August 23, 2021 Season Update
Another tremendous nesting season! The current nest count is at 759 nests, which is well over our average of 558 nests per year! Although we have another two months of nesting season to go, very few new nests are historically laid after September 1st. Monitoring for new nests ends on September 30th so we aren't likely to break our previous record high nest count of 984 nests set in 2019. In detail, we have counted 692 loggerhead nests, our most common species, 61 green turtle nests, 5 leatherback nests, and 1 rare Kemp's ridley nest. In addidtion, we have counted over 860 false crawls left on the beach. A false crawl is when a sea turtle crawls out of the ocean on the beach but does not lay eggs.
With nests hatching nightly, nest evaluations have also been underway. A total off 283 nest have already hatched or have been removed from the beach. Of those, 268 were evaluated for reporductive success and over 24,177 hatched eggshells have been counted! The nests that could not be fully evaluated include 13 nests where eggs could not be located, 1 nest depredated by a coyote, and 1 nest washed out due to high tides and surf.
In addition to these evaluations, we've had 15 reports of sea turtle disorientation events. This happens when a nest hatches and the hatchlings become confused by bright artificial lighting in the vicinity of a nest. The lights confuse the hatchlings and may lead them away from the water. The reports indicate that between 372-930 hatchlings were disoriented during these events, but most of them found their way to the water eventually. Please check the lighting portion of our website for more information on how artificial lighting harms sea turtles.
Washback Season started August 1st. Washback sea turtles are recently hatched turtles that have been deposited on the beach in a line of seaweed during or after a storm. Washbacks are typically found during high tides between August 1 and November 30. Washback turtles are collected and rehabilitated at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet. We do not encourage people to put these washback turtles back in the water, as they are often so exhausted that they will not make it back offshore on their own. Please notify a lifeguard or Beach Safety officer if you find one on the beach. Volusia County also has a group of trained, permitted individuals who venture onto the beach when seaweed lines are deposited on the beach to look for stranded washbacks, called the Washback Watchers. If you may be interested in joining this program, please check out the Washback Watchers section of our website for more details.
Nesting Season Basics
Each year, nesting season officially starts May 1st and runs through October 31st, which means that hundreds of sea turtles will be making their way onto Volusia County’s managed beaches to lay thousands of eggs in the sand this summer! Nesting activity usually occurs after dark so chances of seeing a sea turtle are slim, however, you will see posted nest areas during the day.
As the ocean temperature rises in the spring, sea turtles are triggered to begin the nesting season. Each evening on coastlines throughout Florida, female sea turtles will emerge from the ocean to lay clutches of eggs along sandy beaches. Each nest contains approximately 100 eggs that are buried deeply in dry sand. On average, they incubate below ground for 56 days. When they hatch, usually under the cover of darkness, these tiny baby turtles run in a frenzy to the ocean where they will start the next phase of their lives, primarily spent in the ocean following currents to their next destination.
One female turtle will lay 2-7 clutches during a seaon. On average in Volusia County, we get over 550 nests, indicating that potentially only a couple hundred sea turtles produce all of these nests, rather than 550 individual females each season.
Throughout the nest hatching season, we will be sharing exciting news about hatchling counts and anything unusual. We have also begun removing obstacles including vehicle ruts, sand castles, and holes in the sand around posted nest areas, including daily rut removal in public driving areas by rut raking personnel. Please help us keep beaches safe for sea turtles and people by leaving nothing behind after enjoying your day on the sand!
Did you know that nutrients from sea turtle eggs encourage dune vegetation to grow? Well-vegetated dunes mean better protection for
beachfront property against heavy winds and strong storms. In this way, sea turtle nesting can help humans. In return, there are many ways
that we can help sea turtles. Below are simple tips and reminders on how to keep the beach safe and fun this summer:
- Remove shade tents, chairs, and other beach equipment from the beach at night. This will prevent sea turtles from becoming entangled or trapped as they crawl on the sand looking for a place to nest.
- It is fun to dig on the beach and make sandcastles. However, holes and sandcastles left on the beach overnight can become a danger to humans and sea turtles alike. Fill in holes and knock down sandcastles before you leave the beach.
- Please don't disturb a turtle that is crawling to or from the ocean or laying eggs. Watch quietly from a distance of at least 30 feet away. Keep lights and flash photography off and speak quietly.
- Lights can discourage adult females from nesting and disorient hatchlings, limiting their ability to find the sea. Ensure lights from your property or rental space are not visible from the beach by turning them off, shielding them, or shutting your curtains at night.
- Never shine lights on sea turtle nests, hatchlings, or adult turtles. Flashlight and lantern use is discouraged; however, a flashlight with a red LED bulb or a light covered with a red filter is less disruptive to sea turtles.
- Avoid flash photography on the beach at night and never discharge fireworks, which are prohibited on the beach.
- Avoid walking or cycling over marked nests or unmarked turtle tracks. Tracks in the sand help our volunteers find and mark nests.
- Do not disturb markers or protective screening over turtle nests. These nests are being studied and protected.
- Avoid walking on vegetated beach dunes by using designated beach access points.
- Please don't litter. Cigarette butts, fishing line, and other trash can harm turtles along the beach and is unsightly for beach visitors.
- If you see a sick, injured, or dead sea turtle or other animal that needs help, DO NOT attempt to push it into the water or capture it. It may be too tired to survive. Please contact the nearest Beach Safety officer or lifeguard or call 1-888-404-FWCC.
The volunteer groups that survey the beaches each morning for sea turtle activity are able to tell which species has laid each nest by the distinctive tracks the mother leaves the night before as she crawls from the ocean to the dunes and back to the water. When they find a track that leads to buried eggs, they establish a barrier to mark the nest area which keeps people from disturbing the sand at that location. The barrier remains in place until the nest hatches and the contents are evaluated.
To learn more about sea turtles and the groups that survey Volusia County beaches, or to adopt a nest you can visit their websites:
- South of the Inlet: NSB Turtle Trackers http://nsbturtles.org/
- North of the Inlet: Volusia Turtle Patrol http://turtlepatrol.com
In terms of the number of nests laid, the east coast of Florida is considered 1 of 2 top world-wide loggerhead nesting regions. In fact, the loggerhead sea turtle is commonly referred to as Florida’s sea turtle. The southeastern United States, namely Florida, hosts the world’s largest nesting aggregation of loggerhead sea turtles. In 2020, there were 105,164 loggerhead nests in Florida. Here in Volusia County we expect several hundred loggerhead nests each season, with an average season yielding over 500 nests on County-managed beaches. During the 2020 season we had 842 loggerhead nests!
According to FWC marine biologists, between 1998 and 2007, there was a drastic decline in all populations of the loggerhead sea turtles nesting in Florida. Since 2007, loggerhead sea turtle nesting has been on the rise with 2016 setting a new record high! For more info, please visit http://www.myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/nesting/loggerhead/
Beginning in late June or early July we normally expect to start seeing nests from green sea turtles, with our first green turtle nest of 2021 being laid a little early on June 10th. Green turtles typically lay fewer nests than loggerheads on Volusia County-managed beaches (in the 10’s instead of 100’s). Green turtle nesting numbers appear to be increasing throughout the state and within Volusia County. For more info, please visit http://www.myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/nesting/green-turtle/. In 2020, we observed 53 green turtle nests on Volusia beaches. Since green turtles tend to nest in higher numbers every other year, we anticipated 2020 to be a low green turtle year. However, it was more of a “medium” year, so we will have to see what this season holds! The highest count for green turtles in Volusia was 98 nests in 2019.
Leatherback sea turtles typically concentrate their Florida nesting efforts in the state’s southeastern counties. This particular species has a longer and earlier-starting nesting season than other sea turtles (February through August). Our first recorded sea turtle nest of the season this year was deposited by a leatherback on April 21st. In 2020, we had 6 documented leatherback nests! More info can be found here http://www.myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/nesting/leatherback/
Sea Turtle Species Highlight: Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle
The highlighted sea turtle species is the Kemp's ridley sea turtle! Kemp's ridleys are the smalled species of sea turtle, tipping the scales at only around 90 pounds as adults, with a full-grown size similar to that of "teenager"-sized loggerheads and green turtles. Their skin and carapace (upper part of the shell) is typically very grey in color. Unlike the other hard-shelled sea turtles, which normally have very oval shells, with the longest axis from their head to their tail, Kemp's ridley shells are often very round, and sometimes are wider than they are long! It's thought that this may help these pint-sized turtles avoid the size of shark mouths since sharks are one of their only predators during their adulthood. Kemp's ridleys are also the rearest species of sea turtle, with only two main nesting areas on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and a less-dense nesting area in southern Texas. Although we only have a handful of solitary nesters in Florida, the main nesting rookeries in Mexico have what are known as "arribadas" of Kemp's ridleys, in which hundreds to thousands of nesting females synchronize their nesting emergence onto the same stretch of beach withing the span of a few hours. In Volusia County, we are lucky to occiasionally get a Kemp's ridley nest here! Unlike the other species of sea turtles, which come ashore under the cover or darkness, Kemp's ridleys prefer to nest during the daytime, typically on windy, overcast days in the ealy summer. Rather than making a large mound of thrown sand over top of where they've deposited their eggs like other species do, nesting Kemp's ridleys will use the weigh of their wide shells to help them rock back-and-forth on top of their nest to pat the sand down. This delicate pattern left in the sand in combination with their light weight and tendency to nest on windy days makes Kemp's ridley tracks difficult to spot for the untrained eye! The first Kemp's ridley nest recorded on Florida's east coast was in Volusia County in 1996 (Johnson et al. 1999, Florida Scientist 3/4: 194-204).Since then, in 25 years, only 15 Kemp's nests have been documented on Volusia County-managed beaches. The most recent nest was laid in Ponce Inlet on 5/29/21. This was a returning female which had been flipper and pit tagged while nesting in Ponce Inlet by HCP and Marine Science Center staff in 2005. This individual has been documented nesting a total of 8 times in Volusia including her last 2 nests which were also laid in Ponce Inlet in 2019. The 2021 nest was evaluated on 8/3/21. It had 16 hatched egg shells and 93 unhatched eggs in it. The reason some eggs did not develop is not known for certain but is suspected that they were not fertlized.
Sea Turtle Strandings
So far in 2021, we are seeing an above average amount of stranded turtles in our area waters. The Marine Science Center turtle hospital in Ponce Inlet has taken in a record high count of 180 sea turtle patients to date. The nearshore Atlantic waters and lagoon systems around Volusia County are home to varying life stages and multiple species of sea turtles. As well, each spring sea turtles migrate along with warm water temperatures back to their nesting beaches and mating areas from sometimes distant foraging regions. During these life cycles and migrations, many become ill or injured and wash in along our beaches and other waterways either deceased or in need of medical help. Each turtle gets responded to in a timely manner and scientific data is collected from each individual. This information is tracked and compiled by the FWC and a summary of it can be found on their webpage by visiting http://ocean.floridamarine.org/SeaTurtle/flstssn/cVolusia.html
Remember: sea turtles dig the dark! Sea turtle lighting regulations are in effect each May-October!
The Volusia County lighting ordinance is enforced throughout the entire county. The goal of the ordinance is to reduce the amount of light visible from the beach. Sea turtles can be misguided or deterred from nesting by artificial bright lights. Properties within line of sight of the beach have a responsibility to do their part in ensuring lighting on their property does not affect sea turtle nesting and hatching activity in the vicinity. We can assist you if you have questions. Please check the lighting portion of our website for more information. Free educational information and materials can also be requested through our website to help inform residents and guests about our coastal wildlife and how they can help.
Shorebird nesting season has ended!
Teams surveyed the inlet parks and county beaches for nesting shorebirds each month between April through August. All shorebird nests laid on county beaches are cordoned off from human disturbance so that they have the best chance of success. If you are interested in seeing them for yourself, please stay OUT of all posted areas; bring binoculars and look from afar. Disturbance to nesting birds can cause parents to abandon their eggs, leaving them exposed for too long and vulnerable to predators. Remember, these are small, well camouflaged eggs laid in the sand, so even walking into posted areas could be fatal to baby birds!! In many cases both the mother and the father birds monitor the nest. If an adult bird notices you, take a few steps back because you are too close! If you see an injured bird, report it to Beach Safety personnel (386-239-6414) as soon as possible. County staff are trained to rescue injured birds and make sure they receive proper care.
This year, we had one successful Wilson's plover nest that hatched near Mary McLeod Bethune Beach Park in New Smyrna Beach, from which three chicks fledged. We also had several Least Tern and Wilson's plover nest deposited on Disappearing Island, located inside the mouth of Ponce de Leon Inlet. Large areas of the island were posted to keep visitors and dogs from getting too close, however, most of these nests unfortunately failed. Many nests were destroyed by predators including crows eating eggs. Other nest failures could have been caused by weather events, or people and dogs that venture to the island and may have inadvertently come too close to nest areas and scared off the birds. While it is difficult to determine what nests may or may not have been successful die to limited observation of activity on the island, a few juvenile Wilson's plovers were observed which indicated some nesting success may have occurred.
Shorebird and Seabird Species Highlight: Piping Plover
Piping plovers are a small-to-medium-sized member of the plover and lapwing (Charadriidae) family, which are in between the size of sanderlings and Wilson's plovers. This species is of great conservation concern because its differnt breeding populations are dwindling in size. Piping plovers breed and raise chicks during the spring and summer along the northeast Atlantic coast of the United States, around the Great Lakes, in the Midwest US, and central Canada. Each breeding population is federally listed as threatened or endangered depending on how many individuals are left in each one. As the breeding season comes to a close towards the end of summer, these birds will migrate south to warmer areas where they will spend the winter including here in Volusia County! The area in-and-around Ponce de Leon Inlet is listed as Critical Habitat for this species (USFWS Unit FL-34). Monthly winter shorebird counts are conducted in the Critical Habitat unit, however, Piping plovers prefer inlet shorelines and habitat but can also be seen resting and foraging throughout County beaches. Individuals will typically depart our area in April and May to return to their breeding grounds and the migration pattern will continue annually. While we typically do not have sightings in the summer, this year, we had an unusual sighting of a Piping plover on June 8th! Adults returning to our area at the end of summer or perparing to depart for breeding season may display some of their striking breeding plumage, but most individuals observed on our beaches will be in their winter plumage, which is white and pale gray feathers and bright orange legs. Keep an eye out for their distinctive feeding technique, in which they use one of ther feet to dig vigorously in the wet sand below the most recent high tide line in seach of invertebrates to eat. Like other species of research and conservation interest, some Piping plover are marked, with unique "bracelets", called bands, which are placed on their legs. These bands do not harm or hinder the bird, but can be a vital source of information for researchers. Bands are different colors, and most have letter or number combinations printed on the band or they may have an additional flag on the band to display the lettering. These bands are used to identify which breeding population an individual bird came from or where it was banded (e.g., Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and then to help researchers discover what other habitat and regions the bird uses when it is away from the nesting habitat. Here in Volusia County, we have been able to identify banded birds from each breeding population of Piping plovers which underlines the significance of the habitat they are using here. As an example, "Jo" has returned to the Ponce Inlet and New Smyrna Beach areas during multiple winters. It gets the name Jo because it wears a white flag band with "JO" printed on it in black letters. Jo was banded as a chick in July 2017 at Round Bay in southern Nova Scotia, Canada, and has nested in that region ever since. Jo was originally observed on our Volusia County beaches in Ocotober of 2017, as well as multiple times in 2020. Jo has already been spotted twice this season, and we're hopeful for even more sightings as the winter season continues!
Healthy, dry sandy beach areas are needed for sea turtle nests to incubate successfully. Sea turtle eggs are air-permeable and will not survive if inundated by water for extended periods of time. Often, when nests are laid too close to areas of high tides or near water runoff locations, eggs are relocated to an area that is higher and dryer. The Conservation Zones are filling up with large amounts of new natural plant growth and recruitment during our warm summer months. Not only does it look beautiful, but these plants adapted to coastal ecosystems help hold sand in place, growing our dunes, and keep them strong. Healthy, vegetated dunes are the first line of protection against powerful wave and wind action during storms.
Outside of sea turtle nesting season, the beach is open to public driving from sunrise to sunset. However, from May 1–October 31, beach opening and closing times are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. This allows time for sea turtle monitoring crews to clearly mark all the nests and perform vital tasks before the beach is open to driving for the public.
Please remember and be understanding that vehicular access to the beach may be delayed or prohibited when environmental conditions such as high tides warrant. Also remember that driving and parking are never allowed within the Conservation Zone. The beach will reopen to driving as soon as conditions permit.
Please check back to this site regularly, as we will have updates from the nesting season and data posted as numbers change. We will let you know how many nests have been laid, their success and failure stories, and any other pertinent and exciting information about the program!
Hope to see you at the beach!