Summer storms: natural peril for sea turtles, shorebirds

Summertime in Florida means the occasional shower pouring from the sky on and off, like the shower faucet at home.

As people head indoors to avoid the downpour, nesting shorebirds are left exposed to the elements and sea turtle nests are unprotected — marked only by stakes and twine.

“We never have a problem with Mother Nature. We never want to see nests washed out, but that’s nature,” said Suzi Fox, executive director of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring. “We always have a problem with human intervention.”

Sea turtle nesting season began May 1 and continues to Oct. 31.

Fox said it’s typical to lose sea turtle nests to storms and estimated about a third of nests are lost each year. She said turtle monitoring organizations in Englewood and Naples also report about a third of their nests lost to storms.

“What’s most scary is everybody is out looking at waves and looking for turtle eggs. It’s just not safe,” she said. “People want to lay over the nests and save them. It’s a hard thing for people to swallow. Safety for my volunteers is my main concern.”

AMITW volunteers are instructed not to make their morning walk when lightning is present, and if a morning survey must be aborted, it is recorded in their data, which is sent to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Following heavy storms, the volunteers check for stakes that may have washed away. Fox said each area of the beach is marked in sections and the volunteers know how many nests are in each section.

If markers are lost, AMITW uses a GPS and triangulation system that uses fixed objects on the beach to relocate the center of the nest.

In the past, people have brought Fox turtle eggs they found following storms. “However sad, they’re just not viable anymore. Leave them. Let the birds eat them. Let them wash into the Gulf. Let nature do its thing,” she said.

If hatchlings are spotted, they should be reported to AMITW.

High tides also can wash out a sea turtle nest. If a nest appears too close to the water, AMITW will relocate the nest. But if a nest becomes exposed, attempting to remove the eggs usually results in the eggs popping due to suction inside the clutch, Fox said.

Sand provides an excellent drainage system, and during heavy rain, the water doesn’t necessarily overflow the nest. However, the eggs are permeable and too much water can drown the turtles in the nest.

Fox said summer storms have not impacted any sea turtle nests this year.

The most recent storm to heavily impact the shorebirds and sea turtle nests was Tropical Storm Debby in 2012. An estimated 100 sea turtle nests and large numbers of bird nests were wiped out during the storm.

“I know those big waves look fun, but boy are they dangerous,” Fox said.

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