Sea Turtle Update: Hatching begins!

Hatchling crawls across the wet sand in the early morning. (Photo: Laura Early)

Hatchling crawls across the wet sand in the early morning. (Photo: Laura Early)

Remember from our previous Sea Turtle Update, that Carol Anne Nichols, a sea turtle technician with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has been hard at work all summer monitoring and protecting the sea turtle nests on Little St. Simons Island.

So far 2013 has been another great summer for sea turtle nesting on the Georgia Coast. Last year, previous nesting records were blown out of the water with a total of 2,244 nests. There was no lull this year–we have already surpassed that with 2,286 nests! Although nesting is slowing down, before it’s all over with we could add even more to that number.

Little St. Simons Island broke our own record last year with 116 nests, and we are dangerously close to breaking that record again this year. Our most recent nest was laid on July 30th, but since then we have found two undetected nests (nests that we missed when they were laid.)

Plastic screens protect these side-by-side nests from predators like racoons. (Photo: Laura Early)

Plastic screens protect these side-by-side nests from predators like racoons. (Photo: Laura Early)

As nesting winds down, hatching is taking off! We are having a couple nests hatch each evening. The hatchlings prefer to emerge from the sand under the cover of darkness to begin their treacherous journey out to the open ocean. When the tiny turtles crawl to the surface of the sand, they look for the light of the moon reflecting off the ocean to guide them in the right direction. Acting solely on instinct, they set out on a journey–a journey, for the females that will eventually lead back to this same spot.

Male Loggerhead sea turtles will never come up on a beach again in their lifetime, but females will go through the same process their mothers have, crawling out of the ocean and into the dunes to lay her own eggs. Because of a genetics project that has been going on in Georgia and neighboring states for the past several years, we are able to get a better picture of each individual’s nesting habits and the relatedness of the nesting females. We’ve had four females that have used our beach in 2009, 2011, and have come back again this year (2013). To learn more about the genetics research, click here.

As nests hatch, we dig each one up to take an inventory of hatched versus unhatched eggs. Some guests have been lucky enough to participate in these excavations, and even lucky enough to find a few live hatchlings. This morning, we watched five healthy hatchlings crawl to the ocean! Of the nests that have been excavated thus far we have had a hatching success rate of 72.5%.

Loggerhead wiggles out of its leathery shell. (Photo: Laura Early)

Loggerhead wiggles out of its leathery shell. (Photo: Laura Early)

In the coming weeks, we will have many more nests hatching and inventoried. Stay tuned for the final tally of this year’s sea turtle season.

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Sea Turtle Update: 2013

False crawl: Often turtles will come onto the beach, but turn back to the ocean without laying a nest. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

False crawl: Often turtles will come onto the beach, but turn back to the ocean without laying a nest. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

As many of you know, we are well into sea turtle nesting season here on the Georgia coast. Each year from May to August, female sea turtles (mostly Loggerheads) crawl out of the ocean under the cover of darkness and lay their eggs in the sand. The female scoops out an inverted lightbulb-shaped nest in the sand and drops an average of 120 eggs into her nest before covering them back up. During the nesting season, a female lays an average of four nests, with about two weeks between each nest.

Coordinated by the Nongame Section of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, members of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative work together to monitor and protect sea turtle nesting along Georgia’s coast.

This year, Little St. Simons Island has 101 nests on our beaches. Two of these were Green Sea Turtles, and the rest were Loggerheads. This year’s sea turtle technician, Carol Anne Nichols, has relocated a little over half the nests this year (54 nests) because they were laid too close to the high tide line. If a nest gets inundated by the tides too many times during incubation, the eggs can actually drown.

Sea turtle nests have an incubation period of about 60 days, and with our first nest laid on May 18th, they should begin hatching any day now. Wassaw had the first nest to hatch on the Georgia coast on July 15th, and our neighbors to the south on Sea Island had their first nest hatch just two days ago. Each morning, Carol Anne is checking the nests for a depression in the sand which indicates that the hatchlings are moving around beneath the sand and are ready to make their journey to the ocean.

Sea turtle eggs after they had been relocated and are ready to buried in the sand once more. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

Sea turtle eggs after they had been relocated and are ready to buried in the sand once more. Photo: Carol Anne Nichols.

We have also been lucky this summer to encounter a few adult turtles on the beach as well! On one of our evening turtle walks, a group of guests were able to experience an enormous female Loggerhead crawling back into the ocean! We were also able to rescue a female who was stranded at Main Beach this June. She was successfully transported to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll where she was put on an antibiotic regimen after tests revealed her red blood cell count to be very low.

The Georgia coast is having another great year with 1,923 nests. Last year was a record-breaking 2, 241 nests! Stay tuned to see how many more nests are laid in the next couple of weeks.

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Nesting season begins!

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Wilson’s Plovers utilize our undeveloped beaches for nesting in the spring and summer months.

Nesting season is beginning to gain momentum, and so far we are have two Wilson’s Plovers nests and two Oystercatcher nests for this season here.

Former naturalist, Abby Sterling is starting the second field season of her two year Master’s project which involves monitoring nesting Wilson’s Plovers and American Oystercatchers here on Little St. Simons Island. She is also monitoring field sites on Little Cumberland and the north end of Cumberland Island. Abby’s project looks at nesting and fledging success as well as a variety of nest site characteristics to try to determine if different habitat features can be used to predict nest success and areas of high productivity.

Last year on Little St. Simons, we found 97 Wilson’s Plover nests, and had a little more than a quarter of them hatch.  Of the 25 nests that hatched, there were a total 55 chicks, all of which were banded.  The leading known causes of nest failure were washover from tides, avian predation, and raccoon predation. We had 17 American Oystercatcher nests, four of them hatched and we had seven chicks survive to fledging! The leading known causes of failure were washover from tides and raccoon predation. On Cumberland Island, on just the northern-most two miles of beach, there were 89 Wilson’s Plover nests and five oystercatcher nests found. The plover nest success rate was 5.6 % and none of the oystercatcher nests hatched. The leading causes of known failure on Cumberland were tidal overwash and coyote predation. On Little Cumberland we found 27 nests, had seven nests hatch and banded 17 chicks. There was only one Oystercatcher nest found, which washed over and failed.

WIPL nest

This Wilson’s Plover nest from last year was nestled safely amongst some beach vegetation.

We found nests quite far back on the beach in some cases, well behind the primary dunes. Other nests were located in the wrack line, which reiterates the importance of beachcombers staying below the wrack line on the wet sand during nesting season. Plovers nested out in the open sand, in wrack and in many cases, tucked into the vegetation. The data hasn’t been analyzed yet, but it will be really interesting to see if there are any relationships between these observations and nesting productivity.

This year Abby’s technician on Little Cumberland, Nathan Cross, found the first Wilson’s Plover nest on the tip of Cumberland on March 23.  It has already been lost, but he has since found a second nest that remains active and we found our first one here on April 1st.

Both the Oystercatchers and the plovers are showing signs of nesting. Since the middle of March they’ve been paired up and defending territories, but over the past several days we’ve been seeing many more scrapes created by both species. We do have pairs of Wilson’s Plovers quite vocal at all three beach access points (Mosquito Creek, Main Beach gazebo and Sancho Panza), and so its best to stay on the paths and below the wrack line when on the beach. Beach Pond is also an active area with several plover pairs and an Oystercatcher pair.

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This pair of American Oystercatchers has a nest scrape near Beach Pond, and we are expecting to see eggs very soon!

 

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Living Shoreline promotes fish habitat and erosion control

Barrier islands are very dynamic landscapes. As the tides, currents, and winds sweep around the island, it continuously changes the landscape. Where you first arrive to the dock at Little St. Simons Island, there has been a wooden bulkhead adjacent to the dock creating a vertical barrier between the creek system and the upland.

Imagine a section of healthy marsh joining the higher ground and the creek. That’s what we invision as we replace this bulkhead with a Living Shoreline.

Bulkheads will weaken and eventually fail over time, and we have been planning on replacing the current bulkhead (constructed in 1995) for several years. However, rather than building another bulkhead that inevitably will have to be replaced again sometime in the future, we are putting in a “Living Shoreline.”

This Living Shoreline will be a more natural slope from the upland into the marsh habitat, and as the name suggests, create excellent habitat for the many organisms that utilize the different zones between the low tide mark and the high tide mark. We will be planting native plants that thrive in the marsh zones whose root systems will help stabilize the sediments, and using recycled oyster shells as structure to recruit new living oysters to the site, which will create habitat for myriad of marine organisms including several species of fish. To learn more about the benefits and implementation of a Living Shoreline, visit NOAA’s resource pages or learn about a similar project on Sapelo Island.

Tom Bliss with UGA’s MAREX and Jan Mackinnon with DNR’s Coastal Resources Division remove their nets after a fish sampling session.

Along with stabilizing the shoreline in a more natural and efficient way, one of the goals of this project is to enhance fish habitat. In order to get some baseline data on what is already hanging out around our dock, with the help of the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension (MAREX) team, we have been sampling the fish populations around the dock for the past year.

Next comes the construction! Scheduled to start in the middle of February, we will begin removing the old bulkhead, and creating the living shoreline. With the guidance of cicil engineer Tom Havens and landscape architect Thomas Angell who specializes in ecologically-sensitive environmental design, we will transform our current bulkhead garden into a seamless junction with the marsh.

In the meantime, as you park your car at the Hampton Marina, you might notice a mountain of oyster shells. As these are put into mesh bags (8,000 mesh bags to be exact!), they will be the foundation for which oyster spat (free-swimming larval oysters) will attach. Overtime, they will grow into a living oyster reef, one of those living oyster reefs that are vital to the functioning of the marsh ecosystem.

Of course, Little St. Simons Island cannot take on such a big project on our own. Our primary partners include: UGA Marine Extension, The Nature ConservancySapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Divsion, NOAAWe are also working with volunteers from these organizations to help implement the project: Coastal WildScapes, Americorps.

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Monitoring marine debris: a move toward trash-free seas

Seven miles of unspoiled beaches.

Little St. Simons Island is a treasure in more ways than one, but one of those treasured pieces of the island is the seven-mile stretch of undeveloped beach. There are days when you can be on the beach and not see another person for hours!

However, many of our visitors are surprised by the sight of trash on our shores. How can an otherwise pristine beach with so few visitors collect so much manmade debris? The answer is that it washes in from the water. What we see on our beaches is only a tiny fraction of what is traveling around in the oceans.

You never know what might wash ashore! This keyboard was found on North Main Beach this summer.

100,000 marine animals die each year from debris-related causes. On top of adding pollutants to the water, plastic debris can be confused with food and ingested or can entangle and trap wildlife.

Inspired by the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, we are initiating a marine debris program in which our goal is to hold regular beach clean-ups once a month and to initiate a conversation about this debris. So far, we have had great success! Since September, we have collected 198 pounds of debris, with our most common item being plastic beverage bottles.

There are some challenges to removing debris on a beach that doesn’t allow motorized vehicles, but that won’t stop us from removing a few crab traps.

In addition to removing the debris from the beach where it has the potential to be swept back out to sea, we are recording the kinds of debris we find. This data is submitted to a larger database managed by the Ocean Conservancy.

As we collect this data, we can begin to understand the sources of marine debris, we can learn how to mitigate it, and we can inform policymakers and consumers. The Ocean Conservancy has been collecting data for over 25 years, and consequently, as we learn more as a society, we are making steps to lessen our impact.

“Cleanups alone, while powerful tools for gathering data and raising awareness, cannot solve the problem. Individuals, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations are stepping up to prevent dangerous items from reaching the water in the first place.”- Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean (International Coastal Cleanup)

To participate in a cleanup on the island or to learn more about the science of marine debris, talk to a naturalist next time you visit!

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Sea Turtle Update: Coming to a close

Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling crawls to the ocean. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Folsom.)

Sea turtle season is wrapping up. Our last nest was laid on August 3rd, and all but 20 nests have hatched and been excavated. As the nests began to hatch, we discovered a few “wild” nests, ones that weren’t detected or marked right after they were laid, the only evidence being several tiny turtle tracks spread across the sand.  This brings our total to 116 nests–a record for Little St. Simons Island!

As the beach changed throughout the summer due to winds, currents, tides, and other factors, we accumulated a thick line of wrack (dead Spartina grass) at the base of the dunes. Most of the nests laid in the latter part of the season ended up in this wrack line and therefore had to be relocated, resulting in a high relocation percentage of 60% (70 of 115 nests). However, we are also experiencing a high hatching success rate. The average hatch success rate so far is 73%, and the majority of nests have had 60% success or higher. One of our nests that was relocated this season had 100% hatch success, which is almost unheard of for a relocated nest or ones left undisturbed!

Sea turtle technician, Natalie Folsom, carries hatchlings down to the ocean. (Photo: Britt Brown.)

Five days after we see the first signs of emergence, we will excavate the nest and take an inventory of hatched eggshells, unhatched eggs, dead hatchlings, and live hatchlings. This data is used to determine the hatching success rate for our beach. These excavations also provide a great opportunity to see live hatchlings that may have been unable to make it out of the nest on their own.

We have also had several sea turtles stranded on our beach this year. Two of which were large Loggerheads with splits in their carapace, possibly results of boat collisions. A smaller Loggerhead was found alive and transported to the nearby Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island for rehabilitation.
This sea turtle nesting season has been a busy one for the entire Georgia coast, with a total of 2,226 nests. For more nesting data for the Georgia coast, check out SeaTurtle.org.
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Black Skimmers nest on North Main Beach

Black Skimmers ward off possible threats to their colony.

We are nearing the end of the summer and the end of nesting season for our shorebirds. However, the Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) have set up a pretty sizable colony on the northern tip of our beach, near Sancho Panza Creek. We estimate over 75 nests in the colony so far!

There are several beach-nesting birds that congregate in colonies including some gulls, terns, and the Black Skimmers. By laying nests at the same time in the same area, each nesting pair is reducing its chances of having their nest lost in the event that a predator comes in. Also, the Black Skimmers can become aggressive when defending their colony against outside threats.

However, if a predator like a raccoon (which frequent our beaches) were to discover the colony, they could wipe out the entire colony in just a few nights. This year, we are employing a new management strategy–electric fencing.

On June 21, we set up the first stretches of electric fencing around ten nests. With two separate areas fenced in, one was electrified and one was not. A few weeks later, the colony had expanded with nest “scrapes” spread over a much larger area.

Skimmer chick runs to its parent.

In mid July, we encompassed all of the scrapes and nests we had found with the electrified fence and haven’t seen any signs of predation by raccoons or other mammalian predators since.

 

The chicks and eggs are very well camouflaged!

 

 

Some of the earliest laid nests have begun to hatch, and there are several chicks running around within the colony. The chicks are still susceptible to predators, and as they start to move around we are worried they might venture outside the protection of the fence. After talking with members of our Ecological Advisory Board who suggested the chicks might move around in search of shade, we erected some temporary shade shelters within the colony.

Shade structures within the colony should prevent discourage chicks from leaving the fence.

We will continue to monitor the colony, and hopefully the Black Skimmers will continue their success!

 

 

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Midway through sea turtle season, and going strong!

Natalie, this year's sea turtle technician, with a Loggerhead she encountered on her way back to the sea.

As of June 20th, we are half way through the nesting season, and the busy period has commenced! We have had 29 new nests laid in the past two weeks. There are now 82 nests, with most on Rainbow Beach (south of where Mosquito Creek empties into the ocean). Forty-five of these nests have been relocated (54.9%), which is higher than the 30% guideline but acceptable for our beaches this year based on the large area susceptible to wash-overs as well as the sections of eroding dunes. 

We have had 126 false crawls thus far. As the number of nests laid per day has increased in the past week, there have also been fewer false crawls. This is probably in part due to the sand drying out after our long rainy period. The false crawl rates have been higher than normal this year on all of the Georgia islands due to the rain and heavy amount of wrack on the beaches.

Mark Dodd, sea turtle biologist with Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently sent out an update on the nesting season.  As of June 20th, we’ve had 1,043 loggerhead nests in Georgia, meaning that we may reach 2,000 nests this year! Here is a summary he included of loggerhead nesting in recent years:

Hatchlings should start emerging any day now! Only two nests on the Georgia coast have hatched, one on Cumberland (at 74 days) and one on Sea Island (at 67 days). Mark believes that the first couple of nests will take longer to hatch based on the rain and cooler temperatures of the early part of the season. 

Our first nest is at 67 days today, and we have three other nests that are past 60 days as well as 4 past 50 days, with 3 more joining the group tomorrow!

Stay tuned for hatching updates~

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Bat sampling on Little St. Simons Island

Little St. Simons Island, along with being a secluded retreat and fantastic place to experience nature on the Georgia coast, is also a living laboratory. Throughout the year, we host several wildlife biologists working on a variety of projects.

DNR bat biologist, Trina Morris, shares ANABAT technology with our guests. This handheld device brings the bats' echolocation sounds to a frequency that we can hear.

This spring and summer, University of Georgia graduate student Craig Bland is studying roosting habitat preference of the northern yellow bat (Lasiurus intermedius). The northern yellow bat is a foliage-roosting bat, often concealing itself in Spanish moss during the daylight hours. However, this bat is fairly uncommon and little is known about its natural history.

Craig and his team are fixing miniature radio transmitters to Northern yellow bats caught here on Little St. Simons Island and Sapelo Island just to the north. Then, during the day they locate the bats’ roosting location using radio telemetry. By analyzing the characteristics of the roosting sites, the team hopes to get a better understanding of their habitat needs.

Bronson retrieves a bat from the net stretched across the pool.

Last week Craig, one of his technicians Bronson Curry, and Georgia DNR biologist Trina Morris set up mist nests across the swimming pool. Bats frequent this area in the evenings, chasing insects and swooping down for a drink of water. Just after the sun went down, we began to see bats flitting and darting overhead, most cleverly avoiding the nets. However, the bats began to get tangled in the nets, and by the end of the night, a total of 72 bats had been caught!

 

The northern yellow bat with its band and transmitter, ready to be released.

Out of these 72 bats, only one was a northern yellow bat! The large (second largest bat in Georgia to the Seminole) blonde-haired beauty flew into the net at 11:45 pm. He was successfully equipped with a transmitter and located again this morning just outside of the main compound. All the other bats caught were Seminole bats (Lasiurus seminolus) and evening bats (Nycticeius humeralis).

Before Craig started mist netting for this study, there were only two other documentations of the northern yellow bat on LSSI—one in May 2010 and the second in August 2011. To read more about those sightings and mist netting, check out this previous blog post.

A bat's wing is similar to the human hand with a membrane streched between the fingers and forearm.

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An Oystercatcher Incubation Project Update

It’s a very exciting time of year for everyone here who is involved with the American Oystercatcher Incubation project.  During the second week of June, with the help of Tim Keyes, we successfully caught and banded five chicks!  Two of the chicks were natural nests, which we did not manipulate at all.  Three chicks were incubated and hatched here in the lodge, while their parents sat on wooden eggs on the beach.  The ‘dummy’ eggs keep the adult birds committed to their nest—if we simply snatched their eggs and brought them back to the incubator, the birds would re-nest somewhere else.  The wooden eggs are staked down into the sand so they remain in place even if the nest gets washed over in high tides, or if a raccoon happens to find them.  We’ve actually collected eggs with teeth marks at the end of the season!

A natural nest with real eggs and a manipulated nest with wooden eggs

This is the third year for the incubation project.  Previous research has shown that the incubation period is most critical for oystercatchers, and that it’s during that period when most nests are lost.  The American Oystercatcher is listed as a threatened species here in Georgia, and so efforts like this are critical to help increase the population of these striking beach nesting birds. 

Chicks returned to a nest

After the chicks hatch in the incubator, we return them to their parents on the beach, and then monitor their survival.  When they are about 35 days old, we capture them so that we can band them, as well as record important information like size and weight.  We hope to catch the chicks before they can fly, but they have to be big enough to wear the leg bands.  The band will allow us to identify an individual bird throughout its entire life!  It can be tricky to catch these babies—they run fast, and sometimes they’ll even try to swim to get away.  Once we have them, they calm down, and we work quickly to return them to their parents.  The reunion is wonderful to witness as the chicks run back to their parents and get away from us!

Banding a chick

This morning we banded two more chicks from natural, un-manipulated nests.  Right now, we have a total of eight banded chicks on the beach.  Many of them are near fledging, which means they are learning to fly.  It’s great to watch throughout the season as the little fluff balls we take out to the beach bond with their parents and rapidly grow, lose their fuzzy camouflage, get adults feathers, and then take flight!

A newly banded chick running back to it's parents

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