Above and below right, Turtle Watch's Suzi Fox,
in yellow, Claudia Wiseman, in white hat, and Rhonda Bailey
work feverishly to dig up and relocate sea turtle
eggs as rising Gulf waters threaten to inundate the nest.
In the pre-dawn hours last Friday, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Protection volunteers began waking up all over the Island.
"I heard the storm, and I knew we would have problems," AMITW Director Suzi Fox. "With that wind and the pounding surf, I knew we'd have some nests washed out for sure, and I was also worried about the birds nesting on the north end of the Island.
Section Coordinator Glenn Wiseman came awake at his own house sensing the same thing.
"At about 4 a.m., we all began calling each other," Fox noted. "We weren't really expecting the strength of the storm, but it really hit everyone on the west coast of Florida.
Wiseman said the volunteers went out on the beach to monitor their sections as they do every morning at dawn, searching the beach for signs that a female loggerhead has crawled ashore during the hours of darkness to dig a hole and deposit her eggs. The volunteers also check to see if any of the nests have hatched leaving the telltale-scrambling trail from the nest to the sea.
"There was no thunder or lightening," Wiseman said. "So everyone headed to the beach as usual."
But when they got there, they found surf that was up to the grass line and winds that were whipping the sand around with great force.
"It felt like you were being hit in the face with gravel," Wiseman said. "It was really brutal. People just had to get off the beach."
Fox said that with the water so high, they couldn't run the ATV along the shore to monitor that way.
By dawn, residents and visitors all over the Island were calling the AMITW phone line reporting that nests were being washed out to sea.
State and federal guidelines prohibit moving nests during storm events unless the eggs are actually uncovered and rolling in the surf.
"We lost five nests altogether," Fox said. "They were washed completely away. We were able to relocate eight nests."
Each nest contains about 100 eggs, so with each washout, a potential of 100 potential hatchlings are gone. Scientists' best estimate is that only one of every 1,000 baby turtles will make it to reproductive age, a loss of five hundred eggs is a serious blow, according to Fox.Nest locations unknown
This is the height of turtle nesting season, with anywhere from five to 10 "emergences" each night.
An emergence is the term used to refer to any time a turtle leaves the water and climbs ashore, according to Fox.
"We could, potentially, have had 10 new nests during the night of the storm," she said. "We will never know where those nests are, because all signs of the tracks of the mother turtles were erased by the storm.
"We can just hope that those nests are safe until they hatch," she said.
The storm also created two steep berms along the beach that was just renourished.
"One is from about 70th Street to 77th Street. The other is a little bit to the south of that," Fox said.
Usually, Fox would call the county to come out and smooth the berm out.
"We can't do that this time," she said. "I don't know if there are turtle nests there or not, and we just can't take the chance."
Fox asked everyone to have patience with the berms for the next 50-to-55 days, which will give any unmarked nests a chance to hatch.
"One of those berms is straight up and down," Wiseman noted.
"Some people had to help pull Claudia (AMITW Volunteer Claudia Wiseman) right up the side of the berm, because it was too steep to climb," Fox said.
She added that that wasn't all people did to help.
"People called us as they noticed the nests that were in trouble," Fox said. "Our people here on the Island are wonderful. The response was terrific. It's just an example of the amazing teamwork we have going on here."
"People just stepped forward to help without even being asked," he said. "The Zoller, Prokuski and Duffie families have been coming here for years. They helped us relocations and anything else we needed."
Shorebird nesting update
The storm was hard on the skimmers nesting on the north end of Anna Maria Island. Twelve chicks died as a result of the wind and water.
But at the same time, the number of birds in the skimmer colony is growing.
"There are 15 more nesting pairs, so we've had to expand the boundaries of the colony a bit," Fox said.
As of Monday morning, there were 373 black skimmer adults and 33 chicks in the colony.
Some of the first chicks to hatch are beginning to explore their new world.
"They're running away from their mothers and exploring the water and the sand area," Fox said. "You can see them putting their heads down at the waterline getting their first drink or their first experience with the water."
Fox said over the next weeks, the chicks will learn to swim, to fish for their food and, finally to fly.
"Some of our wonderful people are trying to help by shooing the chicks back to their parents," she said. "They're trying to protect the babies, but the chicks need to go down to the water. They need to learn to do things on their own."
Fox asks everyone who happens upon the skimmer chicks wandering from their nests to just stand back and enjoy the sight of these little birds learning about their environment.
Be sure to check AMITW's Facebook page for up-to-date information. Go to Facebook and then type in Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch. Information is also available on Fox's blog, which can be accessed from The Sun's website at amisun.com.