Volunteering Pays Off for Tortoises, People

Volunteers participating in the gopher tortoise burrow survey initiative at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve on May 20 space themselves apart at arms length and walk in a straight line through terrain lush with palmettos, wildflowers, grasses and thorny smilax. Two women wear shin guards to protect themselves from smilax and possible rattlesnake attacks. Pictured from left, Lucinda Johnston, Judith Wilson, Naziya Dewan and Tom Paczkowski. “The more organized we are with a steady pace while staying in a straight line and at arm’s length, the faster the survey will go,” said field biologist George Heinrich.

Volunteers participating in the gopher tortoise burrow survey initiative at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve on May 20 space themselves apart at arms length and walk in a straight line through terrain lush with palmettos, wildflowers, grasses and thorny smilax. Two women wear shin guards to protect themselves from smilax and possible rattlesnake attacks. Pictured from left, Lucinda Johnston, Judith Wilson, Naziya Dewan and Tom Paczkowski. “The more organized we are with a steady pace while staying in a straight line and at arm’s length, the faster the survey will go,” said field biologist George Heinrich.

First, uninvited, he looks through the front entryway and shines a flashlight to inspect the tidiness of the housekeeping. Next, he measures the opening to determine how wide the homeowner is. Then, he takes a good look at the threshold’s ramp area to check for footprints.

Or tail prints.

And, this is because he’s an old friend.

George L. Heinrich is the gopher tortoise man. He’s also a field biologist and an environmental educator.

He comes calling every two years at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve along with a bevy of volunteers, both experienced and wanting to learn, to conduct a 100 percent burrow survey. The count, designed to provide an estimate of the number of tortoises living in the preserve, will also assist staff with conservation efforts that include the scheduling and location of prescribed burns to encourage the continuation of biodiversity.

Field biologist George L. Heinrich takes a short break while being watchful of a team of volunteers who work with him from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. four to five days a week during the two-month survey period that occurs every two years. “We get great support from students attending USFSP, Eckerd and SPC,” said Heinrich. “We want to accomplish our goals but we also want them to learn something and have an enjoyable experience.”

Field biologist George L. Heinrich takes a short break while being watchful of a team of volunteers who work with him from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. four to five days a week during the two-month survey period that occurs every two years. “We get great support from students attending USFSP, Eckerd and SPC,” said Heinrich. “We want to accomplish our goals but we also want them to learn something and have an enjoyable experience.”

It takes two months to inspect every inch of about 125 upland acres in the humidity and heat of Florida’s April and May, which is also nesting season for the tortoises.

“Volunteers are tremendous,” said Heinrich. “If we didn’t have them, we couldn’t do the survey.”

So far, three surveys have netted $45,000 since 2011 as part of a grant program funded by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, said Barbara L. Stalbird, preserve supervisor. She initiated the effort as part of her first year with the park. Funds are used to improve tortoise habitat.

Participating in the survey means trudging through palmettos, spider and rattlesnake habitat, and smilax that leaves little to smile about as its thorns and strong vines can tear the plastic leg shields off, scratch the arms and entrap the feet of even veteran hikers.
“It’s brutal. I try to be role model,” Heinrich said.

The national Gopher Tortoise Council thinks he is and in 2001 gave him its Lifetime Service award. In 1996 and 2005, he also earned their Distinguished Service awards.

In addition, the council honors the memory of his wife Donna J. Heinrich with annual grant monies. She was a Boyd Hill ranger for 17 years who specialized in providing environmental education to children. The 2016 grant application deadline is Aug. 31. George Heinrich serves as part of a four-person review committee. For more information, visit gophertortoisecouncil.org/grants.

Boyd Hill is all about nature and “it’s the jewel of St. Petersburg’s park system,” said Heinrich. More people of all ages should take advantage by volunteering in some way, he said.

To find out about the variety of volunteer opportunities, first visit stpeteparksrec.org/boyd-hill-volunteer.html to fill out an application, then call 727-893-7326 to sign up for an orientation.

 

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