Donkeys, Hogs, Rain … and Hatchlings

As part of the #7Days4SeaTurtles focus this week, we’re following DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they work the beach – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. Here are Jack’s thoughts after this morning. Little St. Simons’ Kate Tweedy and Andrew Lyons ran the beaches for Sarah, who was off today.

Each morning I am excited to go through the engaging processes of identifying crawls, locating egg chambers and investigating for signs of hatchling emergence. Arriving at Ossabaw’s beaches before sunrise, I am always hopeful that I may be lucky enough to see a nesting female. And now, with nests reaching their full incubation periods, I’m also hopeful that I will get to see hatchlings heading to the ocean.

However, even though I start each day excited by the prospect of turtles, if and when I see them, they are usually the last animal I encounter. In fact, on a typical work day, I find myself going around, over and sometimes almost through (accidently, of course) a host of other animals just to get to the beach.

For instance, take this morning.

This morning, before my day with the turtles began, I had to navigate through Ossabaw’s cast of characters.  First up, as I started driving toward the beach, not far at all from our station house I ran into (figuratively) the island’s eight Sicilian donkeys. Gone when you want them, around when you don’t, today the donkeys created an impassible barrier on the road.

Spending most of their time near the station house and the Ossabaw Island Foundation compound, but free to range wherever they please, these donkeys are too familiar with me and the drum of the Mule’s engine to be alarmed. And this morning, they were in absolutely no rush to move. As I slowed to a crawl and shouted “Look alive, boys!” the lead donkey lazily turned his head in my direction.

After a few moments, he and the remaining seven began to sluggishly leave the road, in a manner so lacking in urgency that I can only imagine it meant they were only leaving because they wanted to, not because I needed them, too.

So, off I went, cruising down main road. Next, I ran into (again, not literally) nearly a dozen white-tailed deer. While most of the deer don’t stick around long enough to become a roadblock, this morning one yearling failed to mirror her mother, bounding into the bush at my approach, but rather it stopped square in the middle of the road, unsure of how to handle the approaching the headlights.

I was prepared to brake but in the end the fawn, like the mother and most of the other deer – and very much unlike the donkeys – cleared the road with speed and a sense of urgency.

After winding through a handful more deer, a couple of armadillos and one nighthawk who waited so long to take flight from the center of the road it nearly ended up under my hat, I ran into one of Ossabaw’s iconic hogs. This time, literally. Though to be more accurate, the hog ran into me, or the Mule, at least.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, coming from behind deadfall on the road’s edge. There was no time to brake or swerve. But seeing as the hog timed its run poorly and managed to hit the Mule just behind the passenger side tire, I’m not sure braking or swerving would have even helped. It was enough to startle the hog and me, but neither the Mule nor the animal suffered any real damage. The hog recovered quickly, bouncing off the vehicle and sprinting back the way it came, seemingly no worse for wear.

Ossabaw_GatorAtCanoe_JackBrzoza_DNR
Keeping watch (Jack Brzoza/DNR)

After that, I made it to the canoe without more close calls. At the canoe, however, the resident alligator was hanging out in the waterway right where we put-in. It’s a favorite spot of this particular alligator, much to the annoyance of Kyle and I.

I went about my business as usual, loading up the canoe with gear, loudly tossing things around and sliding the canoe to the water’s edge. My commotion on the bank made the alligator slowly back farther into the water. I carefully entered the canoe and began to paddle out, keeping one eye on the alligator, which seemed to be doing the same with me. This gator can’t be more than 4 feet long, not even close to the biggest I’ve seen here, but sitting at water level on his turf, I think it’s best to be respectful and cautious nonetheless.

Our meeting proceeded in the normal “I’ll go this way, you go that way” manner: I gently paddled downstream, he smoothly swam a bit upstream, moving in a circle, until we had exchanged places and put a comfortable distance between ourselves. And then, it was onto the beaches, finally time for turtles.

Once on the beach, free of any animal roadblocks, my mind was on turtles. I was once again back to where I started in the morning – excited to investigate the previous night’s activities. My survey of the beaches produced two false crawls and three nests.

While it was, as always, exciting to drive up to crawls, follow them to a body pit, and find the egg chamber, the highlight of today came from checking nests.

Each day, after surveying the beaches for new crawls and nests made by females the previous night, we check each of the nests we have already located. We do this to look for signs of predation and prevent the predator screens from getting buried too far under sand.

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At the start of a hazardous journey (Jack Brzoza/DNR)

Now that nests are beginning to hatch, we also check each nest for signs of emergences. Until today, I’ve only seen tracks from hatchlings that made the journey from the nest to the ocean by the cover of night. But this morning I was lucky enough to encounter two hatchlings crawling their way from the nest to the ocean! I was able to watch them navigate the beach, crawling over and around various obstacles, desperately working to make it to the ocean.

This video is of one of the hatchlings that has made it all the way down the beach, and hitting water, begins his swimming frenzy. This instinctive frenzy can last 24 hours, utilizing the stores of energy from the egg yolk to hopefully catch a strong current and make it far out into the open ocean.

He now has his own obstacle course of animals to traverse on this hard swim, though unlike mine, his commute comes with a much greater risk of being eaten. The gauntlet of ocean predators and the odds of survival for this little guy might be daunting, but he has at least one person rooting for him.

Rainy but Rewarding

Sarah, here. Today was my day off and boy did I luck out! There was a huge downpour that popped up over Little St. Simons during turtle patrol hours.

Kate Tweedy, our sea turtle/shorebird intern and Andrew Lyons, one of the island’s naturalists, were covering for me today. I’m glad they don’t mind a cool shower!

Andrew took the north beach and found a false crawl while Kate took the south beach and found some surprises. The night before, some guests wanted to see what the process of monitoring the beach is like. They joined Kate in what I have coined a “patrol parade” this morning, biking after her, looking for activity.

Before my day off, I tell whomever is covering what is happening on the beach. Whether it’s what nests are ready to emerge, what small black screens to pull for the hatchlings or what the tides will be like I always try to keep them in the loop.

Kate knew what nests to keep an eye out for hatchlings, and low and behold we had two nests ready to emerge.

At nest no. 10, she saw one set of tracks coming out from the sand. I’m ecstatic that even one hatchling made it from this nest. Earlier this year, some tricky opossums depredated more than 100 eggs from this nest. Most nests have about 120 eggs in them so hopefully some more hatchlings made it.

The other nest had suffered predation by an armadillo, which, by the looks of it, got two of the eggs. This is a first for armadillo predation at Little St. Simons this year.

Yet when inspecting to see how many of the eggs were depredated, Kate discovered a group of hatchlings near the surface! I’m glad we are finally getting some emergences!

Even “slow” days on Little St. Simons can be pretty exciting. There’s always something interesting going on.

The turtle techs will be providing updates through Sunday, July 16. Check out other #7Days4SeaTurtles posts this week, including photos and videos, on the Wildlife Resources Division’s FacebookTwitterInstagram and Flickr pages.

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