Tracks

I was off my usual track to Bull Island for a trip out to Cape Island on July 4th. I am an irregular volunteer for the loggerhead program on Cape, mainly putting in time each year to build the hatcheries. Having been offered the opportunity to get out during the nesting season, I used my one day weekend to do what some volunteers do weekly on Cape Island: locate nests, protect them in place or relocate to higher ground (what little there is on this eroding barrier island), and take DNA samples (one egg from each nest).

Everyone in the Lowcountry was blessed on this July 4th weekend to have phenomenal weather – cooler temperatures (60’s at night!), and low humidity. Our trip out to Cape early that morning brought out jackets, and even pants and a hooded sweatshirt pulled over the head of our intrepid leader, Jerry Tupacz. Ours was a mixed group of older and younger volunteers, seasonal employees and students, all sharing several common characteristics: a love of the outdoors, an intimacy with nature and wildlife, and the ability to weather whatever the elements threw at us. These traits probably apply to all of the workers, students, and volunteers headed up by refuge biologist Sarah Dawsey.

On this day, the elements were smiling on us, with clear skies, a fair breeze from the east, and an almost negligible biting insect count. Our boat ride took a southern detour to drop off Crissie Lanzieri on Lighthouse Island to cover that smaller area by herself.

It was not a record setting day on Cape Island: the previous total of 673 nests for the season was just increased by 12, and there was talk about the 30-nest-day occurring in the past week. But everyday on Cape Island is consequential, and this day was no exception. The beach had changed since my previous visits in April for the hatchery building. We headed out on two ATV’s towing trailers: volunteer John Sisson and DNR seasonal employee Gretchen Coll on one, and volunteers Colby Cheney and I riding along with Jerry.

We made periodic stops on the way north, inspecting crawls for nests, and relocating two nests, carefully counting and nestling the eggs in buckets to be replaced in human-dug egg chambers. I looked forward to seeing the hatcheries, and learned there were no longer any vacancies.

The seasoned eye of Jerry Tupacz spotted first the tracks of hatchlings at the hatcheries, coming from the first hatched nest, appropriately numbered #1.

This was the first nest on Cape Island to be laid this season on May 6. The hatchlings had exited their sandy chamber the previous night, July 3, covering well the 60-day incubation period.

I followed one of the circling and wayward tracks to a ghost crab hole where it’s short life ended.

We relocated the previously dug nests in a place identified by Jerry, and returned south on the beach, stopping to cage nests left in place. After we passed our entrance point to the beach, we continued south, and became aware of a new feature created by a strong northeast wind in the past week – a vertical beach scarp, in places three feet high. It was an impassable barrier for nesting females, and we naturally found false crawls where females were stopped at this scarp, abruptly turning to head back to sea. Yet we soon found a crawl where the nesting female stopped, and laid her nest right there, halfway between high and low tides. This was a totally bankrupt location for a nest that would destroyed by overwashing tides. Jerry initially called her “lazy”, but he soon changed his description. He pointed to her track, and helped me see the difference between the two sides of her crawl. The typical push-off of the back flipper on one side contrasted with round depressions on the other.

She had earned a nickname, “Stumpy”, since her track was evidence of a back flipper removed in some violent fashion, leaving only the stump for this female loggerhead to ambulate. The fact that she was still alive, breeding, and climbing beaches to fulfill her biological mission was incredible, and inspiring. John and Gretchen relocated her eggs to a bucket to be transported to a more viable location.

We finished our run to the south end, and completed our relocation of a few nests. Leaving the island, we ran back over to Lighthouse Island to pick up Crissie, who had six nests for her efforts. The waterways were alive now on this July 4th, and we cruised by a gathering of a couple of dozen boats at the far western end of Lighthouse Island. The McClellanville boat landing was also hopping on the holiday, and we waited our turn in the heavy landing traffic to pull out. Upon return to the headquarters at Garris Landing, we ran into volunteer John Kiesling, who had finished his day over at Bull Island. He had six vials for the DNA study in hand. Five of these were nest samples, and the other was a tissue sample from a dead loggerhead found on the beach.

The coordinated efforts of the loggerhead program on these three islands in the refuge will continue everyday until the last nest hatches out, and beyond. And this year, these efforts combined with others in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia will further help us understand these marine reptiles, and advance conservation programs to protect this endangered species.