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Amelia SanJon Gallery
Amelia Island Artists Workshop
Sandra Baker-Hinton
218A Ash Street., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
904-491-8040,  904-557-1195 cell
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Amelia Island Artists Workshop (for workshop schedules)

Leatherback Sea Turtle Excavations!

Now if you saw these tracks, wouldn't you think they were baby Leatherback tracks if they were near a Leatherback nest?
Well, that was the judgement call I made with backup from another Amelia Island Sea Turtle Volunteer and my park ranger, Marie who also, when I sent photos thought they were turtle tracks.  We scheduled the excavation for Leatherback Nest 13 for Saturday, surprised that the nest was located several feet away from where we thought.  In the meantime 80 days had passed since the laying of Nest #3 which was also a Leatherback.  We anticipated digging for hours to find this nest because we never did see it hatch, -the reason we had to wait 80 days.  We were greatly surprised when we found it in a matter of minutes and found it had hatched with over 30 little ones which had emerged from the nest.
 A different kind of leatherback:
Another surprise was a leather backed land turtle which is called a Gopher Tortoise casually strolling across from the dunes to the ocean's edge.
 
I had heard several reports of people seeing these tortoises going to the beach.  It has been very dry here but the experts on tortoises were a bit unsure why this would be happening and had not heard of this behavior before.  I decided it was my chance to just observe and document this behavior. 
 
After heading for the water and strolling alongside it for a way "He" decided to just head toward the water cooling his belly in the shallow wash of the surf.
 
He sat this way for a while then proceeded to just head straight out into the water.  Every time his feet touched bottom he kept walking East.  Not sure if he thought he could just wade across this pond or if he actually wanted a swim I will never know...
 
...because at this point I paniced and waded out and grabbed his silly self fearing he was going to drown.
 
He got to take a ride in my go-go-mobile with his shiny clean exterior.
 
I relocated him to the river side of the park where there are lots of good Gopher Tortoise habitat areas and edible green stuff.  He seemed content to amble along back toward the high dunes.
 
More deer sightings as I head to the beach that evening to check on what I thought was a Leatherback Nest.  It might have more hatchlings emerging since they seem to emerge a few at a time over a period of several nights sometimes.
 
After standing still as if they were in a trance, the deer suddenly bolted and were gone.
 
As evening fell the pelicans made their way across the island and over the water to find a place for the night.
 
The place I had marked that day to prevent further driving over of what I thought was the turtle nest is visible to the right of the photo.  A big pinkish orange cloud puffed upward to give us some pretty color. 
 
With nothing new to see Bruce and I headed back.  The walk down to the nest and to ten check on another nest in the other direction was challenging my bad knee.
 
Of course when I called Lisa to tell her that it looked like the nest was hatching and we would excavate it Saturday morning she said "I'm coming".  I told her the bed would be clean at my house.  She went with me on patrol Saturday and Sunday morning and we really dug a lot during those two days, a major volume of sand.  She ran back into the dunes to see what had happened to the Dead Man's Fingers she had laid back there to dry before she had left.  She laughed when she held up the almost disintegrated tangle of fibers that used to be her treasure.
 
On Saturday Morning we had dug almost to China and back with a big audience of hot, but patient onlookers.  With our heads and arms deep down in a big hole in the sand we looked like popsicles someone stuck in the sand.  I thought once I might have to hold Lisa by the ankles so she could reach bottom as we followed the crab hole downward.  We found a soft fluffy chamber down in there but it was empty.  Must have been the crabs sitting room.  We had to stop because we were getting too hot.  Lisa and I being too stubborn to give up, decided to come back in the evening when it was cooler.  After carefully studying the photos taken of the nest the day it was laid we decided that could not be the nest.  We went back to the original spot and began a systematic digging of the nest feeling for the hard sand and removing all the loose sand in an area about 15 feet square.  We gave up at dark resolving to dig for another hour on Sunday morning then give up.  On Sunday morning we found that two of our nests, #19 & 20, had hatched during the night.  This was one of those, located high up on top of an escarpment and the hatchlings had to tumble down the steep incline before getting to the sandy beach and to the water.
 
Back to our digging we began to dig and probe the hard sand for a soft spot.  I was following the edge of the pit Momma Turtle had dug when she layed the nest, removing the sand or moving it back to areas we had already checked.  Finally I probed into the sand and felt it give way to what felt like an air pocket.  I knew I had found it.  Unlike the other one which had been easy to find since we had started on the right side, this one we had begun on the "wrong side" and had dug and dug hitting at least two oil wells in the progress but we capped them off and kept going.
 
What we dug out was a lot more extensive then it looks because we piled our sand from one side back into the other side after we considered it throughly checked.  Lisa is pointing to "the" spot.
 
We were sad to learn that after all of that digging for the mother turtle and us, that none of the eggs had hatched.  But it was a nest and will go down in the statics as a Leatherback nest.  Evidently these were unfertilized eggs.  My theory is that these turtles are so scattered and rare that sometimes they just don't find that mate to fertilize her eggs out there in that vast ocean.  Turtles often mate with several males that way ensuring that there will be fertilized eggs.  It is not uncommon for a Leatherback to have a whole nest of unhatched eggs.  I believe that happened on Jekyll Island with two nests they had recently.
 
Now what had been dug out must be replaced in both sites as we set about making the beach look like it used to and not a bomb practice field.
 
After a couple of days away from Turtle Patrol, and such an intensive weekend, I headed back to the beach this morning.  This week, Wednesday's Turtle patrol began with great relief that the distant clouds from the ocean will remain just some clouds and not the terrible hurricane we were entertaining thoughts yesterday at this time of arriving tomorrow.  We may still have some big surf and some breezy weather but we can handle that.  We do hope for some rain.  It really puts life in prespective when you have to think, "what would I take with me if I had to evacuate?"
 
More unusual little beach tracks this morning.  Something with a tail but too small to be an Armadillo unless a small baby.  Could it be an endangered Beach Mouse?  Whatever it is it's a new one for me to see.  If anyone knows let me know.
 
A quiet morning for excavating as it was only Ranger Marie, her daughter and a gal who happened by on the beach, almost like the olden days when we would always just be out there by ourselves digging up turtle nests.  The one little turtle we found is being very royally escorted for his own very special send off.
 
Marie releases it and off it goes.  Not too fast though because it had been so scrunched down in the nest that one flipper and one side of his shell had been a bit cramped causing the shell to be a little bit deformed on that side.  But in a few days, if it survives, and it will be all good as new.  Kind of like a baby's head gets distorted during birth.  It does straighen out or most of us would look like pointy headed aliens.
 
Right side is working great, left side a little slow.  Marie gave it a little help and moves it a little nearer the water.
 
Bye little girl, see your tracks again in about 25 years maybe.  Whew, a tiring week.  I am going to take an extra day off to clean house for guests and work in a short fishing trip.  Maybe some fresh fish in my future.  Irene will be rolling by tomorrow so maybe that will stir up the fish and make them hungry.  Worth a try.
 

(Please take a moment to consider:
These photo-stories have always been offered completely free, to simply share the wonders of nature, and life on the Island. Thousands of hours have been poured into them and it has even become necessary to enlist the services of a paid email service to send out the large numbers who now receive them. So, with the current economic situation if you are able to make a small donation to help ensure the continuation of the stories it would be greatly appreciated.)



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