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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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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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!

WIPLm

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.

AMOY

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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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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Naturalist Fact: Pied-billed Grebe

 

(photo by P. Lourenco)

Pied-billed Grebes are a fairly common wintering bird on Little St Simons, and are often seen swimming and diving in the island’s ponds and creeks.  While grebes may superficially resemble loons, DNA evidence suggests they are more closely related to pelicans, petrels and storks, but at a very ancient point in their phylogeny.  Fossils of modern grebes have been found in Chili from as long as 30 million years ago.  Grebes are well adapted to swimming and diving, usually chasing prey underwater.  They have lobed toes rather than webbed feet like ducks, and rarely spend time on dry land. 

(Preening, shows lobed foot, www.aviansources.com)

 Small grebes, like Pied-billed Grebes, eat smaller prey such as aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans and little fish.  Interestingly, many grebes will also ingest their own feathers, although larger fish-eating grebes do this more often than others.  It is thought that the feathers may protect the stomach from damage by fish bones or other hard items that the bird may have consumed.   It is often common for Pied-billed Grebes to submerge themselves when they feel threatened.  They can literally sink themselves from a resting position by contracting their abdominal muscles, compressing their plumage and exhaling.  By adjusting their buoyancy, it is possible for them to remain below the surface with only their heads visible. 

Female grebe with chick, by Joe Kegley

Pied-billed Grebes are much more common in the winter, but some reports of breeding grebes have been documented in the coastal plain.  Nests are built on floating mats of vegetation in the spring, and they usually lay 5-6 eggs.  Both adults incubate the eggs but after hatching the chicks will often ride on the back of their mother, usually concealed by her wings.  The population of this species appears to be stable, but there is a concern of loss of habitats as many wetlands are developed and altered.

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Naturalist Fact: Northern Harrier

Aside from the blooming Muhley grass and the huge swarms of tree swallows we see in the fall, another exciting seasonal indicator is the return of the Northern Harrier.  These hawks are relatively easy to identify as they swoop low over the marshes, with long wings and a long tail.  A white patch just above the tail is often visible.  Male harriers are a pale silver color, while the females are dark brown and significantly larger than the males.  Interestingly, we tend to see many more females than males on Little St. Simons Island. 

Harriers hunt for a variety of animals including small mammals, birds, and reptiles and even eat carrion occasionally.  Unlike many other birds of prey, these hawks have owl-like facial disks which help them use sound to locate prey.  They also have very soft feathers to aid in quiet flight. 

Their breeding range extends throughout the most northern states and into Canada, where they nest on the ground in dense grass or thick vegetation.  Most birds migrate and spend the winter throughout the southern U.S. and into Central America.  While they have experienced some declines in population, the harrier is not considered a species of high conservation concern.

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Naturalist Fact: Tree Swallows

Throughout most of the fall, we are treated to a spectacular show as thousands of tree swallows congregate during their migration.  Tree swallows, like all other swallows, feed primarily on insects captured as they fly.  They have short wide bills which open into gaping mouths, well suited for scooping insects out of the air.  However, unlike other swallows, the tree swallow will also eat berries.  On Little St Simons Island, their activity peaks during October, and we will commonly seen huge flocks feeding together on wax myrtle berries.  Berries and other plant material may make up to 20% of this species’ diet, especially during the winter when insects are scarce.  Tree swallows breed throughout much of northern North America and winter farther north than any other species of swallow.  Their wintering range includes coastal Georgia, Florida and south into Central America.  They migrate in huge flocks, primarily by day.  We will see them again as they head north in March and throughout the spring.  Keep an eye out for them along Beach Road and near Sancho Panza beach—anywhere there are dense stands of wax myrtle there may be clouds of tree swallows!

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