All creatures great and small: A diversity of insects, wildlife at Robins Published July 13, 2012 By Jenny Gordon Robins Public Affairs ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- The geographic landscape of Robins is an interesting one. Its rich diversity of plant life and several thousand acres of river swamp between here and neighboring Twiggs County make our work and living spaces an ideal location for various forms of wildlife. American alligators, black bears, feral hogs, deer, red and gray foxes, fire ants, yellow jackets and black widow spiders are just a sampling of assorted creatures and other creepy crawlies we may come across on any given day. The last several weeks have been busy for Bob Sargent, the installation's natural resources manager and wildlife biologist. But then again, it's expected this time of year since animals known to inhabit the base are finding mates and feasting on available lush vegetation and insects. Foxes and bears Recently, the Florida native was called out early one morning to check on a fox with several pups who had dug a den under a building's foundation. "Foxes are very common on base, especially gray foxes," he said. "They don't mind living around us. They take advantage of fruit trees we plant, pet food on porches, unsecured trash, and they don't mind making their dens near buildings on base." A young black bear even made an appearance a few weeks ago near the Visitor Control Center, hiking up a tree early one morning. It was eventually moved, with assistance from the Department of Natural Resources, to a wildlife management area. Sightings like these aren't unusual, added Sargent, especially given our location near the Ocmulgee River watershed, which joins the Oconee River to form the Altamaha River, eventually emptying into the Atlantic. Big and small mammals are able to move along this forested river highway of sorts, seeking food and thriving in the wild, natural terrain. Don't feed the alligators Alligators are known to live in various drainage ponds east and south of the airfield and in various lakes on occasion. Signs are posted that warn people not to approach or feed them, no matter how cute or interesting they may look. "A fed alligator becomes a nuisance," said Sargent. "They then overcome their natural fear of people. I know people are fascinated by them, but feeding them alters their behavior." He said that a mental red flag goes up once he notices alligators readily approaching him by swimming or crawling up an embankment. It becomes a dangerous situation not only for people, but for the animals once they have become familiar with humans. They may be put to death for safety reasons. "By feeding them, you could literally end up killing them," he stressed. Deer are also common on base, as well as raccoons, opossums, coyotes, bobcats and feral hogs, which from time to time enjoy digging up residents' lawns and parts of Pine Oaks Golf Course. "Hog sightings are largely dependent on what is going on with our rainfall pattern," he noted. Hogs prefer to inhabit swampy surroundings because they can easily overheat. When it rains for days on end, this drives them to higher ground, and sightings become more pronounced. They may also come to high ground during prolonged droughts, poking about freshly-watered yards around base housing so they can root up and feast on earthworms and other seasonally-available goodies. Creepy crawlies Moving on to animals of a smaller variety, Georgia is home to some 42 species of snakes, of which six are venomous, meaning they are capable of injecting toxins that can either make you really sick or kill you. In Middle Georgia, there are four commonly-found venomous species: Timber and pigmy rattlesnakes, copperheads, and the cottonmouth snake, more commonly known as a water moccasin. "The majority of our snakes are harmless, and all of them serve important roles in nature, eating rodents, insects, and sometimes other snakes," said Sargent. "You don't need to learn how to identify all of these species. Just take the time to learn how to identify the few potentially-harmful ones." Spiders are also common in our environment, particularly the black widow. They have a distinguishable bright red, hour glass shape on their underbellies; and only the female's bite. Care should be taken to pay attention to surroundings, in particular if you're working around old barns and sheds, in dark, unused closets; and places that have been undisturbed for long periods of time. "People are most likely to be bitten by black widows when they either put their hands in some dark, low place such as a rock pile, or because they try to put on an old coat or pair of shoes that have been left in an outbuilding," he explained. "These types of spiders defensively bite when you put your body up against them." He added that brown recluse spiders are rare in this area, despite the contrary view held by many people. Common stinging or biting insects on Robins include paper wasps and bumblebees, hornets, carpenter bees and the usual litany of mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers, and fire ants. Yellow jackets, like fire ants, release a chemical signal if you crush or swat them. That signals other yellow jackets to come to its rescue, sometimes making an uncomfortable situation worse. Tips and helpful info There generally are simple explanations as to why animals behave the way they do. For example, alligator and bear sightings become more common this time of year because it's mating season. After a good rainfall, frogs are out exhibiting breeding behaviors, so snakes, also breeding, come out to make a meal of them. It's all interconnected, said Sargent. Always remember to keep your distance from these animals and insects, don't feed them, secure your trash, and always be aware of your surroundings, in particular if you come across unfamiliar plant life. Among the more than 400 species of plants found on base are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Poison ivy and poison oak are common, even in some developed locations. Sargent emphasized the old mantra, "Remember: If it has leaves in clusters of three, let it be!" Despite what we may or may not run into throughout our day, he said that shouldn't stop us from enjoying the abundance of nature and beauty that's freely available to us. "We work and live in a beautiful landscape complete with fascinating plants and animals, stunning butterflies and birds, and cute furry, crawling and hopping things. Learn to identify the few hazards and use common sense," he said. "It's true that there are some things out there that could bite us if we threaten or feed them. But there are a lot of great reasons to get into the outdoors."