Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tracking turtles - A nest is found

A Nest is Found

I was excited that my friend, Melanie Waite, a long-time sea turtle patrol volunteer, found her first nest of the season on Monday morning while patrolling the Santa Rosa section of Gulf Islands National Seashore. It was a loggerhead nest.

Melanie called me around 6:30 a.m. to come observe the process of relocating the nest which was too close to the water and in a very flat section of the island where washover was almost inevitable. She knew I had been anxious to see this event and learn more about our sea turtle conservation efforts.

Mark Nicholas, a biologist for the Gulf Islands National Seashore; Vickie Withington, a bio-tech for the park; and Melanie began the process of locating the nest within the body pit.

Only those who are trained, experienced and have proper permits are allowed to relocate nests now. You will note above that Mark is probing with the use of his hands only, no shovels or other tools are allowed for fear of accidentally damaging the eggs.

Once the nest is located and uncovered, Mark begins the delicate process of moving the eggs into a cooler in which several inches of sand from the nest itself has been placed. Sudden movement can cause the fragile embryo to break away from the shell, and the egg will not be viable, which means it will not survive.

In fact, the relocation process itself should take place within twelve hours of deposition, another reason for us to do patrols at or slightly before sunrise. After that point, the "movement-induced mortality" rate rises rapidly.

See how gently Mark places the eggs in the sand-lined cooler? The eggs are being carefully placed in order so that they can be placed in the same position in the new nest. Eggs removed from the top of the nest will be on top in the new nest. Eggs from the bottom will go back on the bottom of the new nest. They also make sure the eggs do not roll or turn, but keep the same orientation that they had in the original nest.

Sea turtle eggs look just like ping pong balls, don't they! This nest turned out to have 138 eggs.

It is around 7:30 a.m. by now and as the sun climbs higher, Vicki Withington shades the eggs while Mark continues to remove them.

Melanie has a big smile on her face because she just discovered a nest. We've had fewer than normal so far this year, so each nest is very important. She heads out to find a safe new location nearby for the nest.

How do you like our mule? It's a Kawasaki 610 and has replaced many of the ATVs. This is also what I drive on my Ft. Pickens patrol.

Mark and Vickie walk toward the new location which is at a higher elevation and protected by dunes in order to reduce the likelihood of washover during summer storms. Since the site was close to a bird colony, everyone walked very carefully in each others footsteps to avoid disturbing the birds which are also endangered.

Mark digs a new nest for the clutch of eggs. The nests are approximately 18" deep, the opening is narrow, but the base is scooped spherically, like the rounded bottom of a vase or a small soccer ball. The eggs are carefully placed in the new location and moist sand from the old site that lined the cooler in which they were moved is gently placed back on top of them.

As you can see, it is a lot of work to help save this threatened species, but those of you who have witnessed tiny hatchlings emerging from a nest and rushing to the sea know how quickly you can be converted to their conservation.

What a lovely new site for the nest. In about two months we'll be nest-sitting at night, waiting for the emergence of 138 tiny loggerhead turtles and shepherding them as they make that long march to the Gulf of Mexico.

Mark and Melanie measure distances and mark the nest. A bio-tech will return later to mark the site with a GPS unit.

Note to my young readers: If you would like to help save our turtles, there are specific things you can do! Many of us want to help the turtles, but don't realize our actions can be harmful to them.
Did you know a very harmful thing for sea turtles is balloons. Yet so often we see balloons on the beach, marking the site of a party or a wedding. Most people don't know that when balloons get into the Gulf, sea turtles can mistake them for jellyfish and ingest them. The balloons can then suffocate or strangle them, or block their digestive system and also cause their death.

One of the main items we look for on our sea turtle patrol are deflated balloons and ribbons. We always stop and pick them up and dispose of them. If you see deflated or forgotten balloons and ribbon on the beach, you could help us by disposing of them before they get into the water. Or if you have friends who are planning to use balloons on the beach, try to come up with an alternative.

The Krewe of Wrecks announced their decision not to use balloons in Mardi Gras celebrations this year in order to do their part for our sea turtles and birds. One by one, small changes are made and big impact can be felt.


The Slates said...

Thanks so much for posting this story, we were just talking about sea turtle nests the other day while swimming out on a Ft. Pickens Rd. beach. Good work!

Paula said...

Well, at long last, this season's turtle saga has begun! We went to Ft Pickens yesterday and the turtles and birds were constantly on my mind. Is Kirsten coming back? I asked at the gate and they just mumbled something. Keep us apprised of any and all developments, DJ.

Barrier Island Girl said...

PJ, please read my post from last December and then e-mail me directly. It was a shocking loss for us.


Deb Baker said...

DJ, I'm sure you must be feeling Kirsten's presence this year as you watch the turtles emerge. Her spirit lives on at the beach. I think she'd be happy with that.