Beach Access and Park  Issues
October 22,  2009

Turtle season 2009 brought a light study, volunteer program, and a few surprises


With 104 sea turtle nests laid on the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, this year’s nesting season fell just short of 2008’s record-setting 112 nests, but it’s been an exciting and important season nonetheless, one filled with some new developments and a few surprises -- both pleasant and unpleasant.

Two of the biggest developments this year have been the start of a three-year, grant-funded study aimed at analyzing how different types of artificial light affect hatchling orientation and the introduction of a “nest watch” volunteer program.

The light study is being funded through a Robert M. Utley Research Grant from Eastern National, a 501(c)3 non-profit cooperating association that operates in more than 150 national  parks and other public trusts.

Eric Frey, a seasonal biotechnician and Cape Hatteras National Seashore veteran, designed the study and wrote the research proposal.  He also sought and received approval from Matthew Godfrey, The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's sea turtle program biologist, for the study, which will be the first of its kind done in North Carolina. 

“Lighting has an effect on most wildlife, not just sea turtles,” explained Michelle Bogardus, the seashore’s lead sea turtle biotechnician, who says that, while studies of this sort have been conducted in Florida and on other southern beaches, “there really hasn’t been a good study up this direction.”

For the study, hatchlings were collected as they exited their nest, placed in coolers, and taken to the study site, which was located on a remote and inaccessible stretch of beach – first between Ramps 23 and 27 and then in a safety closure north of Buxton.

Located at the site, just in front of the dunes, was the so-called “arena,” a circle, six meters in diameter, with a small trough dug all the way around it (kind of like a moat). The trench was segmented into 12 numbered bins.

For each trial, a group of four hatchlings was taken from the cooler and placed under a canister at the center of the arena.

On the dunes on either side of the arena, tall tripods housed different types of bulbs that produced different types of artificial light. After giving the turtles’ eyes time to adjust to the total darkness, the lights were turned on and the canister covering the turtles was lifted.

After three minutes, Frey, who conducted the study as well, would note the tracks of the turtles, document which bin they had crawled into, and then collect them.

When all the hatchlings from a given nest had been through a trial, they were released near the area where the original nest had been laid.

Unfortunately, the study got started late this season.

“It took a really long time to get the money and materials together,” Bogardus explained, and by the time all the materials came together, most of the turtle nests had either been lost to storms or had already hatched.

Bogardus says trials for the light study will begin earlier next year. 

It will be some years before there will be any results from the study, but Bogardus says she hopes that, eventually, the results will help us better understand the impact of artificial lighting on the seashore, and will be useful in determining “how we could potentially mitigate those impacts in the future.”  

The other important addition to the seashore this year was the “nest watch” volunteer program.

The program, which began in August, offered individuals interested in learning more about sea turtle biology the chance to help ensure the successful hatching of sea turtle eggs and the safety of the hatchlings as they make their way to the water.

The goals of the program were to provide visitors with a valuable educational experience and neighboring communities an opportunity to participate in sea turtle conservation and management, and despite some setbacks, Bogardus said, the program was successful and that the seashore is definitely planning to continue it next year. 

Around 40 volunteers signed up to participate in the program. A good number of those were from the tri-village area of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo, and some even came down from the Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads area to participate.

Unfortunately, “due to rough weather, it stayed pretty small this year,” Bogardus said of the program.

Hurricane Bill, Tropical Storm Danny, and a northeaster claimed a number of nests early in the season, and the ones that survived, according to Bogardus, had been laid in remote or inaccessible areas that volunteers couldn’t easily get to, and so could not be included in the program.

But, aside from a few minor setbacks, Bogardus said she felt that the program was a huge benefit to the park and the community and is excited about making it a permanent fixture of the park’s volunteer program.

And next year, like the light study, she said they plan to start the program earlier in the season.

By the end of this week, there will most likely be just seven of the 104 nests left in the ground—four on Hatteras Island and three on Ocracoke.

Two nests on Hatteras were overwashed by high tides that accompanied this past weekend’s windy weather.  Bogardus says the nests were not washed out, are still considered viable, and should hatch if the weather holds.

But while the season may be winding down, the 2009 nesting season adventure is far from over.

On Tuesday, Sept. 15—which was supposed to be the last day of the daily dawn turtle patrols—park employees found a nest, just north of lighthouse beach, between the first two jetties, in Buxton.

And then, nearly a month later on Oct. 7, Bogardus and staff discovered another nest, just north of Ramp 49 in Frisco, which they speculate is a green turtle nest, though, they aren’t entirely sure since rain washed away the tracks.

Both nests were late-season surprises, and managing and ensuring the health and safety of those nests will pose some unique challenges.

Cooler weather means longer incubation times, and that means the nests, if left in the ground, wouldn’t hatch at least until the beginning of December, maybe later than that—assuming the eggs remain viable.

As of right now, Bogradus says seashore officials don’t know what the outcome for these nests will be or how they will be handled in the coming months.

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