By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

On numerous trips outdoors, I’ve often wondered about the extent of the flora and fauna in the surrounding areas, but I don’t have the background to identify all the different species.

On a recent trip to the Forever Wild Gothard-AWF Yates Lake Wildlife Management Area near Tallassee, Ala., I was among a group of Alabama residents who found out, thanks to the biologists from the Alabama State Lands Division, Auburn University, Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association (a local association of trail and hiking enthusiasts) and interested volunteers.

The trip was part of the Yates Lake BioBlitz, an event that scoured the 5,933-acre complex over two days to determine what species of plants and animals were identifiable on the property in the middle of May.

Dr. Wayne Barger, a botanist with the State Lands Heritage Section, said the Yates Lake BioBlitz is the second BioBlitz conducted by the division.

“Last year we held the event on the Dothan Trail Park Forever Wild tract,” Barger said. “The event at Yates Lake was organized so that it was more centrally located and we could involve the general public as citizen scientists. We’re hoping that by inviting, not just the general public, but the professionals from the many different realms of biological sciences, that we can discover some species we didn’t know were on the tract.”

After all the species of plants and animals were totaled, more than 250 species were documented with the identification of a few species continuing.

“There is a diverse set of habitats at Yates Lake from upland, drier habitats to mesic drains,” Barger said. “And of course, we also have Yates Lake that is located between Martin Dam and Thurlow Dam on the eastern side of the property. We have a wide array of habitats where we were hoping to find a variety of different species. There are many common species that we were able to document, like box turtles and pines and several species of beetles, things people don’t normally get out and look for. We’re hoping to find more of the uncommon species that occur here as well.”

More than 120 plant species were identified, several of special interest. The team was also able to add 25-plus species of lichens and fungi to the list.

“As far as plant life, we know that there are a few uncommon species that occur on the property, like bay star-vine and croomia,” Barger said. “On the lake, an uncommon floating plant is yellow spatterdock (also known as nuphar).”

In terms of animal life, Brian Holt, a herpetologist with State Lands, said quite a few species were observed at Yates Lake, including six-lined racerunners, loggerhead musk turtles, box turtles, black racers, smooth earth snakes, ringneck snakes, copperheads, timber rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and gray rat snakes. Although they were not observed, snapping turtles and softshell turtles are likely present in the lake.

“We found the southeastern five-lined skink, which is an uncommon species,” Holt said. “We also observed a red eft, the juvenile phase of the eastern newt. As for other reptiles, the Yates Lake property is too far north for eastern diamond-backed rattlesnakes, but you could see a pygmy rattlesnake.”

Eric Soehren, who manages the State Lands Division’s Wehle Land Conservation Center in Bullock County, took participants on a hike to observe the bird life at Yates.

“We conducted the bird survey, both visually and aurally, which is typical in these forested settings,” said Soehren, who helped conduct the Fort Morgan bird-banding project earlier this spring. “Just walking to the creek and back, we documented 27 species, providing a quick snapshot of the species present. We’re just past migration and well into the breeding season now. Typically, you’ll have your resident species and neotropical breeders that are here right now. The bird diversity is slightly down because the winter species are gone and the migrants have already passed through.”

One of the highlights of the effort was the discovery of a chuck-will’s-widow nest. These birds are a member of the nightjar family, which also includes the eastern whip-poor-will.

“This is one of those birds that is only active, at least singing, during the dusk and dawn periods or during nights with bright lunar periods,” Soehren said. “The chuck-will’s-widow sounds a little like a whip-poor-will, but it’s a little bigger in size and a little more abundant in this part of Alabama. Many people mistake it for a whip-poor-will, but their calls are different. The female we found was incubating two eggs. This is prime nesting season for this and other bird species around here.”

“This is a team effort where you have authorities in different taxa groups leading trips to not only gather the diversity of species but also have the public participate, to learn and be engaged in our conservation lands.”

For the weekend, the count was 44 bird species documented on the Yates Lake property.

“What’s interesting about this property is we are near the fall line,” Soehren said. “You’ve got aspects of the Piedmont and the aspects of the Coastal Plain merging together. You’ve got montane longleaf pine sections here, which is a unique community type and a rare community type. Then you’ve got bottomland hardwoods. You’ve got the mixed hardwoods and pines. And then you’ve got these creeks that dissect the areas. You’ve got hickory, oak, tulip poplars, red maple, sweet gum and pines. What’s interesting is the Channahatchee Creek. It has some bedrock interface lying in there that is right on the cusp of the Piedmont. An interesting example of this is finding bald-cypress (a Coastal Plain species typical of alluvial substrates) growing along the margins of creeks with exposed bedrock, which serves as a natural boundary for this species, making it kind of a unique feature to see.”

Soehren said Yates Lake is also excellent habitat for the alligator snapping turtle, which is a species of concern.

“It’s a species that is a slow reproducer and slow to mature so it’s susceptible to decline,” he said. “The stumps of cut cypresses and other trees under the impounded sections of the river create submerged structures ideal for species like the alligator snapping turtle. If you happen to encounter one while fishing for catfish on limb lines and stuff like that, just cut the line and let it go.”

Channahatchee Creek was also the site of an interesting discovery by the team that had erected a mist-net over the creek. A Seminole bat was captured, the first time this species has been encountered on the tract.

Go to www.alabamaforeverwild.com/yates-lake-wma for information about outdoors activities available at the Forever Wild Gothard – AWF Yates Lake Wildlife Management Area, including fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and birding, just to name a few. No overnight camping is allowed.

PHOTOS: (Kenny Johnson 2, David Rainer) A chuck-will’s-widow was accidentally flushed from her nest near a trail at the Yates Lake complex during the recent BioBlitz, which revealed more than 250 species of plants and animals. A box turtle was among the amphibians found. Wayne Barger, a botanist with the State Lands Division, discusses the common species of plants and trees found in the area, like this silverbell tree.

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