Moments under a July moon

Cape Island called again, as it often has for me. Four nights were set aside for loggerhead program staff and volunteers to spend the night on the island monitoring the nighttime happenings of loggerheads: both females nesting, and nests hatching out. The daily daytime work of staff and volunteers misses the night action where turtles operate on the beaches.  The turtle nights seem to distill the essence of sea turtles everywhere – such fantastic goings-on inspiring so many people. (For previous photos from a turtle night several years ago, check out my Loggerheads page).

I signed on for the night of July 24. We set up camp on the north end of Cape Island adjacent to the hatcheries, where our group headed over to take a look for signs of nests hatching. Staff member Jerry Tupacz spotted the heads of hatchlings popping out of one nest. I left briefly to get my camera from the campsite, and during my absence the hatchlings broke out.

(Check out the brief video by volunteer Michael Hurst of the hatching). To lessen the depredation from the many ghost crabs lying in wait, we scooped up the hatchlings in buckets to transport them to the edge of the surf. These ghost crabs can often be seen in the day (as in this photo the next day from Lighthouse Island), but come out in force nocturnally.

Their presence at night on the beaches of Cape Island was impressive, particularly as we slowly rode the beach later on the ATV’s searching for nesting females. These crabs are superbly adapted to this ecosystem, and are thriving, with a food source at this time of year being the emerging hatchlings. The next morning we would find a number of dead hatchlings that did not make it to the water. We were happy to provide some intervention for the nests hatched out under our supervision, and to see the hatchlings leaving the beach to head out for their great swim.

On our patrol of the beaches, we had to travel a few miles before we saw our first mother finish laying her nest. The ride down the beach was spectacular, with the movement, the southwest breeze, and the almost full moon making for a most comfortable and memorable night. When given the word from Jerry that the female was laying eggs, we were able to move in without disturbing her and watch the eggs dropping into the nest chamber. After she finished and covered the nest up, the loggerhead began her return to the ocean.

At this moment I noticed that another female was coming out of the ocean, and the two turtles passed within ten yards. The second turtle didn’t get far before she turned and headed back to the ocean. The passage of these two turtles was an exhilarating moment of awe for our group.

We came upon another nesting female.  The behavior of this nesting female was intriguing, and her carapace was worth a closer look. The tail end was jagged, and was covered with barnacles and other marine growth.

There was also a long curved split in the carapace starting at the tail end, and when she moved the crack worked, exposing flesh beneath. She was the second tagged turtle we saw this evening.

Our nest count through the next morning was six. This number perhaps reflected the slowing down of the nesting season. The midsection of the beach at Cape Island appeared to be getting narrower for a long stretch, with just a rib of sand between the ocean and the sound behind – no place for a loggerhead nest. In most of the southern half of the island marsh backs up the narrow sandy strand, and the photo below (with Lighthouse Island in the background) shows the long wandering of a turtle the night before to find in vain a suitable nesting site.

Early that morning the moon still hung in the sky in the west before setting, preparing for the sun to rise and crank up the heat. The light of the morning was outstanding, with the greens of the marsh and blues of the sound brilliant as we headed south to complete our work and enjoy the vista on our moving perch behind the ATV’s.