Monday, June 4, 2012

Our First Turtle Nest

Hello everyone! The past two weeks have been a whirlwind - I've moved out here to Topsail Beach, North Carolina, met my inspiring coworkers, and have undergone my formal training, though training will certainly be continuing as the summer progresses! I'm so excited to be here and to be apart of a mission I so strongly believe in - rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing endangered and threatened sea turtles, and providing protection of nests on the beach. Over the summer I hope to give you a peek into what life as an intern in this field is like through this blog, as well as highlighting some patients and chronicling major events. I can't wait to give you more information about what's going on in the hospital, but I'm so excited about something that happened on Saturday morning that I can't keep quiet about it!

Saturday, one of my fellow interns and I set out to do our morning beach walk at 6 am. Those that know me probably would understand how getting up for a walk so early was a tough sell, but I must say our efforts were rewarded! We weren't walking more than 20 minutes when we came across a set of turtle tracks.

Loggerhead sea turtle tracks on Topsail Beach, NC.

The previous night had a very high tide and strong wind, so the tracks were pretty obscured. We followed their general direction to where the turtle's body pit was, this is where she settled down to lay the eggs.
Once we found the nest area, we marked that off with stakes and bright orange tape so we could find it again and called our beach coordinator to let her know where the nest was. While she was on her way to the beach access, we finished the walk. We met up with our beach coordinator, Debby Grady, and the three of us started sleuthing to figure out what the turtle did while she was on land. This particular nest was somewhat confusing for several reasons, and at first we thought it might be a "false crawl," A false crawl is when a turtle comes ashore to nest, but for whatever reason, decides not to actually lay the eggs and goes back to sea. Sometimes she'll be scared away by another animal, light, or curious people. There were signs that made this nest seem like a false crawl, such as all the animal prints we found on the nest.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest on Topsail Beach.

The tracks would indicate a false crawl because if a dog/cat/coyote/fox smelled the eggs, chances are they would at least try to dig them up, but because they hadn't, it would seem that there were no eggs to be had. However, there were also signs to indicate that the nest had eggs in it, such as all the broken vegetation strewn deep into the sand. The vegetation indicates a nest with eggs because the turtle probably tore down some nearby vegetation as she was digging and disguising the nest chamber after she laid the eggs. Because of the confusing nature of the nest, we ended up calling in another beach supervisor to give another opinion.

After some more analysis done by a couple of the beach walking supervisors, we discovered the egg chamber - it wasn't a false crawl after all! The beach protection program is participating in a multi-state cooperative to learn more about nesting female behavior through DNA analysis. In order to collect the DNA of the female that lays the eggs, one egg is taken from each loggerhead nest. This study is being conducted throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to help track nesting females. This information has shed light on a lot of interesting factors of nesting that were previously very difficult to establish. For example: we can map out where each female nests, how many nests she lays in a season, and we can map out her nests in time, when she nests and in what conditions, as well as how much time goes between each nest.
Loggerhead sea turtle egg.
After we finished with this part, we started collecting data about where the nest was with the GPS and physical markers like the nearest beach access. We also measured the female's tracks to get an estimate of her size. We then protected the nest from predators by covering it with wire mesh and putting up stakes to warn people away from the area.
Beach Coordinator Debby Grady and my fellow intern covering the nest with wire to keep predators out.
Our beach coordinators Debby Grady and Pam Refosco measure the female loggerhead's tracks.
The nest after we finished protecting it.
 I was so excited to have the opportunity to actually see sea turtle tracks and a nest in person, and I can't describe the feeling that I felt when I actually got to see the eggs in the egg chamber. It's just amazing to be a part of sea turtle conservation at last and to get to help out these wonderful animals directly. This opportunity is particularly special because so few people actually get to work with these federally protected animals, without a permit, it's not possible to so much as get close to a sea turtle! Just to give you an idea of how special finding this nest is - last year's interns walked all summer and never were able to find a nest on their own, while we found it on our very first walk! We are so lucky - and I'm definitely grateful for the opportunity to be here and for my family and friends who have worked so hard to help me get here.

Well, it's time for me to get back to work, but stay tuned to learn about one of our special patients, Monroe and more about the daily work done in the hospital!


  1. Great story Brie! I'm so happy you were able to have this experience!

    Sara Winn