About 80 sets of eyes belonging to Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring volunteers maintain a sharp lookout in the morning hours for signs of sea turtle activity but, this time of year, the focus shifts to hatchlings.
With AMITW inching closer to the record 2012 nesting season of 362 nests with more than 355 recorded nests this year, signs of female sea turtles making their way onto the beaches to nest are still evident, although activity has dwindled.
AMITW has recorded a record high for false crawls this year, but they also are becoming scarcer, as the season transitions from nesting to hatching.
Eyes trained to look for telltale tractor-tire size flipper marks during the nesting season now scan the sand for dozens of tiny 1- to 2-inch flipper marks, as nests are hatching and hatchlings are sprinting to the Gulf of Mexico waters.
AMITW volunteer Pat Peterfeso, who also is Section 1 co-coordinator on the side of the city of Anna Maria facing Tampa Bay, has experienced a baptism by fire of sorts in her two years with the conservation group.
The yearly overall average nest count in the past 15 years is about 115 but, in Peterfeso’s two years, more than 700 nests have been documented.
Section 1 is the least active of the nine 1-mile sections along the island’s shoreline and volunteers who patrol the thin, bayside beach that lies in Section 1 almost all describe their nesting turtles as having a mystique all their own.
While there are no physical differences, it is evidence of how much volunteers take pride in their sections. While Section 1 is less active, increased enthusiasm from bayside volunteers for the beloved sea creatures is evident.
Peterfeso, who moved to West Bradenton seven years ago after vacationing to the island for four years, is no exception.
“It’s really exciting when you come across the flipper marks in the peace and quiet of the morning knowing that just a short time ago one of these amazing creatures had just made her way onshore,” said Peterfeso.
She said this time of year is especially exciting because volunteers continue to search the beaches for nesting activity, “but now is the time we keep a really close eye on the beach for signs of hatchlings and we check every nest in our section for signs that a nest is close to hatching.”
It’s important that volunteers still scan the beaches, as was evident earlier in August when a bayside walker came across evidence of hatchling tracks in an area where no nest had been marked or found.
It’s not uncommon for volunteers to miss a nest when dealing with fluctuating tides and frequent summer storms that can wash away evidence of sea turtle tracks. As a co-coordinator, Peterfeso responded to the call and the unrecorded nest was excavated.
Three hatchlings remained at the bottom of the nest and were immediately released to the bay waters.
“There are two things about volunteering that are always exciting,” said Peterfeso. “The first is when you see the tracks and know she has recently come to lay her eggs. The second is when you see the hatchlings in the nest. It’s like watching Mother Nature give birth. It’s a beautiful experience.”
Peterfeso said she is glad she became involved with AMITW and credited its leadership for making the program not only successful for sea turtles, but also fun for its volunteers.
“Our leaders are role models to us,” she said. “They are very knowledgeable, but they make us feel like we are a very important part of the sea turtles and that’s what makes volunteering so enjoyable.”
Peterfeso said the rewards for helping sea turtles is immeasurable, but being able to volunteer for AMITW has its own rewards, as well.
“Watching the sun rise over Tampa Bay while helping sea turtles isn’t a bad way to spend the morning,” she said. “A lot of us lead busy lives and with a busy life comes a fair share of stress. So being out here can be a lot of work, but it’s also very therapeutic.”