Big Addition for Big Turtle Year

George Heinrich with a Suwanee snapper (Dirk J. Stevenson)

George Heinrich will go to great lengths, and depths, to draw attention to North America’s native turtles.

Even into an over-your-head blackwater bend in the Alapaha River.

Not that herp scientists like Heinrich apparently need much coaxing to explore the lair of any species they’re seeking. In late September, he and Georgia naturalist Dirk J. Stevenson tread tea-colored water in a deep slough of the south Georgia river, testing the sluggish current, temporarily avoiding the swarms of mosquitoes and probably toe-checking any available river bottom for a jagged shell that might reveal their targeted turtle: Macrochelys suwanniensis, the Suwannee alligator snapper.
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Searching for Rare Fish

Electrofishing on the Etowah River (Paula Marcinek/DNR)

By Melissa Keneely

As a seasonal field tech working with DNR’s nongame aquatic biologists, my work is seldom the same week to week. One week I might be in a creek in a south Georgia swamp, sifting sand through my fingers to find mussels. The next, I could be in a cool mountain stream in north Georgia looking for endangered fish species. It’s exciting to work that offers a full experience with aquatic animals across the state!

This last month I spent a lot of time in northwest Georgia with fish biologists searching for two rare darter species – Etheostoma brevirostrum, or holiday darter, and Percina kusha (bridled darter).

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New Job Opens Eyes to Mussels

Southern rainbow mussels (Melissa Keneely/DNR)

By Melissa Keneely

When you think of rare animals, freshwater mussels are probably not the first animals that come to mind. Yet mussels rank as one of the most imperiled groups of animals on Earth. An estimated 70 percent of all known freshwater mussel species are considered at risk of extinction in the near future.

As a seasonal field technician working with DNR Nongame Conservation Section aquatic biologists, I’ve had the awesome job of working with these unique creatures all summer. (Nongame Conservation’s focus is conserving hundreds of rare animal and plant species throughout the state, plus the natural habitats they need and other native species not legally fished for or hunted.)

Mussels are especially interesting due to their unique life cycle. To develop, larval mussels must attach to the gills of a host fish. Once attached, the larvae grow into juvenile mussels. They then drop from the fish’s gills and settle into the substrate to mature into adults.

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Gopher Tortoise - Kathleen Allen

A Day in the Life of a Gopher Tortoise Technician

Kathleen Allen is a seasonal staff member working with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation section.

When I tell people I work as a gopher tortoise technician, they either nod their heads knowingly or stare at me with a look that says, “I think I may have misheard you.” I have to explain a gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the state reptile of Georgia, and my team, the Tortoise Crew—as we are affectionately known around the office—surveys lands suspected to have viable gopher tortoise populations. A viable population means there are enough individuals in the area to guarantee the survival of the population. An area needs, at minimum, 250 adult tortoises to be viable.

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Amazing Work, Amazing Animals

As part of #7Days4SeaTurtles, we’ve followed DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza as they worked the beach – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. As we close out the week, here are their thoughts today. We’ll start with Sarah.

I cannot believe how fast this turtle season has passed by! It feels like just yesterday I was desperately trying to find the first nest among the ghost crab sand piles. Now, we are finding nest emergences left and right!

It has been a busy season so far on Little St. Simons, granted not as crazy as last year (223 nests) but it is looking to be a record compared to previous years. I am thrilled our shore is witnessing such a jump in numbers since years before. On Little St. Simons, there were years in the 50-nest mark and it was looking bleak.

Now, I’m trying to beat our pre-2016 record of 124 nests in 2015. And at 103 today, I’m hopeful!

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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.

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Nighttime Crawls and Daily Nest Work

As part of #7Days4SeaTurtles 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. Sarah starts today’s post, then Kyle picks up following his and Jack’s day off on Wednesday.

I thought yesterday, when I had the chance to see and hold some hatchlings, couldn’t get any better. But I was proven wrong last night!

Since the hatchlings at nest no. 1 (see Wednesday’s post) were so close to the surface, we determined they would probably hatch last night. I and some of Little St. Simons’ staff decided to go out at sunset and see if we could spot the hatchlings emerge.

Leaving behind all the extra poundage from my patrol equipment took such a load off biking on the beach! It was a beautiful evening at low tide and I felt like I was in one of those advertisements for luxury resorts.

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A Great Day for Turtles

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’s what Sarah encountered this morning. (Jack and Kyle were off.)

Today was an amazing day! What started off as a typical morning on the beach with a gorgeous sunrise turned into a day I’ll never forget.

Since Little Saint Simons Island had such a record-breaking nesting year last year, the island hired a shorebird and sea turtle intern, Kate Tweedy, to help out the researchers. Today was one of the days she helps and we decided to complete some nest maintenance (removing sand, vegetation, re-staking, etc.) so we started out pretty early.

Kate took the island’s northern beach and I took the south. The north beach takes longer and has more nests to deal with, both in processing new nests and maintaining the others. Since I had less to do, we agreed I would bike up after I was done and help her. Little did I know what I was in for.

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A Morning to Forget, and Remember

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 their turtle beaches – Sarah on Little St. Simons and Kyle and Jack on Ossabaw Island. Here’s what Kyle and Sarah found today.

Kyle, here. By 7 a.m., I was positive that today was going to be one of those days you just have to grit your teeth and get through.

Initially, when I saw the turtle tracks in the early morning twilight, I was excited. It’s always great to have the potential to find a new nest, and this morning was especially exciting because I was on the southern-most beach, where the frequency of new nests has dropped off a little recently.

I pulled up to the tracks and was able to identify the distinct alternating flipper marks left by a nesting loggerhead sea turtle – the most common nesting turtle we have here in Georgia. I followed the track to the body pit, which is the place in the sand where the turtle has chosen to lay her eggs. The body pit is typically obvious because it’s where she sort of does a “sand-angel” and clears an area suitable for her nesting needs.

This particular turtle left a textbook example of a body pit, and I began searching the sand with my probe stick, which I use to find the egg chamber so I don’t have to dig up the entire pit to find the eggs.

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Life on the Turtle Beach

What’s it like to monitor sea turtle nesting on Georgia’s coast? Find out as DNR sea turtle technicians Sarah Martin, Kyle Coleman and Jack Brzoza blog from the beach this week. Sarah works on Little St. Simons Island; Kyle and Jack patrol Ossabaw Island beaches. Their posts are part of #7Days4SeaTurtles, a week-long, social media-based effort to raise awareness of sea turtle conservation in Georgia.

The daily commute.

Biking for Turtles

Hello, my name is Sarah Martin and I am the Georgia DNR sea turtle tech (or “Turtle Girl”) on Little St. Simons Island. I am originally from Pittsburgh and in 2016 I received a B.S. in wildlife and fisheries biology and a minor in biology from California University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been working seasonally for DNR for two years and have fallen in love with the state, culture and the heat.

I have been interested in herpetology and sea turtles ever since I was a child. When I would go to Hilton Head, S.C., with my family each summer, I loved to see the sea turtle nests. The whole process and biology fascinated me and it became my dream to one day see the work up close. I never knew I would be doing the work someday!

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