6

Sea turtle conservation and my first National Geographic Kids cover story!

There’s nothing like the excitement of new life. Scooping out the final handful of cool sand to reveal the first couple of pristine, squishy white eggs, it was a complete thrill to know that soon there would be a mass of tiny loggerhead sea turtles hatched out and running toward the sea.

sea turtle eggs in nest

Watching the Sarasota sun rising in the sky as we completed documenting and recording every detail of the nest, I felt the wave of sickness in my tummy starting to shift too. It was morning sickness. Like the tiny little lives flourishing inside the eggs of the sandy nest we’d been recording, there was a tiny life flourishing inside of me too.

Even without eating breakfast, the 6am sea air churned my stomach. But it was worth it to join the Mote Marine Laboratory‘s turtle patrol team. I was on one of my first field assignments for National Geographic Kids magazine; to explore the local marine life in Florida, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way!

Kate on Conservation turtle nest monitoring

Photograph by Mark Sickles

Joining Mote’s sea turtle nest monitoring team on Venice Beach, Sarasota was a fantastic assignment. Finding the newly dug egg chambers, having the opportunity to actually see the eggs — and then protecting the nests from unsuspecting beachgoers who may accidentally stand on them — was a very moving experience.

As a soon-to-be mum; seeing the effort that these incredible turtle mothers go through to find the perfect nesting spot to give their young the best chance at life brought a tear to my eye! (ok, lots of things brought a tear to my eye when I was pregnant, but this truly was special).

Mote team with patrol vehicle on the beach

Out and about with the Mote team

I learnt that over the previous year’s nesting season, Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program reported that Longboat Key through Venice hosted a total of 4,588 nests (beating the 2015 record by 2,103 nests), showing this thriving nesting area’s importance to the local sea turtle population.

Shifting sands and moving nests

Sometimes, when the nests are in a spot that may be affected by human impact, such as beach nourishment, it’s necessary for the Mote team to move them.

A nourishment project takes place where there is a need to place fresh sand on the beach. It takes a while for the turtles to get used to the new sand, because its texture and height can be different and create obstacles.

Following the previous year’s nourishment project on Venice beach, the turtles would not come very far up the sand. There were almost three times as many false crawls (where a mother comes onto the beach to lay her eggs, but returns to the sea without actually nesting) as there were nests.

A false crawl on Venice beach, Sarasota

A false crawl, where a mother turtle has turned around and returned to the sea without nesting

in 2016, the team had to relocate 200 nests! Which meant moving up to eight a day. This is no easy feat when there’s a tight deadline to move nests by 9.30am, before visitors and tourists come to the beach.

Apparently it takes an hour to find all the eggs, dig them all out of the sand, and put them all back in at the new location. Of course eggs have to be moved extremely delicately and carefully, as the team don’t know exactly when the eggs were laid overnight.

mote team moving sand

To make the task even more complex, when a new nest chamber is dug, it must be exactly like that which the mother created.

“You have to measure it perfectly and dig a new one exactly the same,” Mote’s Kirsten Mazzarella tells me. “And you have to find a spot that’s not going to have a predators and a place that doesn’t have any lighting to draw them in the wrong direction. You don’t want to move them to a worse spot than where the mum laid them.”

Mote’s Kirsten tells us all about the nest relocation programme. Photo by Mark Sickles

Mote feel very strongly about creating nests the way that mother’s intended, as they try not to interfere with nature. Moving nests is not something they like to do, as usually the mother has picked the best natural spot and they may be moving it to a less desirable area. If the mother has picked a bad site, they don’t like to move this either, as that’s nature’s way of saying the genes were not meant to be passed on.

“We take care of human impact, but not nature’s impact,” Kirsten explains. “We used to move the nests that were too close to the water higher up the beach, but now if the mother turtle gets it wrong, we allow nature to take its course. The only time we actively move a nest is when a nourishment project of the sand is actively taking place. That requires the nourishment people to get a special permit and then contact Mote to do the work.”

Turtle treatment and recovery

Mote work hard to reduce human impact and help the turtle populations in other ways too. They own one of only three wildlife hospitals in Florida with special facilities and training to care for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumors.

Because scientists are still learning how the disease is transmitted among turtles, they must provide a separate facility just for animals with these tumours.

Grace the green turtle gets ready for surgery

Grace the green turtle gets ready for surgery to remove her fibropapilloma tumours. Photo by Mark Sickles

Tumours can grow on the surface of the flippers, inside the mouth (affecting feeding), and on the turtle’s eyes. All tumours are removed by laser surgery, though the animal must have at least one salvageable eye after removal of the tumours in order to be released back into the wild.

It was an incredible and emotive experience to be allowed behind the scenes in this amazing facility, which really is changing the lives of these beautiful animals. The care and attention delivered by staff is admirable, and I don’t quite know what the outcome would be for the injured and sick turtles if it weren’t for Mote.

turtle hospital feature in Nat Geo Kids magazine

It’s also fascinating to discover how far the facility has come and what they have learnt in the day-to-day handling of its patients.

Up until 2010, they used to have to keep turtles in the centre for a year after their tumour-removal surgery, to ensure they were not contagious. If they had a re-growth of any tumours, they would have to start that clock again.

This meant that some animals were being kept at the facility for two years and more! But in 2010, Sarasota had an outbreak of red tide (a harmful algal bloom), which saw the hospital inundated with patients, so they made the decision to release turtles with the disease as soon as they healed from surgery.

Over time they learnt that the virus comes out in times of stress, so keeping them in captivity to ensure they were healed was actually creating a vicious cycle where they ended up getting more tumours instead of recovering.

Kate on Conservation with Nat Geo Kids cover story

I learnt so much about Mote’s projects and Sarasota’s different species of turtle (loggerhead, leatherback, green turtle, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley) on my trip — all of which are mentioned in my Nat Geo Kids article. If you’d like to read about them and much more about the turtle nesting patrol and turtle hospital (I’ve tried to keep the content of this blog post quite different from the article), the May issue is out now!

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6

National Bird Day: How can we teach children to love birds?

Today is National Bird Day, which has naturally started me thinking about the way we live alongside this diverse and beautiful classification of animal. We are so used to seeing garden birds hoping around the bird table and perching on fences — and this is especially true of my childhood, spent growing up in beautiful Norfolk — that it can be easy to become so accustomed to these fascinating creatures that we barely notice them going about their daily lives. Even the so-called alien species that Sir David Attenborough spoke of in his Wild Neighbours lecture are a commonplace sight across London‘s parks.

Ring-necked parakeet in Richmond Park

Ring-necked parakeet in Richmond Park, photo by Kate on Conservation

But last year I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect upon the beauty of birds, when I joined Around the Bend Nature Tours at Sarasota’s Audubon Center in Florida, during my press trip on behalf of National Geographic Kids magazine. Around the Bend Nature Tours provides nature experiences for schoolchildren and families at parks and preserves across the county, and the aim of my day with them was to join a group of children in at the Celery Fields to spot and identify various species of local birds.

Looking at feathers, bird skulls and egg shells in the curiosity box, to help with identifying bird species.

The Celery Fields are 300 acres of county-owned flood mitigation area, and have proven to be one of the premier birding hotspots on the southwest coast of Florida. They boast 220 species of bird throughout the year, across flooded fields, freshwater marsh and open water.

Sarasota Audubon launched a special initiative for schoolchildren — the Celery Fields Explorers Program — five years ago, and since then, more than 4,000 schoolchildren have joined their program of environmental education.

It was one of these such field trips that I had the privilege of joining.

We took our binoculars and bird identification charts out onto the deck and enjoyed the long-range vistas on offer. Important factors to consider were the birds’ size, colour, shape and habitat. Together we spotted the eye-catching white outline of a Great Egret, searching for snails in the marshy mud.

Great Egret

A flash of bright colour revealed itself to be the purple and blue hues of a Purple Gallinule darting across the reeds. Its yellow legs and red and yellow beak make it a fascinating and distinctive bird to watch. It proved a favourite amongst the children.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

Training to become young ornithologists does not stop with learning basic bird spotting skills, however. One of the most memorable parts of my day was seeing the children investigate specific bird characteristics by looking through the box of feathers, beaks and skulls, and using their ID charts to help identify which bird species they may belong to.

Ann Cruikshank led the students in touching and feeling the items, which were passed around the circle. The physical aspect of holding these curiosities had a real impact on the children’s learning. Most of the items came from birds who had deceased naturally in the environment and been collected by staff, or they had been donated by the local wildlife hospital after an injured bird passes away; facts which were quickly pointed out to the children.

Studying the shape of the skull up against illustrations of different species of local bird

Through examining beaks and feathers, we were able to discuss what the birds may eat by considering the shapes of their bills and how noisy their feathers are (i.e. would they able to hunt effectively?). The bones and skulls also helped to determine the features that help a bird to fly: light, hollow bones; wing span; wing shape, etc.

A Limpkin, with its distinctive long bill

Catching sight of a Limpkin at the end of the activity gave us a perfect opportunity to take part in the ‘What does it mean to be a bird?‘ exercise. For this game, children become Limpkins and are challenged to discover all the difficulties that Limpkins and other birds face for their survival.

Finally, with a refreshed and renewed interest in the lives of birds, I completed my day at the Celery Fields with a look around the education center. Notice boards of bright tapestries of birds; a children’s corner including animal track identification; recordings of bird sightings and a map of the 300-acre Celery Fields all adjourned the walls and added to the sense of endearing care for the birds in the area.

After such an heart-warming and informative day, there was no way that I could leave without pledging my support and buying an Audubon Society badge!

audubon society badge

 

What is the Audubon’s society?

The National Audubon Society is a nonprofit conservation organisation that protects birds and the places and habitats they live in, now and for future generations. Since 1905 they have used science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation to protect bird species throughout the Americas.

Named after natural history artist John James Audubon, the organisation looks to fulfil his vision of a world in which people and wildlife thrive. I discovered the following information in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center‘s Nature and Technology exhibit.

Audubon Society KSC

It reads: “John James Audubon is the most famous of all American natural history artists, renowned for his adventurous nature, his artistic genius and his obsessive interest in birds. In 1820, he set off on his epic quest to depict America’s wildlife, floating down the Mississippi River with nothing but his gun, artistic materials and a young assistant.

Unable to find secure financial backing in the United States, Audubon went to Europe in 1826. There he found both subscribers and engravers for the project. Over the next twelve years, Audubon divided his time between London and America. When abroad, he supervised the engraving and coloring of the prints. In America he traveled in search of birds to paint, arriving at the east coast of Florida in 1831 to find water birds and tropical species.”

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2

National Geographic Kids Magazine: Secrets of the Spotted Eagle Ray

Nat geo kids magazine Kate on conservation

This past week I reached a career milestone — my first feature published in National Geographic Kids Magazine!

I’ve been working at Nat Geo Kids for the last eight months, and although I’ve written articles for the website, editorial for the magazine and launched the new school’s primary resources service, this has been my first opportunity to write a first-person feature. In this case, it was about Mote Research Laboratory‘s work to tag and monitor Spotted Eagle Rays.

Spotted eagle ray feature in nat geo kids magazine

At the start of the summer, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Florida, to research conservation stories on location for National Geographic Kids. One of the location’s I visited was Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which is home to Mote — an independent, not-for-profit marine research organisation dedicated to understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs and on conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems.

mote turtle patrol

My partner and I spent an entire day with the team at Mote — beginning with a 6am turtle patrol along the beach, looking for fresh crawl marks made overnight by female sea turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

Though at first we only found a couple of ‘false crawls’ (where flipper marks showed the female had returned to the water without digging a nest; perhaps because the area was not quite right, or perhaps because the timing wasn’t), we did eventually find a nest site containing eggs (verified by the Mote team gently digging round the area, recording, then covering the eggs back over with sand). It was an exciting start to the day, and one which hopefully will have a full feature of its own in the magazine!

Mote marine turtle hospital

Our second stop of the day (after some much needed breakfast on the go!) was a visit to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital. Having cared for all five species of Sea Turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida’s most frequently seen species; loggerheadsleatherbacks and green turtles, it was a real treat to experience the expertise of Mote’s hospital team.

We were given a tour of the hospital, which has admitted around 600 sick and injured sea turtles in the last 20 years, and saw turtles recovering from surgery (above left), one receiving care for a pretty deep wound on its underside from a boat’s propellor (top image above) and one waiting for surgery to remove several clusters of tumours (above right). This poor female was having her tumours treated in a special facility for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumours, because scientists are still learning how this disease is transmitted among turtles.

spotted eagle ray research boat

The final part of our day consisted of joining Senior Biologist Kim Bassos-Hull on one of Mote’s research boats. Though I didn’t really know what I was looking for at first, there was plenty to see – from pelicans diving to catch fish, to dolphins bobbing out of the waves ahead. The research team logged every marine animal we passed, noting down what the animal was, and taking a reading from the GPS device to determine the exact coordinates that the animal was seen from.

First one, then two, spotted eagle ray’s came into view and the boat’s crew sprang into action. The spotted eagle ray is a type of fish with a flat body and wing-like fins for gliding through the water. Like their stingray cousins, eagle rays defend themselves using stinging spines with a barbed tip. This particular species can be identified by a bright white spot pattern on their back.

We had the opportunity to see one of the creatures join the important monitoring programme after being caught, tagged and released. Hopefully it will help with collecting data about migration and breeding patterns of the species — which remain a relative mystery.

***

Now, I wouldn’t want to detail exactly what happened on the boat that afternoon; if you want to find out, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of National Geographic Kids Magazine this month! ;).

 

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