The Start of Sea Turtle Nesting

The 2015 sea turtle nesting season is off to a busy start on Little St. Simons Island and along the coast of Georgia. As of June 4 we have already found 35 sea turtle nests on LSSI and 545 nests have been recorded statewide this season.

A loggerhead sea turtle nest

A freshly laid loggerhead sea turtle nest on LSSI. Photo Credit: Elise Diehl

 

Female sea turtles emerge from the ocean to lay nests above the high tide line from May until July. Eggs hatch two months later, and turtle hatchlings crawl from the nest to the ocean under the cover of night. On the Georgia coast, most of the nesting that occurs is from loggerhead sea turtles, but green and leatherback sea turtle nests have also been documented.

On Little St. Simons Island, 123 loggerhead nests were recorded in 2013 and 53 in 2014. These high and low emergence years are normal since loggerhead sea turtles mate every 2-3 years. This year is predicted to be a very active and successful season due to the population rebounding after being protected by the Endangered Species Act and fewer turtles breeding last year (with the mating cycle this should be a higher year).

Elise Diehl is returning for a second season as LSSI’s sea turtle technician. . Elise’s position is part of a long standing, close partnership with Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Sea turtle nesting and hatching has been monitored on LSSI since 1987. Elise bikes the seven miles of beach each morning at sunrise searching for turtle crawls. When a crawl is located she determines if the female turtle laid a nest, or decided to return to the ocean without nesting, known as a false crawl. A turtle false crawls when she feels threatened or does not find the site suitable for nesting. She will often return to the same area within the next few nights to attempt nesting again if this is the case.

Elise marks each nest with a numbered stake, and protective screens to keep predators, like raccoons and ghost crabs, from digging into the nest. If a nest is laid too close to the tide line, Elise relocates it to a higher site to prevent overwashing from tides. Tidal overwash can drown eggs and hatchlings waiting to emerge from the nest.

LSSI's Sea Turtle Technician, Elise Diehl, next to a staked and protected nest.

LSSI’s Sea Turtle Technician, Elise Diehl, next to a staked and screen protected nest.

If you would like to keep track of this season’s sea turtle nesting on LSSI or in Georgia, please visit seaturtle.org. We are hoping for a record year!

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Technician

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Conservation Easement

Guests have been visiting Little St. Simons Island to experience its natural beauty, sweeping coastal landscapes, and abundant wildlife since the island opened to the public in 1979.  Although the Lodge has won numerous hospitality awards, the number one attraction has always been the island itself.  Conservation organizations, too, have long recognized the importance of the island’s natural, intact habitats, and healthy populations of rare and threatened wildlife.

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Last week the owners of Little St. Simons Island donated a conservation easement to The Nature Conservancy on the entire 11,000 + acre island.  This easement ensures that the preservation efforts that have been practiced by the island’s owners for many years will be permanent.  Our guests and conservationists alike can now rest assured that the natural beauty and the ecological integrity of the island will forever be protected.

Along the southeastern coast, Little St. Simons Island stands out among the barrier
islands as having some of the most intact natural habitat and healthiest wildlife populations. The island has been minimally altered over the course of its human history.00134_DSC_3819
Unlike other coastal properties, LSSI’s live oaks were not extensively harvested, and the maritime forest was not cleared for agriculture.  Major Pierce Butler, the island’s antebellum period owner, set a precedent for stewardship by refusing to sell the rights to timber the island. He stated that he wished “to leave to my children the estate as perfect as possible.” Since the time of the Butler family’s ownership, the island’s owners have upheld this tradition of preservation. After the Lodge compound was built in the early 1900s, the island’s development has been contained within this small footprint, ensuring that over 11,000 acres have remained a fine example of coastal wilderness.

Little St. Simons Island has a long history of active conservation, including the nesting sea turtle monitoring and management program that dates back to the 1987.  In recent years conservation and ecological management efforts have been enhanced with guidance from the island’s Ecological Advisory Council.  00174_DSC_4418The easement ensures that the conservation guidelines and management practices that the island has been following and implementing for years will remain in place to continue to protect the island’s habitats and wildlife. Returning guests will be unlikely to notice any changes, but we hope they will celebrate with us knowing that one of the most significant natural areas on the southeastern coast has been preserved for perpetuity.

Click here to read the official press release from The Nature Conservancy.

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Shorebird Nesting Has Begun

After weeks of nest searching with little luck, the birds have finally decided that it’s warm enough and they are ready to start laying eggs. In previous years, we documented a record-breaking early nesting attempt by an American oystercatcher pair on March 10, but nesting typically start around mid to late March.   So, needless to say, as March ended and April began, with no discovered Wilson’s plover or American oystercatcher nests, we were ready.

Freshly laid Wilson's plover nest

Freshly laid Wilson’s plover nest

This will be the last of three field seasons for an ongoing research project with the objective of determining how habitat variables can be used to predict nesting location and nest success for American oystercatchers and Wilson’s plovers.  We are also investigating how different nest predators (avian, raccoon, coyote) might influence nest location and nest success, and will incorporate effects of sea level rise, and geological processes, such as inlet dynamics and shoreline change, as well.

During the first week of April, we’d found only one Wilson’s plover nest and several Killdeer nests.  But, as temperatures have risen and spring has finally settled in, nesting has started with vigor!  In the past two weeks, we’ve found 38 Wilson’s plover nest and 7 American oystercatcher nests!  Birds have set up territories and within those territories created scrapes- shallow depressions made by smoothing and kicking out the sand.  They can make several scrapes in a territory, and then the female chooses one and lays her eggs.  The eggs blend in so well with the surrounding beach that they are very difficult for predators (and researchers) to find.

American oystercatcher nest

American oystercatcher nest

Last week, we found one of the coolest nests I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been out on the beaches. This Wilson’s plover pair nested right inside an old horseshoe crab shell!  They will likely lay one more egg and then in about 25 days, hopefully the nest will hatch.

The best nest: A Wilson’s plover nest inside a horseshoe crab shell!

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Norm’s Pond Rookery Update

Nesting great egrets at Norm's Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Nesting great egrets at Norm’s Pond Rookery. Photo credit: Pete Oxford

Spring has arrived on Little St. Simons Island, and with the warmer weather comes wading bird activity at Norm’s Pond. Great egrets, snowy egrets, and anhingas are strutting their breeding plumage, building nests, and laying eggs on islands in the pond. Nests will begin to hatch in the next couple of weeks.

Norm’s Pond is an active sediment borrow pit, with the sand collected from the area used for island road construction and maintenance. The pit was connected to a nearby artesian well and flooded. An upland peninsula that stretched into the center of the pond was ditched and made into an island to create rookery nesting habitat. Predators, like raccoons, are unwilling to jump or swim to the island to eat eggs and chicks due to alligators that patrol the pond. As a result, the birds that nest on the island have a much higher success rate than those that nest on the edge of the pond.

Recently, we created a new island at Norm’s Pond. Another peninsula, that usually had high predation rates, was trenched and cut off from the mainland. Great egrets and anhingas are currently nesting on the new island. Ecological staff conducts weekly rookery surveys to monitor nests and chicks. From these surveys, we have documented more fledged chicks (chicks that can fly) on the islands than the pond edge. We predict that trend will continue for the new island as well.

Guests have an excellent opportunity to experience the rookery from the Norm’s Pond tower. The tower provides close views of courtship, nest building, and chick rearing without causing stress to the birds. Many guests have also observed the large alligator, famously known as “Norm”, sunbathing along the pond’s edge. Several other bird species roost, or rest, at Norm’s Pond including tricolored herons, black-crowned night herons, yellow-crowned night herons, cattle egret, white ibis, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills.

-Lauren Gingerella, Ecological Management Technician

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Prescribed Burn: February 2015

Muhly Grass on fire. Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

Muhly Grass on fire. Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

Along the Georgia coast, muhly maritime grasslands (Muhlenbergia filipes) are a rare, but vital ecosystem for a variety of wildlife. With rising sea levels and coastal development, this habitat is diminishing along with some of the animals that call it home. Island glass lizards and Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, both species of conservation concern in Georgia, Eastern kingsnakes, marsh rabbits, and cotton rats are a handful of species that utilize these grasslands for protection and reproduction.

A section of Muhly grassland near Mosquito Creek burns. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

A section of Muhly grassland near Mosquito Creek burns. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

 

Muhly grass is an early successional plant species, one of the first species to populate secondary dunes. By burning these grasslands, wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) and groundsel (Baccharis sp.) thickets are reduced, and the area covered by grass is increased. Little St. Simons Island uses fire as a management technique, or tool, in an attempt to balance out the loss of these grasslands at other coastal locations.

 

Lauren Gingerella (L), LSSI's Ecological Technician, and a member of The Orianne Society's fire crew (R), ignite a patch of Muhly grass using a drip torch. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

Lauren Gingerella (L), LSSI’s Ecological Technician, and a member of The Orianne Society’s fire crew (R), ignite a patch of Muhly grass using a drip torch. Photo Credit: Kirby Farrell

On February 10 and 11, we partnered with a fire crew from The Orianne Society to burn four grassland locations for Joseph Colbert’s graduate project. Joseph, a Master’s student at the University of Georgia in Dr. Kimberly Andrews’ Applied Wildlife Research Lab, is leading a two-year study on the ecological response to fire in muhly dominant grasslands. He plans on conducting small mammal trail camera surveys, painted bunting point counts, and reptile surveys.

Joseph’s research will aid LSSI and regional conservationists in developing the best management practices for these grasslands.

 

University of Georgia Master's student, Joseph Colbert (L), and his adviser, Dr. Kimberly Andrews (R) Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

University of Georgia Master’s student, Joseph Colbert (L), and his adviser, Dr. Kimberly Andrews (R) Photo Credit: Lauren Gingerella

 

 

 

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Sea turtle season is underway!

Turtle Tech, Elise Diehl

Georgia Nongame DNR Sea Turtle Technician: Elise Diehl

We are happy to announce the beginning of sea turtle nesting season here on the Georgia coast. Each year from May to August, female sea turtles laboriously crawl out of the ocean under the cover of darkness to deposit their eggs in dry sand. There, the eggs will incubate for about 60 days then hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings will make their way out to sea.

Most of the nesting sea turtles on Georgia’s coast are loggerhead sea turtles, but so far this year Cumberland and Sapelo have each had a green sea turtle nest, and Blackbeard has had a leatherback nest.

On Little St. Simons Island, we found our first loggerhead nest on May 18th, with a total of 167 eggs! We are now up to seven nests, and are hoping to see nesting activity pick up in the next couple of weeks. Last year, we documented 119 nests!

Each year, LSSI works with the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative to monitor and protect turtle nests, and we are happy to have Elise Diehl as our sea turtle technician. Elise rides the entire length of the beach at dawn each day looking for the tracks of nesting females. She documents each crawl and nest she finds, and if necessary will relocate the nests that are in danger of being washed over by the tides too often during their incubation. Each nest is marked and screened with plastic mesh to deter predators, as well. As part of a coast-wide long term genetics project, Elise also takes a sample from each nest.

Elise is originally from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan but has been in Georgia since she was 16. Once she moved to Georgia, she was introduced to sea turtles and wanted nothing more than to work with them one day. While earning her B.S in Wildlife Sciences at the University of Georgia, she worked in the lab analyzing the genetic information being collected from each nest on the Georgia coast. Last summer, Elise monitored nesting turtles on Ossabaw Island. After spending a few months at the Georgia Aquarium, she is excited to be back on the coast for another season!

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Prescribed Burn, February 2014

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Prescribed burn in wax myrtle/sweet grass habitat. (Photo: Laura Early)

Fire is an important ecological management tool for a variety of habitats, returning nutrients to the soil and reducing woody vegetation and shrubs. Last week, we conducted a prescribed burn in the maritime shrub and grassland habitat between the beach, Bass Creek Road and Beach Road. With the help of local biologists from the local non-game division of Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Jekyll Island Authority, and the St. Simons Land Trust, the island maintenance staff and ecological management team ignited and controlled a low-burning fire on Tuesday, February 18th to prevent woody vegetation from encroaching on open grassy areas.

Scott Coleman, Ecological Manager igniting broomsedge. (Photo: Laura Early)

Scott Coleman, Ecological Manager igniting broomsedge. (Photo: Laura Early)

This ecosystem adjacent to the beach dunes is dominated by wax myrtles (Myrica cerifera) and Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), and left to its own devices, the wax myrtles would continue to recruit eventually closing out the open habitat where the grasses thrive. This burn did not reach an intensity that would take back large established wax myrtle shrubs, but it will reduce wax myrtle cover by preventing young seedlings and saplings from taking hold. The balance of open grassy areas and cover provided by the wax myrtles provide excellent habitat for a variety of species, including the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coachwhips, kingsnakes, small rodents, painted buntings, chuck-wills widows, island glass lizards and marsh rabbits.

Other plants that make up this community include: broomsedge (Andropogon spp.), dog-fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), flat-topped goldenrod (Euthammia tenuifolia), groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia), and pepper-vine (Ampelopsis arborea).

The day after the fire, herbaceous vegetation had been cleared out. (Photo: Laura Early)

The day after the fire, herbaceous vegetation had been cleared out. (Photo: Laura Early)

Over the next couple of weeks and months, we will start to see new growth in the burned areas, and will continue to monitor the burned plot. Another plant community that benefits from fire is the slash pine forest on the southern part of the island, and if conditions are suitable, we hope to burn there this season as well.

Ten days after the burn, the grasses are already showing new growth! (Photo: Willy Hazlehurst)

Ten days after the burn, the grasses are already showing new growth! (Photo: Willy Hazlehurst)

 

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Marine Debris Cleanup Package: February 2nd – 4th, 2014

marine debris collageOnly $649* for two nights: almost half price! *All-inclusive, double-occupancy. Tax and service charge will be applied at checkout.

One of Little St. Simons Island’s many treasures is our seven-mile stretch of undeveloped beach—seven miles that many of you have spent countless hours enjoying. More than just a beautiful landscape, these beaches also serve as prime habitat for a variety of species of wildlife. Although our beaches are otherwise pristine, it is not uncommon to find manmade debris amongst the shells and driftwood in the wrack line.

Because of the connectedness of the seas, marine debris is a widespread issue facing the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems.  Since initiating a regular cleanup and survey on our shores, we have removed over a thousand pounds of debris from our beaches and marshes. In cooperation with the Ocean Conservancy and Rivers Alive of Georgia, we have not only been cleaning up our beach, but documenting every piece of marine debris that we remove. This information is submitted to a database of debris collected from beaches around the world. By documenting the debris we collect, we are contributing to a debris profile of our oceans.  In addition to removing potential hazards to wildlife, this data helps us create more effective solutions.

Continuing with this effort, we would like to invite you to participate in a comprehensive sweep of our beaches. With your help, we can cover a greater distance making a more significant impact on the beach.  To show our gratitude for your participation, we’re offering you this deeply-discounted package deal for the nights of February 2nd and 3rd.

Mahi, a patient at the GSTC, had an emergency flipper amputation after being tangled in monofilament. Photo: GSTC

Mahi, a patient at the GSTC, had an emergency flipper amputation after being tangled in monofilament. Photo: GSTC

Marine debris has been documented affecting at least 267 species worldwide. This includes 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.

Entanglement and ingestion of plastic are two of the main dangers that debris poses to wildlife, and unfortunately we have seen examples of both pretty close to home. In October, a pygmy sperm whale stranded on Jekyll Island, and the necropsy revealed two large pieces of black plastic sheeting in its gut. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC) has also admitted several patients suffering wounds from entanglement, and found small pieces of plastic and strands of monofilament in the digestive tracts of their patients. To learn more about individual cases, read these patient descriptions from the GSTC

Now is a critical time for debris removal. Beginning in the spring, our beach becomes feeding and nesting grounds for several species of birds including red knots, Wilson’s plovers, and American oystercatchers. We’ll also see female sea turtles feeding in the coastal waters and nesting on our beaches. In order to minimize disturbance of wildlife, marine debris cleanup is best preformed during the winter.

We would like anyone interested in learning more about marine debris issues and solutions to take advantage of this special event.  In addition to everything you expect from a stay on Little St. Simons Island, there will be an evening “Trash Talk” presentation, discussions, and a chance to make a difference for wildlife. On Monday, February 3rd, we will spend a few hours on the beach surveying and removing debris.  While the workload will be light, it will have a great impact.

As always, LSSI is limited to 32 overnight guests, so call today to reserve your room: 912.638.7472.

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Naturalist Fact: Leatherback Sea Turtle

Adult leatherback. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

Adult leatherback. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, and in terms of weight is the largest reptile on the planet as well. This impressive animal can reach 6 feet in length and weigh 900-1,000 pounds, with the largest leatherback ever recorded tipping the scale at over 2,000 pounds.

While the most common nesting sea turtle on the Georgia coast is the loggerhead, leatherbacks have nested on nearby islands a few times over the years. Blackbeard, Cumberland, Jekyll, Ossabaw, Sea Island, St. Catherines, St. Simons, and Sapelo have all had leatherback nests in the past five years.

To add to their list of superlatives, leatherbacks are the most widely ranging sea turtle in the world. Leatherbacks’ major nesting sites are in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, southeastern Asia, and the South Pacific Islands, but their migrations can take them over 3,000 miles from their nesting grounds each year.

Leatherback hatchling. Photo: Laura Early

Leatherback hatchling. Photo: Laura Early

The leatherback’s diet consists mainly of jellyfish and other soft-bodied invertebrates, and because of special adaptations, leatherbacks are able to follow their food sources into much more frigid waters than other turtles are able to tolerate. A countercurrent heat exchange system and layers of fat help leatherbacks retain a warmer body temperature in cold waters. Special adaptations in their lungs also enable leatherbacks to dive deeper than any other turtle and most marine mammals—as deep as 4,000 feet, and these dives can last for up to 85 minutes.

The unique nature of their carapace also helps the leatherback complete these long, deep dives. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback’s ribs and vertebrae are not fused to create a rigid shell, but instead are integrated into a cartilaginous layer. The layer of skin covering the matrix of bones and cartilage gives the turtle flexibility, hydrodynamics and protection in addition to its common name.

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Norm’s Pond Rookery

For years, a variety of wading birds have gathered at Norm’s Pond to nest. Wading birds typically look for islands surrounded by freshwater wetlands. These freshwater wetlands are home to American alligators, who act as the birds’ best defense against mammalian predators, such as raccoons.  According to Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Non-game program, there are 10 other nesting colonies, or rookeries, like this one on the coast. All of these colonies are monitored by GADNR at least twice a season by fly-overs and some are monitored additionally on the ground.

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm's Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Aerial photograph of the wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond. (Photo by Tim Keyes)

Our wading bird rookery at Norm’s Pond is winding down, but not for lack of activity earlier in the season. This year we saw activity begin at the end of February. Tim Keyes noted that the mild winter resulted in earlier wading bird nesting along the coast. Breeding season also varies between species and this is to ensure less competition in the highly desirable nesting locations.

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Cattle egret dancing and showing off breeding plumage. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

Little St. Simons Island’s rookery at Norm’s Pond provided perfect nesting habitat for 7 species of wading birds. The first of the wading birds to arrive were the great egrets, shortly followed by snowy egrets, tricolored herons, anhinga’s, cattle egrets, white ibis, and black-crowned night herons. Nest building, courtship, and copulation were observed as the birds brought sticks to the islands and danced with their partners to show off their brilliant breeding plumage.

The new two-story observation tower provides a spectacular view of the nests on one of the two islands at Norm’s Pond and along the perimeter of the pond. It also allows us to more accurately monitor the nests. We have been following the nests since the end of February and have found that as predicted, the nests on the islands fared better than the nests on the edge of the pond. This provides a perfect example to the important role that American alligators play as a keystone species, here on the coast. Without the American alligators to patrol the waters at the rookery, raccoons and other predators would be more likely to take advantage of the buffet of bird eggs.

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

American alligator patrolling at the rookery. (Photo by Stephanie Knox)

The middle of the nesting season is the busiest time at the rookery. In May we had over 80 nests that could be observed from the viewing tower! We knew of additional nests on the far side of the pond and deep in the vegetation on the islands that could not be easily seen from the tower. Woodstorks and a couple of roseate spoonbills in breeding plumage visited the rookery but did not nest here.  There was also a yellow-crowned night heron fledgling seen recently which was an exciting find – this was the first sign that yellow-crowned night herons’ had nested at the site.

Four anhinga pairs were nesting earlier in the season and two of those nests each fledged (produced chicks that can fly) three chicks. Twenty nests are currently active at the rookery and are all most likely re-nests from pairs that were unsuccessful during their previous nesting attempts. We expect nesting at Norm’s Pond to be done by the end of September. Overall, the rookery has been successful this year and we are fortunate to be able to have such up-close and personal viewing opportunities during such an important part of the wading birds’ life cycle.

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