Tropical Storm Cindy Takes A Toll On Gulf Coast Sea Turtles and Shore Birds

photograph of Loggerhead Turtle

by Tyla MacAllister DeFreese


Tropical Storm Cindy

is just a memory for the Northern Gulf Coast now, but the early season storm took a toll on threatened sea turtle nests and shore birds. Loggerhead and leatherback turtle nests as well as the eggs and chicks of Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers were devastated.

Loggerhead turtle nests in northwest Florida seemed to be hardest hit by the tropical storm.  Mark Nicholas, a Gulf Islands National Seashore biologist told The Pensacola News Journal, of the 56 sea turtle nests identified before Cindy at Perdido Key, Fort Pickens, Santa Rosa Beach and Pensacola Beach, 36 were eroded, missing or washed over after the storm. A few were untouched.

Each loggerhead nest holds 80 to 150 eggs, Santa Rosa County sea turtle patrol volunteer James Holmes told the Northwest Florida Daily.  In addition to tropical storms, sea turtles and their nests are subject to predation, particularly from local coyotes. Of the turtles that hatch, only one turtle out of 1,000 make it to adulthood, Holmes said.

According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, all sea turtles in US waters are listed as endangered except for the loggerhead which is listed as threatened.

One of the most disappointing losses from Cindy is the first ever Leatherback Sea Turtle nest in Navarre Beach. The nest was first spotted in late May. Cathy Holmes, who works with the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center, said that the mother leatherback’s tracks in the sand, which are called the crawl width, measured 7 feet in length.

Leatherback sea turtles rarely nest on Gulf of Mexico beaches, and when they do the eggs don’t usually hatch. Nicholas said leatherbacks usually nest on Florida’s Atlantic Coast“A lot of the eggs laid in northwest Florida end up not hatching,” Nicholas  told the News Journal. “Most end up being infertile over this way.”

James Holmes said the leatherback nest was under more than two feet of water at the height of the storm.“We were very excited about the nest and are extremely sad it was lost.”

Cathy Holmes said the extent of the losses won’t really be known until it’s time for the eggs to hatch in a few weeks.

The news is not all bad for the Gulf Coast sea turtles. Volunteers with the Alabama Sea Turtle Program Report three nests were lost in the Fort Morgan area in the storm, but sea turtles continued to come ashore to nest both during and after the storm.

2016 was a record breaking season for sea turtle nests and hatchlings and the 2017 season has started out strong. Sea turtles only come ashore to nest every two to three years, but the ones who do usually nest two to three times during the season. The sea turtle nesting season on the Gulf Coast runs from May to November.

Brown Pelican Chicks Wash Ashore In Mississippi

At least 16 Brown Pelican chicks washed ashore in Pass Christian and Waveland, Mississippi since the storm. The pelicans nest April-June in the roots of mangrove trees on Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands, which are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

Alison Sharpe of the Wildlife Care and Rescue Center (WCRC) in Pass Christian told the Sun Herald the baby pelicans do not yet have their flight feathers. Most were found by passers-by just sitting on the beach.

animal rescue worker holds baby pelican rescued from Mississippi beach

Several of the chicks had injured or swollen feet and legs from fighting the strong storm currents. By Saturday morning, the center had rescued 16 baby pelicans. Eight of the chicks were taken in by the Environmental Studies Center in Mobile over the weekend.

Workers at the Breton National Wildlife Refuge will take the 45-minute boat trip from Venice, Louisiana to the islands to assess the condition of the pelican nesting areas this week.

 

 

Calls go out for assistance in Mobile, Alabama:

Shore Bird Nests Destroyed

While Tropical Storm Cindy deposited Brown Pelican chicks onto Mississippi beaches, the storm surge washed many Least Tern and Wilson’s Plover nests away. According to Alison Sharpe of the WCRC, thousands of baby Least Terns drowned and were found floating in the Mississippi Sound.

Least Tern parent and chick
Least Tern parent and chick

Mark LaSalle of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center said that the losses are devastating but not surprising, since this is the height of the nesting season for the shore birds.  LaSalle stated that there were hundreds of Least Tern chicks from dozens of colonies “all over the place” on the Mississippi beaches.

The shore birds nest near the high tide lines on the beaches. “It’s what happens when we have these early storms,” he said. “It’s sad, but it’s nature. The nesting areas are flooded and the babies are washed out to sea.”

Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation with Audubon Louisiana, told Houma Today that Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers on the Louisiana coast also suffered huge losses from Cindy.

Tropical Storm Cindy came only a few weeks after strong southerly winds on April 30 and May 1 caused water levels to rise,washing away the early nests. “So Tropical Storm Cindy was basically a repeat of what we saw in late April, and again, it probably wipes out most if not all of the nests, and the flightless chicks really don’t have anywhere to go,” Johnson said.

He added, 

“When you have storms like this, it basically eliminates all the work we’ve done over the course of the summer. Because these birds live so close to the high-tide line, they don’t get storms like this every year. But in the years that they do, it can almost be completely devastating.”

Female Wilson's Plover
Female Wilson’s Plover

Flamingos Land On Pensacola Beach

A pair of American Flamingos were spotted on Johnson Beach in Perdido key near the Alabama/Florida state line, and in Pensacola Beach, Florida after Tropical Storm Cindy moved ashore.

A spokesman from the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo said that both Flamingo sightings are likely the same birds. She said she believes the birds are wild because they have been seen flying and fishing in the surf along the beaches. The Flamingos do not belong to the Gulf Coast or Gulf Breeze zoos.

Allen Strum,Chief Meteorologist at Pensacola’s WEAR TV said,

“Considering the recent weather patterns and that flamingos are indigenous to the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s possible they traveled across the Gulf with Tropical Storm Cindy.”

The North Atlantic Hurricane Season started June 1 and will run until November 30. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its 2017 Forecast at the end of May and predicts 11 to 17 named storms with five to nine becoming hurricanes.

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