Gopher Tortoise Halts MDC Construction, Prompts Relocation

Gopher Tortoise Halts MDC Construction, Prompts Relocation

Osprey Nesting Platform

by Lisa D. Mickey

The Marine Discovery Center got a little surprise from a burrowing reptile after it had started construction this spring.

Executive director Chad Truxall was walking the center’s campus in early April and noticed a hole in the base of what will be the seating area of the new amphitheater, currently under construction.

“We knew we had a gopher tortoise onsite a while ago, but we had not seen it and we thought it was gone,” said Truxall. “As soon as we saw that burrow, we knew we had to do something about it.”

Truxall said that a survey on the property for endangered and threatened species was standard procedure before construction could begin. Unfortunately, an assumption was made that the survey had already taken place.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) informed MDC that it needed to determine if there was one tortoise or more than 10 on the property. Procedural requirements vary based on the number of animals present.

Truxall reached out to Joe Young, owner of Biological Consulting Services who came to the center’s campus in early April and performed a gopher tortoise survey one week after construction had begun at the site.

Young arrived with a measuring instrument, which he snaked into the burrow to determine the size of the hole and the location of the tortoise. Once he determined there was one tortoise in the burrow, all construction within 15 feet of the area was halted until the animal could be removed.

Following the survey, MDC was given two options:

The first option would be to install a silt fence around the entire construction project and the tortoise could be removed and placed outside the silt fencing. The fencing would have to be dug into the ground for several feet around the site. The price was substantial for the process.

“Gopher tortoises aren’t normally found around here in a disturbed site,” said Truxall, of the former campus site of New Smyrna Beach High School where MDC is now located. “And even when those steps are taken, there’s no guarantee the tortoise would not be impacted in some kind of way. They can dig and could get back into the construction area.”

The second option would be to extract the tortoise in its burrow and move the animal offsite to a different location within 100 miles. The site would be a designated area approved by the state for a gopher tortoise.

“Once you decide on an option, you apply for a permit and let the state know your plans,” said Truxall. “Then they get back to you with specifics on the extraction of the tortoise.”

Extraction in action

On the day of the tortoise extraction, Truxall watched nervously from a distance while the process took place. Young and Weaver Construction — which both donated their services to the nonprofit — executed a precise extraction using a backhoe.

The burrow was approximately 20 feet deep and during the course of the extraction, the tortoise made several U-turns in its shelter, Truxall noted.

“I watched it for about an hour and it was a little nerve-racking,” he admitted. “As the backhoe dug up more dirt, there was some collapse of the burrow, but those guys have been doing this for years and they knew what they were doing.”

The extraction rendered a large female tortoise, which was relocated to a state-approved area. MDC paid for the permitting from the state and the relocation of the tortoise.

A little elbow grease is needed

“This is far better than entombment, which they used to do,” Truxall said. “For a long time, construction companies could pay a fee – in what’s called a ‘take’ – and just fill in a burrow, not knowing whether it was active or not. They pretty much buried tortoises alive and maybe even crushed the tortoises with their bulldozers while only paying a fine.”

FWC banned the practice of entombment in 2007, ending a state policy that allowed construction companies to bulldoze burrows for a paid permit. The Humane Society took action in halting the statewide practice, which reportedly entombed anywhere from nearly 100,000 to 900,000 gopher tortoises in Florida from 1991-2007.

“Everyone has an affection for turtles and tortoises,” added Truxall. “Whether they’re in the ocean or on land people are drawn to them and go out of their way to help. When people realized what was going on with the entombment practices, they were really upset. I’m glad the laws were changed.”

In addition to being a creature commonly seen in residential Florida communities, Truxall noted that gopher tortoises are important because they are a keystone species. Their burrows provide refuge for many animals, ranging from mammals and reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds. More than 350 other species have been identified as commensally residing in gopher tortoise burrows.

Taking measurements

Certain endangered species, such as indigo snakes, the gopher frog and the beach mouse, all share gopher tortoise burrows. They will use the burrows throughout their life cycle, but they will also take refuge in the burrows during fires.

“One of those ecosystem-services the gopher tortoise burrow provides is the cycling of nutrients in a scrub habitat or in a dune system where you don’t have a lot of nutrients in the soil,” Truxall added. “The home they build provides habitat for so many other animals.”

Ready for relocation

While some humans may be inconvenienced that the presence of a threatened animal could hold up an entire construction project, Truxall said state laws are now in place for a reason to protect gopher tortoises.

“We have to be mindful that it’s not just about humans first,” Truxall said. “Of course, we are excited about our amphitheater construction project because we feel like it will help us create a bigger impact and awareness in the community.”

 

“But we are going to do whatever it takes to protect the environment that we are impacting and tell the stories about the other species that live here,” he added. “I once heard a statement that ‘Your greenest project is the one you don’t build.’ When it comes to gopher tortoises, we certainly have come a long way.”

Contact: [email protected]

Bird Rookery Islands Receive An Assist From MDC Staff

Bird Rookery Islands Receive An Assist From MDC Staff

By Lisa D. Mickey

Osprey Nesting Platform

MDC Staffers Charity, Wendy, Lois, and Lisa help clean the rookery island in February

I reached above my head through the mangrove trees for the lifeless brown pelican hanging in the limbs of the bird rookery island.

The beautiful bird was still soft and its wings were still supple enough for me to easily pull down the carcass to look for fishing line and to examine the metal band around its ankle. Only hours ago, this bird was still alive — likely thinking about fish and possibly, about choosing a mate as the season of courtship filled the air.

 

Sadly, this creature was now one of eight dead birds, including two banded brown pelicans, our small team encountered as we scoured the two rookery islands on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and Indian River Lagoon during our annual cleaning of the islands.

We were here for our mid-February eradication of monofilament fishing line. Our small team of three naturalists, a boat captain and an office worker from the Marine Discovery Center fanned out on each island with scissors, snips and buckets to cut down as much line as we could find.

And as always, the goal was to remove monofilament fishing line from the mangrove trees in an effort to offer a less hazardous future to the birds coming here to nest.

Far too often throughout the year, our naturalists and boat captains cut and pull line from these two islands. Most of us free entangled birds numerous times a year and far too often we cut down birds we didn’t see in time to save. The vultures take care of the rest.

Even when the birds aren’t nesting here, as they do each February through October, a large number of them regularly roost and loiter on these islands. This is home base to many of our wading birds, as evidenced each night at twilight when flocks of ibis helicopter in for a safe place to sleep until the next day’s sunrise.

Seven species of birds return here each year to find mates, build nests, lay eggs and watch the next generation take flight. At peak nesting season, anywhere from 140-200 nests with two to three eggs per nest adorn the branches of the mangrove trees. It is noisy, smelly, but full of life.

Our 2018 clearing of the islands was highlighted by the chance to free an entangled double-crested cormorant, which gleefully flew toward open water. We were also surprised that some bird had seemingly collected an electric extension cord for use as nesting material.

And when I reported the numbers on the bands worn by the two deceased pelicans to a governmental agency, I was surprised to learn they both had been banded last year in Virginia. Sadly, the migration for one adult and one juvenile pelican ended here.

Certainly, the challenges for our rookery islands grow each year as New Smyrna Beach develops and more people engage in water sports. As more boats and buildings cast shadows on these creatures, they are, at least, guided by their instincts to return to these gnarly mangrove islands to do what their DNA tells them to do each year.

The pendulum of nature swings with or without us, but increasingly, the birds on the rookery islands can use an assist. We can lend a hand to help them, but most of all, we should extend the effort to clean up what we humans have left behind.

Lisa D. Mickey may be reached at [email protected]

New Challenges In 2018 For Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

New Challenges In 2018 For Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

By Lisa D. Mickey
SEE LECTURE INFO HERE

The Marine Discovery Center hosts a lecture on North Atlantic Right Whales early each year to help citizens identify the large mammals sometimes spotted just offshore.

The presentation also encourages individuals to engage in a volunteer contact system designed to alert officials whenever these endangered animals are in the area.

Sadly, the challenges increased for the right whale in 2017, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported an “unusual mortality event (UME).” The UME detailed that 17 right whales were found dead off the coasts of New England and Canada last year, plunging the current global population of these whales to 450 animals.

Further, officials from NOAA warned in early December that the species of whale — which can weigh up to 150,000 pounds and grow as long as 48 feet (nearly 15 meters) — could be extinct within 20 years if critical action is not taken to protect them. Scientists estimate there currently are only 100 breeding females in existence.

One report noted that warmer water temperatures in Halifax, Canada, had lured some of the whales into atypical foraging areas that were also shipping channels. Of the 17 whales that were found dead in 2017, six were reportedly killed by blunt-force trauma – likely from collisions with vessels, said NOAA.

NOAA has already begun work with commercial fisheries from Canada and the United States, requesting improved communication to help avoid whale/ship encounters, as well as to help minimize entanglements. Five right whales were freed from fishing nets in 2017, with two dying following entanglement.

Precautionary measures with North American fisheries intensified in 2009. According to a NOAA report, fisheries were required to sink 27,000 miles of floating lines deep into oceanic waters, and more than 3,000 more miles of fishing line was removed from North American waters in 2014.

And while NOAA, along with various other national and state agencies, work to improve management of commercial fishing practices and methods to make waters safer for right whales, the addition of volunteer spotters has also benefitted the effort. Volunteer spotters living in coastal regions help report whale sightings to officials, who can alter shipping and commercial fishing routes, thereby preventing whale strikes.

Julie Albert, manager of the Marine Resources Council’s North Atlantic Right Whale Monitoring Program, currently leads more than 800 volunteers along the east coast of Florida. Albert will once again lead the discussion on right whales during MDC’s free monthly lecture on Thursday, Jan. 18.

The free lecture will begin at 6 p.m., at MDC, located at 520 Barracuda Boulevard in New Smyrna Beach.

The public is invited to come learn more about these endangered creatures, as well as what can be done by local citizens to help protect them when they show up off our shorelines this winter.

Contact: [email protected]

Sea Turtles Abundant During 2017 Nesting Season

Sea Turtles Abundant During 2017 Nesting Season

By Lisa D. Mickey

sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle emergence: the turtles emerge in a group and proceed to crawl down the beach to the water

Turtle-tracking volunteers and Canaveral National Seashore staff were busy during the 2017 nesting season with record-setting numbers of turtles finding the beaches of Volusia County.

Volusia County’s beaches experienced its second-highest nesting season since 1988 (when records were first kept) with 720 nests in 2017. Of the documented nests this year on Volusia County beaches, 634 nests were loggerhead sea turtles, while 82 were green sea turtles and four nests were the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles – uncommon for this region.

Those numbers shattered records for both greens and Kemp Ridley turtles, and was the third-highest number on record for loggerhead nests on Volusia County beaches.

In Canaveral National Seashore, which spans both Apollo Beach (Volusia County) and Playalinda Beach (Brevard County), a total of 12,315 nests were recorded.

In Apollo beach, there were 1,791 loggerhead nests, 2,192 green turtle nests and seven leatherback sea turtle nests.

In Playalinda, rangers recorded 2,765 nests for loggerheads, 5,544 nests for green turtles and 16 leatherback nests. No Kemps Ridley nests were recorded on either beach in Canaveral National Seashore.

Some of the nests were damaged or lost with the arrival of Hurricane Irma this fall in both the national park and on Volusia County beaches. In Volusia County, 262 nests could not be fully evaluated because: nests could not be located (30); nests were depredated or scavenged (37); tidally inundated (42); or washed away by the sea (153).

And while nesting season in Volusia County is typically in full swing from May 1 through October 31, nesting is not always exact – as there were still 15 nests incubating on the beach after Oct. 31.

As the 2017 numbers indicate, sea turtle conservation on the shorelines of Volusia County was viable and productive, once again.

Save Your Applause For The Scientists

Save Your Applause For The Scientists

Wendy Noke of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute assists a dolphin calf

By Lisa D. Mickey

I admit it. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to admiring top sports teams and appreciating the skills of world-ranked athletes.

I love seeing them work together as a team to win championships or close games. And I enjoy watching individual professional athletes perform extraordinary feats.

Certainly, as a sportswriter for more than 20 years, I have seen my fair share of record-breaking performances, met some exceptional athletes and seen history made in athletics that will forever be on instant replay in my mind.

But in recent years, I’ve met some new superstars who work in virtual anonymity and deserve far more attention than any of them would ever want. Their names are not well known and they don’t reap lucrative benefits for the long hours of plying their craft even though they are among the world’s best. There’s no confetti, headlines or applause from thousands of adoring fans for these people.

In fact, most of the time when they perform their best work, they are alone, dirty, bloody and in environments where even their best friends might decline to go. Their incentive is not fame and fortune, but rather, an intrinsic curiosity to answer questions, solve problems, and detail those findings in documents that can be used by others.

Who are these people? They are scientists.

And these scientists are everyday people who are committed to research often involving specific species and specific habitats. They regularly deal with evolving changes that affect the living organisms they study and they are unabashedly passionate about the focus of their studies. Their fist pumps are cerebral, at most.

For example, I recently reached out to the scientists at the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Fla., to inquire about a blue land crab (cardisoma guanhumi) that was showing up in my neighborhood in Central Florida. Scientist Sherry Reed kindly responded and informed me that Hurricane Irma had spawned a migration of these crabs as they move from salt marshes to the ocean at this time of year.

Reed provided the information I wanted, and in a follow-up email, she called these crabs “beautiful creatures” (they are!) and admitted they were “especially near and dear to [her] heart.”

That kind of passion for a species and commitment to understand their existence is exactly why I believe we should thoughtfully consider who our real heroes are and why.

Scientists most often specialize in a focus area and spend countless hours and years documenting their species. Both when things go right and when things go wrong, they still seek answers to questions.

How many times have I listened to Lori Morris of St. Johns River Water Management District passionately discuss the importance of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon? And when an algal bloom in 2011 killed 47,000 acres of precious seagrass in the estuary, why was I not surprised that Morris was out in the water with other scientists, hand-planting grasses and later snorkeling to monitor its progress?

How can I not get excited about oysters and shoreline restoration when Dr. Linda Walters of the University of Central Florida starts talking about the work she has done with oyster-shell recycling for nearly two decades? If you ever work with her on one of these shoreline projects, it’s like spending a day with the Johnny Appleseed of oysters.

I’ve also logged time on the water with Wendy Noke of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute looking for sick and injured dolphins. I’ve watched Wendy suspend her great affinity for specific animals she had monitored for years when it came time to perform necropsies to determine what had killed them. A few years ago, when a deadly virus swept the offshore dolphin population, I knew I could find Wendy with a scalpel in her gloved hands, harvesting tissue for pathology results – sometimes twice a day. Maybe even Wendy wanted to cry at the loss of so many magnificent animals, but there was too much work to be done in the name of science.

If you want to get excited about sharks, listen to George Burgess talk about his favorite species. Burgess is the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Fla. He has spent his career following these animals and documenting their behaviors and statistics. He can tell you where not to swim in New Smyrna Beach, based on shark-bite statistics and baitfish prevalence, but he can also espouse the miracles and mysteries of these animals from a lifetime of research.

A few times, I’ve had the privilege of walking at the elbow of Dr. Jane Brockmann, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida, who has studied horseshoe crabs for more than 30 years. Once I was with Dr. Brockmann when we found spawning horseshoe crabs on an atypical shoreline. These animals are thought to have been in existence for more than 445 million years, so to observe the surprise and delight of a veteran scientist who was seeing something new after three decades of study was better than witnessing a half-court buzzer beater.

Sometimes I have dinner with another professor, Dr. Hyun Jung Cho, who teaches integrated environmental science at Bethune-Cookman University, and I find myself marveling at her commitment to study wetlands and aquatic vegetation at all times – even if she’s wearing a dress on her way home from church and happens to spy a retention pond with interesting grasses. “That’s why I keep rubber boots in my car,” she said matter-of-factly, when I asked if she really waded into these ponds in her Sunday clothes.

Research ecologist Gina Kent, of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, monitors the nesting habits, migratory patterns and the habitat challenges of swallow-tailed kites. When these magnificent raptors return to Central Florida from South America to nest each year, Gina is collecting data. And with the information I have learned from her and shared with others who live where these birds nest, now my previously uninterested friends are excitedly offering regular reports on “those birds with the interesting tail feathers.”

Even away from the institutes and universities, the scientists among us help shine a spotlight on our world and its living organisms that really should be valued and cherished more than any homerun, slam-dunk, 60-yard field goal or ace in the hole.

Michael Brothers, of the Marine Science Center, for example, can look at a gathering of 10,000 seagulls on a beach and identify several different species with one quick glance. Chad Truxall of the Marine Discovery Center can lead a group to a sandbar and suddenly unveil a host of creatures just under the soil’s surface that could otherwise easily be overlooked.

Maybe I’m slowing down as I round the bases in life, but I can “see the pitches” better than ever. These scientists clearly demonstrate skill, knowledge, experience, commitment and passion – asking for nothing and giving everything they have every single time they perform.

That’s why I say, if you want to applaud someone for a genuine superstar performance, save it for our scientists. They do their excellent work for the species they study, but more importantly, for the role their species plays in the world.

Scientists are looking at history, the present and the future with the hope their respective work can help us better understand our world and what we can do to assure a viable planet. And the passion they show for their work is contagious – kind of like that wave that starts in a stadium and brings true fans to their feet.

When MDC Naturalists Offer Helping Hands To Lagoon Species

When MDC Naturalists Offer Helping Hands To Lagoon Species

When MDC Naturalists Offer Helping Hands To Lagoon Species

by Lisa D. Mickey

Lisa D. Mickey

As naturalists at the Marine Discovery Center, it’s common to encounter wildlife on our eco-tours. Guests love it and we do, too!

But sometimes we encounter wildlife in need during our tours as we paddle in kayaks or cruise past mangrove trees on the Discovery boat. We often see dolphins and birds entangled in monofilament fishing line. Sometimes we see stranded manatees stuck on sandbars.

As the rookery islands were springing to life earlier this year with nests of various bird species, I encountered a baby pelican on the ground during one of my tours. That chick had fallen out of its nest and was dragging a bloody wing.

It’s not uncommon for birds to fall from their nests or even be pushed from the nests by their siblings. When that happens, we monitor those grounded birds to make sure their parents are still feeding them. Most of the time, these chicks are just fine. Once they have matured and grow enough feathers to fly, they quickly learn to feed themselves and no longer depend on their parents for meals.

However, adults were not tending the chick with the injured wing. I observed the baby on three different occasions and on my last observation, I decided to hop off the Discovery boat, wrap the chick in a large towel and drive it up to the bird rehab hospital at the Marine Science Center. At their vet’s office, I was told the chick had suffered a broken wing. I left the baby at the hospital for treatment and hopefully, eventual release.

More recently, I was on a kayak tour with two guests. As we paddled around the back of the rookery islands, I was telling them about the different bird species that nest there and how we were at the end of the nesting season. There were only a few stragglers still on nests, I told them.

About that time, I looked up inside the westernmost island and saw a chick hanging upside down from a nest. There was a very large adult black-crown night heron standing on the nest and the chick was dangling precariously by one leg. Its tiny wings flapped helplessly as it remained suspended above the mucky floor of the mangrove island.

I pulled my kayak over to the mangrove trees and got out of my boat. Walking below the nest underneath the trees, I could see that the tiny struggling chick had caught its foot in the nesting materials. At that point, I summoned the gentleman on my tour and asked if he would assist me with the rescue. Out came the gloves and carefully the plump little heron chick was lifted back into its nest. With the baby safely back in its nest, we quickly left the rookery island so the parent could return.

The next day, I saw the adult heron sitting on the same nest, presumably with the rescued chick comfortably underneath its mom. I spied another black-crown night heron nest not too far away, indicating that either these birds had renested because their first attempt was unsuccessful earlier in the year or that they had produced a second brood within the same nesting season.

To be clear, all of the naturalists at the Marine Discovery Center have helped rescue various species here in the Indian River Lagoon at some point in time. We clear fishing line from the rookery island mangrove trees on a regular basis. We respond to stranding calls. We watch for creatures in need.

Sometimes, we ask our guests if they want to assist, which enables us to help the animals more quickly. When that happens, it gives our guests a personal understanding of the challenges these creatures face every day living in a busy place surrounded by humans, boats, fishing gear and other species.

In an ideal world, we would only observe the beauty of the birds, the athleticism of the dolphins, the lumbering leisure of the manatees and the surprising appearance of sea turtles. We would never touch them.

But sometimes when we have to reach out, it’s to offer a helping hand to these creatures, safely returning them to their natural habitat in a shared space we all call home.