American Beach is gopher tortoise heaven

  • The gopher tortoise burrow at the corner of James and Julia streets in American Beach has lived there for years. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    The gopher tortoise burrow at the corner of James and Julia streets in American Beach has lived there for years. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

On a recent day when beaches and parking areas were still closed, I figured out a new way to walk around American Beach, and just changing my regular route gave me a whole new outlook.

I parked my car in the small lot beside the Community Center on Julia Street and headed toward the ocean, enjoying neighborhood views along the way. It wasn’t long before I found my first bottle tree.

The practice of putting blue bottles on tree branches or sticks may have originated in Africa and been brought to the U.S. by enslaved people. The original purpose is said to be for trapping evil spirits roaming at night. The spirits are drawn to the moon’s reflections on the bottles and then they get stuck inside, evaporating under the daylight sun without causing harm to local residents.

The practice has expanded as a form of yard art. I bet most people admire bottle trees for their beauty instead of their spirit-catching properties. If you want to look for blue bottle trees in American Beach, you can probably find at least four of them, as I did, and most likely many more.

If you are observant when you walk around American Beach, you will soon notice another interesting sight – gopher tortoise burrows. The dunes and even some yards are pockmarked with deep holes in front of mounds of sand marking the homes of the many resident gopher tortoises. For me, at least, these are always fun to look for. If you are new to tortoise burrows, check out the southwest corner of James and Julia streets, where a gopher tortoise has resided for years. After you get a good look, you will soon find many more along the edges of the roads in sandy areas. To spot them, sometimes you have to step a couple of feet off the asphalt, then look back toward the road and you will find them. Do not climb the dunes, however; these are protected areas.

Gopher tortoises dig these deep burrows in sandy soil and are clever at the way they situate them, often under vegetation that somewhat hides them, but with plenty of sandy soil in an apron in front of the burrow where they lay their eggs. These burrows extend deep into the ground, often where the tortoises can find dampness to keep them cool on hot days. A myriad of other animals live with the tortoises in these burrows, seeking the coolness, or, if fires are burning, some shelter. Biologists with cameras have investigated these burrows and cataloged all kinds of critters in these holes: snakes, rodents, frogs, insects – you name it. The gopher tortoises are a “keystone species” and their burrow-building efforts are necessary to the survival of the other animals that share this hot, dry habitat with them.

Gopher tortoises can live for a number of decades and are highly territorial. Each tortoise can have a number of burrows in its area, and sometimes they pair up in and around them for mating purposes. Other times, males get into jousting matches to claim their turf or their females, depending on their motivation. These tortoises travel, roaming their territory looking for vegetation and fruits to nibble. The dune landscape at American Beach is full of their food – smilax vines, wild blackberries, and other succulent vegetation – and the tortoises are relatively safe from traffic.

My walk around American Beach lasted only about an hour, but in that time I counted 15 burrows right on the edge of the road, with a concentration of them at the edge of Nana Dune along Ocean Boulevard. I was so fixated on looking for the holes that I was surprised to find my first tortoise of the day. It was far from a burrow but crossing a grassy yard. Nearby, another tortoise lurked on the apron of its burrow. I waited a bit to see if these two would interact, but no luck. It’s fun to watch two tortoises courting, with their head bobs toward one another, or fighting for their territory in big pushing matches, something that happens this time of year, but not this day, alas.

It was a fun walk around American Beach, even without the added activity of looking for bottle trees and gopher tortoise burrows. If you feel up to it, take the challenge yourself and see how many bottle trees and burrows you can find. But do it quick. Before long, summer weather will set in and the weather will be only good for the tortoises deep inside their burrows.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.