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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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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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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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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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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Musical mysteries on LSSI

As a naturalist, I often get the question of whether I get bored giving the same tours over and over. The answer is definitely no! Little St. Simons Island is a very dynamic system–changing with the seasons, movement of wildlife, tidal events, etc. I am always picking up on something new!

Norm's Pond. Photo: Britt Brown

At the end of this summer, we discovered a mysterious sound coming from Norm’s Pond. Norm’s Pond is one of our constructed freshwater ponds, surrounded by wax myrtles and host to alligators, frogs, nesting wading birds, Common Gallinules, and roosting White Ibis among others.

On a visit to the pond, as the nesting birds were starting to disperse, we picked up on a peculiar sound, one that took us a few days to place. Our Sherlock Holmes instincts kicked in. First guess was a frog. However, being a small island surrounded by salt water, we have a fairly small repertoire of amphibians. So, we reviewed the frog calls of species found nearby, but no matches.

Next guess would be a bird, but over the course of the summer we became very familiar with the sounds coming from the rookery (and they were quite amusing!). We ruled out all of the usual suspects.

Our next clue surfaced when tucked into the wax myrtles, we spied a beige spot of feathers–an Anhinga chick! Upon closer examination, there were at least two nests with three chicks each in relatively the same location that Anhingas had attempted to nest earlier this spring.

Turns out, our mysterious sound was that of Anhinga chicks begging for food. Listen to some Anhinga sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We first noticed the chicks at the end of August, which is unusually late, and by the end of September we were watching the fledglings clumsily dance and fly from perches around the pond. Although this year’s first nesting attempt by Anhingas ended in predation, we are excited to see these have success and to solve our mystery!

 

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Early Fall on Little St. Simons

September 22nd was the first official day of Fall, and we’re starting to see the effects here on Little St. Simons Island. The Muhlenbergia (also called Muhley grass) is starting to bloom, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are making more appearances along Beach Road, and the shorebirds are starting migrate in large numbers. Just three days ago, we counted 70 American Oystercatchers, 125 Marbled Godwits, and 211 Black Skimmers–all in one group at Sancho Panza!

Another fall staple is the fallow deer rut. The bucks have full antlers now that they use to mark and defend their territory. Just yesterday, we came across a spotted buck who left behind this excellent example of territorial behavior:

Traces of fallow deer rut. Photo from Britt.

You can clearly see where the buck used his antlers to scrape the ground beneath this tree. He then left his urine for scent and marked the tree as well; can you see all the broken branches?

Fall on Little St. Simons Island is a time of stunning floral and faunal changes. We look forward to sharing these with you over the coming weeks, stay tuned!

 

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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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