Snowbird Season – or as locals simply call it – “season,” is over. Or at least it has definitely slowed down. Our roads are quieter; that’s good. Restaurants are easier to get in; that’s good for locals (but not so good for owners). Publix aisles are navigable; that’s great! The beach has fewer people on it; nice. But now it is a different kind of “season.” It is one for Loggerhead Sea Turtles (Caretta caretta) and nesting shorebirds, such as Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), Least Terns (Sternula antillarum), and Wilson Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia). This “season” is quite busy for these species. It’s time for them to nest, produce young, and keep the fragile marine ecosystem of the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico healthy.
Not just sea turtles and shorebirds are producing, but many other marine species are getting in on the action! Have you seen the snake-like “skins” curled near the surf and high tide line? These are egg casings from many species of mollusks, such as Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantea), Queen Conch (Strombus gigas), and even Pear Whelk (Busycon spiratum). Have you noticed groups of Spotted Eagle Rays (Aetobatus narinari) skimming the surfaces of the canal waterways, bays and near shore surf? They are congregating and feeding in the warm waters we so fortunately call our backyard.
With water temperatures already in the mid 80’s, Loggerhead Sea Turtles are ready to nest. Typically, 78 degrees Fahrenheit triggers the female sea turtle to nest. She will crawl out of the Gulf of Mexico, looking for the highest, driest place on the beach and dig a nest cavity about 30 inches deep using only her two back flippers. She then will drop approximately 100 soft-cased, leathery eggs in the nest cavity, re-bury them, and then return to the sea. Never will she return to the nest or care for her hatchlings.
A mature female may nest up to seven times in one season, then not nest for two to three more years. The eggs incubate in the warm sand and at about 60 days, the hatchlings will emerge, all trekking to the waiting moon and star-lit Gulf of Mexico. Only in one thousand hatchlings will survive to maturity (15 + years). The females never leave the water except to crawl out onto shore to nest. With these odds, it is easy to understand why every egg counts, and conservation and protection of the nests on Marco Island is crucial for this species and the ecosystem’s integrity. Last season, 52 nests were created, but only 19 hatched successfully.Early spring storms and very high tidal cycles destroyed nests completely or flooded many – making the unhatched eggs nonviable. This season, there is hope for high numbers and successful hatchings. The South Beach has been renourished (sand filled) and the entire beach laser graded (sand moved to improve drainage and topography); all improving beach habitat.
It’s perfect timing for the Loggerhead Sea Turtles to make their way to the beautiful sandy beaches of Marco Island and nest. Hideaway Beach’s North Beach is in the midst of renourishment though the stable beaches from past projects will be enticing for nesting sea turtles.
The Sand Dollar “spit” – the long, hooked beachfront that fronts the Tigertail Lagoon and Hideaway Beach to the Gulf on the northwest corner of the island – is a federal Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) called Big Marco Pass CWA. This is due to the high number of wintering, nesting and resident shorebird species that use and need this habitat to survive. It is one of the top five flyways for the planet. Yes. The planet. For shorebirds that migrate from the poles to South America and back, this time of year, several of these species of birds nest here. They dig shallow scrapes in the sand as “nests” to lay camouflaged eggs no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball. So small and unseen are the nests and eggs, areas are posted for the Least Terns, Black Skimmers and Wilson Plovers to keep people aware and remind them to walk with care.
Mary Nelson, our famous Sea Turtle Lady, and the shorebird monitors will ensure all nests are protected and hatchlings counted. You can help them out easily by treating our beach with the love and respect we have for it.
Leave only your footprints.
Remove all trash and beach gear from the beach when you leave. Remember no glass bottles on the beach – they break easily when hit by the beach sand rake. Broken glass can and has caused injury to beach goers and wildlife.
Dispose of plastic and fishing line properly – wildlife such as dolphin, sea turtles and rays often mistakes plastic bags for jellyfish, a food the love to eat. Fishing line gets easily tangled on all wildlife, from fish and birds to dolphin and manatees.
No wheeled vehicles on the beach – except for strollers, fishing gear trolleys, and wheel chairs. Please note that no bicycles are allowed on the beach.
No open fires – unless permitted for a special event. This includes fireworks, campfires, charcoal grills, and torches.
No dogs on the beach – No dogs, leashed or unleashed,are allowed on the beaches in Marco Island. Even if dogs are onboard a boat, they are not allowed on the beach. Outside of Marco Island city limits, dogs are allowed on leashes on the beach, such as Keewadin Island to the north.
Fill in the hole – It is always fun to dig a hole in the sand. When leaving the beach, please fill it in. Large holes left on the beach cause human safety and wildlife mortality. A hole is difficult to see for a beach walker and a public safety vehicle. Sea turtle hatchlings, fish and live shells get trapped in holes and die when they cannot get out.
If you are out on the beach and see a beach walker with a creamsicle orange shirt that says “Ask Me A Question” on the back, you have spotted a City of Marco Island Volunteer Beach Steward. Please ask them a question! They are the ombudsmen for the Marco Island beach and can give you plenty of information.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or have any wildlife or beach related questions, please contact Nancy Richie the City of Marco Island’s Environmental Specialist at 239-389-5003 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for enjoying and taking care of Marco Island’s most beautiful and valuable asset – the beach!
For more information on local locations to see wildlife, or interest in volunteering, please contact Nancy Richie, Environmental Specialist, City of Marco Island, at 239-389-5003 or email@example.com.
Do Your Part, Keep Our Beach Dark
Between May 1st and October 31st, all lights, including flashlights, lanterns, mobile phone and camera flashes, need to be off or not used on the beach after 9 PM. This is for sea turtle nesting season. Artificial lights that shine on the beach disorient female sea turtles from nesting and confuse hatchlings trekking to the Gulf. All beachfront lights and windows need to be off or shaded from shining on the beach by 9 PM. This allows the moon and stars to naturally light the Gulf of Mexico’s surface, keeping the beach dark for the females and drawing the hatchlings to the water successfully.
Read the Sign and Respect the Wildlife
There is plenty of beach to share. Please do not enter posted areas for nesting wildlife. Sea turtle nests are posted typically in yellow tape. Give the area 25 feet to ensure the nest of eggs is not impacted. Shorebird areas are posted with stringing and signage. If birds are diving at you or flying away, you are too close. Respect the signs and use the rest of the beach.