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Date of Issue: May 21, 2008

Turtle watcher up with the dawn

Sally Heirsch scans a section of the bayside shore in Anna Maria for sea turtle tracks. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Each Friday Sally Heirsch watches the sunrise on the bay.

And then she walks.

Heirsch is a member of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, a nonprofit group whose members monitor the Island beaches for signs of nesting sea turtles and hatched nests. The statistics compiled by AMITW are used for a variety of purposes by local, state and federal agencies, including to chart the impact of beach renourishment projects and the status of threatened species, specifically the loggerhead on Anna Maria.

So on Friday mornings through the summer, Heirsch will walk along the shore searching for signs of nesting activity.

Heirsch’s walk route goes from the Anna Maria City Pier to a pile of rocks south of the Rod & Reel Pier. It is AMITW’s section one, the first of nine sections walked each day by a team of volunteers.

Section one traditionally hasn’t drawn the most nesting turtles - it’s bayside beach with narrow and mostly hard-packed sand. But section one does offer the best view of the sunrise - “nature’s first green” in the words of poet Robert Frost.

“It’s a beautiful walk here,” Heirsch says. “You know you are in a beautiful paradise. I really enjoy this a lot. I feel very peaceful. For me, coming out here, it’s a connection with nature.”

Nearby, a blue heron fishes and a laughing gull snacks on something the human eye can’t easily see. Overhead, a brown pelican begins a dive. “There’s one of my friends,” Heirsch says, laughing and gesturing toward the heron.

Heirsch is a rookie with AMITW and a newbie to the Island. She moved from Louisiana into a Pine Avenue apartment in January and, in April, she signed up with turtle watch out of an eagerness to get involved.

“I’ve always wanted to do something in ecology,” she says.

Heirsch walks with a beach bag over her shoulder. The bag contains her turtle watch tools - an AMITW manual, plastic bags for collecting litter, an umbrella, hairbrush, sunblock lotion, a hair clip, a pen, a pair of binoculars, a towel, an extra pair of shorts and a worn copy of “A Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindberg.

The book, Heirsch says, is her favorite. She shrugs over explaining the extra pair of shorts. “I don’t know,” she says.

At the city pier, Heirsch waves to a man and says, “Say ‘hello’ to Jimmy.” Just a week into her job, she’s no stranger to the workers and fishers who frequent the pier at dawn.

She raises a pair of binoculars to scan the beach to the south of the pier for signs of turtle tracks.

“What we are checking for is crawls - false or true,” Heirsch says.

She then turns, says goodbye to Jimmy and begins to walk north. She approaches the humpback bridge on Bay Boulevard and pauses. “I like to look for manatees,” Heirsch says, adding that she has yet to see one in the vicinity.

Nor has she seen a turtle track in her section. As of The Islander’s press deadline this week, AMITW had reported one turtle nest and no signs of a false crawl on the Island for the 2008 season.

“I know the likes of me seeing a mama turtle are slim to none,” Heirsch says. “But I know they are there and that’s something.”

As she walks, she expresses a concern for the threats the turtles face - artificial light that can disorient the adults and the hatchlings, beach furniture left overnight that can ensnare a turtle, natural predators and the undetermined impact of climate change.

“These turtles need to be protected,” Heirsch says. “They are some of the oldest, longest-living creatures that we have.”

Her first recollection of learning anything about sea turtles comes from watching a Public Broadcasting System program. “Maybe ‘Nova,’” Heirsch says. “It goes back to a foggy memory. I remember hearing that the lights and developments where so much a problem that [sea turtle] populations were dwindling.”

As she talks, Heirsch walks. On the beach behind a home in the 900 block of North Shore Drive, she makes her turn to return to the city pier.

She says in the summer she hopes to patrol the beach with some family members, especially her 9-year-old grandson Graham.

“He is so interested in how this whole thing is going to go - the mothers, the nests, the eggs,” Heirsch says.

She sees education and outreach as part of her responsibility as a volunteer.

“I think this is what I need to be doing,” says Heirsch, who has worked in the healthcare industry and lived in various locations in the country. “This is where it’s at, what it’s about as far as I’m concerned.”

As she approaches the city pier, Heirsch reaches into her beach bag for a cell phone to call her section one coordinator. Each walker reports in their findings - whether a crawl, a nest or nothing - by about 7:15 a.m.

Heirsch has nothing to report. And that’s all right. “At the end of the walk, I always feel like I have contributed something. It’s not a bad way to start the day,” she says.