Drag marks can be seen the next day from the massive weight of a sea turtle. The marks usually lead to her nest where she has deposited as many as 100 rubbery eggs the size of a ping-pong balls by using her back flippers to dig a deep cavity. Her excursion ends by completely covering the nest with sand and finding her way back to the comfort of the water…she never returns to the nest. After incubating for 2 months, the hatchlings beak out of their shells and wait for the sand temperature to cool before emerging and instinctively moving toward the brightest direction…normally this would be the open sky reflected by the ocean…but artificial light on a developed beach often attracts the hatchlings, causing them to crawl in the wrong direction.…a beach chair, a hole left by a playful child…or even a tire tack can block their path to the sea…and to safety!
Only recently have locals and visitors become aware of the need to protect these nests and in turn give the hatchlings a better chance of survival…so that they may one day visit our beach again. Only one in every ten to fifteen thousand hatchlings ever makes it to sexual maturity. Finding their way into the sea is only the first hurdle…they quickly need to find some other protection…seaweed in which to hide, a rock on the ocean floor or anything that will protect them from a predator until they grow a protective shell of their own. Their chances at best are minimal, and man unfortunately has made their journey even more difficult.
The “lest tern,” the smallest American tern weighing about 1 ounce and measuring 9 inches in length, also uses the beach for its nesting ground. The tern uses, broad, level expanses of open sandy or gravelly beach and man’s invasion of the “world’s most beautiful beaches” has made this nearly impossible. In a perfect example of “if all else fails,” least terns first began nesting on the roof of a city auditorium in Pensacola in 1957 and have continued to do so in subsequent years. More recently, baby least terns were discovered in the K Mart parking lot in Destin and the Audubon Society stepped in to get to the bottom of the matter.
After weeks of speculation, the society looked upwards…to the roof of the K Mart and found that its painted white surface with specs of gray had been mistaken by the least terns for an open…and solitary stretch of beach. The least terns decided to nest there and hundreds of hatchlings were scrambling about on the roof..or so-called beach. What the hatchlings would soon discover was that this beach had a severe drop-off and chicks would often fall from the edge of the roof and still unable to fly would make their way to the parking lot below and an uncertain fate. K Mart took immediate action and fenced in their “beach” above the store with chicken wire small enough to keep the least terns on the roof until they were old enough to fly away. The Audubon Society now keeps a sharp eye out for any other problems and for several years now, the least terns have found this an ideal spot to raise their young. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention!
Least terns breed in colonies of up to 200 birds. Nests are usually scraped in sand, shell or gravel…now apparently a white roof will do, too! Eggs are commonly laid in clutches of 2 from late May through June, and are incubated by both sexes for 21 days. The young fledge in 19-20 days. The least tern is very defensive in the colony, and adults scream and dive at intruders. The roof has proven to be fairly intruder-free if not ideal, and water is nearby from which Mom and Pop find their food by skimming the surface for small fish or making dives from the air. The least terns are also returning annually to the K Mart roof and the fence for keeping the hatchlings “up on the roof” is monitored by the society for any possible escape routes.
Still, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the least tern population found in the interior U. S. as endangered. Around the turn of the century, the least tern was in danger of extirpation in the northeastern U. S. because of hunting for the millinery trade. Protective legislation in 1918 allowed the species to recover in the 1920's and 1930's. In recent years, however, human pressures have been causing a decline in populations of this species. Development of coastal areas destroys breeding habitat and recreational activities can disrupt reproduction. As we continue to take more and more dunes and beach access for “development,” we often fail to realize that before we arrived…there were other there living quite happily until we destroyed their habitat.
What is necessary is more awareness. From May until October, the “world’s most beautiful beaches” are also populated with the loggerhead and green turtle nests, eggs and hatchlings. They lay their eggs where we come to play…everyone must help! First, never touch a nest, it’s against the law. If the nest is unmarked…call the police.
If you’re a visitor …or if you live on or near the beach…please eliminate outside lighting during turtle season…May through October…keep the beach free from trash and fill up holes dug during the day. If you encounter a nesting sea turtle…stay clear and do not shine lights or take flash photographs. If you see a stranded sea turtle or hatchlings, immediately call the South Walton Turtle Watch at 850-897-5228. Only Turtle Watch volunteers are allowed to handle hatchlings.
And make sure the least tern hatchlings stay on top of the K Mart roof!