details: or
or (800) 573-9659, ext. 305.
Sharks may have finished off a North Atlantic right whale off Florida’s coast, but the 2-year-old female was already injured and weak from months of entanglement in fishing gear. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric team including DNR biologists had cut away more than 200 feet of rope in December and January – even temporarily sedating the whale – but the carcass recovered early this month had rope embedded in its mouth that possibly affected the whale's ability to feed.
DNR's Game Management Section is well on the way to reaching its annual prescribed fire goals. Staff have done controlled burns on more than 15,000 acres statewide, about half the acreage Game Management burns each year to manage wildlife habitat.
Atlanta Audubon Society will help you prepare for DNR’s Youth Birding Competition with a March 5 workshop at Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge. Youth and adult leaders are welcomed as instructors Eddie Hatchett and Nikki Belmonte discuss equipment, birding skills and ethics, and route strategies from 9-11 a.m. at Panola’s nature center. Details: or (678) 973-2437.
Sign up or submit soon for the Youth Birding Competition (deadline: March 31), the competition’s T-shirt Art Contest  (enter by March 1) and the Give Wildlife a Chance Poster Contest (March 21).
Add North Carolina to the lineup of states documenting white-nose syndrome, the malady that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the East. A N.C. Wildlife Commission biologist called the recent discovery of white-nose at two caves “the arrival of one of the most devastating threats to bat conservation in our time.”
Can you put a price on the environmental benefits of Georgia’s 22 million acres of private timberlands?  The University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources did with a three-year study that factored in everything from wildlife habitat to aesthetics for a whopping estimate of $37.6 billion.
Two barn owls abandoned their eggs and nest in the Habersham County high school under construction near Mt. Airy. Crews steered clear of the owls, and project superintendent Lee Chitwood of Charles Black Construction said workers “allowed them every convenience of access to the nest, but to no avail.” (Night raiders nest in new Habersham High,” October 2010)
Re-establishing lake sturgeon in the Coosa River system earned DNR the 2010 Outstanding Sport Fish Restoration Access Award from the American Fisheries Society. Georgia is one of four states recently recognized by the society for efforts to provide the public with quality fishing opportunities and aquatic education programs.
The State Capitol turned wilder Feb. 8 as the 10th annual Sportsmen’s Day at the Capitol and a new Coastal Conservation Day were held under the Gold Dome. Events included an appearance by the world champion National Archery in the Schools Program team from Chatsworth’s Woodlawn Elementary, the kickoff of DNR’s Centennial Celebration and a shrimp and grits lunch.
River cane restoration at Panola Mountain State Park received a hand from Friends of Panola, REI Atlanta and Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta in late January. Volunteers from the three helped plant 1,000 cane plugs in the South River corridor, part of a larger effort involving more groups .
A boater repeatedly cited for violating Florida’s manatee speed protection zones faces a year of federal probation and a required $600 contribution to a wildlife conservation organization. Although a conviction for killing a manatee is a rarity, Joseph Miata Jr. also had to forfeit his boat after pleading guilty to slamming into a West Indian manatee as he sped through a protection zone.
The winter issue of Georgia Sound, the Coastal Resources Division newsletter, profiles the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership, new Brantley County ordinances that will help protect the Satilla River and even an update of the agency’s popular barrier islands poster. Download a copy.
The America’s Great Outdoors Report released by President Obama promotes items such as getting children outside and strengthening the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Nongame in the news
Discovery News: "Top 25 most endangered turtles named," species leading report is represented by Lonesome George, world's only known Abdington Island giant tortoise. (Feb. 22)
Rockdale Citizen: "Fires blaze trail for growth at state park," prescribed fire at Panola Mountain aimed at helping restore ground cover and native grasslands. (Feb. 21)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Cut federal waste but leave the good alone," column by Ducks Unlimited CEO H. Dale Hall opposes disproportionate cuts to federal conservation funding in House-approved budget resolution. (Feb. 21)
Rome News-Tribune: "Second whooping crane found dead at Weiss Lake; reward now at $23,250," feds suspect both were shot. (February)
The Augusta Chronicle: "Undergrowth to be burned at Mistletoe park," announcement of prescribed fire planned at state park. (Feb. 16)
The Florida Times-Union: "Swamp water levels raise wildfire concern," winter water level at Okefenokee is lower than when 2007 wildfires scorched 500,000 acres in the region. (Feb. 15)
Fox5 (Atlanta): "Specialty tag changes upset some groups," Georgia Wildlife Camera imageFederation calls for changes in law to lower wildlife plate fees or return more to conservation efforts. (Feb. 14).
Field and Stream (blog): "Lead ammo banned for pest bird hunting," Fish and Wildlife Service rule outlaws lead for species shot  under federal depredation permits. (Feb. 11)
University of Georgia: "Warnell study finds Georgia forests provide $37 billion in ecological benefits to state," study funded by Georgia Forestry Foundation prices conservation value of 22 million acres of private forestland. (Feb. 9)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (and others via AP): "Dig finds lightkeeper's house on Sapelo," Weekend for Wildlife trip led by state archaeologist David Crass unearths 19th-century remains. (Feb. 9)
SaportaReport: "Pursue better alternatives before building new water reservoirs," column by USFWS Georgia field supervisor Sandy Tucker urges options less costly in natural resources, money. (Feb. 7)
NOAA: "Death of young right whale highlights that prevention of entanglements is key," whale had been partially disentangled but part of rope left was imbedded in mouth. (Feb. 4) Also:
The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
ABC News (and others via AP): "Gardeners can help safeguard imperiled plants," column on helping preserve plants includes advice from DNR botanist Mincy Moffett. (Feb. 2)
AmmoLand: "Georgia's Youth Birding Competition sign up now," DNR release promotes registration for 2011 birding and art contests. (Feb. 1)
Cedartown Standard: "Poster contest's 21st year celebrates wildlife diversity," annual Give Wildlife a Chance competition announced. (Jan. 31)
Albany Herald: "Keeping the Flint River safe," profile of the Flint Riverkeeper. (Jan. 30) "Reward for whooping crane killers now up to $20,800," DNR announces support by Board of Natural Resources, TERN and others in case of three whoopers shot in south Georgia. (Jan. 27)
The New York Times: "From whales to apes, small conservation steps," column sees disentanglement of right whale and discovery of a live tiger cub in Bangkok airport luggage as "small victories." (Jan. 18)
The Moultrie Observer: "DNR offers reward after cranes shot," reward grows as news spreads of three whooping cranes found dead in Calhoun County. (Jan. 14) "Georgia 2011 Youth Birding Competition" promoted with DNR release. (January)
Coosa Valley News: "Gov. Deal honors Forestry for Wildlife Partners," DNR release announcing 2010 program partners Plum Creek and  Georgia Power. (Feb. 11)
AquaBytes: "Rare fish found in Georgia river," highlights discovery of federally endangered amber darter and state-endangered freckled darters in Coosawattee River. (Winter 2011)

March 5: Youth Birding Competition workshop for participants, mentors, 9-11 a.m., Panola Mountain State Park nature center, Stockbridge.
April 16-17: Youth Birding Competition, statewide but event ends 5 p.m. April 17 at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, Mansfield.
June 18-24: Paddle Georgia 2011.
Photo credits (from top)
* In masthead: Prescribed fire this February at Crooked River State Park. Kelly Jarvis/Student Conservation Association
* Flowering spikes of Xyris tennesseensis/Tennessee yellow-eyed grass. Mincy Moffett/Ga. DNR
* Spring peeper. John Jensen/Ga. DNR
* Josh Smith of the Consasauga River Alliance pumping silt from Colvard Spring. Brett Albanese/Ga. DNR
* Sandhill cranes in flight, with mud on beaks and feet. Tom Wilson
* Least bittern. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
* Flock of sandhill cranes. Todd Schneider/Ga. DNR
* Cardinal freed from cage. Ga. DNR
* Moody Forest longleaf pines in smoke from a prescribed fire. Lisa Kruse/Ga. DNR
* Hilary Smith after a day of thinning trees at Townsend WMA. Kelly Jarvis/Student Conservation Association
Prescribed fire strike team members Lily Walter, left, and Carly Monahan watch fire effects during a burn at Moody Forest. Hilary Smith/Student Conservation Association
* Sapelo manager Fred Hay and DNR Commissioner Mark Williams. Diane Kirkland

Georgia Wild
volume 4, issue 2

This is: A free monthly e-newsletter produced by DNR and focused on nongame. Subscribe or see previous issues.

Nongame: Wildlife not legally trapped, fished for or hunted, plus native plants and natural habitats.

We are: The Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section. Our mission: Conserve and protect Georgia's diversity of native animals and plants and their habitats through research, management and education. It's worth repeating that we depend on grants, donations and fundraisers such as nongame license plate sales, the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff and Weekend for Wildlife.

Buy a tag: Nongame license plates – the eagle and hummingbird – are available at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registration forms and through online renewal.

More info:
  • (770) 761-3035 in Social Circle, (478) 994-1438 in Forsyth or (912) 264-7355 in Brunswick

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Concern, cases grow after
fifth whooper found dead

   The recent confirmation by DNR Nongame Conservation Section staff of a second dead whooping crane at Weiss Lake bumped to five the toll of whoopers believed killed by shooting this winter.
   Reward funds pegged to the Alabama investigation and three cranes killed late last year in southwestern Georgia have surged past $20,000. Meanwhile, conservation agencies and groups are exploring ways to help protect other endangered whooping cranes that will soon be migrating through Georgia and Alabama.
   Here's how the public can pitch in:
  • Report any tips that might help officials find the shooters. Call U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Terry Hasting in the south Georgia case (404-763-7959), special agent John Rawls for the Lake Weiss investigation (334-285-9600) or Georgia DNR's 24-hour TIP Hotline, (800) 241-4113.
  • Share this flyer on the south Georgia crane case.
  • Send us your ideas for ways to raise awareness about whoopers.
  • Learn more about whooping cranes and efforts to re-establish a migratory population in the eastern U.S.

Georgia projects earn
‘5 Star’ recognition

   When it comes to ranking, these two northwest Georgia projects involving the Nongame Conservation Section and others rated five stars. The recent awards banquet for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Five Star Restoration Grant Program recognized the following work in the state.

Rare plant conservation in northwest Georgia
   The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, the Nongame Conservation Section and the Atlanta Botanical Garden were honored for restoring rare plant habitat and safeguarding rare plant species in northwestern Georgia. Image: yellow-eyed grass floweringEfforts focused on restoring 11.1 acres of wetlands and riparian zones at seven sites and establishing populations of the federally-protected Tennessee yellow-eyed grass (right) and Virginia spirea, as well as the state-protected Georgia alder.
   Project leader Dr. Jenny Cruse-Sanders, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s director of Conservation and Research, and Dr. Mincy Moffett, a DNR botanist, worked with the Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Power and the U.S. Forest Service to improve habitat quality, remove invasive species and add rare plants. Populations of these plant species are being protected and recovered through propagation and safeguarding at Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance botanical gardens and in the restored wetlands.
   Community volunteers are also participating in restoration efforts. Lesson plans, training workshops and conservation display gardens at institutions in the alliance are engaging educators, students and the public in learning about the importance of wetlands in northwest Georgia.

Image: pumping silt from spring
Restoring a haven for endangered darters
   Another Five Star effort is the restoration of Colvard Spring in Murray County. The Conasauga River Alliance is working with the Wildlife Resources Division and the Tennessee Aquarium to restore 1.5 acres of the heavily silted spring, which harbors one of Georgia’s few remaining populations of the state-endangered coldwater darter. The knee to chest-high accumulations of sediment likely resulted from run-off from historic land-uses, but fortunately a wide buffer of trees and shrubs now surrounds the spring.
   The restoration team removed sediment during fall the last two years, and conducted pre- and post-removal monitoring of sediment, aquatic plant communities and darter abundance.
   “Although Colvard Spring looks like a tiny pond from the road, it seems really big when you are trying to vacuum the bottom of it and search every inch of it for a 2-inch fish,” said Dr. Brett Albanese, a DNR senior aquatic zoologist. “We were really lucky to get extra help from the Georgia DNR Stream Survey Team and The Nature Conservancy.”
   Before pumping out sediment, crews of 10-12 people attempted to capture as many coldwater darters as possible so the fish could be temporarily relocated to the Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute for the duration of the three-week pumping effort. Sediment was pumped onto an adjacent landowner’s field, where vegetation and special erosion-control matting prevented it from being washed back into the spring.
   “We had great cooperation from the two landowners that live near the spring and we even got the erosion-control matting donated by a local industry” said Josh Smith of the Conasauga River Alliance (pictured above).
   The restoration team is reviewing data to determine the need for additional pumping and other restoration activities this year.

Program at a glance
The Five Star Restoration Program began in 1999 as a partnership of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, National Association of Counties, the Wildlife Habitat Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Five Star provides financial assistance on a competitive basis to support community-based wetland, riparian and coastal habitat restoration projects that build partnerships and foster local natural resource stewardship through education, outreach and training activities.

Image: sandhills in flight

Out my backdoor

Sandhills on wing
mark coming spring

By Terry W. Johnson
   The first signs of spring have been seen and heard in the Peach State. They were not borne on the wings of robins. They were not emblazoned in the vibrant colors of a crocus. They didn’t fill the night air like the chorus of the chorus frog. Instead, the pending arrival of spring was announced from on high by birds whose ancestors winged their way over the continent some 2.5 million years ago.
   The messengers were northward-bound sandhill cranes.
   I seem to hear their calls when I least expect them. Such was the case this year. I heard them on the warm afternoon of Feb. 13 as I was walking about my yard, trying to shake off the effects of an illness that had kept me inside far too long. Off to the north I heard the unmistakable karoo, karoo, karoo calls of a flock of sandhill cranes flying so high I could not see them.
   While it is true these garbled calls, which can be heard a mile or more away, often sound like the barking of a pack of dogs, I was sure I was listening to sandhill cranes.
   Immediately my spirits lifted for I knew that these harbingers of spring were telling me spring is just around the corner.
   If you are not familiar sandhill cranes, chances are when you first spot their long, meandering V-shaped flocks you will mistake them for Canada geese. Since the birds fly so high it is often difficult to tell much about them other than the fact that they are really big birds.
   If you have a pair of binoculars handy, once you focus on the passing flock you can immediately tell they are not geese. Sandhills have long legs that trail well behind their tails. The legs of geese never extend beyond their tails. You might even be able to make out the crane’s long, dagger-like bills.
Image: sandhill flock   The next clue to look for is the shape of the flock. Both sandhill cranes and Canada geese often fly in V-shaped formations. Yet, while geese typically maintain this shape, the V-shape of a crane flock seems to constantly change. The sides of the V will undulate. Birds also often fall out of formation, then seemingly regain their bearings and rejoin the flock.
   It is always a special treat to find a flock of sandhill cranes on the ground. Only then can you appreciate their size and beauty. Standing erect, an adult male sandhill crane stands almost as tall as an average man. From wingtip to wingtip their outstretched wings measure 6½ feet. Their bodies are gray and their heads have a bright red crown. Their tails are short and ostrich-like.
   Sandhill cranes make brief stops in Georgia as they move north. Look for them late or early in the day in large fields or open, shallow wetlands. Sometimes these visits are associated with fog or other bad weather. Occasionally, they will even stop at golf courses and other open areas.
   Although most winter on the vast prairies of Florida, some wintering birds never venture farther than south Georgia. They can be found in the greatest numbers from the Okefenokee Swamp west to Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area near Valdosta, where they sometimes share roosting and feeding areas with our resident Florida sandhill cranes. However, I regularly find them during the winter as far north as the farmlands around Americus.
   A major concern shared by wildlife biologists is the rapidly changing landscape along the crane’s migration pathway. Without safe, productive areas to feed and rest as they move to and from their breeding grounds, the numbers of sandhill cranes would quickly plummet.
   The migration of the sandhill crane remains one of nature’s most spectacular annual events. What is truly amazing is that I don’t have to travel to some distant wilderness area to enjoy. It is something I can watch while standing in my own backyard.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.)

Georgia sees 'greaters'
The sandhill cranes that wing their way over Georgia are greater sandhills. They are part of the eastern population, one of nine distinct populations. Their breeding range reaches from Hudson Bay to Michigan and Wisconsin. Their population numbers 24,000-26,000. Practically all of these birds migrate through Georgia.

Staying in touch
Sandhill cranes are very social birds. On migration, their flocks number in the hundreds. These flocks are composed of family groups and unmated birds. While migrating, the cranes constantly communicate with one another. Males and females often sing duets as they fly.

Miracle of Moody Forest
Public lands profile: Praise for Appling family

by Shan Cammack and Hilary Smith
   As slowly rising temperatures beckon spring,
spring peepers wake from their winter slumber, echoing a faint chorus through the woods. Soon, these little frogs will be vociferous, signaling the start of one of the most beautiful seasons in the longleaf pine forest.
   In few places across Georgia is this beauty as evident and accessible as at Moody Forest Natural Area near Baxley. First protected by the Moody family, then The Nature Conservancy in 2000 and DNR, what was once called “Moody Swamp” is a rich example of biodiversity in south Georgia.
   The story of the forest is tied to the story of the Moodys, a hardworking family that practiced conservation before it was a household word.
   The Moody family came to Appling County in the mid-1800s. They bought land and lived a simple life. They realized their wealth in the wild things – pitcher plants, snakes and gopher tortoises, grasses, woodpeckers – that graced their cypress swamp and longleaf pine forests.
   In 1952, siblings Causs, Wade and Elizabeth Moody inherited Moody Forest from Jake Moody. The siblings also inherited their uncle’s determination to protect the land from development and abuse.
   The Moodys lived off the land, mostly by grazing cattle and harvesting turpentine. The rest of the forest was left, as Jake would say, “for the trees to grow.” Income was generated by selling gum tapped from longleaf and slash pine trees. Very little timber was sold. A few trees were cut and milled to build structures on the property. Relatives tell stories about the Navy buying timber for ships, and about land barons traveling for days to try to purchase some of Jake’s “big timber” for building homes.
   The forests were probably burned annually, mostly in late winter, to produce new growth in the spring for free-ranging cattle and to protect the family’s turpentine trees from wildfire. The Moodys stopped burning in the 1960s, when turpentine operations ceased. Jake Moody’s management philosophy, while not favoring a particular species, preserved one of the few old-growth longleaf pine-wiregrassImage: Moody Forest stands that remain today.
   When the brothers died, estate taxes levied against the family required the cutting of some timber. The Moodys steered loggers away from most of the virgin timber. Miss Elizabeth, the last heir to live on the property, maintained the family’s legacy of protecting the land until her death in 2000.
  The fate of Moody Forest was then uncertain. The property went to 32 heirs, who put it up for auction. Despite considerable interest from timber buyers, The Nature Conservancy submitted the highest of eight bids.
   The Nature Conservancy and Georgia DNR have since worked together to increase protection and conserve, protect, restore and maintain habitat quality and biological diversity. Moody Forest Natural Area is now a 4,432-acre preserve.
   Unique natural habitats include the two miles of the mighty Altamaha River, with its mature bottomland hardwood forests and bald cypress/gum sloughs and oxbows, north-facing bluff forests replete with wildflowers and dotted with sandstone outcrops, mature longleaf pine/blackjack oak/wiregrass communities, and scrubby longleaf pine/turkey oak sand-ridge woodlands. Most management efforts have focused on restoring a more appropriate fire regime to benefit fire-adapted communities. Vegetation monitoring guides management approaches, as outlined in a 50-year plan for the natural area.
   Nature Conservancy and DNR objectives at Moody Forest are to protect and restore the native plant and animal communities while providing compatible public research, educational and recreational opportunities. Two interpretive trails have been developed and are open to the public year-round.
   Tavia’s Trail begins at a kiosk near the corner of East River Road and Jake Moody Road. This three-mile trail leads visitors through several restoration areas as well as one of the best examples of old-growth longleaf pine/ blackjack oak communities. A number of rare species thrive here, including red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. Prescribed fire has been carefully applied to this area to reduce dangerously high fuel loads and even more dangerous duff. While longleaf pine evolved with and is dependent on fire, old growth stands that have been fire-suppressed can be vulnerable to fire if improperly applied. The trail also leads through some of the intact bottomland communities, including old cypress and tupelo trees and the loblolly flats.
   The other trail is the Altamaha River Trail, which leaves from the kiosk and parking area on Morris Landing Road and winds through the bottomlands toward the river. Highlights of this walk, covering eight-tenths of a mile, include bridges across sloughs and debris and high-water marks showing recent flooding.
   Guided tours are available on the natural area for educational groups. Hunting is also allowed, with seasons for deer, turkey, and small game posted in state hunting regulations.
   Moody Forest has inspired its residents and visitors alike for more than 200 years. Today’s hikers, hunters and visiting biologists and fire ecologists are writing the latest chapter in a long cultural history of this property, admiring some of the same old-growth longleaf pine trees that the Moodys looked upon when they first arrived in the 1800s.

Getting there
From Baxley, take U.S. 1 north for about eight miles. Turn right onto Asbury Church Road and go about three miles. Turn left onto Jake Moody Road, go about a mile, and then turn right onto East River Road. The trailhead for Tavia's Trail is at the intersection and the office is about a mile to the east.

Image: Hilary Smith at Townsend WMA

"It’s easy to let fire lull you
into a hypnotic state, but our job isn’t to stand around …"

A view from the fireline

By Hilary Smith
   As the sun sets on a rollicking half-week of prescribed burns at Crooked River State Park, I, one-sixth of a rough-and-ready DNR seasonal prescribed fire crew, reflect on the beauty, excitement, challenges and rewards of painting Georgia’s forests, sandhills and palmetto fields with that most basic of elemental environmental-management tools: fire.  
   When I’m on the fireline or prowling the interior of a burn unit, all my senses are engaged with the sights, sounds, heat, peppery taste and smell of fire.
   Fire produces a spirited color-palette, from the reds of advancing flames to the glowing orange of embers, fluttering down like fireflies off of snags as they burn late into the night. It builds gray smoke, chalky ash and the stunning blackness of still-smoldering, burned-over ground.
   Then there are fire’s sounds – the sizzle of a gallberry bush igniting, the roar of an exploding palmetto patch, the almighty crash of burned-through snags as they crash to the forest floor. A headfire ripping through a field of grasses can sound like a freight train, running toward you at full speed.
   It’s easy to let fire lull you into a hypnotic state, but our job isn’t to stand around and watch the light show – we have to move, to coordinate, to think about wind direction and ignition strategies, to accomplish tasks quickly and accurately, to watch constantly for threats of fire crossing our fire breaks, and, always, to keep safety on our minds.
   We usually carry a drip-torch (for lighting fire) and a hand-tool, such as a fire rake or shovel (for spreading fuels, raking protective dirt barriers around structures or putting out fire if gets too close to the fire break). We must also juggle – and keep track of – a radio, compass, burn-unit map and pen, plus a protective fire shelter and a backpack filled with food, water and extra personal safety equipment.
   It’s a lot to keep track of, and the thick gloves and clunky fire boots we wear don’t help matters. For a naturally clumsy person such as me, it’s no picnic to stumble through vine-matted forests hiding the occasional gopher-tortoise burrow. I have been covered in bruises, gridded my legs in briar-scratches and scraped off a bit of elbow-skin. I’ve lost items and been lost myself.
   The stumbles, mistakes and turn-arounds are frustrating.
Image: prescribed fire crew members
   But I’m never alone out there. We’re a tight crew of six, and at the end of the day, there’s nothing like the feeling of support – and good-natured ribbing – that comes from living and working with a group of people you truly like.
    This is the third year DNR has hired and trained a crew specifically for prescribed fire. Veteran firelighter Shan Cammack heads the team for the third year, with Brett Boisjolie returning as crew leader. Veterans Carly Monahan and Lily Walter, and new Student Conservation Association interns Hannah Hourie, Kelly Jarvis and me round out the crew.
   Boisjolie and the new interns first burned together in December, with Monahan and Walter joining us in January. Time is flying, and despite a weather-limiting slow start to the season, acres are finally starting to burn.
   By day, you’ll see us lighting and monitoring prescribed fires, building fireline, chain-sawing snags or helping out on any number of other conservation projects, from gopher tortoise inventories to bird banding. By night, we’re travelling to our next work sites, settling into our latest nomadic dwellings (state park cabins) and taking turns cooking dinner.  
   In addition to our inside jokes and commiserations over blisters, aches and pains, what unites us is a love for fire as a habitat management tool – and a passion for watching it do its work.
   Fire opens up the forest understory, burning overgrown areas and clearing space and resources for native plants and animals. It also reduces excess fuels that could catch and cause costly, dangerous wildfires.
   In the short weeks we’ve been caravanning across Georgia, my crew has inculcated a real love for the native plants and landscapes we’re trying to conserve through prescribed burning. A particular favorite is the longleaf pine, that statuesque tree that looks like it came from a Dr. Seuss storybook.
   Where there’s longleaf, a tremendous diversity of species thrives, from indigo snakes to gopher tortoises, pitcher plants to red-cockaded woodpeckers.
   All too soon, this year’s crew will part ways, and we’ll head west and north to our next adventures. But Georgia, as the song goes, will long be on our minds.
   Those images of glowing night-fire, torching trees and windy smoke-spirals are burned into our memories.
Parting shot
Image: Sapelo manager and DNR commissioner
Sapelo Island manager Fred Hay, left, and DNR Commissioner Mark Williams explore Sapelo as part of an ecology-oriented trip during Weekend for Wildlife. The 2011 event dodged rain and delighted guests and organizers, raising more than $600,000 for the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund. Some other highlights: The archaeology group at Sapelo uncovered the site of the original lightkeeper’s house, and Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra toured Cumberland Island National Seashore.


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