Bear Island Shorebird Background

Hi everyone,

First off, I wanted to apologize for not posting more consistent updates regarding the status of the nesting shorebirds on Bear Island throughout the duration of the summer. However, in my last couple of weeks here I intend to summarize the work that I have done this summer and discuss the shorebird management plan for Hammocks Beach State Park moving forward into this winter and the nesting season next summer. In this blog post, I will describe which species of shorebirds nest on Bear Island and why it is important to protect them as well as what my daily work schedule is like.

As many of you know, Bear Island serves as a nesting site for a variety of shorebird species including least terns, common terns, American Oystercatchers, black skimmers, Wilson’s Plovers, willets, and the critically endangered piping plover. Other than piping plovers, many of these shorebird species are listed as threatened or endangered primarily as a result of habitat loss caused by human settlement and pollution. Therefore, monitoring these shorebird species during the nesting season, which occurs approximately between April 1st and August 31st, is essential for determining how best to conserve these animals in the future.

Although Bear Island as part of the North Carolina state parks system will never have buildings constructed on it, ensuring park patrons are aware and respectful of the nesting shorebirds is important because both the nests and the birds themselves are easily susceptible to human disturbance. For instance, dogs allowed to roam the beach freely can break the eggs while people walking too close to the shorebird area can scare the birds and cause them to abandon their nest. Since some of the shorebird species that breed on Bear Island will only lay one nest per season and will not re-nest if their eggs are destroyed, it is critical to minimize the effects of humans on the nesting shorebirds, particularly given that predators and environmental factors such as thunderstorms alone are enough to make some shorebirds abandon their nest.

 

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Based on the shorebird conservation goals of Hammocks Beach State Park, my daily work schedule is designed to collect as much data and information about the nesting shorebirds on Bear Island as possible. Bear Island contains two primary shorebird nesting sites, one located at Bear Inslet and the other at Bogue Inslet. Typically, I will spend approximately two to four hours at each side of the island monitoring the nesting shorebirds. When I am in the field, I use both my binoculars and a large field scope to locate birds sitting on their nests. Once I have determined where a new nest is, I enter the bird area and record various types of data. For instance, I note the GPS location of the nest, how many eggs are present, and physically mark the nest with a colored stake and a number so that I can identify and find it again, an example of which is shown in the picture of the least tern nest above. While I spend a significant portion of my time looking for new nests each day, I also check on each existing nest daily to look for any changes such as predator activity or nest loss. Lastly, at the end of the day I spend about 30 minutes entering data in an Excel spreadsheet on my computer, which allows me to track the changes in each individual nest throughout the summer.

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Nest Update: Nest #6!

After a few exciting days of patrol, from seeing a new mama turtle and a false crawl, we once again saw our old friend Arya!

Arya was located near the Eastern end of the island, passed all the campsites. When we first saw her tracks, we thought it might be the new turtle we saw two nights beforehand. After we approached her though, we quickly realized these barnacle patterns on her shell resembled Arya’s! We found her when she was finishing up making her chamber and soon enough she was laying her eggs. At this point, we scanned her left front flipper to confirm it was Arya, and it was!

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A picture of Arya!

Her nest was located above the high tide line so we did not need to relocate this nest, unlike her Nests #1 and #3. This would be Arya’s fourth nest of the summer on Bear Island. We might see her again since the average mom lays around three to five nest a season, but based upon her history, her average is four nests per nesting season. A reminder that mother sea turtles do not nest every year, but every two to three years!

 

As she began to cover up her nest we quickly gathered her carapace measurements and checked for her metal tags. Thankfully, the tide was going out so we had plenty of time to gather these measurements in no time. Intern Amanda still received some battle scars from Arya though!

 

Next, we went to go help our Duke REU student, Jocelyn, to set up and move the tripod. This tripod is used to weigh the turtle, and is roughly 12 feet tall! Most loggerheads weigh between 150 to 375 lbs., and the tripod can hold up to 600 lbs. This would be our third attempt at weighing Arya; hopefully our second successful attempt! Or so we thought.

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Duke REU student, Jocelyn, and Intern Amanda using the tripod!

We would move the net right in front of Arya, and then she would turn the other way; again, and again, and again. Her tracks were starting to look like a pretty fun rollercoaster ride! As she slowly approached the surf, Amanda, Erin, and Jocelyn were all getting a little nervous and frustrated, to say the least. After our third time getting Arya to crawl onto the net, but not being able to click the clips into place on the scale, we finally found our problem! The lining on the cable had broken, which had inhibited us from lowering the scale to click in the clips we use. We quickly decided that this was a problem we could not fix right away, and decided to let Arya go, without her weight. Regardless, this is the life of working in the field!

We’re happy to have Nest #6 and can’t wait to see these hatchlings in late September!

 

Come Check Out Our Sea Turtle Programs!

A few days ago, we held a special intern program here on Bear Island! This program was a turtle “nest” relocation program. Throughout this program, we taught the beachgoers of Bear Island how our sea turtle interns relocate a nest!

Amanda and Erin “found” the crawl tracks (thanks to a shovel, a few seashells, and some messed up sand) we made our initial nest. From here, Intern Kacie described the differences between a turtle’s in and out track. The claws on a loggerhead turtle’s flipper form a triangle within her tracks, and they point in the direction they came from. You can see a close-up of this triangle below!

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Next, we asked for some lovely volunteers to help us find the nest! We explained the method on how we go about searching for the nest – looking for soft, fluffy sand- and in no time our volunteers found the nest! Intern Amanda showed them how we place the eggs in the bucket- pretending our arms are a “crane” so we don’t adjust the angle of the egg. This is important so that we don’t impact the ability of the embryo to attach to the egg. After a few tedious minutes of carefully placing the eggs in the bucket, we finally found all the eggs!

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A picture of our “crawl” and original nest!

From here, we measure the width and depth of the nest to help recreate the nest the “mother” made (our “mother” being Intern Erin). Our original nest measured 31 cm deep and 34 cm across. This “nest” was larger than usual since the average depth of a nest is somewhere between 18 to 24 centimeters. With this information, our volunteers created a new nest closer to the dune – above the high tide- to better protect our future hatchlings! This is to ensure the nest does not get washed over from the tide as frequently; if washed over too many times the eggs can “drown” or not have enough oxygen to grow.

After this, our volunteers collected sand from the old nest to place in our new nest to fully recreate the original nest. We divided and counted our “eggs” (which may or may not have been ping pong balls) and placed them into the nest. Finally, we covered the new nest and filled in the old nest as well. If this was a real nest, we would place a cage over it to protect the eggs from bigger predators like raccoons or coyotes, and a number sign to keep track of how many nests we have!

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Relocating our “eggs”!

We would like to thank our amazing volunteers for partaking in this program, and if you want to learn more about relocation, check out our previous blog post!

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A picture of our young sea turtle interns in training!

Come check out our other sea turtle programs on July 26th and 28th and see how we use our tagging equipment in the field!

-HABE Interns

Location, location…. Relocation!

It’s all about location this year for the nesting turtles of Bear Island. As we’ve experienced a few times this summer, sometimes mother sea turtles don’t always choose the most ideal spot to dig their egg chamber, and lay their eggs. This requires us to relocate the nest in order to increase the chance of hatchling survival.

One of our nesting mothers, Arya!

To determine whether or not a nest needs to be relocated we must first determine where high tide falls. Most of our nesting turtles this season have been unable to crawl and nest above the high tide line. This means when high tide comes in, a large influx of water can potentially harm the eggs. Another factor included in determining whether or not to relocate a nest is how much foot traffic is around the nesting area. High foot traffic areas could also potentially harm the eggs.

After determining that we should relocate a nest,  we must act fast! We only have between 3 and 6 hours to relocate the nest. First, we must remove each individual egg, one-by-one, from the original nest and place them in a narrow bucket lined with about an inch of sand. We take measurements of the original nest so when we dig the new nest we try to keep it as close to natural as possible.

Interns Amanda and Erin transferring eggs from the original nest!

Next, we must determine a safe location for the new nest — typically a couple feet from the original nest simply closer to the sand dunes. Using the measurements from the original nest we then dig a new egg chamber trying to mimic the exact design. Once the egg chamber is dug, we place each individual egg, one-by-one again, into the new egg chamber maintaining similar order in which the eggs were placed in the original chamber.

Intern Amanda digging the new egg chamber!

Finally, we cover the eggs with sand and pat down the sand just as the mother sea turtle would do when covering her eggs. The relocation process is over and all that’s left is to put a cage over the nest and a sign to mark the nest number. It’s important to note that not all nests need to be relocated, and relocation is generally avoided; however, sometimes it’s necessary to make sure our hatchlings have the best chance of surviving!

Thanks for checking in and stay tuned to see what we’re up to this summer!

— HABE 2018 Interns

Red Lights Rock!

Loggerhead sea turtle nesting season lasts from May-October, and during this time it is vital to avoid the use of white lights on the beach. Mother sea turtles come onto the beach to lay their eggs and using white lights can cause them to false crawl. A false crawl is when a mother turtle comes onto the beach with the intention of laying her eggs and instead of nesting, turns around and goes back into the ocean. Sea turtles are able to have a handful of false crawls, but there does come a point where she will need to deposit her eggs regardless of her location. In this case, she faces the risk of depositing the eggs in the ocean where they have no chance of surviving. Mother sea turtles will false crawl on their own when there is no disturbance, which is why it is important not to cause additional false crawls due to the use of white lights.

 

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An example of a sea turtle laying her eggs!

 

When it is time for the hatchlings to emerge from their nest, it is important not to shine lights in their direction regardless of whether or not they are red. When hatchlings emerge from the nest, they instinctively crawl towards the light on the horizon which leads them to the ocean. The hatchlings need to preserve all the energy they can in order to help them attempt to make their 3 day swim to the Sargasso Sea. When a light source is shined near the hatchlings from a flashlight or some other unnatural source, the hatchlings can mistake the light for the horizon and crawl toward the artificial light instead. This causes the hatchlings to waste some of their energy going in a direction other than that of the ocean which extends their time of being vulnerable to a predator on land. A great deal of animals take advantage of hatchlings being an easy target to prey on as they are making their way to the ocean. A few of their many predators include seagulls, ghost crabs, fire ants and raccoons.

 

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An example of a sea turtle heading back out to the ocean after laying her eggs!

The use of red lights on the beach is detrimental for both mother sea turtles as well as hatchlings. Due to the wavelength of red light, sea turtles are not able to see it as well which is why it is acceptable to use red lights on the beach.

 

Thank you for using red lights on the island!

 

-HABE 2018 Interns

 

 

 

What to Do If You See a Nesting Sea Turtle!

As we reach the peak of nesting season, here are some tips and procedures if you see a nesting turtle on the beach!

If you happen to witness a nesting sea turtle on the beach, be sure to turn off any and all lights you have, even if they are red. When a mother sea turtle is crawling onto the beach, she can easily be spooked and decide to false crawl than lay her eggs. Also, make sure to enjoy her beauty in silence, so that she does not hear something that could be interpreted as a threat.

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An example of a false crawl!

As tempting as it is to get a closer look at her, sea turtle hatchlings have a 1/1000 chance of survival; which is why it is important to give her the space she needs to lay her eggs in peace. It is just as important to give her plenty of space and avoid approaching her while she is on the beach.

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Another example of a false crawl! (Yes, turtles can crawl up the dunes!)

Please refrain from taking pictures of her with flash since the flash can startle her and cause a false crawl as well. Sea turtles make decisions based on instincts and will react to unfamiliar situations accordingly. It takes approximately one hour, give or take, for the whole nesting process to be completed. If you see her on a dune or sitting in the sand for quite a while she is perfectly fine and will be able to crawl down herself. Respect the nesting mother and give her the privacy she deserves.

If you are camping on Bear Island and see a nesting sea turtle, contact one of our turtle interns who are on patrol every night!

-HABE 2018 Interns