Every morning between May and October, in all kinds of weather and without fail, members of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), along with a handful of volunteers, walk the shorelines of the islands.
They look for evidence of sea turtle activity, including tracks of mature adult females coming ashore to build their nests and lay their eggs, right up until those hatchlings leave their nests and return to the sea.
As of Monday morning, SCCF staff and Sea Turtle Monitoring Program volunteers have counted 11 hatches on Sanibel and Captiva, the largest majority (71) occurring on Sanibel's east end. That total is down significantly from the same date in 2009 (189 hatches), and even more dramatically from 2008 (243 hatches).
However, the daily ritual of patrolling the beaches looking for signs of sea turtle activity never ceases to stray from SCCF's primary mission to help protect the species.
For the past four years, Chris Lechowicz, Wildlife Habitat Management Interim Director at SCCF, has been a part of the Sea Turtle Monitoring Program team. This year, he assists in patrolling nests identified between Tarpon Bay Beach and Clam Bayou.
Last week, just after sunrise, Lechowicz headed out on his route. On Thursday, he checked the status of 19 staked nest areas, discovering a successful hatch at Nest #157.
"This one definitely hatched last night," he said, pointing at the sand adjacent to a small hole. "You can see the tracks... they go all the way to the water."
Lechowicz, who joined SCCF eight years ago, studied Zoology and Environmental Science at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He was hired as a herpetologist (specializing in reptiles and amphibians), but he also has a keen knowledge of insects and freshwater fish.
Patrolling the Gulf shoreline three days each week, which takes between 90 minutes and two hours to complete, has become a welcomed activity amongst his many duties at SCCF.
"It's great when you find a new nest or a successful hatch," he said, noting the largest amount of eggs he discovered in a single nest was 135. "We dig the nests three days after a hatch, or 10 days after it was supposed to hatch.
Part of Lechowicz's routine includes checking for evidence of predators around the sea turtle nests. At several stops, he noted their appeared to be some ghost crab activity. Raccoons and fire ants are also frequent predators of the egg-filled nests.
Approximately 100 volunteers of the Sea Turtle Monitoring Program assist Lechowicz and program coordinator Amanda Bryant in checking and reporting the status of the nests on Sanibel and Captiva, the majority of which is done by foot patrol. Nests are identified and marked for monitoring and protection. Later in the season, new hatches are evaluated and recorded. The statewide collection of data helps promote programs that improve the chances for sea turtles to survive.
Among other components of the sea turtle program are projects ensuring that beach habitat is suitable for nesting and the co-ordination of data collection on local sea turtle strandings.
f you see a stranded turtle, call SCCF at 472-3817, ext. 228. On weekends, report the stranding to the Sanibel Police Department at 472-3111.
Chris Lechowicz, SCCF's Wildlife Habitat Management Interim Director, marks where a sea turtle nest successfully hatched on Tarpon Bay Beach last week.
Fact BoxGopher tortoise hatchling rescued, released
On the morning of Aug. 25, SCCF received a phone call from the Sanibel Police Department , who reported finding a stranded gopher tortoise hatchling in their parking lot.
"They said they were afraid if they left him there, he would get hit by a car or something," said Amanda Bryant. "So we went over there and got him."
Upon evaluating the newborn, Bryant found the tortoise to be in excellent health. They planned to release the hatchling in one of SCCF's wildlife preserves the following day.
"I was just getting used to him being here. He stretched out his legs by walking all around my desk," Bryant added. "But his place is in the wild. He'll do just fine."