GEORGIA (WFXG) - According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division, Sea Turtle nesting season has begun in Georgia.
National Park Service staff documented the first loggerhead nest of 2018 on Cumberland Island Tuesday morning, the fifth straight year that honor went to Georgia's southernmost barrier island.
Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said loggerhead nesting usually begins in early May and hits full stride by June."It's an annual ritual, part of spring on the coast in Georgia," Dodd said. "Everybody's excited."
Credit part of the excitement to the recovery of loggerheads, the state's primary marine turtle and a protected species federally listed as threatened. Georgia's 2,155 nests in 2017 were the state's fourth-most since comprehensive surveys began in 1989. Loggerheads set a record of 3,289 nests in 2016.
That year, the species surpassed for the first time a recovery benchmark of 2,800 nests in the state.
Like other marine turtles, loggerheads – named for their massive heads – crawl ashore on barrier island beaches, dig a hole at the base of the dunes and lay their eggs, usually at night.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative, a DNR-coordinated network of about 200 volunteers, researchers and agency employees, patrols beaches daily during nesting season. Working under a federal permit, members mark, monitor and protect all nests, including species that seldom nest here, such as green and Kemp's ridley.
Dodd expects nesting to be above average but below the record from 2016. Nesting varies annually. "We generally see two medium nesting years following a record year," said Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR's Nongame Conservation Section.
In preparation for the season, Dodd and staff have been training interns, working with volunteers and partner agencies and organizations, and teaming with DNR's Law Enforcement Division. Game wardens enforce regulations including the use of turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, in commercial shrimping.
National Park Service wildlife biologist Doug Hoffman discovered the year's first nest on Cumberland Island. As with other nests, one egg – less than 1 percent of the average clutch size on the island – was collected for University of Georgia genetic analysis documenting the number and relatedness of loggerheads nesting on the state's coast. The nest was then covered with a screen to protect the eggs from coyotes and other predators.