Will wildlife reclaim Georgia’s shores as humanity keeps social distance?

The St. Simons Island salt marshes attract diamondback terrapins during spring and naturalists are watching to see if loggerheads and migratory birds reclaim coastal territory from social distancing humans. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

With a significant reduction of human foot traffic on and near some of the state’s most popular beaches, what are the chances the migratory shorebirds, sea turtles and other animals will take over?

“Certainly … some of the Wilson’s plovers got nests established in that window when people were not out on the beach,” said Tim Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. “There have been some issues with the ATV patrols, so we’ve both been working with police to keep them from driving through the good habitat. We’ve posted that now, and we’re still a little early for the least terns to start nesting, so they just have shown up in the last couple of days.”

The rest of the nesting season is still nature’s work in progress, he said.

“Although, I suspect there will be less traffic out there, given the guidelines of people aren’t supposed to really set up tents and towels and gather in any number,” Keyes said. “We certainly expected that the birds would respond favorably to less foot traffic out there on the beach. How it will actually materialize now isn’t clear, because we don’t really know what the human use of the beach is going to start looking like this year.”

One notable location for nests is a spoil island located in the sound between Jekyll Island and the Brunswick mainland dubbed Bird Island, where researchers are usually the only human visitors.

“I was out there (Tuesday) morning before the storms hit, and brown pelicans have been nesting over there — we had a nest count of 177 this morning,” Keyes said. “Our first confirmed nests were April 1 of this year, so that’s actually quite early for brown pelicans — about two weeks early, but they are ramping up. They are the only ones nesting there right now, but typically our seabirds start later than shorebirds, so I expect the royal terns and the black skimmers and things to start over the next month or so. By early to mid-May we should have those colonies starting to establish.” 

Abby Sterling, of the environmental research organization Manomet, said local government moves to close the beaches in March came at the outset of nesting season when migratory shorebirds stay for a spell in coastal Georgia. 

“Particularly for migrating shorebirds, they need to be given plenty of space as well, so they’re able to feed,” Sterling said. “One of the big, important food resources that we see in the spring is horseshoe crab eggs.”

Red knots typically start flying in to Georgia’s seashores and sandbars in early April. It’s also time for horseshoe crabs to climb the beach to spawn. Photo courtesy of Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve

Horseshoe crabs climb the beach to spawn, and recently Sterling came across a young one she moved closer to the water. As humans try to keep their social distance from each other, they are venturing into more remote beach areas where marine critters usually hold sway, she said.

“I did find there was that juvenile horseshoe crab at Tybee’s beach, and we’re seeing horseshoe crabs spawning in a lot of different places along the coast,” Sterling said. “Some of the most important places for horseshoe crab spawning and also for shorebirds feeding during migration are places like more-remote sandbars and inlets. Interestingly, one of the things that we’re seeing is it seems like a lot of folks are going out to try to get to these more-remote places, trying to remain distant from one another. That’s a bit of a challenge, because it’s also a really critical time for shorebirds to be able to feed and rest.”

Birds that stop along Georgia’s coast during their spring trip northward fly thousands of miles at a time, and they need lots of food and quiet beaches during their layover.

Sea turtles typically start nesting near sandy dunes along Georgia’s coast in May, and Mark Dodd, head of DNR’s sea turtle program, said Georgia’s remote beaches are loggerhead-friendly. But uncertainty about future stay-home orders intended to contain the spread of COVID-19 also creates uncertainty about potential conflicts between people and sea turtles trying to nest.

A record number of loggerhead turtles hatched in 2019 at nests like this one on St. Simons Island last summer. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

“On our developed beaches, including Tybee, Sea Island, Jekyll and St. Simons, we would expect to see less people on the beach, and that would mean less disturbance to turtles,” Dodd said. “But, it’s sort of yet to be determined what it’s going to look like this summer.”

Georgia beaches played host to a state-record number of sea turtle nests in 2019 by mid-July and turtle watchers counted nearly 4,000 loggerhead nests by season’s end. That was good news in the decades-long effort to increase the sea turtle population federal environmental regulators list as endangered or threatened

Sea turtle populations were dangerously low after years of people harvesting them, along with deaths that resulted from sea turtles caught by fishers as by-catch in the era before turtle-excluder devices became common on shrimp boats. Efforts at conservation took root in Georgia on Little Cumberland Island in the 1960s and grew from there.

A down year often follows a record year for turtle nesting, as the number tends to rise and fall in a three-year cycle. However, nesting trends show notable upward movement over the last 30 years.

Nesting season also draws near for diamondback terrapins, which like to lay their eggs in elevated areas near the marsh, That can be a dangerous proposition as they try to travel on the causeways between the mainland and islands.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island staff patrols the Downing Musgrove Causeway regularly, recording terrapin activity and trying to rescue the ones that get hit by cars. Rehabilitation manager Michelle Kaylor said it’s too soon to tell whether reduced traffic due to the governor’s stay-home order will make a difference in terrapins struck by cars, but there’s already been progress on that front.

“We have consistently seen a reduction in terrapin hits based on our mitigation efforts and education outreach year after year,” Kaylor said.

They picked up their first terrapin of the season Thursday.