Loggerhead sea turtles will soon start crawling onto Georgia’s barrier island beaches to nest.
One ambitious leatherback sea turtle already has.
For the second year in a row, a female leatherback reached the beach first, nesting on Ossabaw Island April 19. The early arrival of this endangered species is not unusual, and the loggerhead sea turtles that are more common to the Georgia coast will begin arriving next month, said Georgia Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Dodd expects a strong loggerhead nesting season, although not quite the 1,750 nests found last year, the most since daily monitoring of all Georgia barrier islands began in 1989. “My guess is it will be down a little bit but still an above-average nesting year … somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 nests.”
From May through September, these massive turtles named for their large heads will lay eggs in the soft sand where beaches meet dunes. Loggerheads are federally listed as threatened, with a proposal pending to classify some populations – including the one found year-round along Georgia’s coast – as endangered.
A group of volunteers, researchers and others called the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative manages and protects sea turtle nests from Tybee to Cumberland Island. “What they do is absolutely critical to our overall conservation effort,” said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Data gathered contribute to management decisions and genetic research that is mapping the loggerhead’s family tree along the Southeast. Nests sheltered by being moved above the high-tide line and protected from predators such as feral hogs result in more eggs hatched, which could pay dividends as more sea turtles reach the age of 35 years and older at which the females first nest.
Loggerheads have a long way to go. Although the last five years of nest counts show a slight upturn, the federal definition of recovery is a 2 percent increase per year for 50 years, leading to an annual count of 2,800 nests. Georgia recorded 995 nests in 2009 and 1,646 in 2008. The 2011 season starts within days.
Help conserve loggerheads through buying a bald eagle or ruby-throated hummingbird license plate, or donating directly to the Georgia Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund. Wildlife plate sales and direct contributions provide vital support for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for details, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).