But loggerheads, state’s primary nesting sea turtle, not far behind
For the second time in two years, a rare and endangered leatherback sea turtle claimed the title of first nest on Georgia’s coast, signaling the start of nesting season for several federally protected species of turtles.
Stefanie Ouellette of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center crew on Jekyll Island found the state’s first sea turtle nest last week during early morning patrols on Jekyll.
Loggerheads weren’t far behind, with the first two documented nests reported late Thursday night, one on Cumberland Island and one on St. Catherines Island. Loggerheads are Georgia’s primary nesting sea turtle. The loggerhead nests were discovered by Doug Hoffman of the National Park Service and volunteer Gale Bishop, respectively.
“Based on trends we have seen in recent years, we expect average nest totals in 2010,” said Mark Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the state Wildlife Resources Division. “Though the numbers are difficult to project, we have had several good years, so we remain hopeful.”
A record seven leatherback nests were recorded in Georgia last year, an encouraging sign for the rare turtles. “Leatherbacks are primarily tropical nesters, but have been expanding their nesting range to the north in the last 10 years,” Dodd said.
After a record season of 1,646 sea turtle nests in 2008 – despite heavy storms and a strong hurricane season – the lower total of 995 nests last year made members of the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative anxious to start tallying nest totals again.
2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the cooperative, a milestone for sea turtle conservation. Coordinated by the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the group of volunteers, researchers and biologists from various agencies monitor turtle nesting activities on Georgia beaches.
Loggerhead nesting numbers vary widely from year to year. The 2007 total of 689 loggerhead nests, down from 1,400 in 2006, was considered a below average nesting year. 2006 nest totals marked the third highest since Wildlife Resources established comprehensive surveys in 1989, with 1,419 nests found in 1999 and 1,504 nests in 2003. The annual average in Georgia since 1989 has been roughly 1,045 nests.
Adult female loggerheads come ashore to dig nests and lay eggs from May through September. The vulnerable hatchlings scramble to the sea approximately 60 days later, swimming for the open ocean, where fewer predators lurk.
Loggerheads do not nest every year, generally returning to lay eggs – about 120 per nest – every second or third year.
Listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) is Georgia’s primary nesting sea turtle. Adults can grow to more than 300 pounds. In 1994, the Georgia Loggerhead Recovery and Habitat Protection Plan was adopted to standardize nest management procedures for the state. The long-term recovery goal for the species is an average of 2,000 loggerhead nests per year over a 25-year period.