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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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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Naturalist Fact: Scarlet Snake

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The Scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea) is an elusive snake, rarely found by humans.  This species is quite slender and reaches a maximum length of about thirty inches.  These snakes always have wide red bands separated by yellow or white bands which are bordered with black.   The bands do not encircle the entire body, leaving the belly of these snakes white or cream-colored.  Often mistaken for a venomous look-alike, the coral snake, there are some morphological differences that can help to distinguish between the two.  Firstly, the red bands do not touch the white or yellow bands, as they do in the coral snake.  Scarlet snakes also have a pointed snout that is red, while coral snakes have a black-tipped snout.

Scarlet Snakes are the only snake species on Little St. Simons Island that is considered nocturnal, which is usually the only time they are observed moving on the surface of the soil or substrate.  These snakes are semi-fossorial, spending most of their time underground.  Occasionally Scarlet Snakes are found in or under logs, boards, tin, rocks, or leaf litter.  The pointed snout and slender body allows them to burrow through dry, loamy, and sandy soils.  These snakes are most commonly found in habitats where this sandy and well-drained soil is predominant, such as pine flatlands, dry prairies, maritime hardwood forests, and sweetgrass prairies.  Scarlet Snakes are found from Southern New Jersey, south to Southern Florida, and West to East Texas.

Reptile eggs make up the majority of the Scarlet Snakes’ diet, but they may also prey on lizards, small snakes, or frogs.  If an egg is too large for a Scarlet Snake to swallow whole, they may break it open with specialized enlarged teeth before swallowing it.  Very little is known about Scarlet Snake reproduction due to the secretive nature and burrowing habits.  In early summer (typically June), female snakes will generally lay 3-9 elongated and leathery eggs underground (1-13/8” long).  The young are about 6 inches long when they hatch in late summer, and closely resemble adult snakes in coloration.

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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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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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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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