by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
During Florida’s stormy summer months, humans secure personal belongings in anticipation of any powerful cyclones the oceans might send. Sea turtles prepare too, but in a much different way.
Last week, Hurricane Elsa ran up the west coast of the Sunshine State, leaving several inches of flooding in many areas, including Sanibel and Captiva.
Kelly Sloan, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Sea Turtle Program coordinator, said this flooding and wind from Elsa caused 45 sea turtle nests to be washed away on Sanibel. But while Sloan said losing nests is never a good thing, she added that sea turtles have always prepared for this stormy reality.
“It’s always disappointing to lose nests, but it’s really important to mention that sea turtles have a nesting strategy that accommodates for storms,” Sloan said. “They’ve been around for millions of years, and they’re nesting season overlaps with storm season. That’s why they lay multiple nests each year is so they’re not putting all of their eggs into one basket, so to speak.”
Sloan explained that sea turtles can lay up to six nests in one season with multiple eggs per nest. So far during this nesting season, which runs from April to August, Sloan said 556 nests have been recorded on Sanibel, and another 196 nests on Captiva.
The nests, which are buried in the islands’ many beaches, usually belong to the loggerhead species, but Sloan also mentioned that this season has been popular for green sea turtles as well.
This year’s numbers show a successful season, Sloan said, but not as successful as last year’s where sea turtle nests had a record year on the sister islands with 659 nests on Sanibel, and 265 nests on Captiva.
Sloan explained that a lot of these nests can also come from the same turtles who keep coming back to lay their eggs in their favorite spots on the islands. However, not every turtle comes back, and they often will take a season long break before returning.
“Every individual doesn’t nest every year,” Sloan said. “So, one turtle, if she’s nesting this year, she’ll take next year and maybe the year after off to eat and gain enough energy to nest again. It’s natural to see fluctuations from year to year, even in a stable population.”
Joining the sea turtles in the midst of their nesting season is the islands’ many shorebirds, like snowy plovers and Wilson’s plovers. SCCF Shorebird Biologist Audrey Albrecht explained that their nesting season, which starts from about April to August, is similar to that of sea turtles.
Also similar to sea turtles is the shorebird’s resilience to Elsa. Albrecht said out of the nests that were around for the storm, only one washed away while the others had chicks that were strong enough to weather wind and rain. Now, those chicks can continue to grow.
“There’s three little families out there, each one has one chick and they are all doing really well,” Albrecht said about the snowy plover nests. “Two of them can fly and the other is about to.”
But while these shorebirds found themselves safe from the storm, other factors can threaten them too.
Albrecht explained that things like disturbing nests, leaving pets unleashed around the birds, as well as leaving trash that attracts predators near nests can all contribute to the threatening of shorebirds.
Albrecht also stressed the point of not chasing birds that may be resting on the ground, explaining that they’re often there to catch their breath after traveling thousands of miles.
“When we have our migratory shorebirds, they sometimes fly thousands of miles and they’re exhausted,” Albrecht said. “We need to give them rest, give them plenty of space and go around them.”
Naturally, these birds are constantly chased by predators, and Albrecht said adding on one more thing that chases them certainly doesn’t help.
Also natural are the summer storms that pass by each year chase these birds too. But this year, birds and sea turtles alike proved they were up to the task of facing down Elsa and keeping steady numbers throughout each nesting season.
Sloan credits these numbers to their storm resilience and unique habits that help them survive. However, she also recognizes the years and years of conservation efforts that have kept the environment, and the animals within it, safe.
“I think the reason we’re having several good nesting seasons in a row is a testament to decades of conservation efforts paying off,” Sloan said. “That’s why we have to keep up the good work.”