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Nesting loggerheads face many obstacles at Cayo Costa

By Staff | Jun 14, 2017

Stephanie Crooks inventoried a nest that had been depredated by a coyote by pulling the eggs out of the egg chamber. MEGHAN MCCOY

As the sun continued to rise higher in the sky, three volunteers departed from Bokeelia with the Cayo Costa State Park work crew Friday morning to patrol seven-miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico side in search of loggerhead sea turtle nests.

Once the boat arrived at the dock, the volunteers met up with Parks Service Specialist Robert Longo, gathered all of their gear, jumped into the newly purchased six-seated Polaris and made their way to the island’s sandy beaches.

After the Polaris tires hit the beach, Longo, Stephanie Crooks, Cory Liang and Cookie Brunner spotted broken white egg shells scattered around a deep hole. After they all inventoried the nest, and viewed coyote tracks close to the loggerhead egg chamber, they determined it had depredated 108 eggs.

All of the eggs were collected, disposed in a bucket and then thrown into the dunes.

“One of the reasons we throw the eggs in the dunes is not just to deter other predators, but it also gives back to that plant community and the other organisms that need that nutrient,” Crooks said.

Robert Longo, Stephanie Crooks and Cory Liang dig where a nest was previously located due to the marker being washed away from high tide. MEGHAN MCCOY

Although it was not the way they hoped to start the day, they all revealed it was unfortunately a common occurrence on the island.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to see what you are looking at,” Crooks, who graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University this spring with a marine science degree with a minor in geology, said. “There are times where you swear that there are eggs there and you dig and dig for an hour and you don’t find anything. Then there are times you say there is no way there is a nest here, but the next day you see eggs when you thought it was a false crawl.”

Longo said the United States Department of Agriculture is working on managing feral hogs on Cayo Costa. Although the coyotes are not their main concern, if one is trapped they will remove the coyote.

Crooks said it’s always rewarding to find a nest that has not be depredated.

“It’s more common to find a nest that has been freshly predated and there are still some eggs left. But I feel like it is pretty rare to find a nest that has not been touched by a predator,” she said.

Stephanie Crooks hammers in a post that identifies the loggerhead nest, while Robert Longo secures a screen. Cookie Brunner holds additional stakes for the screen. MEGHAN MCCOY

Liang, who also just graduated from FGCU with a degree in environmental studies with a minor in biology, said it becomes frustrating when they find an egg chamber depredated because of coyotes and raccoons.

“We saw one clutch that was fully depredated by ghost crabs,” she said. “You wouldn’t think they would be a big problem, but they definitely eat some of them.”

Longo said ghost crabs are a sign of a healthy beach.

“They help clean our beaches up and they are usually a sign of a very natural beach,” he said.

Unfortunately Longo said there is only so much they can do to protect the nests.

A loggerhead crawl. MEGHAN MCCOY

“There is definitely a balance to the ecosystem. Those animals have to eat too. It’s unfortunate that they have to eat a threatened species, but it is part of their diet. We do everything we can to manage the coyotes and the nonnative species and we screen nests,” he said.

They headed further down the beach and noticed a false crawl. It appeared that the loggerhead started to create her body pit before becoming scared by a predator, determined by prints in the sand.

The crew continued down the beach before slowing when nearing a nest to ensure it was still intact due to the storms that impacted the beaches of Cayo Costa. If the screens were showing, they recovered it with sand to make it more difficult for the coyotes to dig into the egg chamber.

The high tides, and eroded beach, also washed away some of the signs depicting where loggerhead nests were located. With the help of a GPS that pointed to the exact location of the egg chamber, the crew was able to re-stake the location of the nests.

Another sign of nature running its course revealed itself last Friday when the crew spotted a female loggerhead turtle dead on the beach. They took pictures and measured the loggerhead, so it could be reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife, both verbally and through a report.

Robert Longo digging to find if the egg chamber was viable. MEGHAN MCCOY

“There is a lot of circle of life stuff out here,” Crooks said. “Yes it is sad, but it is also cool at the same time when you look at the big picture.”

This was the fourth loggerhead found dead since the beginning of this sea turtle nesting season.

The success of the day, digging and finding the first egg of the loggerhead’s chamber, not once, but twice, without being depredated.

“The experience of finding that first egg . . . I was jumping for joy,” Brunner said of her first experience four years ago.

Brunner said she looks for the “heart,” which is where the front flippers are spotted, as well as where her head rests. She said she also follows the turtle tracks to the loggerheads body pit.

“I was trained to stay where her front flippers are, kneel down, bend forward and where your hands reach, normally that is where the eggs are,” Brunner said.

Brunner said the best part of patrolling the beach is finding the eggs, which then leads to hoping and praying they survive to adulthood.

“The odds are against them, but at least I know I am doing my part,” she said.

The crew instantly became excited after finding the body pit was still intact last week, which later revealed a viable nest.

“Knowing you’re helping the turtles is the best part of it . . . helping protect a species that we have endangered through introductions of invasives,” Liang said.

The best part, Longo said is waiting three days after the nests hatches.

“We count how many eggs in the nest that have hatched. How many didn’t hatch. Sometimes we actually find baby sea turtles in the nest. We will release them as long as it’s before 9:00 in the morning. Yes, we see the worst, but we see the best also,” he said.

The rain and wind from last week’s storm also brought a great deal of trash to the shore, which the crew picked up while patrolling the beach to eliminate obstacles for the turtles while keeping the beach clean.

As of Friday, June 9 there were 40 viable loggerhead nests out of 70 found on the island with a little more than 200 false crawls identified. Last year there were close to 400 nests on Cayo Costa, with a few of those being green sea turtles.

The certified permittees started patrolling the beach on May 1, and will continue until Oct. 31.

As the Parks Services Specialist Longo spends time at Stump Pass Beach State Park, Don Pedro Island State Park, Gasparilla Island State Park, Cayo Costa State Park and North Captiva patrolling for sea turtle nests.

Although overall he said the nesting season is experiencing a higher year than normal between all of the parks, an issue they are experiencing is the impacts the weather has had on the beaches.

Gasparilla Island State Park averages less than 20 nests a year, with the exception of last year with 40 nests. This year there are already nine loggerhead nests on the island. This island experiences a lot less depredation.

Although Don Pedro Island State Park has quite a few nests, it’s experiencing the same situation as Cayo Costa with limited beach. Longo said quite a few of the nests have already been washed out because of the tides.

“Don Pedro has a lot of coyotes. It is one of the main threats to the turtles,” he said. “We trap coyotes and try to remove them because they are nonnative species.”

Stump Pass, which is managed by Charlotte County, has volunteers that patrol the beaches. Longo said the state park just had a beach nourishment project completed, so the loggerheads have more beach to use for nests.

Crooks and Liang are two of the four interns this year for the sea turtle patrol on Cayo Costa.

This is the first time Crooks has become certified to patrol the beach in search of loggerhead nests. Before this experience she worked with sea turtles at Mote Marine doing rehabilitation work, which has helped her so far at Cayo Costa.

Crooks found out about the intern position through her professor at FGCU and decided to apply.

Liang said after hearing from her professor, a world renowned sea turtle guy, she wanted to apply for the intern position because she really loves sea turtles and helping with conservation efforts.

“Sea turtles are amazing. They are ancient,” Liang said.

Both of the graduates head to Cayo Costa anywhere from three to five days a week and stay over night when the opportunity presents itself because they both travel more than an hour.

Brunner became a certified permittee after spotting an article in a newspaper about the loggerhead sea turtles and the program on Cayo Costa. She said she became a volunteer in the park and just entered her fourth season patrolling for sea turtle nests.

“I hate sand. But for the love of the turtles you deal with the sand and keep plenty of baby powder around because it helps,” Brunner said.

Longo became a parks service specialist because everything he has done has always centered around natural resources and the environment. He started off part-time and worked his way up to a park ranger, before landing his current position five years ago.